Hakeem Jeffries is the congressman from the 8th District representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Reverend David K. Brawley is the co-chair of East Brooklyn Congregations and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
The basic American contract is that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to purchase a home and provide a comfortable living for your family. But this contract has long been broken for far too many people.
Working families in every American city and town — particularly millennials and African American and Hispanic individuals and families — are denied one of the most effective ways to create equity and achieve stability that an affordable single-family home provides. This problem has been even further exacerbated as housing and lumber prices have soared in recent months.
Thankfully, in a period of intense partisanship, the goal of expanding homeownership has gained bipartisan support. There is presently legislation pending in the House and Senate, that if passed, could lead to the revitalization of 50,000 affordable homes a year for 10 years. While that is a good start, it only begins to meet the need.
Freddie Mac estimated that at the end of 2020, the housing market needed 3.8 million homes to meet demand. That’s why we are calling for funding an additional one million affordable homes, not in 10 years, but in five years, to be included in the pending infrastructure bill. Two forms of subsidy — no-interest construction financing and no-interest second mortgage support with liens — would generate the kind of fundamental and generational improvement in the physical lives of America’s neighborhoods, but also in the social and economic lives of so many American families.
In New York City, we have seen working-class neighborhoods steamrolled by gentrification to become “luxury,” leaving those who grew up and work there with no affordable place to rent or buy. Too often, renters are forced to either stay and face mounting financial stress, or move out of the only neighborhood they have ever called home. Working-class residents who are trying to become homeowners are often priced out of neighborhoods that have gentrified and become “popular,” and are left with little to no options to build wealth. None of these options are acceptable, and they all can lead to a reduction in one’s quality of life and physical and mental health.
This impossible situation has only been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, where more than 20 million jobs were lost in just a single month. In fact, in July 2020, 52% of Americans ages 18 to 29 were living with their parents, up 5% from before the pandemic.
We have seen a housing success story in East Brooklyn that proves what is possible when critical masses of affordable homes are built in once-devastated communities. A congregation-based citizens organization, East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), pioneered a home-building and equity-building effort called the Nehemiah Plan. Since breaking ground in 1983, EBC has built more than 4,500 affordable homes and apartments in New York.
Since then, block after block of once-empty and debris-filled sites have been transformed into decent affordable housing. In the process, those who bought these homes, all first-time homebuyers, averaged more than $300,000 in equity, according to EBC’s internal tracking — money to spend on enhanced education for their children, better health care for their families and a stable and positive retirement. A recent NPR report documented the remarkable improvement in health and educational outcomes for the children of the families who were able to buy a Nehemiah home.
The lessons of this success have not been replicated in many American cities. We believe that the discussion about the American Jobs Plan, now in full swing in Washington, should include a more robust commitment to expanding homeownership and equity-building for all Americans — those who live in our inner cities, millennials still living with their parents because they cannot find an affordable home, and residents of the post-industrial towns of the Ohio River Valley region and similar areas.
It’s now time for policymakers in Washington to confront this issue. We will never correct the extreme and worsening housing deficit, or the wealth gap, if we don’t accelerate and expand the construction of affordable single-family homes in our nation.
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