Shelter-Raising Ideas

US MAYORS meet this weekend and plan to tackle one of the most pernicious local problems left over from the economic boom of the 1990s: an acute lack of affordable housing.

Even during the post-boom slump, housing prices continue to outpace income. Low-income Americans, especially with jobs near cities, still are often forced into long commutes, substandard rentals, or reliance on government aid.

At the height of the boom in 1999, nearly two-thirds of households with extremely low incomes, and one-fifth of households with very low incomes, paid more than half their wages on housing – regardless of whether they owned or rented, says a Harvard University study. That amounts to some 14 million households, and those figures may not have budged much.

Both cities and states, have tried many approaches to provide more affordable housing. They've learned from each other about the best ways to bring together government resources, and commercial and nonprofit groups to create more affordable homes. Despite creative ideas and dedicated activists, the problem persists, often because of resistance by wealthier communities to alter zoning.

Public housing and rent subsidies are seen as last resorts. The mayors would like to provide more incentives for private-sector solutions. Their proposals also call for more federal action beyond the mortgage-interest tax deduction, easy-mortgage programs, and others. In addition, they advocate creation of a national housing trust fund, which would create 1.5 million units of affordable housing over the next decade.

Congress last passed a broad law on affordable housing 12 years ago. Maybe it's time for the nation's lawmakers to find new ways to support the many local and state programs as they work to expand home-ownership for low-income Americans.

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