Why An Obscure Memo From The Trump Administration’s Last Days Is A Big Deal For Affordable Housing

Atticus is the CEO of PadSplit, an affordable, shared housing model that creates financial independence for workers.

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If a low-income household needs housing in the U.S., they may put their name on a waitlist for a housing choice voucher. The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program, funded by HUD and administered by local public housing authorities (PHAs), currently supports over 2 million households, Forbes reported. Yet that’s nowhere near enough as the same Forbes report noted, only one in five households who qualify for housing assistance receive it. President Biden has vowed to address this by fully funding the HCV program.

Even if Congress passes such landmark assistance, there would still be a massive, underlying problem: the lack of housing supply. This lack of inventory is well-documented, but there have been few solutions to deal with this root cause of the housing crisis.

One solution came on Jan. 15, 2021, in the waning days of the Trump administration, when HUD issued a still little-known memo. In the memo, titled “Use of Shared Housing in the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program,” HUD identified one way to instantly expand housing options for voucher holders across the country: shared housing. This move could dramatically increase the supply of available affordable housing units, without constructing new, expensive and heavily subsidized housing.

A Deeper Look At The Support For Shared Housing

The memo’s intended purpose is to “remind PHAs that Shared Housing remains a permissible and viable option that may be made available to HCV participants.” Addressing public housing directors, it goes on: “Shared Housing can be a viable option for families seeking economical housing under various market conditions.”

Breaking it down into more digestible terms, HUD is explicitly encouraging regional public housing directors to utilize shared housing for voucher recipients, including for-profit co-living, for-profit shared housing matching and nonprofit shared housing matching services. To my knowledge, this is the first time HUD has issued guidance supporting shared housing for voucher recipients.

This alone would be a huge deal — it opens more housing stock today for voucher recipients, and therefore acknowledges that supply is the biggest hindrance to affordable housing. But supply is not constrained only by construction and costs; the other elephant in the room is local zoning.

The Importance Of Addressing Local Zoning Issues

Local officials enact zoning and occupancy policies that have a large impact on how and where affordable housing can be established. Section 6 of the HUD memo addresses this: “…some local zoning codes for single family housing restrict occupancy in certain zoned areas to households whose family members are related by blood. These restrictions can create additional obstacles for shared housing.” PHAs are then encouraged to “work with their local jurisdictions to find solutions that encourage affordable housing and are consistent with the Fair Housing Act, Title VI, and other federal, state, and local fair housing laws. PHAs should inform HUD if they encounter barriers to shared housing that may conflict with fair housing laws.”

As an example of local regulatory inconsistencies, the City of Atlanta allows up to six unrelated persons, plus four boarders, plus domestic servants in a single-family home, whereas adjoining Cobb County limits occupancy to no more than two unrelated persons. Across town, the City of Doraville goes even further, prohibiting grandparents or other nonimmediate family members from sharing the same dwelling. These restrictive policies are rampant across the country and clearly representative of “barriers to shared housing that may conflict with fair housing laws.”

With this guidance, HUD is putting local jurisdictions on notice to review their zoning codes for fair housing compliance. It’s difficult to imagine how a local jurisdiction could demonstrate fair housing compliance while prohibiting three unrelated persons from sharing a home that an unlimited number of related persons can share, particularly given correlations between income, race and the need for more affordable housing options.

Why This Is A Very Big Deal

I cannot overstate how important this notice is for affordable housing solutions going forward. Anyone who works in affordable housing knows that many local zoning and occupancy limitations were established to segregate neighborhoods, and while technically legal, they continue to uphold systemic inequality.

To further understand the memo’s substantive impact, consider the 2 million housing choice voucher recipients and the millions more who are on a waitlist. With the Biden administration’s vocal support of fully funding the housing choice voucher program, we’ll hopefully see more waitlisted individuals — many who have fallen on hard times during the pandemic — receive vouchers. But increasing vouchers alone doesn’t increase the housing supply. Thus, as a result of this HUD memo, local jurisdictions — in tandem with public housing agencies — will almost certainly turn to shared housing as a newly endorsed option. If they don’t, they could risk losing federal funding for housing programs, not to mention the pressure from local private and nonprofit organizations that are now incentivized to provide affordable housing.

Importantly, HUD’s suggestion that PHAs contact them if they encounter hindrances to fair housing policies provides the air cover that public housing, private companies and nonprofits need to move forward to take advantage of shared housing, without fear of violating local ordinances.

What Happens Next

Many have asked me about the peculiar timing of this HUD memo, wondering if its lame-duck issuance could point to its unraveling as a new administration takes hold. It’s a valid question. But to me, the timing of this guidance actually points to broader support of its ideology. Without delving too far into politics, the Biden administration seems more likely to issue support for increasing the affordable housing supply. The fact that it came during a transitional period indicates that career policy leaders at HUD drove the decision knowing it would engender support in the incoming administration.

Of course, we shall see what actually unfolds, but in the near term, I expect to see public housing agencies direct housing choice voucher recipients into shared housing — a very big step in the right direction to address the growing housing crisis.

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Atticus is the CEO of PadSplit, an affordable, shared housing model that creates financial independence for workers. Read Atticus LeBlanc’s full executive profile here.

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