To Build Back Better, the Federal Reconciliation Bill Cannot Exclude Housing

By Joel John Roberts, CEO People Assisting The Homeless (PATH)

Housing is infrastructure. Just like roads and bridges, a lack of housing makes it nearly impossible to successfully function, let alone thrive, in today’s society. It has been decades since we have seen a true Federal investment in housing – and as CEO of one of California’s largest homelessness nonprofits for over 25 years, I have seen the terrible toll that has taken on both our state and our nation.

Yet, despite this, a global pandemic and a housing emergency that has upwards of 160,000 Californians on the street, Congress is currently debating whether to strike housing funding from the Build Back Better reconciliation bill.

Every day, our team of nearly 1,000 staff members sees the deep and urgent needs of people experiencing homelessness. We know from experience that only housing solves homelessness. That’s why the $327B in housing and homelessness investments proposed by Congresswoman Maxine Waters and the House Financial Services Committee is so critically necessary.

Currently, there are waits of well over a decade to access the subsidized vouchers program, which means that millions of Americans who qualify for these needed benefits languish without the help our nation has promised them. Would you wait years for the DMV to process your drivers’ license? Or join a grocery store check-out line a hundred miles long? For decades, our federal government has expected millions of families to sit tight and wait their turn for housing they can barely afford. Is it any wonder homelessness has risen by double-digit percentage points in the last five years?

But the Build Back Better housing funding pledges $90B towards expanding rental assistance to our most vulnerable neighbors. That’s four times the usual yearly allocation – cutting that wait short for millions of families who’ve been waiting for a life-changing call. $40 billion worth of this funding is specifically prioritized for people experiencing homelessness or fleeing domestic violence. For our neighbors on California’s streets today, that’s a literally life-saving shot in the arm.

During my time leading PATH, I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has told me, with weary resignation, that the government has given up on them. That as they’ve laid their head down on sidewalks, or carted their personal belongings from shelter to shelter, they’ve lost faith and believe that government has abandoned them. Imagine the statement Congress could make by supercharging this step up into new homes, new communities, and new lives – and what it would say to falter at the finish line now.

On top of the historic funding for rental assistance and vouchers, Congress can re-invest in public and affordable housing, replenishing our crumbling stock of existing units and expanding capacity to house more families. The current package contains $80B to repair and preserve public housing for over 2.5 million renters, and $72B for the national Housing Trust and HOME grants to build and preserve 330,000 rental homes

that would be affordable to people with the lowest incomes. With an aging stock of affordable housing, we need to pony up and significantly invest in building new units and preserving existing properties.

Make no mistake: our team and hundreds of other providers across California move people into permanent housing every day. The smile that spreads across someone’s face when they walk through their own door, the tears that well up as the disbelief fades and the relief floods in, and the opportunities for a comfortable and fulfilling life are finally within reach – it’s a sight that never gets old. But I’d trade it all in if we could prevent our neighbors from falling into homelessness in the first place. More public housing and affordable units expand our housing capacity, ease oppressive rent burdens, and create a diverse and thriving community.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make inroads in the fight to end homelessness. I urge Congress to stay the course and commit to the $327B for housing in the reconciliation bill. How can we build back better if we abandon our most vulnerable on the street without the home that will help them keep their job, make their medical appointments, shelter their family, or do any of the day-to-day activities necessary to just live in today’s America? We can and must seize the moment to make a historic investment in housing.