Congressmen, Make Room staff, and impacted families gather in a Senate room.
Bethany Tuel

The increasingly expensive U.S. rental market has reached “crisis” levels, according to former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, R-Ny, at a Sept. 12 press conference organized by renters advocacy group Make Room, Inc. According to the former congressman, “This problem is not going away on its own.”

A press release from Make Room states that more than 25 million Americans face housing insecurity each year. Ali Solis, the president and CEO of Make Room, Inc. — an advocacy organization working to tell the stories of people struggling with rent and connecting them with their elected representatives “One in four renters are paying half of their income to rent, and when you spend so much money on your rent, you have little left over to pay for other basic needs, [like] food, clothing.”

The press conference, held at the Senate Dirksen Building, highlighted “National Month for Renters,” which was created by Make Room and sponsored in the House of Representatives by Representative Bruce Poliquin under House resolution 475. Make Room created the “National Month for Renters” in order to mobilize renters in focused advocacy events for policy change, such as “Make Rent Affordable Call-In Day” on Sept. 26 and a Twitter storm on Sept. 27.

After the press conference, there was a congressional briefing on the “Rental Housing Crisis in America.”

Lazio went on to say that we will see an increase in need for affordable housing and less availability of it. “My challenge is, for those leaders in Washington who talk about poverty, make housing—affordable housing, especially rental affordable housing—central to your mission,” Lazio said.

U.S. Representative Denny Heck, D-WA said that shelters, or homes, are often the largest expense for people. Many times, 40-50 percent of income is spent on them. Heck added, “I have a simple philosophy when it comes to housing — blanket, pillow, roof. If a family doesn’t have a blanket to put over their body, a pillow to put their head on, and a roof over their head, then any other problem or challenge in their life cannot be addressed.”

Devona Rollins, who spoke about the impact that not being able to find affordable housing has had on her family, said she wants people to know that “it does affect working people. It’s not only for non-working Americans, but for people who work really hard every day to achieve the American dream. We’re challenged with the cost of high rent.” She added that most affordable housing is located in the inner city, where there are high crime rates and the schools are not as good. She would like to be able to find affordable, government-subsidized housing in good neighborhoods with good schools.

Country music artist Kane Brown spoke of how, growing up, he and his single mother often had to move. They lived in 15 different houses and Brown attended 12 different schools. He mentioned that moving schools hurts education, and he always felt behind.

Speakers mentioned that there are solutions available, although they are not always straightforward. One solution that was brought up several times is low-income housing tax credit. Heck added that Government-Sponsored Enterprise reform should not harm renters. Heck’s office noted that any GSE reform that intends “to push the risk from the government to the private sector will drive up the cost of mortgages.” This, in turn, “will push more American families out of the ability to receive a mortgage, meaning they will be renting. More pressure and competition for rental units will drive rents up and harm renters.” Heck also stated that reform should not hurt the Department of Housing and Urban Development. If Congress and the Trump Administration chooses to cut funding for programs that offer affordable rental housing and assisted housing such as Section 8 housing, alongside GSE reform, more people will be pushed into renting housing, which could then lead to more households with lower incomes facing housing instability.

During the congressional briefing, families shared their experiences. One woman said she was concerned about finding an affordable place to live where she could still get good education for her 2 autistic children. She works 2-3 jobs and still cannot always afford therapy for her children, and often has to pick and choose which therapies they will receive. Lower rent, she said, would minimize her stress.

The families suggested solutions, such as raising minimum wage, creating a stipend that families could use to supplement rent when emergencies arise such as medical bills or funeral costs, making a program to offset some taxes, or restructuring welfare programs to help working people in addition to those without jobs.

Solis also offered a solution. “It has to be a multi-pronged approach, so I would say there are four big buckets. Expand the supply of affordable housing, expand rental assistance, provide emergency short-term support, and then regulatory relief. There’s a lot of interest in developers doing more work, but they’re often handcuffed by local regulations.”

The press conference was also attended by Senator Chris Van Hollen, D-MD and U.S. Representative Bruce Poliquin, R-ME.

Senators Bill Cassidy and Chris Van Hollen are working on a companion resolution to House Resolution 475.