D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser addresses the homelessness crisis on Thursday.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser addresses the homelessness crisis on Thursday. Sam Warlick/National League of Cities

Business and municipal leaders are putting pressure on Congress to maintain existing support for housing and expand with new opportunities.

By one estimate, the number of homeless people living without shelter grew by 9 percent last year. More than half a million Americans experienced homelessness on a given night in 2017, sheltered or out on the streets. This alarming surge comes at a time when the Trump administration is threatening deep budget cuts for housing assistance.

A new coalition launched by Ed Lee, the late mayor of San Francisco, is taking action to address this crisis before it gets any worse. Mayors & CEOs for U.S. Housing Investment aims to boost investment in affordable housing and emergency services for the homeless while giving the federal government a kick in the pants to remind it of its commitments. With 14 mayors from U.S. cities working together with business leaders, the coalition may be the broadest campaign yet to fight the housing crisis.

“Making homelessness rare, brief, and non-reoccurring is a matter of political will,” said Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington, D.C., where the group convened on Thursday.

The bipartisan coalition, which represents a geographically and demographically diverse range of communities across the country, has partnered with the National League of Cities to pursue its agenda. Members of the coalition spoke at the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence, a new permanent supportive housing facility for formerly homeless veterans and low-income residents in D.C.

John and Jill Ker Conway Residence, a permanent supportive housing facility for the homeless in Washington, D.C. (Community Solutions)

The mayors of Los Angeles, Oakland, Denver, Phoenix, and other cities spoke alongside leaders from Airbnb and Sutter Health about efforts to drive more affordable housing in urban, suburban, and rural communities. The coalition has emphasized public–private partnerships (such as the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence) as a way to build new and more deeply affordable housing.

Mayors & CEOs for U.S Housing Investment has proposed several strategies to advance the interests of America’s most vulnerable populations. One set of objectives is straightforward: Put pressure on the Department of Housing and Urban Development and members of Congress to resist budget cuts for existing programs that are essential to building and maintaining affordable housing. These include Community Development Block Grants, Section 8 housing vouchers, and other critical programs in the Trump administration’s crosshairs.

“We need to get the federal government to realize that prevention is everything,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

In addition, the coalition also introduced proposals for creative new ways to address homelessness and housing insecurity. They imagine a strong partner in the federal government—which they may or may not have—but they draw on parallel federal programs that have proven broadly successful.

For example, the coalition recommended the creation of a Housing Innovation, Investment, and Reform Opportunities (HIIRO) grant program. The HUD-HIIRO funds would be modeled after the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program—a way of rewarding shovel-ready projects to combat homelessness.

Another suggestion was Partnerships Accelerating Supportive Services (PASS). This program would call on HUD to combine forces with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for a voucher program for homeless families and individuals suffering mental health issues. The idea mirrors the widely praised HUD–Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program for addressing veterans homelessness.

A proposed Housing Stabilization Funds would ask HUD to create a pool for short-term emergency housing assistance for households making up to 80 percent of area median income—a purse to prevent at-risk renters from falling into homelessness during an emergency.

There is currently no such fund, and if anything, the Trump administration has proposed budget cuts that could provoke a rise in homeless populations not seen since the Reagan administration. Mark Stodola, mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, says that state and federal preemption has also eliminated some of the more flexible tools available to local leaders to take on housing problems. One that he mentions: advance refunding for municipal bonds, a refinancing mechanism favored by state and local governments. The tax reform bill repealed the tax-exempt status for advance-refunding bonds.

“We were emasculated on that issue,” Stodola said. He added that the forthcoming infrastructure bill is likely to restore the tax exemption for refunding private-activity bonds. The coalition aims to lobby Congress to increase that exemption, he said. “If they’re going to do that, they sure as certain should allow municipal government to do advanced refunding on their bonds.”

Mayors & CEOs for U.S Housing Investment is looking for more partners in cities and in business. The coalition’s leaders represent some 13 million constituents already, with business leaders bringing on their own set of interests and concerns. The goal is to convince the White House and Republican-controlled Congress that they can extend the reach of federal funds to fight the housing crisis—in a way that neither local nor federal nor private leaders can do alone.

“For a guy that’s in real-estate development, I hope he’ll listen carefully and understand there are some opportunities here,” Stodola said of the president. “The homeless on the streets are our neighbors, too, and they’re going to be there whether the administration pays attention to them or not.”

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