Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth are supporting legislation that would infuse $100 billion into the development and preservation of affordable housing across the country.
The state’s Democratic senators announced Friday that they are co-sponsoring the Housing is Infrastructure Act alongside Sen. Kamala Harris. Rep. Maxine Waters, chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, filed companion legislation in the House on Thursday. (Waters and Harris, who is running for president, are Democrats from California).
The vast majority of funding the bill would provide — $70 billion — is earmarked for building, modernizing and rehabilitating public housing, which serves families living in deep poverty. The average income of a public housing household in Illinois is less than $12,500, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In announcing their support for the legislation, Durbin and Duckworth cited an August 2018 investigative report by The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica detailing poor conditions in East St. Louis’ public housing, including mold, mice, roaches, inadequate heat, peeling paint and security problems.
These conditions persist despite a HUD takeover that spanned 32 years. Around the time HUD returned the housing authority to local control in late 2017, inspectors working on behalf of the agency had failed nine of its 12 public housing properties.
“For many families living in public housing across the country, and especially in East St. Louis, their buildings are in disrepair,” said Durbin, who was raised in East St. Louis. “For too long, the federal government has shirked its responsibility to make adequate funding available to address the conditions of our rapidly deteriorating public housing stock. This bill is a commitment to make critical federal investments that would ensure all Americans have access to safe and healthy housing.”
Across the country, aging, neglected public housing complexes are in need of billions of dollars for major capital repairs like new roofs and elevators. The capital backlog has ballooned in the face of years of congressional cuts to programs that help local housing authorities maintain their housing stock. Many of the properties have outlived their useful life span and need to be torn down and rebuilt.
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East St. Louis’ public housing stock alone has more than $42 million in immediate physical needs that is expected to triple over the next decade if Congress does not act, the senators’ joint press release said.
Duckworth called it “unacceptable” that any Illinoisan living in public housing “finds themselves in units that are crumbling or unsafe.”
“Children and families rely on investments like these that help improve housing conditions, increase security and reduce homelessness,” Duckworth said.
The bill also includes funding that would create more affordable rentals and home-ownership options for seniors, people with disabilities and rural Americans.
It’s one of a number of long-shot bills that have been introduced in recent months aimed at addressing the nation’s affordable housing crisis. Experts say the lack of decent, safe affordable housing has resulted in a growing number of people paying far more for housing than they can responsibly afford, and forcing some into unsafe, substandard conditions to avoid homelessness.
Advocates for people who are living in poverty say that affordable housing should be prioritized as an infrastructure need, alongside investments into repairing aging roads and bridges and other public systems.
Sarah Saadian, senior director of public policy with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing solutions, said that policymakers on both sides of the aisle agree that a significant investment in the nation's infrastructure should be a top priority for Congress.
"It is critical that any infrastructure package includes robust funding to address America's affordable housing infrastructure needs, most notably, through investments in the National Housing Trust Fund and resources to repair public housing. This bill could — and should — be included in a larger infrastructure package," she said. "That probably won't happen in 2020, but it could be a top priority after the 2020 elections."
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI