Bart Mitchell: Neal leading push for affordable housing

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BOSTON — For nearly 250,000 families in Massachusetts, more than half of every paycheck is devoured by rent. While Boston is responsible for some of the highest rents in the Commonwealth, housing affordability issues extend far beyond metro Boston. According to U.S. Census data, over 70 percent of homeowners in rural communities are burdened by housing costs.

Cities and towns in Western Massachusetts — such as North Adams and Pittsfield — are no exception. Communities like these were hit hard by the Great Recession when unemployment nearly doubled, rising from about 5 percent in 2007 to nearly 10 percent in 2010. While a recovery has improved conditions for urban centers, in places like Springfield, a minimum wage worker still has to work 1.7 full-time jobs in order to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The gap between rents and wages is not a new issue, nor one unique to the Commonwealth. From 1960 to 2014, rents increased nationally nearly 64 percent, while incomes only increased by about 20 percent. As the economy bounces back for some, smaller communities continue to recover slowly, with median incomes and labor participation lagging behind. For communities in Western Massachusetts, affordable housing is a way not just to alleviate the rent burden for families, but to bring vibrancy, jobs and redevelopment to the region.

The good news is that lawmakers are listening. With the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act (AHCIA) of 2019 recently reintroduced, Congress is poised to take big steps to help low-income households across the nation. This legislation, for which Massachusetts' own House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal has been a longtime champion, would help us make a significant step towards addressing America's affordable housing needs.

The AHCIA of 2019, which has strong bipartisan support, would expand and strengthen the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (Housing Credit), a proven tool that has helped millions of Americans afford safe and decent housing since its introduction in 1986. By incentivizing developers to build affordable apartments, the Housing Credit engages the public and private sectors to provide housing to those who need it the most. AHCIA would build upon this model to produce more affordable homes, simplify and streamline Housing Credit regulations, and broaden the program's reach to better serve veterans and rural areas like those found in the western part of the Commonwealth.

This legislation represents an important step towards providing housing security in Massachusetts. With a more reasonable portion of each paycheck going towards rent, people will be left with more to spend on nutritious food options and quality healthcare, among other essential expenditures. As Massachusetts' housing market continues to grow, we must ensure that working people and at-risk populations such as veterans, disabled people and senior citizens aren't left behind.

The Housing Credit has already created 130,000 affordable apartments in Massachusetts, and the AHCIA of 2019 will help us create more than 550,000 homes nationwide over the next decade. We urge all Massachusetts legislators to support this newly introduced legislation to help secure more affordable housing for our most vulnerable neighbors. With Chairman Neal in his new leadership position, there is a real opportunity for the Massachusetts delegation to lead the way on freeing hardworking families, seniors and people with disabilities from extreme housing burdens.

We commend Rep. Neal for his long-term leadership on affordable housing. We hope to see support for this legislation grow among his colleagues in Congress, to see it enacted into law, and to ultimately see more of our neighbors living in homes they can afford.

Bart Mitchell is president and CEO of The Community Builders.

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