NYU's Urban Democracy Lab, in a newly released white paper, is calling for the creation of a new federal housing authority in order to avoid massive evictions spurred by the coronavirus and to provide long-term community stability.

Photo: residential neighborhood
Photo credit: Marco Maccarini/Getty Images

To avoid massive evictions spurred by the coronavirus and to provide long-term community stability, a team of researchers is calling for the creation of a new federal housing authority. Outlined in a newly released white paper, the agency would purchase distressed real estate and transfer it to cooperatives, non-profits, and community land trusts.

The white paper, “The Case for a Social Housing Development Authority,” was produced by researchers at the Urban Democracy Lab (UDL), part of New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating an already untenable housing crisis and cries out for decisive action,” says Professor Gianpaolo Baiocchi, director of UDL. “Left to its own devices, the unregulated market will continue to create profits for speculators at the expense of families and communities. This proposed agency would bring the power of the federal government to tackle the housing crisis while helping to ensure affordable, community-controlled housing.”

Recent research has shown than nearly half of renters spend more than a third of their income on rent while one-quarter of renters pay more than half of their earnings on rent. Moreover, UDL’s analysis of a Federal Reserve Board study shows that more than 50 percent of renters could not afford an unexpected expense of $400 based on current savings. Another study has concluded that massive unemployment brought on by the coronavirus could result in evictions that spur an increase in infections—a growing concern as moratoriums on evictions continue to expire.

To address housing alarms that are both long-standing and immediate, UDL proposes the creation of the Social Housing Development Authority (SHDA), which would acquire distressed properties, notably multi-family rentals, and finance their transfer to the vast, existing social housing sector. The researchers note that this approach would have the multi-fold advantages of preventing additional consolidation of the housing market by private equity and other speculative investors while also curbing the current and upcoming crises of evictions—while providing landlords of these properties with an economically viable exit.

The white paper’s authors add that such an agency could serve to strengthen and build communities by halting displacement and gentrification.

“By investing in maintenance, upgrading, and retrofitting before turning units over to communities, it would contribute to the stock of quality, environmentally sound housing,” adds Baiocchi, author of We, The Sovereign (Polity, 2018) and co-author of Civic Imagination: Making a Difference in American Political Life (Routledge, 2014). “Significantly, this agency could benefit vulnerable tenants in both urban and rural areas of the United States.”

The proposed SHDA would be a government instrumentality, similar to the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) or the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), which helped steer the U.S. out of economic crises. It would, like HOLC or RTC, recover many of its costs in the finance and transfer of properties to the social sector.

The researchers recognize that recouping its costs and generating revenue are vital to SHDA’s long-term viability and capacity to fulfill its mission of expanding affordable housing.

To ensure its success, then, they propose that SHDA be free to manage its finances and activities in such a way that it can generate the resources necessary to meaningfully expand social housing in the U.S. Rather than an agency under the administration of the executive branch, it would be formed under a corporation framework, run by a governing board that would set policy and investment priorities and overall organizational strategy, thereby allowing it to act nimbly and to ensure that the corporation remains accountable to its mission.

The Urban Democracy Lab, situated in New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, aims to promote critical, creative, just, and sustainable forms of urbanism through engaged scholarship, collaborative undergraduate and graduate coursework, creative public programming, and active publication. For more, please visit its website

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