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Voters approve more spending on affordable housing in cities across the U.S.


Affordable housing measures were on midterm election ballots in dozens of localities across the country. It's a sign of the pain people have been feeling as a historic housing shortage has pushed rents and home prices to record highs. And a number of cities just approved hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending to do something about it - potentially billions of dollars once the final ballots are counted in some places.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden is here to tell us more. Hi, Jennifer.


NADWORNY: So what kinds of things will cities be able to do now that they have this new spending?

LUDDEN: Lots of different things, but generally, they'll be able to build or subsidize more affordable housing, repair existing housing, buy land for more housing. Some measures are for workforce housing - you know, police officers or firefighters who can't afford to live where their job is. And some will help keep people out of homelessness.

Tara Raghuveer is with KC Tenants, which helped pass the Kansas City measure to require deeply affordable housing. That's rent around 5- to $700. She's been frustrated the gas prices get all the attention these midterms, and she says housing is a much bigger chunk of people's budgets. And unlike gas, it doesn't go back down - only up.

TARA RAGHUVEER: There is not a county in the country where a worker earning minimum wage and working full time can afford a two-bedroom apartment. And that's been true now for years. And also, this is no longer a city issue, but it's one that's expanding out to the suburbs and even rural communities.

LUDDEN: I should add two measures elsewhere that appear close to passing. Colorado would designate nearly 2% of state income tax revenues for affordable housing, and Los Angeles could raise an enormous amount by taxing property sales over $5 million.

NADWORNY: Can you step back and remind us how did we get to this point? Why can so many people not afford rent or find a house that they can afford to buy?

LUDDEN: So many reasons, but just a couple big ones. You know, after the last housing crash in 2008, U.S. construction dropped off for a good decade. We're millions of units in the hole. And federal spending on affordable housing has really declined in recent decades. All this has big consequences for the country's racial gap in homeownership. It's actually widened. And now, higher mortgage rates don't help. Last week, the National Association of Realtors said the share of first-time homebuyers had dropped to a record low. It found those who can buy are older, whiter, wealthier and a lot are getting help, like, from their parents or even dipping into their own retirement or other savings for a down payment.

NADWORNY: So is all this going to help make a difference for renters or people trying to buy a house?

LUDDEN: You know, I put that to Yonah Freemark at the Urban Institute - who, by the way, thinks it's pretty remarkable so many voters approve this spending even as they struggle with inflation. But his answer was a bit of a downer.

YONAH FREEMARK: You know, affordable housing is going to be a struggle that I think we're all going to face for the rest of our lifetimes, no matter our age. And these measures will certainly open up thousands of units across the country that will become permanently affordable for low- and moderate-income people. But it will not solve our housing crisis.

LUDDEN: So yeah, Freemark says everyone at every level just needs to keep at it, finding new ways to create housing people can actually afford.

NADWORNY: NPR's Jennifer Ludden, thank you.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.