The U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Financial Services’ Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development, and Insurance held a hearing, “Persistent Poverty in America: Addressing Chronic Disinvestment in Colonias, the Southern Black Belt, and the U.S. Territories,” on November 16. Witnesses included Amber Arriaga-Salines, assistant executive director of Proyecto Azteca; Yarimar Bonilla, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College; Kiyadh Burt, vice president of policy and advocacy and interim director of the HOPE Policy Institute; Lance George, director of research and information at the Housing Assistance Council; and Chris Potterpin, president of development for PK Companies.
Witnesses discussed the persistence of severe poverty around the country, the unique challenges faced by colonias, the lack of access to reliable capital in the Southern Black Belt, and ways the U.S. Congress can better invest in the territories to fight severe, persistent poverty. (“Colonias” are rural communities in the U.S.-Mexico border region. Residents of colonias often lack adequate access to water, sewage systems, and decent housing.)
“The millions of Americans grappling with poverty are diverse,” said Subcommittee Chair Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) in his opening statement. “Addressing persistent poverty is in the interest of all Americans.” Chair Cleaver emphasized that persistent poverty is difficult to resolve, but housing investments such as those proposed in the House-passed “Build Back Better Act” represent a financial and federal solution to addressing those challenges.
Ms. Arriaga-Salinas discussed the unique challenges faced by families living in colonias. “Housing is the most important component that determines a family’s quality of life,” said Arriaga-Salinas. Facing a severe shortage of safe, affordable, and decent housing, many families in colonias must live in uninhabitable housing, like dilapidated mobile homes or sheds, and are unable to access housing vouchers. Ms. Arriaga-Salinas advocated for more federal investments in colonias to promote affordability, track improvements, and to address the unique needs of the area.
Dr. Bonilla highlighted Puerto Rico’s significant challenges dealing with persistent poverty. More than 55% of children in Puerto Rico live in poverty, and the cost burdens of rent, mortgage, and utilities are higher in Puerto Rico compared to the national average. Congress’s systematic disinvestment in public infrastructure and exclusion of entitlement programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in the territories have contributed to severe and chronic poverty, including in Puerto Rico. Dr. Bonilla urged Congress to “treat the territories better by attending to the demographic particularities and historic legacies of systemic dispossession.” She also urged HUD and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to partner with local watchdogs to track and address the discrimination and excessive scrutiny faced by Puerto Rican agencies and families when applying for disaster relief, especially given the experience of agencies and families in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and Hurricane Fiona in September 2022.
NLIHC and its Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DHRC) sent FEMA a letter urging the agency to take action to address the wrongful denial of Individual Assistance (IA) to eligible low-income disaster survivors impacted by Hurricanes Fiona and Ian (see Memo 10/20). The DHRC includes more than 850 local, state, and national organizations, including many organizations working directly with disaster-impacted communities and with first-hand experience recovering after disasters.
Mr. Burt emphasized strategies to increase affordable housing stock and housing opportunities for communities of color in the Southern Black Belt, including by increasing access to financial resources such as down payment and rental assistance. Mr. Burt also discussed the importance of holding state housing finance agencies accountable when it comes to meeting the pandemic recovery needs of local people, particularly concerning the distribution of pandemic emergency rental assistance.
Mr. Potterpin discussed the overwhelming need for affordable and decent housing in rural communities across America. He advocated for modernizing the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) to better target rural development projects and supporting rural housing offices with technology and staff capacity investments. In response to a question from Representative Bryan Steil (R-WI) about housing tax credits, Mr. Potterpin highlighted the need to expand and reform LIHTC by providing incentives to build developments in rural communities and preserve existing developments. NLIHC supports Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) expansion and reform in a tax extenders package Congress may consider before the end of the year. In addition to expanding LIHTC, NLIHC strongly urges Congress to include reforms (see Memo 11/14) to incentivize developers to invest in rural and tribal communities and better target resources to meet the needs of extremely low-income households (see Memo 9/26).
Read witnesses’ testimony and watch a recording of the hearing at: bit.ly/3ArZa7d