NPR

Affordable Housing Program Costs More, Shelters Less

The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program gave way to a booming $8 billion private industry, but as tax credits for companies increased, the number of housing units being built for the poor fell.
The $25 million Labre Place in Miami was built using the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. It's named for the patron saint for the homeless and is now home to 90 low-income residents, about half who were once homeless. Source: Screenshot courtesy of Frontline (PBS)

On the south side of Dallas, Nena Eldridge lives in a sparse, but spotless bungalow on a dusty lot. At $550 each month, her rent is just about the cheapest she could find in the city.

After an injury left her unable to work, the only income she receives is a $780 monthly disability check. So she has to make tough financial choices, like living without running water.

Every day, she fills bottles with water from a neighbor's house and takes them home. She washes her hands with water heated in an electric slow cooker. She uses a bucket to flush the toilet.

"I'm tired, but I don't have nowhere to go and I don't have enough money to do it," she says, fighting back tears. But she adds, "I'm not living on the streets. I'm not homeless."

Eldridge is among the 11 million people nationwide making these kinds of choices every day. The government calls them "severely rent burdened" – people paying more than half their income in rent.

Thirty years ago, Eldridge was the type of person Congress sought to help when it created the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program (LIHTC), which is now the government's primary program to build housing for the poor.

But the tax-credit building that's only a little more than two miles from Eldridge's house, where she might pay as little as $200 or $300 in rent based on her income, has a waiting list up to four years long. In Dallas and nationwide, many of these buildings don't have any vacancies.

In a joint investigation, NPR – together with the PBS series Frontline – found that with little federal oversight, LIHTC has produced fewer units than it did 20 years ago, even though it's costing taxpayers 66 percent more in tax credits.

In 1997, the program produced more than 70,000 housing units. But in 2014, fewer than 59,000 units were built, according to data provided by the National

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