Affordable Housing as a Human Right: Activist Diane Yentel on the U.S. Housing Crisis, Racial Justice and Democracy

“Everything comes back to housing—your health, your ability to complete your education, your ability to keep a job,” Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told Ms.

affordable-housing-activist-diane-yentel-housing-crisis-racial-justice-democracy
Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, testifies in Congress on April 30, 2019, on infrastructure needs of America’s housing. (Screenshot from C-SPAN)

When Diane Yentel was in Zambia as a Peace Corps volunteer, she made a bold decision to spend her life working to alleviate poverty. But rather than continuing to work internationally, she determined to work domestically. 

Now the president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), she and the organization she heads promote public policies that support the maintenance and development of accessible and affordable housing for the nation’s lowest-income people.

A social worker by training, Yentel sees housing and racial justice as inextricably linked and advocates a multi-tiered strategy to aid the 44 million U.S. renters—36 percent of the population—who live on less than $30,000 a year.

Yentel spoke to Ms. reporter Eleanor J. Bader last month about the escalating housing crisis. They also zeroed in on legislation that Congress—and individual states—can enact to end homelessness and keep people sheltered.


Eleanor J. Bader: Why did you decide to focus your career on housing access and affordability? 

Diane Yentel: When I was in social work school at the University of Texas in Austin, I was part of a project to study the impact of welfare reform on single mothers. I interviewed five households a month for a year and we talked about parenting, schooling, housing, hunger—all kinds of things. One of the takeaways for me was that the lives of families living in subsidized housing were significantly easier and more stable than the lives of those who lived in non-subsidized apartments, despite both groups being similarly poor. 

After I finished my master’s in 2001, I got a job at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. I was hired as the housing policy coordinator and learned in no uncertain terms how central affordable housing is to everything else in life. Everything comes back to housing—your health, your ability to complete your education, your ability to keep a job. I mostly focused on policies at the state and local levels, but I understood the essential role of federal housing protections and supports. 

After about three years, I left Massachusetts for a job in Washington, D.C., my first stint at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. I was a housing policy analyst. This position gave me a much deeper understanding of the federal housing policies that were needed. I also had the opportunity to do advocacy and organizing.

After another three-plus years at NLIHC, I left and worked on housing and community development in various jobs at Oxfam America, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable housing development organization. I then had the tremendous opportunity to return to the NLIHC as the executive director and CEO; I’ve been in this position for more than six years, since March 2016.

The lives of families living in subsidized housing were significantly easier and more stable than the lives of those who lived in non-subsidized apartments, despite both groups being similarly poor. 

Diane Yentel
affordable-housing-activist-diane-yentel-housing-crisis-racial-justice-democracy
A map showing which states have the most affordable housing in the U.S. (National Low Income Housing Coalition)

Bader: Can you describe the current situation facing low-income renters throughout the country?

Yentel: The housing crisis is worsening for people with the lowest incomes. Even before the pandemic, there was a shortage of seven million affordable and available apartments for people living at or below the federal poverty level—$13,590 for a single person and $27,750 for a household of four—and millions of households were paying more than half of their very-limited incomes to keep a roof over their heads. This population has always been one financial shock away from missing rent, facing eviction, and in the worst cases, becoming homeless.

For many of these same households, COVID was a financial shock—they lost jobs, lost hours of work, lost wages. And it was even harder than ever for them to cobble together rent.

We pushed the federal government to respond and they did, providing unprecedented resources and protections to keep the lowest-income renters stably housed and to move people living in congregate care shelters or encampments into hotels and motels.

Now, these protections have expired and emergency resources have been depleted. This means low-income renters are facing rising inflation, skyrocketing rents, limited tenant protections and a shortage of affordable units. Predictably, this is leading to an increasing number of evictions and a spike in homelessness. 

The federal government had an incredible opportunity with the Build Back Better Act to do something big, authorize $150 billion to get and keep many of the lowest-income people stably and safely housed. This funding would have been transformative to our efforts to address homelessness and housing poverty, but the Senate version of the bill does not address housing in any meaningful way. It’s a missed opportunity and we must push for these resources to be provided in some other way.

Bader: Can states and localities do anything to improve the situation?

Yentel: Yes. In 2021 alone more than 150 new tenant protections were enacted by 31 states and 96 localities. This included providing automatic, free legal counsel to every low-income tenant threatened with eviction as well as other important protections. More sites and states should do the same, and all communities must address restrictive zoning laws.

We pushed the federal government to respond and they did, providing unprecedented resources and protections to keep the lowest-income renters stably housed and to move people living in congregate care shelters or encampments into hotels and motels.

affordable-housing-activist-diane-yentel-housing-crisis-racial-justice-democracy
Diane Yentel with Vice President Kamala Harris in November 2020.

Bader: How do zoning restrictions work?

Yentel: Many zoning restrictions are rooted in segregation, exclusion and racism and are meant to keep particular people out of certain communities. And this is not an historical artifact—these efforts continue today. Modern policies never say that they don’t want Black, Brown or Asian people in their communities, but they pass regulations to make it difficult for low-income or working-class people to build homes or rent apartments.   

In Des Moines, Iowa, for example, in May 2019 the city passed new construction requirements for single-family homes, mandating that they have single-car garages, full basements and at least 1400 square feet of living space. The city further specified which building materials had to be used, the types of windows that had to be installed, and specified what the facade layout had to look like. This brought the cost of construction way up, putting the housing out of reach for the people, predominantly Latinx families, who had hoped to buy or rent the homes. 

Bader: Can you talk about the Section 8 voucher program and explain how it works?

Yentel: Section 8 vouchers have proven very effective in enabling the lowest-income people to find and keep housing. But the biggest problem is that the program is sorely underfunded. Unlike other safety-net programs like food stamps or Social Security, there is an arbitrary cap on federal expenditures for housing assistance. As a result, only one in four households that are income-eligible and in need of assistance receive it. 

The federal government needs to address this and lift the arbitrary spending cap so that every eligible individual and household in need is given a voucher. This will cost approximately $40 billion in additional funding each year, but it would result in savings in other areas, including healthcare and homeless services.

Modern policies never say that they don’t want Black, Brown or Asian people in their communities, but they pass regulations to make it difficult for low-income or working-class people to build homes or rent apartments.   

Bader: Do landlords have to accept tenants with Section 8 vouchers?

Yentel: The federal Fair Housing Act does not require property owners to accept the subsidy. Some states, towns and cities have made it illegal for a landlord to reject a tenant who has Section 8, but the protections are a  patchwork. The NLIHC believes that landlords should be prohibited from discriminating against someone because of their source of income; this is another legislative fix we advocate. 

The need is obvious: Only one-third of voucher holders live in places where they are protected by anti-discrimination laws.

Bader: What other legislative changes does the NLIHC support?

Yentel: We need robust tenant protections, with good-cause eviction mandates to ensure against arbitrary removals. We need to preserve the affordable housing that currently exists and we need to invest in repairing public housing. The most recent estimate is that public housing repairs will require at least $70 billion because the backlog is so severe. We need to build more apartments affordable to the lowest-income people through increased funding to the national Housing Trust Fund.

We also need to investigate converting hotels, motels and offices into permanent supportive housing for people who lack shelter or are at risk of homelessness. This policy gained traction during the worst of the pandemic but it can be explored further as part of the solution.

In 2021 alone more than 150 new tenant protections were enacted by 31 states and 96 localities.

Bader: Does the NLIHC do much coalition work?

Yentel: Everything we do is as a coalition of members, partners and allies throughout the country. Our Rent Relief Now campaign, launched to achieve historic resources and protections during the pandemic, included more than 2000 organizations from all over the country. 

Our Opportunity Starts at Home campaign, which we began in 2018, is a broad-scale push for federal solutions to the crisis. Together with leaders from hundreds of non-housing organizations, including the NAACP and National Education Association, we’re fighting for permanent solutions and demanding that housing be seen as a human right. As a group, we pushed for and won a temporary federal eviction moratorium during the early days of COVID and are continually building momentum for long-term solutions to help those threatened with eviction.  

Bader: Why do you think the U.S. has done so little to build and maintain government-run social housing for its poorest residents? 

Yentel: The American psyche has a deeply-rooted sense of individualism that elevates the ideal of lifting oneself up by the bootstraps. As a culture, we tend to blame individuals who are suffering rather than blame the clear systemic flaws and failures that led to their pain. In addition, low-income renters are often unable to register and vote at the same rate as higher-income renters or homeowners. There are a variety of reasons for this, including outright voter suppression. 

Politicians pay attention to who shows up. This underscores the foundational need to correct this imbalance. We must ensure that low-income people can participate in democracy by removing the barriers to voting that make it difficult to cast a ballot in many places.

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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About

Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who writes for Truthout, Lilith Magazine and Blog, the LA Review of Books, Fiction Writers Review, The Indypendent, and The Progressive. She tweets at @eleanorjbader1 .