On July 13, Community Progress CEO and President Dr. Akilah Watkins spoke before the The US House of Representatives Ways & Means Committee in a hearing called “Nowhere to Live: Profits, Disinvestment, and The American Housing Crisis.”
The hearing discussed factors driving up housing costs, the effects of these costs on low- and middle-income households and marginalized groups, and tools the Ways & Means Committee can use to improve housing access and affordability.
Dr. Akilah Watkins: Good afternoon, Chairman Neal, Ranking Member Brady, and Members of the Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on America’s housing unaffordability crisis.
I serve as the President and CEO of the Center for Community Progress, a national nonprofit founded in the aftermath of the 2008 housing crisis. We serve American communities – small and large, rural and urban – facing the daunting challenge of systemic vacancy.
Every community has some vacant properties. In your District, you’re probably thinking of the boarded-up home or a vacant, overgrown lot you drive by, or a warehouse or factory shut down years or even decades ago. Some vacancy is normal—but systemic vacancy is so widespread, it changes the character of a neighborhood. It is a symptom of deeper issues: concentrated poverty, economic decline, and market failure, which are often rooted in historically inequitable policies. Systemic vacancy is a vicious cycle where vacant or deteriorated properties intensify poor living conditions. This is a wicked problem and it requires intervention.
Data show the U.S. has a shortage of millions of housing units generally, and affordable housing units specifically. There are also approximately 5.7 million vacant homes and likely millions of vacant lots nationwide. We agree new housing must be built. But to address the housing crisis, we must also tap into this inventory of vacant properties responsibly, equitably, and together with community leaders. This strategy is too often overlooked.
One key challenge is the appraisal gap. Often the cost to acquire and rehab vacant properties into quality housing exceeds what that house could reasonably sell for. This appraisal gap holds communities back, because not even the most dedicated nonprofit housing developer can absorb losses on every project.
The small and mid-size communities we serve have a shortage of quality, safe, affordable homes. And for the few homes that are available, first-time homebuyers simply can’t compete with cash-in-hand investors. Most markets don’t offer mortgage products for the price points in these weak markets. Without fair and accessible financing, low-cost homeownership opportunities end up becoming permanent market-rate rentals in the hands of private-equity-backed investors.
This phenomenon is particularly acute in predominantly Black and Hispanic communities.
74% of white families own a home, compared with 43% of Black families and 48% of Hispanic families – and these disparities have persisted over decades. White households possess more than ten times the wealth of Black households, and home equity is a major contributor to this gap.
One powerful tool to disrupt these failed systems and markets is a land bank – a public entity with unique powers that is solely focused on converting problem properties into productive use according to local community goals. Land banks can:
- maintain vacant structures tax-free until they can be restored
- demolish those that can’t, and
- identify end uses driven by community needs not outside speculators.
- They can also turn tax-foreclosed properties into quality housing, and
- work with residents to transform vacant land into community spaces.
Land banks exist in rural, suburban, and urban places, with a total of 250 land banks in 29 states today.
As we grapple with how best to increase the supply of quality, affordable housing, we must broaden our thinking about how land is owned, stewarded, and developed. We urge lawmakers to pass the National Land Bank Network Act, which was introduced by Rep. Kildee and Rep. Ferguson.
This legislation would provide direct federal investment to educate, build capacity for, and provide technical assistance to land banks and the rural and urban communities that need them.
Lawmakers must also address the appraisal gap by enacting the Neighborhood Homes Investment Act. Led by Rep. Brian Higgins and Rep. Mike Kelly, this targeted tax credit would close the appraisal gap and provide a powerful incentive for the private sector to build and rehab affordable single-family homes.
We must invest in these strategies, which will equitably build wealth, support homeownership, and close historic and shameful racial gaps.
Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.