NOAH for All: Preserving Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing for Undocumented Immigrants
Naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH) is critical to providing safe, stable, and affordable housing for all communities – but takes on outsized importance for undocumented residents. Subsidized housing nearly always requires that the incomes of residents are verified in order to ensure that public resources are reaching their intended beneficiaries. An often-overlooked consequence of this income verification process – which calls for residents to provide pay stubs, tax documents, and/or a W-2 – is that undocumented residents who need affordable housing are unwilling or unable to provide such evidence for fear of revealing their citizenship status. As a result, many subsidized housing solutions aiming to reach low-income residents are entirely out of reach for undocumented populations, making the preservation of NOAH units even more important.
In 2021, NHT was part of a team working to prevent displacement and preserve housing affordability along a new transit corridor in Maryland with a specific focus on protecting NOAH properties at risk of conversion. Two properties were identified in the course of the work that currently provide nearly 600 units of housing for majority Spanish-speaking families, with an estimated 30-50 percent of residents with undocumented immigration status. The properties were significantly deteriorated, leading the tenants to bring a lawsuit against their unengaged landlord in an effort to prevent possible ownership change, redevelopment, and potential displacement of the current residents. (The residents’ efforts were the subject of several media reports.) NHT became involved to identify options that would keep the property affordable while improving the condition of the units and recognized that the use of conventional affordable housing resources and tools would put residents at risk.
In the course of seeking to identify creative solutions that best protect undocumented residents of affordable housing, NHT emerged with three clear conclusions that can and should inform the broader affordable housing field.
- Developers must engage and cultivate trust with tenants. Any developer seeking to acquire and preserve an affordable housing property should engage with and build a trusting relationship with existing tenants, regardless of the property’s subsidy or residents’ immigration status. Doing so, however, is critically important when purchasing an unassisted property occupied by undocumented residents who face greater barriers to securing safe and affordable housing, and may adopt a more wary stance with regards to sharing personal information with owners or property management. Owners should demonstrate a clear and sustained effort to build trust with tenants so that residents can better understand the new owner and their intentions. Such a commitment also serves owners’ interests, helping them better learn from residents about pressing issues at the property, such as overcrowding and capital needs. Residents, for example, may not be transparent about the number of people living in their unit with an untrusted source, but new owners need to understand the extent of overcrowding and begin to identify solutions, such as relocating the tenants to a larger unit or placing some of the tenants in an additional unit.
- Lenders must ensure financial resources can be used regardless of immigration status. Lenders must be conscientious about reducing barriers to using their capital resources to support, serve, and provide housing stability for undocumented residents. This should include devising loan programs and/or processes that do not place a direct or indirect burden on tenants to attest their immigration status through specific reporting requirements, as well as offering flexibility in what documentation can be used to provide proof of income if necessary. While some capital resources necessarily carry requirements – such as income verification or proof of citizenship -- that get passed along to residents, others may offer more flexibility. For capital sources such as private equity funds that are more flexible, lenders and developers should ensure that the process of underwriting and loan compliance does not add barriers for undocumented tenants by requiring documents that reveal their citizenship status (such as ITIN, tax documents, or W2 forms). When lenders have control over the terms and compliance documentation, they should craft processes with an eye to how their requirements ultimately impact prospective or existing tenants – particularly those who lack documented status.
- Local policymakers must use and support every tool available to protect naturally occurring affordable housing. Preserving communities that include undocumented residents requires that localities must employ a diverse set of housing solutions. Such approaches should include a commitment to supporting affordable housing development funded by a variety of resources and tools, including those that carry fewer or no requirements for documentation that may reveal citizenship or tax status. Policymakers should also implement policies that provide strong tenant protections in the face of potential displacement, and strengthen property inspection and code enforcement to ensure safe and healthy housing. Localities must hold owners accountable for the quality of NOAH properties, keeping in mind residents who may fear that their immigration status could be jeopardized by speaking out against poor housing conditions.
The affordable housing industry has an important role to play in supporting vibrant, diverse communities that include residents with undocumented immigration status. As a result of NHT’s engagement in the Maryland properties, we are pleased that the once at-risk developments have since been purchased by a mission-driven affordable housing developer through the Prince George’s County Right of First Refusal Program, ensuring that existing residents can remain and that the properties stay affordable for a minimum of 15 years. We hope decision-makers and industry members across the country will incorporate these lessons learned into their practice so that collectively we can best address the needs of low-income, underserved, or undocumented residents who need secure, stable, safe, and affordable housing.
Learn more about NHT’s work to prevent displacement and preserve NOAH along the Purple Line Corridor in Maryland
Public Policy & Mid-Atlantic Initiatives Manager