News Round-Up: The Affordable Housing Shortage, Explained

Sequestration is already having a clear impact on low income renters across the U.S. As Fox 5 DC reported, the DC Housing Authority is already making tough choices to balance the cuts required by sequestration with the agency’s mission to house the lowest income residents of DC. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the housing agency in that city is in the process of cancelling vouchers recently issued to low income families, taking away vouchers from households that had not already found an apartment during the period allowed.

While sequestration will reduce the amount of affordable rental housing made available by the federal government, market conditions are the cause of the majority of the existing housing shortage. Affordable Housing Finance explains that severe housing cost burden- where low income renters pay 50% or more of their income for rent- is a problem in every state in the nation. As Progress Illinois explains, many in that state pay more than half their income for rent, leaving little left for other necessities like food or medical care.

The Washington Examiner takes us back to the nation’s capitol with a video on what the rental housing shortage means for those who are trying to escape homelessness. An article in the Stamford Advocate shows the struggle both low and moderate income households go through when attempting to rent in America’s highest-cost cities.

A Better America

This post is a personal reflection from Linda Couch, NLIHC’s Senior Vice President for Public Policy. 

There is a special family in my life that needs a lot of things. They have certain things, for which they are extremely grateful every day: they love each other deeply, they are usually healthy, they are optimistic. But, they are very poor and the strains of their poverty reach into every facet of their lives. If they had a safe, decent and affordable place to live, their lives would really be wonderful because so much else would have a place to, well, fall into place.

Last week, the basement apartment they were renting flooded and the city inspector plastered a bright orange, 6″ x 8″ sticker on their front door: no one can be in there or live there. On Saturday, I got a call from the mom, who is mother to my daughter’s best friend, asking if I had any boxes or plastic trash bags she could have. I went over, read the orange sticker and entered their home. The signs of flooding were obvious; the carpet in their one bedroom still wet. Some nasty vapor smell was coming from the furnace room, just a couple of feet from the bedroom. They were in the throes of moving, poor people style. Family photos, layered with tape from the walls of previous apartments dumped into the three suitcases they have, alongside the baby Tylenol and old perfume. Wet clothes from the flood mostly sorted from the dry clothes and jammed into large black garbage bags.

They are moving to another house owned by the same man. They moved into the attic room over the weekend but won’t know until later this week if they’ll have the $500 for rent. They moved anyway. They had no choice. Their room is in a different school district. The landlord will not give the mother any paperwork, no small slip of paper even, saying they live there and pay rent. Without this paperwork, the mom doesn’t know how she’ll get her older daughter into the new school. Since she’s not sure she can even afford the rent there, my husband and I are going to shuttle the daughter to and from her current school so she doesn’t have to change schools twice this year. What the mom could manage in rent is unclear. Rent money comes mostly from the baby’s father and his willingness to help out ebbs and flows. So, mom, baby and 10 year old live on the teetering edge of crisis.

The mom has no “papers.” She cannot prove she is here legally. She has worked in the past but is not working now. It’s very hard to find an under-the-table job that pays more than $5 or $6 an hour, the amount she has to make in order to pay a babysitter and still have a little left over for her family. She had been getting food assistance but that assistance is now on hold and won’t start again for a month or so. Until then, the baby’s father buys the baby cereal and milk;  the 10 year old eats breakfast and lunch at school and gets headaches on the weekends. The mom lets us help– buy groceries, drive to the laundromat so she doesn’t have to lug her laundry onto the bus– but only so much. No, she says, you do too much and I must tell you no, please let me tell you no. She taught me the word in her native language for embarrassed. She said that is what she has inside her.

I said that this family is optimistic, and they are. So much of their lives is up in the air, is unknown, that being any way but optimistic could just be too much to bear. I dare not voice it to the mom, but I am the pessimistic one. What path do they really have to housing – not to mention safe, decent and affordable housing? What will change so the mom can work, the baby can be looked after? How is it that this straight-A-student 10-year-old will not have to move twice a year until she graduates from high school? How can they get out of a world where they fear speaking up about lack of heat, lack of water, or cockroaches because the crappy landlord holds so much control over them?

There has to be a better America out there somewhere, right?

Stories like this play out in millions of families across America every day. Socially just housing policy can help make the better America these families need. Visit our website to learn what we propose, and share your ideas about what can be done in the comments. 

News Round-Up: Fighting Words

It’s time to fight for the National Housing Trust Fund.

So says the New York Times in an editorial this weekend citing the shortage of safe, decent housing affordable to the lowest income Americans as “one of America’s most vexing problems.”

Vexing is right. As National Low Income Housing Coalition analysis shows, there are only 30 units of housing affordable and available to every 100 extremely low income renters. This absolute shortage of housing has persisted and, in fact, increased over the years. The result is that these extremely low income renters are renting housing they can’t afford- the only housing available to them. And after paying for rent and utilities, 3/4 of extremely low income renter households have less than half of their income left for life’s necessities, like food, transportation and healthcare.

As dire as this situation sounds (and is), there are rays of hope when it comes to policy solutions. As the Times explains, the National Housing Trust Fund, when funded, will “create affordable housing, through rehabilitation or construction” that will end the affordable housing shortage and build on the successful efforts our nation has already made to stem the tide of homelessness.

There are two funding sources for the National Housing Trust Fund that have great potential: contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the savings from reform of the mortgage interest deduction into a credit that will benefit more middle and lower income homeowners.

The basis for proposing these two funding sources is simple: the federal government makes a significant investment in making home ownership easy for people who can already afford high-quality housing. It’s time for the government to put its housing money where the need for housing is greatest.

Think this is an idea you can endorse? You can do that right here.

News Round-Up: States Don’t Fill the Gap

In 2008, the National Low Income Housing Coalition released a report detailing how, despite their tremendous efforts to do so, states were unable to make up for the shrinking availability of federal dollars for affordable housing development with their own housing funds.

In the Sacramento News & Review, we read a story that brings this report to life. The legislatively mandated dissolution of California’s housing redevelopment agencies means that affordable housing developments like the one featured in the article may be the last of their kind.

Advocates speculate that funding from the National Housing Trust Fund could help fill in the gap. But as The Nation notes, the National Housing Trust Fund is a necessary program that doesn’t yet have the funding necessary for it to build the housing that low income people need. With uncertainty growing over how lawmakers will address the federal deficit and sequestration, it’s more urgent than ever that a greater measure of fairness be brought to federal housing policy so that the acute shortage of housing affordable to seniors, people with disabilities and those in the low-wage workforce can finally be brought to an end.

News Round-Up: Housing Disasters, Natural and Man-Made

In this week’s News Round-Up, we find news stories showing that both natural disasters, and the disastrous economy, have combined with the nationwide shortage of rental housing affordable to low income people to create a crisis for many American families.

In Vermont, manufactured home park residents whose homes were flooded during Hurricane Irene had no other choice but to destroy their own homes, as repair was impossible and the fee to dispose of them was more than the residents could afford. In a state with the second lowest rental vacancy rates and the seventh highest rents, these former homeowners will have a tough time finding a place they can afford. They will also find themselves in competition with other low income families for scarce affordable rental opportunities. As the need grows, service providers have difficulty stretching the state and federal funding available to them, and must cobble together donations and other resources to help their clients.

Franklin County, Pennsylvania’s shelter system is under stress due to the poor economy and lack of housing affordable to low income people. Waiting lists for vouchers and public housing mean the shelters stay full.

We find a similar story in Indiana, where the minimum and low wage jobs available pay nowhere near the $17.84 Housing Wage there. Service providers say they’re seeing an increase in homeless families in particular.