News Round-Up: Housing, Present and Future

With the election just two weeks past, pundits are still speculating about its impact on housing. In an opinion piece, Mark Calabria of the Cato Institute notes that “a vocal minority within progressive circles [is] calling for reducing the mortgage interest deduction and using the money for rental assistance,” but speculates that a Romney administration  may have been more fertile ground for this proposal than the continued Obama administration.

Meanwhile, reports continue to surface showing the great need for that rental assistance. In Connecticut, where rental prices are the 6th highest in the country and there is a nearly 34,000 unit shortage of housing affordable to the lowest income people, advocates are calling for more affordable housing.

New housing is needed, but it’s important to preserve what we have. In Sacramento, the public housing agency there is redeveloping some older housing developments into mixed-income housing, to improve the housing quality and make it more financially sustainable. Residents and advocates have expressed concern that the residents who live there now may not be able to return to the redeveloped housing as promised.

Building and rehabilitating housing is one way to make sure housing is affordable to the lowest income people. Another way is through fair housing regulations. In New Jersey, the state supreme court heard arguments on the Mount Laurel decision, which requires communities to provide housing for residents with low incomes. Citing data from NLIHC, advocates wrote to their local papers calling for the New Jersey court to uphold the Mount Laurel decision.

Housing is a solution to homelessness. Faith groups gathered in Washington last week to ask Congress to provide $1 billion in funding for the National Housing Trust Fund, which would build, rehabilitate and preserve housing for extremely low income Americans, including the 630,000 homeless people in the U.S.

Regardless of who won or lost on November 6, sequestration has the potential to have a huge impact on housing opportunities for the lowest income Americans. As Time notes, more than 140,000 families could lose their homes due to sequestration.

News Round-Up: No Time for Cuts

The number of renters grows, as does the cost of housing, but Congress may be on the verge of making solutions even more scarce.

Rental housing is a topic of the D.C. city council race, as candidates consider how to ensure renters, who are the majority in the District, can afford housing. Rent control and workforce-affordable housing are on the table.

Apartment Therapy discusses the impact of high-cost housing even on those with good educations and more-than-full-time work. San Francisco may be a great place to have a career, but it’s also the most expensive city to rent in the U.S., according to this year’s Out of Reach.

A report from Knox County, Illinois shows us what’s happening at the opposite end of the income spectrum. The average renter there only ears about half of what it takes to afford a two-bedroom apartment there. The article notes that poverty was already on the rise in the county before the Great Recession, and now 20% of the population lives in poverty.

HUD and USDA affordable housing programs are part of the federal government’s strategy to ensure all Americans have access to safe, decent affordable housing. Affordable Housing Finance reports, however, that if Congress does not act to prevent sequestration from occurring, hundreds of thousands of low income families and individuals will find themselves without the support they need to put a roof overhead.

News Round-Up: Up for Debate

Calculations from the National Low Income Housing Coalition have made their way into a number of recent news reports and opinion pieces. The Echo Press of Alexandria, MN reports on the new county profiles from the Minnesota Housing Partnership. These profiles include data developed by NLIHC and show that “In every county in Minnesota, some families face paying more than half of their income for their housing.”

Florida Legal Services staff attorney and retired NLIHC board member Charles Elsesser notes, in a letter to the Miami Herald, that with that city’s Housing Wage at almost $22 an hour, the need for affordable rental housing is clear and it’s time to talk seriously about solutions.

An opinion piece in the New Jersey Jewish News uses figures from Out of Reach to show how difficult it is for seniors living on fixed incomes in New Jersey to afford market-rate rental housing. The author notes that mission-driven nonprofits devoted to developing housing for seniors can’t do their work if the federal government does not provide adequate funding for housing for extremely low income people.

We return to Minnesota for a look at a report NLIHC released this spring, Affordable Housing Dilemma: The Preservation vs. Mobility Debate. This brief article in The Twin Cities Daily Planet notes that neither investing in community redevelopment, nor making it possible for low income people to move to higher opportunity neighborhoods, will be the solution to America’s affordable housing challenges in all cases.

Affordable Housing Dilemma made its way into a report in the Nashua Telegraph on the the Nashua Housing Authority’s plan to demolish a public housing development many say is worth saving because it is well-maintained and affordable. The housing authority counters that demolishing the dense development would allow the residents to move to less-crowded areas where they would no longer be “defined and isolated by their income level.” The article suggests the debate in Nashua is a perfect example of the discussion in NLIHC’s report, and notes that “spatial dispersion” is not a cure-all for poverty.

Have you seen any great uses of housing data in the news this week? Share them with us in the comments!

Advocates in the Spotlight: Michael Dahl

Many people, from staff and board members to conference attendees and members, work with the Coalition to help us achieve our mission. “Advocates in the Spotlight” celebrates different types of advocates, from people in the field to those behind-the-scenes working in our office every day. We continue this series by interviewing an advocate who has been doing a lot of spotlighting of his own, Michael Dahl of St. Paul, Minnesota.

As part of his “Talk About Home” project, Michael has been interviewing a wide range of pedestrians walking around the Twin Cities about the meaning of home and their response to the extreme levels of homelessness in their state. Videos of the interviews are posted on his website, which he hopes help make affordable housing and ending homelessness major issues during the 2012 election.

Our Communications Project Manager Sarah Brundage recently got Michael to take some time off from interviewing people on the streets of Minnesota, and got him on the other end of the camera to ask him a few questions of her own about his hands-on advocacy work.

The man behind the camera

SB: “Talk about Home” is a really exciting and engaging project. What does advocacy mean to you and how did your personal experience of advocacy inspire this idea?

MD: Advocacy has always been my thing and my drive has been to work on affordable housing issues. My advocacy has also been very drawn to being participatory…. We’re not going to get major change on issues unless we involve the public in a way we’re not doing right now. The reason we’re not doing that is because [we think] housing is so confusing and people won’t understand what we’re talking about. I wanted to put that to test and so I started thinking about what would happen if I went out and interviewed people.

When I started interviewing individuals it was beautiful in some ways; in other ways it was heart wrenching. I just decided to keep that up, and hopefully learn some lessons that I could teach advocates about how to communicate with people about housing in a way that they can understand it.

And while people do talk about housing differently, when they talk about affordable housing and homelessness they have a really good sense of it. People might not use the same words that we use but they know how to make sense of the problem.

SB: We were excited to see that you had used data from NLIHC’s annual Out of Reach report to help introduce this project on your website. You referenced Minnesota’s Housing Wage of $15.50 to show how low-wage workers cannot afford to live in that state. As a long-time affordable housing advocate, what role has Out of Reach has played in your advocacy work?

MD: Ever since I’ve been aware of Out of Reach I’ve been using it, and I’ve been using it a lot. It’s a really simple way to talk to anybody – whether it’s people on the streets, people living in housing or politicians – they understand that someone has to work to afford housing in most cases, and that full-time work often doesn’t pay for what we would consider quality housing.

SB: Unfortunately the state of affordable housing as described by Out of Reach has not improved much over the years. Do the report and the Housing Wage still surprise you?

MD: In some respects it’s what I’ve grown to expect since the numbers haven’t changed dramatically over the past few years. Even though they’re not headed in a good direction, I want to know that we’re not moving the ball forward enough right now, and that we need policies to do that. The Out of Reach report is a really good indicator of, “Are our policies being effective or not?”

The reason we’re not being effective enough isn’t because we don’t know how to do policy or because we don’t have answers or because we haven’t gotten politicians to pay enough attention to what the solutions are so far…. They key to getting politicians to pay attention is to not have just me talking about affordable housing, homelessness and Out of Reach data, it’s to have the public talking about it.

Two or three times a week, Michael “panhandles” for videotaped interviews about the meaning of “home”. While most of those interviewed are from Minnesota, he’s also talked to people from at least a dozen other states as well as visitors from Britain, Venezuela, and Costa Rica.

SB: You have interviewed over 100 individuals already. What would you say is the greatest take-away?

MD: I have people identify what they think about home and do they have particular memories, and it doesn’t matter if the person is well off, has an intact family or is homeless, I’d say 98% of them identify home as something they really love. We have this common good feeling about home, and when I ask people about those memories and I get them to think about the bigger issue they start to think, “What would it be like if I didn’t have this security, that place to go to, if I never cooked with mom, what happened if I lived in a car?” I’ve seen people grappling with the fact that what they have if they’re doing okay right now is not something that a lot of people have and it’s getting worse. And if they’re homeless, they still realize how important stability is, and how they’re not able to get out of their homeless situation because of the lack of stability.

So my advice, my punch line, the thing I want to get to for advocates and politicians that care about housing issues is… we’re still going to have to use the acronyms and the legislative speech in certain circles, but if we want to get the public behind us on a major policy initiative, we need to talk about how people can’t rely on home as a place of safety, as a place to go back to. Those are important things to people and a lot of folks don’t have it.

I hope that we find a way to talk about this in ways that really resonate with the public because as the interviews show, they’re ready to talk about this. They understand it.

Click on the image to watch one of Michael’s favorite interviews featuring Timothy, a man experiencing homelessness who gave an “extremely thoughtful and empathetic interview.”

Watch more interviews at and stay tuned for tips from Michael on how you can start your own “Talk About Home” project locally, coming soon!

News Round-Up: Renters in the Middle

Many communities across the U.S. are reporting rents beyond the reach of many renters, especially those with the lowest incomes. In Pittsburgh, Essential Public Radio reports that two out of three low income Pennsylvania residents have trouble finding rental housing they can afford. Rents in New Jersey, as we read in this article, are the third highest in the nation. In Texas, we read that minimum wage earners must work 88 hours per week just to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment and utilities. In Kanabec County, Minnesota, even the average worker must work up to 70 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Unsurprisingly, we’ve seen many reports recently from California, the second most expensive state in the country for renters. In Sacramento, Marin County and Santa Barbara, even as the slow housing and economic recovery has kept home prices relatively low, high rents and the elimination of state redevelopment agencies mean renters have few good choices.

In the Hartford Courant, we read about some of the people whose wages can’t cut it when it comes to making the rent: recent college graduates. Low-wage, entry-level jobs combine with sky-high rents and growing student loan payments to make the rental market impossible for young workers.

Recent college graduates often have the option of living with their parents, but for others, resources like public housing are essential. The housing that low income workers, elderly people and people with disabilities rely on is falling into disrepair in many communities across the country as federal funding for maintenance remains scarce. In Chattanooga, public housing residents planned to attend a Chattanooga Housing Authority meeting in large numbers in an attempt to protect their homes from demolition and their households from displacement. The housing authority promised that no senior housing would be destroyed, but residents are likely to remain worried when they consider just how tough it is to afford the rent elsewhere.