If you don’t already own a home, I’d like to suggest that becoming a homeowner in 2005 be among your New Year’s resolutions. As long as you have a steady salary, good credit, and few long-term debts, purchasing a home is probably within your reach.
HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson
HUD News Release, 12/22/04
Each year the National Low Income Housing Coalition issues the publication Out of Reach, a report documenting the struggle low-income individuals and families face in accessing and maintaining affordable housing. Utilizing a measure called the “housing wage,” this year’s report indicates that that there is not a single jurisdiction in the country where a person working full time earning the prevailing minimum wage can afford a two bedroom rental home. Other indices of the nation’s housing crisis have become familiar: More than 14 million households pay over half their income on housing; five million households suffer from Ôworst case’ housing needs; and as many as 3.5 million Americans, of which over one million are children, lack housing altogether.
Despite these sobering statistics, the Administration continues to glorify homeownership as the sole housing strategy for American households, ignoring the fact that the increased privatization of the national housing stock has directly contributed to the depletion of affordable housing and to an increase in homelessness. Adding injury to insult, affordable housing production initiatives, rental housing, and emergency shelter programs have been short-changed. For example, during the past year alone, we’ve witnessed the squeezing of the Section 8 program, a $19 million dollar cut to the McKinney-Vento emergency assistance grants, and resistance to a national housing production program. Such budget cuts hardly represent appropriate tools or effective strategies to create a nation of homeowners, unless social Darwinism is the model. If purchasing a home were only as easy as the HUD Secretary suggests, and a “steady salary, good credit, and few long term debts” were trivial matters, than perhaps the numbers produced in NLIHC’s annual report might not be as ominous. Sadly, while Out of Reach tells us that the housing affordability gap is widening, the HUD Secretary seems to be telling us that the Administration is “out of touch.”
On December 14th the US Conference of Mayors released its annual “Hunger and Homelessness Survey: A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities.” The 2004 report indicates that homelessness is once again increasing across the United States, and a full one-third of families seeking emergency shelter are being turned away for lack of space. Moreover, the report shows that 56% of families seeking emergency assistance have to break up the family in order to access shelter. But as alarming as the Mayors study is, it only tells part of the story. The Hunger and Homelessness Survey provides important information about the challenges cities face in responding to the lack of affordable housing in their communities, raises awareness of these serious problems in the broader political community, and has been used successfully by advocates to seek increased funding to help cities address hunger and homelessness. However, the survey includes little data on hunger and homelessness among urban children and youth.
Over the past decade, homelessness among families has steadily increased. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has noted this trend in its report, detailing an alarming increase in the number of families turned away from shelters. While that data is significant, it does not capture the true extent of family homelessness in urban areas. Families are less likely than other homeless persons to pursue and access shelters. The U.S. Department of Education reports that of children and youth identified as homeless by school districts, only 35% were living in shelters. Instead, many families stay temporarily with relatives or friends or find other temporary accommodations. These “doubled-up” families are not considered homeless by HUD, which excludes them from data collection and services. As a result, families’ finding temporary shelter, combined with HUD’s unrealistically narrow definition of homelessness, makes homeless families largely invisible. Public agencies reporting on homelessness do not count or acknowledge the vast numbers of children, youth and families who are experiencing homelessness, but who are not on the streets or in shelters. This invisibility in turn undermines efforts to obtain increased federal funding to serve families. In a cruel irony, the lack of services leads to even fewer services. The good news is that in 2005 we’re bound to see a number of initiatives from mayors, federal lawmakers, and national advocacy organizations, including NPACH, seeking policy changes to ensure that all federal departments and funding sources adopt a common definition of homelessness based on that which is currently used by the United States Department of Education.
Here are a few additional federal policy items to be on the look out for in 2005: The Section 8 program remains in a fragile state and PHAs and voucher holders will be on high alert as the President has promised to deliver a “tough budget” in February. Last year the President proposed what amounted to a $1.6 billion cut, and were it not for the hard work of national, state and local advocates, more than 250,000 voucher holders could have lost their housing subsidy. The fight to save Section 8 will undoubtedly shape up to be another protracted and difficult fight this year.
We’ll almost certainly continue to hear about “10 year plans” and the Administration’s commitment to “end chronic homelessness” even as the very Federal programs designed to address critical housing needs and homelessness continue to face cuts. Less certain is whether we’ll hear much, if anything, about the housing crisis facing families, children, youth, day laborers, immigrants or anyone who escapes the narrow focus of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
More promising, both National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) legislation and the Bringing America Home Act (BAHA) are likely to be re-introduced in the 109th Congress. NHTF and BAHA each finished the 108th Congress with some significant momentum. The U.S. House version of the trust fund bill, HR 1102, finished the session with 214 co-sponsors, and the discharge petition effort (see November Ô04 STREET SHEET) to carry the bill to the floor produced 180 signatures. The NHTF campaign itself continues to build on a large base of support, currently enjoying over 5,300 national, state, and local endorsements. For its part, BAHA finished with 57 co-sponsors, and efforts to ultimately enact the legislation received a boost when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors issued a resolution in November urging passage of the Act.
National Policy and Advocacy
Council on Homelessness