America's affordable housing crisis

January 4th, 2016

Affordable housing in short supply

In a recent interview on Houston Public Media, Shad Bogany, past chair of the Houston Association of Realtors, commented on the shortage of affordable housing in Houston, Texas, where the number of jobs in the gas and oil industry has increased, but affordable housing has not. Although many of these jobs don’t come with high-end salaries, most of the new housing construction is high-end. Bogany said that’s where the money is. However, he added that there’s another factor at work. He explained that when builders agree to construct affordable apartment complexes in exchange for tax credits, they often run into opposition from local residents who say, “Not in my backyard.”

Many people in the United States spend a significant portion of their income on housing, which leaves less for other essentials such as food and transportation. According to a September 2015 research report by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and Enterprise Community Partners, 11.8 million households spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent, and that number is expected to increase to 13.1 million by 2025. By the federal government’s definition, housing is affordable if it costs less than 30 percent of a family’s income.

The Harvard University report also states that according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the “need for affordable housing is already overwhelming the capacity of federal, state and local governments to supply assistance. At last measure, 11.2 million extremely low-income households competed for 7.3 million homes affordable to them — a 3.9 million home shortfall, and just over a quarter of eligible very low-income households received rental assistance, leaving 7.7 million unassisted very low-income renters with worst case housing needs in 2013.” (By HUD’s definition, low-income limits are set at 80 percent of the median income for a given area, and very low-income limits are set at 50 percent of the median income. Income limits vary from area to area.)

HUD housing

Among the options available for low-income households seeking affordable housing, a major one is HUD-assisted housing. HUD provides a number of affordable housing options. Its public housing program provides rental housing for eligible low-income families, the elderly and persons with disabilities. Public housing is available in a variety of sizes and types, from single-family houses to high-rise apartments for elderly families. There are approximately 1.2 million households living in public-housing units in the United States. HUD also offers privately owned subsidized housing by helping apartment owners offer reduced rents to low-income tenants, and HUD offers a voucher program (Section 8 housing) through which tenants find their own place and use a voucher to pay for all or part of the rent.

Among HUD’s grant programs to increase the stock of affordable housing for low-income households is the HOME Investments Partnerships Program (HOME), which provides grants to states and local governments for funding a range of projects such as building, buying and/or rehabilitating housing for rent or homeownership and providing direct rental assistance to low-income families. Another HUD program is the Self-Help Home Ownership Opportunity Program (SHOP), which provides funds for nonprofit organizations to purchase home sites for low-income families and to develop or improve the infrastructure for sweat equity and volunteer-based homeownership programs.

Habitat for Humanity

Another option for affordable homes is Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit, Christian housing ministry in which many congregations are involved. Based on the belief that “every person should have a decent, safe and affordable place to live,” Habitat builds, renovates, and repairs houses nationally and internationally by using volunteer labor and donations. It also advocates for public policies that “increase access to decent, affordable housing around the world.”

Habitat doesn’t give houses away. It sells the houses that it builds and renovates to partner families who invest hundreds of hours of their own labor (“sweat equity”) as they work with volunteers and other Habitat homeowners. These partner families purchase the houses through affordable monthly mortgage payments. Families seeking homes apply to their local Habitat organization, which chooses homeowners on the basis of level of need, willingness to be partners in the program, and ability to repay the loan. The process is nondiscriminatory in regard to race and religion.

Habitat also works in other ways to create affordable houses. It renovates existing buildings, especially in urban areas, and it helps people repair and make improvements on their own homes. Its disaster-response program works with local communities to provide housing after natural disasters. Through its partnerships and advocacy work, Habitat also helps to raise awareness about housing needs around the world.

Community land trusts

Community land trusts are one way for homes in a specific area to remain affordable over a long period of time. These trusts make it possible for local nonprofits to acquire parcels of land that they pledge to use for the benefit of the neighborhood. Among those benefits is affordable housing. The nonprofit builds a house on the land and sells it to someone who needs it. However, the nonprofit retains ownership of the land itself and leases it to the homeowner for a specified time period, such as 99 years.

This model is beneficial in two ways. First, it keeps the land in the community’s possession, thus ensuring that it won’t be sold to developers. In addition, the buyers can enjoy home ownership and earn equity on the house. The home will always be affordable. Homeowners have a lease with the nonprofit that sets a fixed rate for the house’s appreciation so that the price will be kept down for the next buyer.

What you and your church can do

How can the church support those who are seeking affordable housing? A starting place is to do research on the availability of affordable housing in your area. Are there affordable, adequate rental units available? Are developers building affordable homes?

Another way is to become involved with your local Habitat for Humanity affiliate. Your donations will help it build and repair homes. You can offer your skills and time to work on building and repairing homes or to help in your local Habitat ReStore, which sells new and used furniture, appliances, home accessories, building materials, and other items at a fraction of the retail price.

Still another way to support those who need affordable housing is to partner with other organizations to build it. For example, Ronald United Methodist Church in Shoreline, Washington, has partnered with a housing developer and a community service organization to create housing units for low-income households .

A fourth way is to advocate for affordable housing. Call or email your state senator and representative and tell them how important affordable housing is. Encourage them to increase or keep at the same level monies for your state’s housing authority, which helps provide affordable rental and homeownership opportunities for citizens of your state. Research and learn where your city and county put their federal housing monies from HUD. Call or email your U.S. senators and representative to tell them how important affordable housing is, and ask them to do all they can to ensure that your state gets all the monies it can for housing (HUD allocations). The Habitat for Humanity website provides information about some advocacy opportunities.

Another way to support those who need affordable housing is to become involved in regional planning to ensure its availability. Who is responsible for this planning, and how is it done? How can we learn more about the process?

For faith communities, a foundational reason to support affordable housing in our communities is love for neighbor, which underlies the conviction that all people should be able to afford a safe and decent place to live. By being advocates for affordable housing and by helping to build affordable housing, we put our faith into action.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus