Trouble on the home front

As McMansions crowd affordable housing out of the free market, how can a just society build a decent home for all?

"God, you are able to transform lives," the Rev. Zaki L. Zaki tells the faithful gathered for this Holy Saturday ecumenical service. "We believe you can transform communities." Zaki, pastor of the East Side United Methodist Church in South Chicago, raises his arms as if to embrace the audience's joyful shouts of "Amen" and "Hallelujah."

"We pray, God, that you may use us as the agents of your will. We pray, God, for the transformation of this community," he calls out, his arms even higher now. "We can see it!" he finishes to thunderous applause.

This Easter celebration has brought together most of the Protestant and Catholic churches in this economically diminished Chicago neighborhood, once home to multitudes of steelworkers and their families, pockmarked now with vacant lots where homes once stood and shuttered and abandoned industrial sites along the Lake Michigan and Calumet River waterfront. The service was organized by Claretian Associates (CA), a not-for-profit housing development agency that is essentially this small community's only low-income housing provider.

Claretian Associates has already constructed a 53-unit senior housing facility and 26 single-family homes in South Chicago. This year it's building 19 more single-family homes along with a 29-unit rental complex and assisted-living facility. All of these initiatives are aimed at revitalizing South Chicago by offering affordable housing alternatives to the area's residents.

But building homes is just part of the job for Claretian Associates, says its executive director, Angela Vick. In this troubled and challenged 5-by-7-block area centered around Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, CA must also build community, putting together ecumenical services like this one, standing by their clients after their homes are purchased, turning vacant lots into parks, and ensuring that other vital city services are brought into the neighborhood. Somewhere among all that effort, the group is also still in the business of just building houses.

Last year they built a beautiful home for the Diaz family. Diego Diaz and his wife, Tonantzin Gamboa, had endured a frustrating 3-year search for a house they could afford before coming to CA. Tired of living in cramped apartments, "wasting money and making someone else rich," needing more space for a growing family, and simply wanting a place they could call their own, the couple first looked in the Pilsen neighborhood on Chicago's near Southwest Side where they both grew up. But the fast-rising housing costs in what had become a "desirable neighborhood" according to realtors was an unpleasant surprise.

In this contemporary version of "There goes the neighborhood," young, often double-income professionals were moving into Pilsen and bidding up home values. "Early on [in my career], I couldn't afford anything really," Diaz says. "Then I started to make a little more money, but it didn't matter." Housing prices were skyrocketing way ahead of his paycheck.

The couple heard about Claretian Associates from a family member and learned more about its homeowners' assistance program at a housing fair. "They showed us the possibilities," Diaz remembers. Aided by government subsidies and guided through the home-buying process by CA, Diaz and his family finally bought their own home last year, complete with three bedrooms and a backyard for 3-year-old Emiliano to play in.

A human rights issue "It may sound radical to some people," she says, but Kathy Kelleher, a CA project manager, has come to believe decent housing is a basic human right, part of the package of rights that a truly just society assures all of its members.

"As Catholics, we are called to recognize the inherent dignity of each individual," says Kelleher. Why not look at housing and health care as human rights inextricably bound to a Catholic appreciation of human dignity?

A transformation of how housing is understood along the lines Kelleher suggests could not come at a more critical time. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is not a single metropolitan area in the nation where the prevailing minimum wage can support a two-bedroom rental, a unit considered large enough for a four-member family.

In Illinois, a low-income household (earning $19,637—30 percent of the area median income of $65,457) can afford monthly rent of no more than $491, while Chicago's fair-market rent for a two-bedroom unit ranges above $800. A minimum-wage earner (earning $6.50 per hour) would have to put in 95 hours per week in order to afford a market rate, two-bedroom unit. Comparable figures can be generated for metropolitan areas around the country.

For fully one third of the nation's working and low-income families, securing affordable housing has become a grave challenge. According to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS), in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, there were 13.7 million "moderately to severely burdened households" (with incomes between $10,712 and $36,136)—15 percent of all Americans—struggling to keep up with housing costs in city, suburban, and rural communities across the United States.

But it is not just the working poor who struggle with housing costs. Included in that worrisome 15 percent forced into substandard housing conditions are working families earning as much as 120 percent of the median income of the counties where they live. With wages and salaries for most Americans entering a third decade of stagnation at the same time housing costs each year far exceed cost-of-living increases, police officers, firefighters, teachers, and others are finding it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing in the communities where they work. Jaw-dropping housing costs have long been a fact of economic life on America's coasts in cities like San Francisco, New York, and Boston, but the suffering now is widespread, according to many housing experts.

"Ninety-five million people in this country have some kind of housing problem," says Sister Lillian Murphy, R.S.M., president and CEO of Mercy Housing, one of the nation's largest not-for-profit housing providers. "That is, they're paying more than 30 percent of their income [the long-accepted threshold of affordability], they're living in substandard housing, or they are simply homeless."

Those in greatest peril? People working for the minimum wage, the elderly, and the disabled, says Murphy.

"In about 6 million units across the country, people are paying more than 50 percent of their income on [housing expenses]," says Douglas Rice, director of Housing and Community Development for Catholic Charities USA. "The problem is when you're doing that, you're going to have extreme difficulty paying for all your other needs.

"There's no doubt there's a housing crisis that reaches into every community in the country."

A safety net full of holes While millions struggle on the open market to find rents or mortgages they can afford, the final thread in the nation's housing safety net, its public housing system, has also become more than a little frayed.

Each year thousands of federally subsidized rental units are "lost" into the open market as federally supported programs expire. It has been decades since the federal government built any large-scale public housing, and while no one is sorry to see the high-rise slums that typified public housing projects of the past fall to wrecking balls, what has been torn down has not been substantially replaced. Meanwhile, the current administrations at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the White House have shown increasing fiscal impatience with programs aimed at relocating one-time public housing residents and little intention of beefing up HUD's resources to respond to the current housing crunch.

In fact, not everyone at HUD is convinced it is fair to speak of a national crisis in housing at all. "Those people who are telling you that there's an affordable housing crisis aren't lying," says Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesperson, "but I wouldn't describe it as a nationwide problem.

"There are some tight rental markets where, yes, if you're living in Northern California, it's not an exaggeration to call it a ‘crisis.' I don't mean to minimize the problem, but what's happening in a community in California, for instance, is not the same thing happening in Scranton, Pennsylvania."

Squeezed in the middle Ironically, by at least some measures, the U.S. is experiencing a best-of-times in housing; home ownership achieved a record 68 percent in 2003—a trend propelled by historically low mortgage rates that should continue into 2005 and beyond. And new housing construction continued at a blistering pace in 2003—1.85 million more housing units were added to the nation's housing stock—while homebuilders achieved record profits. Wealth generated by rapidly appreciating home values essentially carried the U.S. economy through recent downturns, while African American and Hispanic citizens joined the ranks of American homeowners in record numbers.

But this particular tale of a few hundred American cities offers a clear worst-of-times perspective as well. Some 2.5 to 3.5 million people are homeless at some point in a given year, and nearly 2 million households endure in what Harvard's JCHS demurely describes as "severely inadequate" units—what others might just call dilapidated.

Despite the high ownership rates, millions of other Americans watched the dream of home ownership slip a little further outside their reach as incomes continued to be outpaced by fast-rising home costs. Low-income working families in particular face increasingly grim housing options: accepting lengthy, family-life-depleting commutes to suburban hinterlands where they may be able to afford a home; buying beyond their means and tempting foreclosure; or accepting unsatisfactory, sometimes unsafe conditions to rent in hot urban markets.

And while ownership may be high, the figures mask diminishing home equity rates among all economic classes as new buyers take on housing costs that are beyond their reach or accept refinancing, loans, second or third or interest-only mortgages that drain home equity. National foreclosure rates hit record highs in recent years.

"My hunch is that middle class people are maintaining their class status through credit," says Jane Walsh, the executive director of Louisville, Kentucky's Metropolitan Housing Coalition, "that debt is replacing income for the middle class. These days, you can begin the life of your loan now owing more than the house is worth.

"I think the housing concerns of the middle class are not as acute as in the low-income arena," she adds, "but the anxiety over housing runs right up the economic ladder."

And while much rhetoric and HUD policies circulate around an "ownership society" emphasis on home buying, most low-income Americans compete for shelter within a profoundly depleted affordable rental stock.

Rice of Catholic Charities USA can recount stories of new immigrants "renting beds by the hour" in New York's Chinatown and describes an urban renaissance of illegally subdivided apartments—crowding whole families into single rooms—that recalls a "teeming masses" era most may have thought the nation left behind in the last century.

"Our waiting list is what embodies this crisis to me," says Bill D'Arcey, a manager for Catholic Charities USA's residential housing division in Chicago. For every senior on a fixed income in a Catholic Charities Section 202 federally subsidized rental, another waits, perhaps in a precarious housing situation, perhaps even homeless. "It's been like that for years," says D'Arcey.

He thinks the program could easily be doubled or even tripled to meet the need in the Chicago area. Instead he fears the program will shrink. The average annual income of the seniors in the Catholic Charities rental system, most of whom get by entirely on Social Security benefits, is $10,000, meaning "they could not find a rental anywhere in Chicago that they could afford," says D'Arcey.

But seniors are not the only ones languishing on waiting lists. On average, applicants for public housing nationally can expect to linger in a housing limbo of 20 months, but for people hoping to acquire Section 8 vouchers, which allow public housing clients to rent units on the open market, the wait can be substantially longer. In Chicago the average Section 8 applicant won't receive a voucher for 84 months, or seven years. In Trenton, New Jersey it's a comparable delay of 72 months, and it's 60 months in Miami. In fact, the Section 8 wait has achieved such epic status in 56 cities that local officials no longer even bother to accept new applications.

Between the coasts "Our housing crisis is different from what's happening on the East and West coasts," says Walsh. "Our issue is not a lack of housing units; our issue is the lack of income. We started losing jobs in the '90s, and Louisville just hasn't come back. "We have the units; we just don't have folks who can afford them, and the income gap keeps getting bigger and bigger."

According to Walsh, 16,000 households—40,000 people—have been waiting in vain for their Section 8 housing vouchers in Louisville. "They wait an average of nine and half years to get a voucher.... The federal government is just not responding to the need. They want to hold their costs steady, but the costs for families do not hold steady. They keep going up and up."

Walsh notes that 30 years ago, when the minimum wage was at its real-value peak, HUD's budget was 48 percent higher in inflation-adjusted dollars than it is today. "For 30 years there's been this slow defunding of HUD, but this year has been the most aggressive," she adds, looking askance at President Bush's HUD budget request for 2006. HUD's budget may decline as much as 12 percent if Congress does not resurrect some programs the president hopes to terminate or consolidate.

Ripple effects Between 1997 and 2001, according to Harvard's JCHS, the number of lower-middle and middle-income households spending more than half their incomes on housing—significantly above the 30 percent HUD standard of affordability—surged by more than 700,000. But the crisis is at its worst among low-income earners who may pay as much as 70 percent of their income just for housing.

When shelter takes such a big bite out of household resources, the multiple crises hidden within the housing crunch reveal themselves. Basic needs go unmet; savings for educational opportunities, children's futures, and vacations fail to materialize; senior citizens getting by on Social Security forgo medicines they need but can't afford or cut dosages to stretch their prescription supplies. Working-class people among the 44 million that do not receive health insurance through work put off health coverage indefinitely. And many families simply go hungry when the money and the food run out at the end of the month.

All of these specific instances of poverty-driven deprivations arguably have their root in the lack of affordable housing, says Rice. He reports growing numbers of working families seeking emergency support at Catholic Charities offices around the country because they have been driven over the financial edge by housing costs. In recent years the U.S. Conference of Mayors has reported double-digit increases in emergency requests for food and shelter.

How well—or more to the point, how poorly—the U.S. responds to such social indicators could have serious implications and social costs in the future, says Rice. All members of low-income families suffer when a family is just one layoff or medical crisis away from eviction and homelessness. But children perhaps endure the worst of the precarious life.

Children who are poorly housed suffer "chronic health problems, developmental delays, and perform poorly in school," says Rice. All those difficulties represent personal tragedies that will result in long-term social costs. "The greatest predictor of homelessness as an adult," says Rice, "is homelessness as a child." Those future costs might be dodged, he suggests, with a judicious public investment in affordable housing today.

"I like to view housing as a kind of economic infrastructure similar to highways and roads," Rice says. "It's good for local economies to have decent, affordable housing stock," places for workers to live and families to grow. "I mean, we don't blink when we talk about spending billions to build an airport as an investment in a local economy. We should look at housing as the same kind of investment."

HUD spokesman Sullivan is quick to point out that with a budget hovering around $30 billion HUD commits substantial resources each year to its various housing and community development programs. "Certainly the case could be made that we need to spend more," he says, "but we're doing the best we can with the resources we have."

While Sullivan doesn't dispute that the federal government should continue to play an important role in addressing the housing crunch, he does believe that private market forces could better respond to the need for affordable housing given the right economic and regulatory environment. He suggests local municipalities take a hard look at how their regulatory structures might be contributing to the problem. "We're asking people [at the local level] to do a little soul searching just as we are doing at the federal level. Is there something that we are doing...that is exacerbating this problem?

"There are layers and layers of regulations often going back decades. In some communities a home can cost $100,000 [in fees and permits] before a developer even breaks ground." According to Sullivan, zoning and other regulatory controls, coupled with a healthy dose of not-in-my-backyardism often prevent private developers from taking a chance on affordable housing projects.

Meanwhile, the "budget climate" that HUD inhabits, he acknowledges, is not promising. "We've got two wars to fight and budget deficits that are troublesome," says Sullivan. "They have to be considered; they can't be ignored."

The Metropolitan Housing Coalition's Walsh bluntly charges that local communities can no longer depend on the federal government to help them out of their housing problems. "They have to be looking at local initiatives, raising local taxes on some level.

"All indications are that the federal government is determined to get out of this responsibility to provide housing," she says. "But don't give them a ‘bye' on this. These are our federal tax dollars. What they're saying is that there isn't $40 billion for housing, but there's $200 billion for the war in Iraq. There's money for war, but there's no money to make sure our children have a decent place to live. I have a moral problem with that. We have to articulate those problems, and we have to make sure we have a better solution."

Mercy Housing's Murphy estimates that as an immediate stop-gap measure the nation needs to build between 3 and 6 million affordable units. She says that can't be accomplished without a more aggressive posture from HUD. "The free market has never built housing for the poor," she argues, "that's why the federal government has to be involved."

A place to call home With the right resources, D'Arcey would go on a building binge that would clear all the city's waiting lists. Given the current political realities, he knows he has to be satisfied to hold on to what he's got. But that waiting list haunts him, especially as he contemplates the spectre of that huge baby boom generation just now on the verge of retirement. Not all of those boomers are going to retire rich and secure or otherwise able to support themselves, D'Arcey says. Who is going to find a place for them to call home? In South Chicago Diego Diaz is trying to explain why buying his own home was so important to him. What did he expect to achieve by buying a home? What has he achieved?

"Security," he says, "stability, a deep sense of ownership of both the house and the community. I hope to be more involved in the community situation now that I'm a resident."

More important to him is the lesson he hopes he is passing on to Emiliano about being responsible and taking care of his family. "I realized that I couldn't keep renting if I wanted to move forward in life," he says.

To Diaz, there is something about home ownership that has moved him through a threshold of some kind, into adulthood, into citizenship, into his rightful place. He gets downright giddy describing how he and his wife brought both of their extended families together for their first Easter celebration at the new home. It was the first time he had the opportunity to host, not just attend, a family gathering. It was the kind of experience he often imagined happening if he were ever able to become a homeowner.

"I was always looking forward to it," he says. "Did I think it was ever going to happen?" Diaz laughs softly. "Maybe . . . no," he says after a moment.

Rising out of the working class, serving in the military, working his way through college, now buying his own home, Diaz stands as something of an American archetype that crosses all classes and ethnic lines.

"I guess my family is very much a classic story," he says. "We've had some trials and some struggles, but thanks to this program now we do have a place to call our own and a home we can share with our families," he says. "And for that I am very thankful."

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