National Housing Crisis

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Residents of the Chicago Housing Authority are not alone in their efforts to find housing. Recent reports by housing advocacy groups and news outlets across the United States show there is a severe shortage of housing for working and non-working, low-to-moderate-income people, including those with disabilities and HIV/AIDS. The reports find bad news for all of those who are affected by the nation’s housing crisis. But many of the groups also offer strategies that can help house Chicagoans and others who need a place to live.

Recent Housing Reports
There is a major shortage of affordable housing nationwide, according to the “Report on the Loss of Subsidized Housing in the U.S.” by the National Alliance of HUD Tenants and ENPHRONT (National Public Housing Tenants Organization) that was released in early October.

The report finds that 1.3 million low-income families live in 14,000 different public housing properties located throughout the U.S. In recent years, approximately 51,000 public housing units have been demolished and 41,000 families have been relocated by public housing agencies nationwide. Only 13,869 new public housing units were built in the same time period.

The report from the National Alliance of HUD Tenants and ENPHRONT finds that a total of 199,764 affordable housing units subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) were lost nationwide between 1998 and August 2001. As of August 2001, 86,402 affordable housing units were lost because landlords opted out of the Section 8 housing voucher program. And 113,362 units were lost to HUD mortgage prepayments – when owners with HUD mortgages paid off the remainder of their loan and were no longer required to keep the property affordable.

This figure represents a 90 percent increase over prior years, according to the report.
The report finds that 14 states have seen acceleration by more than 300 percent of the loss of privately owned and HUD-assisted housing since 1998. California has the fastest rate of loss of affordable housing in the country, according to the study. Over 42,000 affordable units have been lost there since 1998 due to HUD mortgage prepayments and landlords opting out of the housing voucher program, according to the report.

Another analysis by a group called the Center for Housing Policy, a nonprofit research subsidiary of the National Housing Conference in Washington, D.C., reveals that millions of families nationwide cannot find, purchase, rent or maintain housing even though they have full-time jobs. Using just-released 2001 federal data, the Center for Housing Policy found that 14.5 million households in the country pay more than one-half of their income for housing, an increase from 13 million families in that situation in 1999.

Reasons for Housing Shortages
RJ’s investigation discovered that faltering economies, high unemployment rates, the sale of public housing, property owners’ conversions of their housing units into condominiums, and cities selling land space to developers for businesses were some of the reasons for the national affordable housing shortages.

There is also strong competition between working and non-working low-income families, those with disabilities, people with HIV/AIDS, ex-offenders and college students all vying for the few available affordable housing units. Different circumstances are causing the housing crises in different states.

In Oregon, for example, the high unemployment rate and poor economy are contributing factors to the lack of affordable housing, according to Pegge Michal, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. “I would say that (housing) is probably one of the largest issues in the area. There were lots of people who previously had well-paying jobs that have now all of a sudden become unemployed, and they’re finding themselves as low-income folks.

And housing is a huge chunk of everybody’s bills that they pay out every month,” Michal said during a phone interview in early October. “We have a very high percentage of high tech jobs out here,” Michal explained. “Intel is one of the main employers in the area. And people just don’t have the need for upgrades in their computers that they use on a regular basis the way that we used to. That’s been just a change in the trend in society. They’re not buying computers like they used to.

So, it was bound to result in layoffs in the computer industry. Everything is impacted by some of those things.” Currently, many property owners who have 20-year contracts with HUD to provide housing for low-income people are within their rights to sell their units at market rates once their contracts expire.

For many groups, the financial incentives to sell their properties are irresistible.
That’s what happened in Boston, where the Roxbury Action Program (RAP), a 30-year-old nonprofit organization that currently provides housing for low-income people, arranged to sell their 51-unit Highland Avenue Townhouses to a team of condominium developers this November, according to Patrick Coleman, an organizer with the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants.

Tenants at the RAP property recently protested the sale to the developers. Coleman said RAP’s sale of the property was the result of previous financial troubles at the organization. “RAP is selling the property to pay HUD back over $120,000 that they skimmed over the years since 1996,” Coleman said during a phone interview in mid-October. Coleman also said that RAP, which is also managing the property, is expected to continue managing the property once it is sold.

There is a lack of affordable housing in Fort Worth, Texas, yet the public housing authority there sold a 24-acre parcel of land that housed 268 low-income families to RadioShack for $20 million in October 2001. Afterwards, it was reported that the Fort Worth Housing Authority was having a hard time finding somewhere to temporarily house the residents who had to vacate the premises by Oct. 31, 2002.

Fort Worth Housing Authority Chief Barbara Holston said during an early October 2002 phone interview that the property was sold because it was too old for upkeep and to generate money for new housing. “The property is 60 years old and functionally obsolete. That’s the first public housing that was built in Fort Worth. We wanted new housing,” Holston said. “One way to get money is to get a HOPE VI grant. Well, we haven’t gotten one. We’ve applied, so (the members of the Board of Commissioners) were looking for other ways – how do you generate income.

So, we looked at several properties and that particular property was determined to have some value in the land. So, it was decided to sell it to get money to build new housing. And so, those 268 units are being replaced in mixed-income developments.” Holston said the reason why the public housing property was sold while it was occupied with families was to also generate money to move them. “We wouldn’t have had the money to relocate them. The only money we have was the money from selling the property. That’s the only money we had,” Holston explained.

Crisis in Chicago
Housing advocates have said the Chicago Housing Authority’s massive $1.6 billion plan to redevelop its longtime poorly managed properties and turn them into mixed-income communities is a major contributing factor to the lack of affordable housing in the city.

The CHA plan is increasing homelessness in the city as well, according to homeless advocates. John Donahue, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, pointed to recent reports which show that since the CHA launched its Plan for Transformation, more families are winding up in emergency shelters.

“Recently, the emergency system reported that in the last quarter alone, 25 families from public housing ended up in shelters,” Donahue said during a Nov. 8 press conference given by the Community Renewal Society. The Rev. Calvin Morris, executive director of the Community Renewal Society, said during the conference that many of the city’s elected representatives “have ducked the issue and have been strangely silent.”

Strategies for Affordable Housing
Nationwide, small efforts are being made to curb the affordable housing shortage.

In Colorado, the Denver City Council followed Boston’s prior housing initiative and approved a mandatory affordable housing law in August 2002 that requires developers to set aside a portion of new housing for low- to moderate-income families, according to the Chicago Rehab Network, a non-profit neighborhood housing coalition. “Mayors around the country are taking steps to emulate Boston’s success,” states a Rehab Network commentary that appeared in an August 2002 edition of a local daily newspaper.

The Rehab Network and others have suggested that Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley should follow suit with Boston and Denver. In mid-July 2002, Francis Cardinal George, the Roman Catholic leader in the Chicago area, even joined in on the battlefield for affordable housing.

He suggested that Daley mandate that developers set aside 3 units of every 10 units they build for low- and moderate-income residents. But Daley expressed opposition to the idea and criticized the Cardinal. Daley instead proposed his own affordable housing initiative. That initiative calls for “keeping at least 20 percent of units affordable in any project that receives City financing, while projects using City-subsidized land would be required to keep at least 10 percent of the units affordable.

As an alternative to hard units, developers could donate to an affordability fund to help make new housing affordable to families on limited incomes,” according to a Nov. 13 press release from the mayor’s office.

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