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Homeless Face Unprecedented, Overwhelming Housing Shortage

Written by on Wednesday, 19 September 2012 7:00 pm

While the for-sale housing market sweats low inventories that threaten to prolong the housing recovery, low-income households face a far more devastating shortage of housing and that threatens millions of individuals with prolonged homelessness.

There are only 5.4 million housing units that rent for 30 percent of the monthly income ($458 a month) for a family of three at the Federal poverty line of $18,310. There are more than twice as many households - 10.9 million - below the poverty line in America.

That shortage of affordable housing contributed to a 20 percent increase in family homelessness from 2007 (when the economy and housing peaked) to 2010, according to "A Home By Any Other Name: Enhancing Shelters Addresses the Gap in Low-income Housing," by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH).

And it's not just the shortage. Location also factors in.

Higher-income renters live in close proximity to 42 percent (2.3 million) of these affordable rental units. Fewer than one-third of the nation's poorest families live close enough to have access to what affordable housing is available, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Why homelessness is skyrocketing

Several primary reasons account for the increasing numbers of homeless families.

• ICPH says a decline in public housing units without a corresponding rise in the number of federal vouchers through which renters pay no more than 30 percent of their income towards rent is one factor. The others plague all of the nation's housing consumers: a decrease in real earnings and an overall rise in the cost of rental housing.

• ICPH also says the growing affordable-housing gap is also caused by a decline in the number of project-based public-housing units where renters pay only 30 percent of their income on housing costs.

"However, as a result of the physical inadequacy of the units and a conversion to market-rate rentals stemming from expired contracts, the number of public-housing units declined by 700,000 from 1995 to 2009," ICPH reports.

Those earning the minimum wage cannot afford the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment from sea to shining sea and the proportion of federal dollars spent on housing programs for low-income households has reached an all-time low, falling 20 percent since 1995.

"It is clear that the number of affordable rental units has not changed in three decades as the number of people who need affordable housing has skyrocketed," says ICPH's principal policy analyst, Matthew Adams.

"This gap is unsustainable," he added.

Hardest hit areas

It's as bad as it gets in Los Angeles County, CA where residents face the nation's largest gap between the need for and availability of subsidized housing - 21,027 Section 8 vouchers, 179,651 people on the waiting list; and 2,962 public housing vouchers with 121,393 people on the waiting list.

In New York City where the median monthly rent is $1,129, the median rent would require a family of three living at the poverty line to pay 74 percent of its income on housing. In New York City in 2011, there were 123,499 households on the Section 8 voucher waiting list and 163,965 on the waiting list for public housing.

Sounding the call for working with what the nation has, ICPH suggests enhancing existing shelters and transitional housing to transform them into "work plus housing."

With more than 1.6 million people living in homeless shelters in 2010, there is a captive audience for more supportive housing that comes with increased job training, education and independent-living and life skills, that embody work plus housing theory.

Originally considered a temporary response beginning three decades ago, family shelters sprung up as a short-term solution that now needs a more visionary approach.

"What we know, given the current social and political environment, is that many of America’s poorest families will at some point call a shelter their home," the report says.

But that can be a positive experience.

"Shelters should be seen as tools, not as roadblocks, for these families working to restore their independence," said Ralph da Costa Nunez, ICPH president.

And a sobering lesson for those now moaning about the housing shortage in the for-sale market.

Count your blessings.

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  About the author, Broderick Perkins

Individual news stories are based upon the opinions of the writer and does not reflect the opinion of Realty Times.