From the vantage point of the White House, the need for fair and affordable housing looks very different than it does at street level. As the Trump administration continues to pull back federal support, the burden of combatting the short- and long-term challenges of an affordable housing crisis falls more heavily on the shoulders of families, local governments, and nonprofit organizations.
The shortage of affordable housing and its concentration in isolated, run-down, and under-served neighborhoods is evident in many parts of the country. A recent story in the Daily Tribune News focused on Bartow County, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb. Jessica Mitcham, executive director of the Good Neighbor Homeless Shelter in Cartersville, told the Tribune News that although—and, indeed, largely because—the overall economy has improved since the depths of the Great Recession, high rent levels are making affordable housing increasingly difficult.
Although her guests have saved up plenty of money to afford a 12-month lease, they are simply unable to locate any housing. “There is an extreme scarcity, and it seems heartbreaking that a guest could come here who is homeless and unemployed, get a job, save money for weeks and not be able to find anywhere to take their hard-earned money and live.”
Bartow Collaborative Inc. Executive Director Doug Belisle has also observed in his work with local families that “They struggle to find something that fits inside that range of between $700–$900 a month. And unfortunately, there’s a shortage of that kind of housing in our community, and in communities everywhere. As a result, he’s seeing many families struggling to find affordable housing end up at extended-stay hotels—“which, generally, are not the safest places for a family to stay.”
Higher rents require prospective renters to earn higher salaries and have greater savings to fund rent and security deposits. In a job market that has seen little increase in earnings for low-wage workers, this makes finding a place to live that much more difficult. When good housing cannot be found, the alternatives push families into concentrated, high-poverty neighborhoods. The local housing authority executive director, Rhonda Bohannon, said residents were left “living in dilapidated housing with very, very poor landlords and their housing situation is not decent, safe or sanitary.”
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Those who cannot find homes at all are left to find housing on a nightly or weekly basis. According to Mitcham, “They’re trapped in a hotel or motel…it’s taking their weekly paycheck every single week.”
In the face of all this, US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson issued a statement last week explaining why he was in the process of rescinding the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule enacted during the Obama administration. Carson said the AFFH “often dictated unworkable requirements…suffocating investment in some of our most distressed neighborhoods. We do not have to abandon communities in need. Instead, we believe we can craft a new, fairer rule that creates choices for quality housing across all communities”
The rules now under threat, according to NPR, “required communities and local governments receiving federal funding to submit fair housing assessments [as] a way for HUD to ensure recipients were following the law and actively working to eradicate historical discrimination and segregation practices in housing. The changes encompassed in the rule were recommended by the Government Accountability Office and by HUD itself.”
Carson’s position is that federal rules make it harder to develop new affordable housing and have been ineffective in combatting the reality of discriminatory and segregated housing patterns. To buttress this conclusion, HUD officials cite a 2015 study that ostensibly supports a rewrite. TruthOut reports that “HUD claimed the landmark study ‘indicates that the positive outcomes of policies focused on deconcentrating poverty are likely limited to certain age and demographic groups.’” However, one of the study’s authors, Lawrence Katz, says HUD is misreading the data: “Overall, the research shows that deconcentrating poverty is likely to greatly improve the health and well-being of low-income families and to have long-run economic and educational benefits for the children of low-income families.”
It’s clear on the streets that more help is needed, and that this is no time for the federal government to pull back. For thousands of people in Georgia and many more across the nation, the daily struggle to find and keep affordable, quality housing remains.—Martin Levine