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Affordable housing falls short of need

Our government keeps an impressive number of records and statistics. It knows a lot about each one of us. With the Total Information Awareness legislation just enacted, every last citizen will be listed and classified in an all-knowing computer. Yet an important datum about the health of our society and our common pursuit of happiness is missing. We do not know how many men, women and children will not have a roof over their heads tonight. We do know they will be preponderantly African-Americans, Hispanics and single-mother families.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness puts the number nationwide at a million. In the course of a year, between one and a quarter and two million people experience homelessness. Twelve million have been homeless at some time in their lives.

Most of us seldom see these people, because the pervasive segregation in this country by race, ethnicity and income shuts them out as effectively as our gated communities shut us in.

Availability of shelters falls far short of needs. Shelters are packed far beyond capacity, and still more than a quarter of the people who knock at their doors are turned away each night. New York, in addition to 37,000 in shelters, has a record number sleeping on sidewalks, on subway platforms and cathedral steps. It is talking about putting some of the surplus on cruise ships, but not for five-day cruises to the Bahamas.

The situation continues to deteriorate. A decade ago, a family stayed on average five months in a shelter before moving to affordable housing. Today the average stay is 12 months. Economists regard about 20 percent of income as the amount a family should pay for housing. In fact, 12 million households pay more than half their income, and another 16 million pay between 30 and 50 percent.

Affordable housing is indeed the problem. According to a 1996 report of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, in no state of the union does a full-time minimum wage job cover the costs of a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. With the unrelenting growth of the cost of living, it would today take nearly two minimum wages to reach the federal poverty level for a family of four.

Congress has attempted to deal with the issue of affordable living more than once. The Housing Act of 1949 set a national goal of “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.” After two major commissions in the 1960s had established that little progress had been made toward that goal, and that six million families were living in substandard housing, Congress in 1968 authorized the construction or rehabilitation of 600,000 units of low-income housing a year for 10 years.

As the Millennial Housing Commission, appointed by Congress two years ago, has now reported, that goal was never reached. Its report has, however, stimulated a new effort, a bill now before Congress, the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund, sponsored in the Senate by John Kerry, D-Mass., and in the House by Barbara Lee, D-Calif., John McHugh, R-N.Y., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

The measure, which has 28 cosponsors in the Senate and 196 in the House, would create a permanent source of funding over the next decade for the construction, rehabilitation and maintenance of a million and a half rental units for the lowest income households.

The House leadership does not want a vote on this bill. It would be embarrassing for members to go on the public record as opposed to transferring a few million dollars from the bloated Pentagon budget to citizens who shudder on sidewalks on these freezing winter nights. Let us embarrass them in another way. Call your senators and House member and urge them to give this proposal the priority it deserves.

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 2002