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Posts Tagged ‘affordable housing’

My Mom and Dad knew each other in High School and by the time they started dating seriously the Great Depression had engulfed the world. They were engaged for about 3 years while Mom worked as a bookkeeper earning $14 a week, not today’s 40-hour week. Dad worked for a small chain of shoe stores, driving a truck and delivering inventory to a half-dozen or so small stores spread throughout Ohio. When he wasn’t gone on his deliveries he organized and shelved boxes of shoes. After they got married Dad started attending night classes to become an accountant. He earned less than Mom, $13 a week. So they lived on $27 a week, $108 a month in a rent controlled apartment in the Cedar Central Project in Cleveland, Ohio.

For some reason when I think about my parents’ first years of marriage a silly ditty repeats over and over in my head:

“My Ma gave me a nickel to buy a pickle, I didn’t buy a pickle, I bought some “chewin” gum. Chew chew chew some chewin gum I bought some chewin gum….” I can’t explain it, maybe the nickel for a pickle, but it was the Depression. In those days a loaf of good bread, Mom told me, cost maybe 15 cents, she couldn’t remember for certain but;

“A lot of folks couldn’t afford that loaf of bread.”

My parents were young, in love and happy but $108 a month to live on? Incomprehensible.

I recently met a young single mother with two children, a boy 7 and a girl four. Her husband, if that’s what he was, abandoned them. Just took off was all she would tell me. She and her kids were subsequently evicted from their apartment because she was unable to afford the rent. The three of them are currently living in a family shelter. She still works the same job she had when the guy took off. She’s a server in a well-known chain restaurant. She earns $2.50 an hour plus tips but she shares the tips with the people who bus the tables and, she flashed a sarcastic smile, the manager. She usually averages $10-12 an hour. That’s above the current minimum wage, but she is not allowed to work more than 30 hours a week, on split shifts. Something about not having to supply medical insurance benefits…maybe?

So—she works hard, takes good care of her children and earns about $1,440 a month. She doesn’t have health insurance for her or her children so when any of them are ill she sits for hours in an emergency room waiting area. She doesn’t have a car to get around so she can look for a better paying job, or to attend any kind of training that would qualify her for a better job. She does manage to pay for a cell phone. She considers it essential in case one of her kids gets sick at school or daycare. It costs her about $70 a month.

In 2013 the estimate of the full-time (40-hour work week) hourly wage that a family must earn to afford a decent apartment, at the HUD estimated Fair Market Rent while spending no more than 30% of their income on housing, was estimated to be $18.79. If this young mother earned $18.79 per hour she could afford to spend about $225 a month for rent. She’s been looking for an affordable apartment but there are long waiting lists for those that come available and she can’t really afford any of them.

Oh yes, she also has to supply food, clothing and even a very occasional treat for herself and her two children. She doesn’t have a bank account so she pays an exorbitant fee to cash her pay check at a check cashing place and frequently has to get a small loan from that same “business” against her next paycheck, at usurious rates. The folks at the homeless shelter where she and her children now live are doing their best to help her navigate all the possible programs designed to help folks in her situation, but it is a morass and she, understandably gets very frustrated and depressed.

In the face of this the legislature in my state of Washington failed to produce any new help for the working homeless this past session and by their inaction may have made the situation worse for many homeless families. Private and faith-based groups are helping as much as possible but those resources are incapable of providing more than a small fraction of what is needed. Government programs, with all citizens contributing their fair share, are the only possible way to deal with these problems.

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In my last column I described some of the major issues involved in the Homelessness Advocacy Day January 28th of this year. Perhaps the most disturbing fact I learned of is that children from homeless families suffer from increased rates of illness and poor school performance. Problems that are directly linked to the lack of a permanent home.

I wrote about the Washington State Housing Trust (HFT) and the essential work it does despite the outrageous cuts the fund has absorbed since 2007. I wrote about the state’s Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) program and how terribly underfunded it is. I discussed the essential help provided by the minimal fees assessed by the State of Washington for the recording of certain real estate transactions and that unless action is taken this fund will suffer cuts in funding.

My group of advocates from the 21st Legislative District met with the politicians representing us; Representatives Mary Helen Roberts and newly appointed Lillian Ortiz-Self and our Senator Marko Liias. Mr. Liias formerly represented us in the Washington House of Representatives and was recently appointed to fill the vacant Senate seat resulting from our long-time Senator Shin’s retirement due to illness.

During each of the separate meetings we had with these public servants we reminded them of the important work done by the HFT, HEN and the real estate recording fee fund. We emphasized the importance of these programs and the need to pass legislation limiting the number of times prospective renters must pay for “tenant screening” reports. We reminded them that there is a bill pending this year that will provide that prospective renters will only have to pay the fee once and the report generated will be available to all prospective landlords for thirty days with no additional charges.

I have great sympathy and empathy for all individuals on the street. However the vast majority of individuals who are homeless and living on the streets or “camp grounds” or overnight shelters are dealing with drug and/or alcohol and/or mental health issues. These folks require a different set of services and solutions compared to families who are, usually through no fault of their own, homeless.

Family homeless can often be traced to the primary breadwinner having health problems or losing their job. Whole intact families and very commonly single mothers or fathers are trying to cope with minimal wage jobs that cannot provide enough resource to feed, cloth and provide housing. Some families have lost their homes as victims of predatory housing lenders who put the family in housing they could not afford. The children of these families are innocent and many times suffer the most.

Private organizations, individuals and many faith-based organizations have stepped up to try to offset the loss of government funding intended to address the issue of family homelessness. The best efforts of these resources are woefully inadequate. The situation today is worse than it was a year ago and it continues to worsen. Everyone must contribute to solve this disgraceful problem in this, the wealthiest country in the world. The only way to insure that all pay their fair share in this effort is for our government to do so, even though that will, no doubt, require an increase in taxation.

I am happy to report that the progressive thinking and sympathetic public servants who represent the 21st District warmly received us and were sympathetic to our message. Mary Helen Roberts, Lillian Ortiz-Self and Marko Liias promised to do everything they could to support and grow these programs. All three deserve our thanks and support. Charlize agrees.

I hope that wherever you live you will find out what your state is doing to solve the problems homeless families face. I hope you will become an advocate for programs that address this issue.

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Charlize decided I need to get mad and motivated about something then work to change it.

FACT: A recent study published in the medical journal Pediatrics reported that 27.9% of homeless children suffered from asthma. That is three times the national average! The rate of general illness in homeless families is also significantly higher than the national average. When these folks are able to secure health care, usually in emergency rooms, the cost to society is staggering.

FACT: Homeless children are constantly on the move often having to change schools. Statistics show that each time a student changes school they lose 4-6 months of learning progress. There has been a 96% increase in student homelessness in Washington State since the Great Recession started. In the 2011-2012 school year, the last full year of data thus far compiled, the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction reported 27,320 homeless students. Since this horrific number represents only those students who admit to being homeless we know the actual numbers are higher. I presume the statistics in other states are equally sad.

FACT: The Washington State Housing Trust Fund (HTF) invests in building affordable housing for low-income families. The HTF is only one of many funding sources both governmental and private and it works hard to leverage these other resources to build, renovate and maintain affordable housing. Statistics show that every 1,000 housing units developed with HTF funding creates 1,220 jobs and generates $79 million in local income. Since 2007 HTF funding has decreased from about $200 million a year to about $150 million a year while the numbers of homeless families increased. Snohomish County recently abandoned its list of homeless people needing and wanting housing because there were so many folks on the list (over 6,000) there was no hope of finding homes for all of them and no way to prioritize need. How sad is that? Check on the situation in your state, please!

FACT: My State has something called the Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) program that helps people with temporary mental or physical disabilities facing extreme economic hardship. The Aged, Blind and Disabled (ABD) program provides low-income adults with permanent mental illness of permanent disabilities with a rousing $197 per month while they try to gain access to the Federal Supplemental Security Income program.

FACT: In the State of Washington the average renter pays for three or more “tenant screening” reports when trying to find new housing. The working poor and homeless, because of their situation, usually have to pay for several more of these reports before they find a willing landlord, if they are successful. These fees range from about $35-$75 for each application. How would you like to deal with that while working for minimal wage and trying to support your family?

FACT: The State of Washington collects a nominal recording fee on some real estate related documents. These fees provide a significant funding source used by the state to address homelessness projects. In fact this source provides almost half of all the state funds available for these purposes. The legislation creating this funding source includes a “sunset clause” that will reduce the fee by $10 in July of 2015 and by another $20 in July of 2017.

This past January 28th was an eye-opening day for me. Charlize did her job by staying home to guard the house while I travelled with a group to Olympia to participate in the Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day sponsored by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. The bus we hired to take us from Everett to Olympia made the journey through rush hour Seattle traffic. The trip was painless actually it was enjoyable because of all the like-minded progressives on the bus, albeit our disparate backgrounds.

A large group gathered at the United Churches building in Olympia, across the street from the Capital campus. Along with many others we checked in, received our registration packets then listened to a rousing call to action delivered by people long dedicated to finding solutions to the myriad of problems associated with homelessness. Next we were able to choose from a list of instructive seminars.

I listened to a forty minute presentation entitled Advocacy 101 then another forty minutes to a panel of religious leaders discussing the role of faith-based organizations who wanted to advocate for affordable housing and working to help solve the homeless problem.

Starting at 11:30 in the morning and going to 3:30 in the afternoon the organizers had arranged for us to meet with the two Representatives and one Senator representing each of our legislative districts. That was another new experience for me, lobbying politicians. In my next column I will tell you about how we were received by our District 21 Representatives, Mary Helen Roberts and Lillian Ortiz-Self and our Senator Marko Liias.

The problems of individual homelessness can, in large part, be traced to drugs, alcoholism, and a wide variety of mental disorders and/or combinations thereof. This is a complex problem requiring very special and expensive programs to address and cure.

The problem of family homelessness is less complicated but just as sad. In almost all cases the family is homeless as a result of the bad economy or illness or injury or abandonment by the major the breadwinner. Most egregiously some families are homeless as a result of predatory lending practices. What is the justification for allowing that to happen? The children in these situations are completely innocent and suffer hugely. The solution to family homelessness is to provide affordable housing, job skills training, transitional support, counseling and other such services, all best, more fair and most efficiently provided by government working in conjunction with private charitable organizations and faith-based organization. The latter cannot hope to raise a fraction of the resources needed, resources that can only be provided by a program of taxation requiring that all contribute. Surely the richest country in the world can figure this out.

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