[Hpn] Housing in crisis mode for millions

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Mon, 18 Jun 2001 14:22:46 -0700

Seattle Times
Sunday, June 17, 2001, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Housing in crisis mode for millions

By Elizabeth Rhodes
Seattle Times staff reporter

SALT LAKE CITY - In making the case that America's housing crisis isn't
abating, housing advocate Sheila Crowley delivered a salient fact. The money
to help millions of moderate- to low-income Americans become owners - or
even renters - is there.

Indeed, the U.S. will provide roughly $120 billion in federal housing
assistance this year, up from roughly $95 billion in 1990.

But more than two-thirds of it will benefit those who already own homes,
coming, as it does, in the form of a tax deduction for mortgage interest.

That's a big change from the late 1970s, when 50 percent or more of federal
housing spending actually went toward providing housing, Crowley said.

Additionally, from 1990 through 2000, the amount spent by the federal
government on various other housing programs has increased only modestly,
and some years not at all.

"Over the past 25 years, you can make the case that if we'd maintained the
level of federal funding, we never would have had the level of housing
crisis we have," Crowley told those attending the National Association of
Real Estate Editors annual meeting here recently.

A former social worker, she is president of the Washington D.C.-based
National Low Income Housing Coalition. Its mission is "to end the housing
crisis. We think that's very doable and within the knowledge and ingenuity
of Americans to do that," she said.

So why hasn't it happened? "It's a lack of public will and political

Crowley talked of teachers and firefighters who can't afford to live near
their work. 

One California community's solution was to house its firefighters in a
dormitory three days a week, giving them the other four off so they could
return to their families living elsewhere.

She talked of people who have no economic choice but to live in substandard
housing, of those for whom the burdensome costs of basic needs - housing,
food, health care - leave them constantly making unpleasant compromises.

And she provided numbers to back her case up.

About two-thirds of America's 103 million households are homeowners, with
the minority ownership significantly below that of whites.

Crowley estimates that a quarter of all homeowners are stretched by high
housing expenses. 

As for the millions of renters, "half have housing problems; one quarter of
those have a high-cost burden," Crowley said. She defines that as paying
more than 50 percent of their income for shelter.

In total, Crowley estimates 13 million households have severe
housing-related problems - and that doesn't count the roughly 1 million
homeless individuals for whom there is no housing.

By contrast, "In 1970 we had a surplus of housing for the very low income,"
she said. 

So what changed? 

Crowley cited three factors.

The first is "gentrification," a nationwide phenomenon that saw aging,
usually inner-city neighborhoods suddenly become desirable.

Affluent young homeowners moved in and fixed up houses, which was good for
the neighborhood but hard on the often low-income residents who were

The second factor, she said, has been government actions that have reduced
the amount of Section 8 subsidized-housing assistance available to
low-income renters.

The final factor she termed "federal disinvestment in housing. This is the

And it's the most acute problem for those who get very little government
help - the group earning 30 percent or less of area median income. (In
greater Seattle that means about $22,000 annually or less.)

Believing that the situation is fixable, Crowley offered her prescription.
But it didn't start with revising the mortgage-interest deduction, even
though "we could end homelessness tomorrow if we just cut the tax deduction
on mortgages over $300,000."

However, "just like Social Security, this is untouchable," she conceded.

"It's something people believe is their birthright."

Thus her real solution begins with increasing wages through a minimum-wage
earned-income tax credit.

She also supports an increase in the number of Section 8 vouchers, which
would result in more families living in market-rate housing. (Private
landlords who accept Section 8 receive part of the rent from this federal
program and the remainder from the tenants.)

Also, "we need to preserve the existing housing stock we have now," she

"We don't want to demolish reasonable-use housing."

The final piece of the solution is a legislative proposal for a
national-housing trust fund, which is currently being promoted by her

This federal fund would provide revenue to build, preserve or rehabilitate
housing that would be affordable to those with a low income. If these goals
were met, the result could be 1.5 million additional housing units by 2010,
she estimated. 

Crowley expects bills to create this trust fund will soon be introduced in
the House and Senate.

Elizabeth Rhodes can be reached at 206-464-2306 or by e-mail at

Copyright  2001 The Seattle Times Company

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