wroking poor: rental shortage for 1 in 7 US renters (12.5

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 4 May 1998 20:53:38 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  Philadelphia Inquirer - May 1, 1998


     Affordable units are growing scarcer.
     Subsidies have been cut.
     It's a problem for 5.3 million families.

By Tony Pugh

WASHINGTON -- A shortage of affordable rental units and a freeze in federal
housing subsidies have created a quiet crisis for working poor families
across the country.

Taking low-paying jobs to stay off welfare, those struggling families have
become the nation's fastest-growing segment of the rental housing market.
But spending for federal housing assistance hasn't increased since 1995 and
the bulk of units for lease in central cities and suburbs are priced for
higher-income renters.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates
that 5.3 million families, about 14 percent of all U.S. renters, pay half
or more of their income to keep a roof over their heads when 30 percent is
considered the norm.

And the problem stretches beyond the inner cities where nearly half of the
nation's poor reside. More than one-third, or 1.8 million, of the 5.3
million families were suburban households. That's an increase of 146,000,
or 9 percent, from 1991.

The situation leaves those families' budgets vulnerable to even minor
unexpected expenses and poses a formidable obstacle to the goal of welfare
reform -- making families self-sufficient.

"I have literally had parents say that because they paid for a field trip
or had to get diapers or bought some shoes that their kids wanted, that
they didn't have enough money for rent. And these are not people on welfare
or drug addicts. These are working families," said Caty Royce, director of
the Community Stabilization Project, a low-income-tenant advocacy group in
St. Paul, Minn.

Charting data from 1991 to 1995, HUD's bi-annual housing report to Congress
found that despite decreases in unemployment and the poverty rate between
1993 and 1995, the number of very-low-income renters with serious housing
needs remained at 12.5 million people, including 4.5 million children. HUD
defines families with serious housing needs as those making less than 50
percent of an area's median income and paying half or more of their income
for rent.

In part, the situation reflects how a proliferation of low-wage jobs has
not allowed those job-holders to keep pace with rising housing costs. The
study found that the number of families with at least one full-time worker
and having serious housing needs jumped by 265,000, or 24 percent, to 1.4
million between 1991 and 1995.

According to the Pennsylvania Low-Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy
group in Glenside, state residents earning the minimum wage must work 86
hours a week to be able to afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. "Even
then, there is nothing to help workers with traveling to work, child care,
health care or work clothes," according to Dan Hoffman, the coalition's
policy director. "Clearly, America's safety net has holes and welfare won't
pay the rent."

Exacerbating the problem is the loss between 1993 and 1995 of 900,000
rental units that were affordable for people with serious housing needs, a
9 percent reduction. The shrinking affordable-housing stock stems in part
from an increase in rents as the economy booms and most Americans earn more
money, said HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo.

But part of the problem is the demolition of older, low-income rental
properties to make way for units that cater to more affluent buyers and

In St. Paul, Minn., Rigoberto Murcia-Andrade and his wife, Alba, earn low
wages working as a mail sorter and produce handler, respectively. Along
with their 2-year-old son, Diego, the couple share their two-bedroom
apartment with a relative who also works as a mail sorter.

Together, the three workers earn about $1,000 a month and pay $480 in rent.
Their eight-building, 136-unit complex soon will be torn down to make room
for 30 townhouses priced from $110,000 to $140,000. The family has been
told to find a new home by the end of the month, but a comparable apartment
requires a $1,200 security deposit and has a monthly rent far beyond the
family's means.

Nationally, more than 1 million eligible people are on waiting lists for
rental units in federal
housing developments or for the Section 8 program, in which families pay 30
percent of their income for rent and the government picks up the rest. The
wait can take years; some eligible low-income renters have waited more than
a decade for slots to open. HUD said more than 20,000 households in
Philadelphia are on waiting lists for the department's housing assistance.

Between 1977 and 1995, the number of federally subsidized apartments more
than doubled from about 2.2 million to more than 5 million. But the number
hasn't increased since then.

The Clinton administration requested $25.8 billion for HUD housing programs
for fiscal 1999, a $1.8 billion increase over last year. Of that, $585
million would go for an additional 103,000 Section 8 vouchers. The
administration also wants $135 million more for homeless grants and for
expanding the low-income housing tax credit, which could create up to
180,000 units of new affordable rental housing.

The budget request may have a tough time in Congress, where many lawmakers
are skeptical of HUD because of past management, fraud and waste problems.

[Inquirer staff writer Alan J. Heavens contributed to this article.]


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