I am a housing policy analyst and advocate. I read legislation, attend lots of meetings, and try to convince people to do things. One of the hardest days of my career came three years ago, when I’d actually taken the morning off to help a friend. I grew up around a lot of poverty, moved seven times because of it by the time I was in middle school. But, I was a kid and largely unaware of any basic needs my family struggled to meet. I learned a lot the morning I’d taken off to help Kim.
The illegal apartment Kim rented flooded one night, the inspector happened by the next day on a fluke, her apartment was condemned, and she and her two kids summarily evicted. Her landlord had another property with a room for rent and she took it, even though it meant her 5th grade daughter would have to move schools. The room was awful – in a dark basement that shared a kitchen sink, a small fridge, and a bathroom with strangers who lived in the other two basement bedrooms.
Worried about not having any paperwork – no identification, no lease (the landlord was clear: he’d provide no proof she lived in this room at this address), no birth certificates, Kim asked me to go with them to register her daughter at the new school. Within 30 minutes of arriving at the school, Kim had to choose: state that her 5th grader was technically homeless and thus absolved of getting documents she knew she could never get her hands on for school registration, or leave to start on what she knew would be a fruitless search to get a lease, utility bills, a birth certificate.
Kim sat at the table, re-reading the box she’d need to check to declare her own child homeless. She froze. She could not do it. She was doing the best she could, had managed to find a place for three pillows, and hated herself for having to declare her child homeless because they lacked any documents, had just been evicted, and found housing in a deplorable spot, even though she hoped it was very temporary. Kim’s face, emotionally beaten down and depleted, was the face of injustice and poverty and zero options. Kim checked the box.
There is an acute and growing shortage of housing in the United States that is affordable to the poorest households. Kim had run out of options for her family, like so many others do. There is an epidemic of extremely poor families that spend more than 50, 60, 70% of their incomes on housing costs. These families sacrifice food and medicine and heat and birthday presents to stay housed, often in the worst apartments, while navigating long bus routes for groceries and laundromats and doctors.
The number of homeless students in the United States has doubled since before the recession, to 1.36 million students in the 2013-14 school year, an 8% increase compared to just the 2012-13 school year. Meanwhile, the federal housing safety net is effectively unhelpful unless you are lucky enough to already receive HUD rental assistance. Only one in four eligible households receive assistance, because it’s limited by the amount of funds Congress provides each year. And, year after year, Congress provides insufficient funds for housing assistance.
Most housing authorities have years long, or often decades long, waiting lists for rental assistance vouchers and public housing. Budget caps Congress passed in 2011 resulted in an overall decrease in families getting housing assistance by 2013. There are still fewer HUD-assisted households today than there were before 2011. Meanwhile, rents are rising and incomes for the poorest people are stagnant at best.
If Congress keeps the spending caps for the next year, we’ll once again see fewer families assisted compared to this year. The Senate’s housing spending bill, which complies with these spending caps, does not provide enough money to renew 50,000 rental assistance vouchers that are currently in use by the nation’s poorest families. This should be reason enough for Congress to raise these caps and get their priorities straight.
Vital programs like rental assistance vouchers and public housing keep families stably housed for as long as they need the help. The stability simple housing assistance brings to every facet of each family member’s life cannot be over-celebrated. Physical and mental health, education, and income all improve with rental assistance.
Critically, housing assistance also lifts people out of poverty – something it seems like this nation agreed long ago was a good idea. By bridging the gap between what families can afford for rent and what reasonable rents actually are, housing subsidies provide the boost families need to help them participate in their local economies.
If Kim had a rental assistance voucher she might have had some choice in where she lived, might have had the opportunity not to move her 5th grader to another school district, and might not have moved a couple more times and then out of the area altogether since then.
We can do better, America. The first step is keeping the housing assistance we already have, which means getting rid of the spending caps. Somethings have to change, for all the Kim’s out there.