NO ROOM AT THE INN 

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates 1 million people are homeless in the United States; 12 million persons have been homeless at some point in their lives. Most of us seldom see these people, because the pervasive segregation in this country - by race, ethnicity, and income - shuts the homeless out as effectively as our gated communities shut us in.

For 50 years, Congress and government agencies have failed to meet their goals to curb homelessness and increase affordable housing. A new Congressional bill, which has 29 co-sponsors in the Senate and 200 in the House, would create a permanent source of funding over the next decade for the construction, rehabilitation, and maintenance of 1.5 million rental units for the lowest-income households. Yet in the midst of a bloated defense budget, this bill is not a sho0-in, and is jeopardized by the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq and oil, and its neglect of America's neediest citizens.

The availability of shelters falls far short of the demand. Shelters are packed far beyond capacity, and yet more than 25 percent of the people who knock at their doors are turned away each night. New York City, in addition to its 37,000 residents living in shelters, has a record number sleeping on sidewalks, subway platforms, and cathedral steps. The City is even talking about putting some of the surplus homeless on cruise ships, but - regrettably - not including five-day cruises to the Bahamas.

The situation continues to deteriorate. A decade ago, a family stayed an average of five months in a shelter before moving to affordable housing. Today the average stay is one year.

Affordable housing is indeed the problem. According to a 1996 report of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, in no state does a full-time minimum wage job cover the costs of a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. Economists figure a family should allot about 20 percent of its income for housing, when in fact, 12 million households funnel more than half their income to their rent or mortgage, and another 16 million pay between 30 and 50 percent. With the unrelenting increase in the cost of living, today it would take nearly two minimum wages to reach the federal poverty level for a family of four. In San Antonio, with the minimum hourly wage at $5.15, a one-bedroom would cost 41 percent of a family's income, a two-bedroom, 53 percent.

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." In the 1960s, two major commissions had established that little progress had been made toward that goal, and that 6 million families were living in substandard housing. In 1968, Congress authorized the construction or rehabilitation of 600,000 units of low-income housing a year for a decade.

Yet that goal was never reached, according to a report by the Millennial Housing Commission, which was appointed by Congress two years ago. The dismal report has, however, stimulated a new effort: A bill now before Congress, the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund, was sponsored in the Senate by John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), and in the House by Barbara Lee (D-California), John McHugh (R-New York), and Bernie Sanders (Independent-Vermont).

The House leadership does not want a vote on this Bill, but it would be embarrassing for members to go on the 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 representatives and urge them to give this proposal the priority it deserves.

SAN ANTONIO'S HOUSING CRISIS

  • Affordability:
    • Fifty-one percent or 25,308 of poverty-level households in San Antonio pay more than half of their income for rent.
    • A full time San Antonio wage earner would have to earn $10.48 per hour to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment.
    • Forty-one percent of San Antonio renter households are unable to afford the rent for a typical two-bedroom apartment. Housing Shortages:
    • There are 8,000 more low-income renter households in San Antonio than there are low cost rental housing units.
    • Forty-six percent (17,000) of San Antonio renter households live in government subsidized housing.
    • About 5,300 San Antonio residents are homeless.
  • Substandard Housing:
    • More than 12,000 poor San Antonio renter households live in physically deficient housing, the highest ratio - 29 percent - for any major U.S. city.
    • In San Antonio 54 percent of poor homeowners live in physically deficient housing. This is the highest ratio for any major U.S. city.
    • About 6,000 poor renter households in San Antonio live in overcrowded housing or are doubled up with other families in the same house.

    Sources: US Bureau of the Census, American Housing Survey, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, National Low Income Housing Coalition, U.S. Conference of Mayors San Antonio Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy.


More by Gary Maceoin

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