Recession takes severe toll on low-income renters

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 1, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Rising rents, stagnant wages and high unemployment led more than 7 million U.S. households either to live in substandard dwellings or pay more than half their monthly incomes for rent in 2009, according to a federal report delivered to Congress on Tuesday.

During the height of the Great Recession, the number of low-income households with "worst-case housing needs" increased by nearly 1.2 million, or 20 percent, from 2007 to 2009. That's the largest two-year increase since the Department of Housing and Urban Development began tracking the data in 1985.

Very-low-income renters who don't receive government housing assistance are considered to have "worst-case housing needs" if they live in poor conditions or their rent consumes more than half their incomes.

All family types, all racial and ethnic groups and all regions of the country saw an increase in these distressed renters in 2009, said Raphael Bostic, HUD's assistant secretary for policy development.

"The loss of income, the general lack of affordable housing and the increased monthly rent burden are clearly putting a lot of stresses on unassisted families at the lower end of the income spectrum," Bostic said.

The data for HUD's report, "Worst Case Housing Needs 2009," were gleaned from Census Bureau surveys conducted in May and September of 2009.

About 4.4 million very-low-income renters — those who earn less than half of their area's median incomes — receive rental assistance from HUD such as public housing and Section 8 rental vouchers. But that's only 25 percent of those who are eligible, Bostic said. In many cities, the waiting period to receive housing assistance can be years, due to a backlog of applications.

"The resources available don't match the prevailing need," Bostic said.

Under historical measures, a home is said to be "affordable" if residents pay no more than 30 percent of their monthly income for rent and utilities. Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies has estimated that 200,000 such apartments are lost each year.

From 2001 to 2007, the stock of affordable rental units fell by 6.3 percent, or 1.2 million, while the supply of high-rent units increased 94.3 percent. For every new affordable housing unit that's constructed, two are demolished, abandoned or converted to condominiums or expensive rentals, according to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

HUD found that affordable rentals were hardest to find in the West, where only 53 were available for every 100 very-low-income household. The ratio was 65 per 100 in the South and 66 per 100 in the Northeast. The recession-battered Midwest led the way with 87 affordable units available per 100 needy households.

The housing and foreclosure crisis increased competition for affordable rental units by pushing more families out of their homes into the rental market. As competition increased, so did rental prices. In 2009, very-low-income renters paid an average of 10.6 percent more for rent than they did in 2007, Bostic said.

While the stimulus bill helped rehabilitate or construct 341,000 units of affordable housing and helped end or prevent homelessness for 750,000 people, problems with affordable housing will only worsen until unemployment declines and more money is steered into federal housing programs, said Sheila Crowley, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Although Republicans in the House of Representatives have shown scant interest in funding housing assistance programs, Bostic said the report would "serve as a nice foundation for us" to talk to Congress about how to address the problem.

The Obama administration is seeking $1 billion for the National Housing Trust Fund, which will be a permanent funding source for constructing and preserving 1.5 million affordable rental units over a 10-year period. The trust fund legislation passed in 2008, but Congress hasn't funded it because of the economic downturn.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition wants to double the number of Section 8 rental vouchers to 4 million over the next 10 years. A bill to provide 150,000 additional vouchers passed the House in the last Congress, but died in the Senate.

Crowley said that proposal had strong bipartisan support but that the House Financial Services Committee under the new GOP majority was more focused on overhauling Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and implementing the Dodd-Frank financial bill.

Adding more vouchers "isn't high on their agenda at this point," Crowley said.

ON THE WEB

"Worst Case Housing Needs 2009: A Report to Congress"

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