Housing, The Recession and Preventing a Rise in Homelessness

1.27.12 | Politicians like to throw up their hands and pretend they don’t understand how to do more to help the 22% of children and families living in poverty. In fact, we do and we have recent evidence that anti-poverty legislation works.

As Greg Kaufmann wrote at The Nation blog this week, “six initiatives in the Recovery Act kept nearly 7 million Americans from falling into poverty. Saying we failed simply because there is still poverty is like saying clean air and clean water laws failed because there is still pollution.”

One of the opportunities for further change Kaufmann points to from the recent stimulus bill is the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), which provided $1.5 billion in stimulus dollars to try to curb the expected rise in homelessness advocates predicted from this recession.  Instead of focusing on shelter beds and managing the homeless problem, HPRP focuses on prevention and on helping people who do become homeless find another place to live as quickly as possible. This means the federal dollars are providing support for things like rent, utilities, helping resolve disputes with landords or roommates, or helping people find a new apartment.

And new evidence from the National Alliance to End Homelessness this week shows it’s working.  Their new report, The State of Homelessness in America 2012, takes a look at the homeless population during the economic downturn from 2009 to 2011 and actually finds a decrease of 1% during this time period. And this is despite the poor economy, rising unemployment, and lack of affordable housing in many places.

But we are far from out of the woods.

The research also finds a rise in key economic factors that are often associated with homelessness like unemployment, housing costs and average real income for poor workers, all of which rose between 2009 and 2011.

Additionally, the report found that the number of poor people who pay more than half of their monthly income on rent went up by 6% from 5.9 million in 2009 to 6.2 million in 2010. Three quarters of all poor renter households experienced these “severe housing cost burdens” as HUD calls them.

We wrote about this problem on this blog last year when we covered a report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies about the growing number of renters facing housing cost burdens. The report showed that more than one in four renters in 2010 were paying more than half of their income to rent and utilities, an all-time high.

Despite how much we already know about this recession, I still found their findings about economic indicators over the past few years sobering:

  • The number of unemployed people increased by 4 percent from 14.3 million in 2009 to 14.8 million in 2010. The unemployed population increased in 32 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Unemployment rose by 10 percent or more in 11 states.
  • The average real income of working poor people increased by less than one percent, from about $9,300 in 2009 to about $9,400 in 2010. There was not a single county in the nation where a family with an average annual income of $9,400 could afford fair market rent for a one-bedroom unit.
  • Foreclosure activity continued to increase with nearly 50,000 more homes in foreclosure in 2010 than in 2009. Foreclosures increased from 2.83 million units in 2009 to 2.88 million units in 2010, a 2% increase. Nationally, 1 out of every 45 housing units was in foreclosure in 2010. In Nevada, 1 out of every 11 housing units had a foreclosure.

In a blog post at the National Alliance to End Homelessness Catherine An explains the effect this has on families -

[A]s housing costs eat up a larger and larger percentage of a household’s monthly income, there comes a point where housing itself becomes prohibitively expensive. Moreover, when housing consumes such an overwhelming portion of household income, there is very little left for other necessities: food, transportation, education, etc. Because of this, any unplanned financial obligation – a medical emergency, an unexpected bill, etc. – could jeopardize a household’s housing situation.

BRR Network research on the effects of precarious housing on vulnerable individuals like minorities, immigrants, older Americans, the disabled, or the poor underscores this problem. Network member Rolf Pendall, along with Brett Theodos, and Kaitlin Franks, find in their BRR working paper, “Vulnerable People in Precarious Housing,” that the most vulnerable individuals are more likely than the average person to live in precarious housing and to pay a much greater portion of their income for housing.

But as the middle class continues to shrink, there are more and more of us who will end up in this group. An points to this AP story about new census numbers showing that nearly half (48%) of all Americans can now be classified as poor or low-income.

“This situation is alarmingly real for a significant and growing number of American households,” An continues. “As more and more families struggle with their economic needs and obligations, their risk of homelessness grows.”

The report also finds an increase in the number of people “doubling up” with other family members or friends for economic reasons. This population increased by 13% from 6 million in 2009 to 6.8 million in 2010. And notably the researchers found this “doubled up” population increased by more than 50% from 2005 to 2010, which also adds to the picture of how families are surviving in this ever-tightening housing market.

More support will be needed as federal funds dry up. HPRP has already run out in many communities and the program will end entirely in the fall.

And the new federal supports to help homeowners that President Obama announced this week don’t go nearly far enough – homeowners must be current on their mortgages in order to qualify for refinancing their mortgage at lower rates, so the most vulnerable will not qualify at all.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness report concludes with a roadmap for ending homelessness that includes continued support for the prevention programs that have been successful despite the poor economy and most importantly “addressing the debt and deficit crises to prioritize needs of the most vulnerable.”

Researchers predict that without further intervention homelessness will rise in the years to come.  In fact, they are already seeing indication of that in the time since the data was collected last year.

It’s up to all of us to insist that the progress the federal money has made in homeless prevention does not disappear.

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