Leaders wrestle with affordable housing crisis after 'years wandering in the wilderness'
At the National Alliance for Ending Homelessness conference, officials called for more investment as cities start to step up and the federal government steps away.
With an increase in the national homeless population, and states and cities across the country struggling with the loss of affordable housing, leaders at the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ (NAEH) annual conference in Washington, DC said there is more work to be done.
The conference brought together more than 2,000 community, philanthropic and nonprofit leaders who look to end homelessness. NAEH President and CEO Nan Roman said in a speech to kick off the three-day event that the challenge is great, but governments at all levels need to invest more to help solve the problem.
"That means that ending homelessness or reducing homelessness is not going to be just about doing things smarter or faster," she said. "It is not just about systems and assessment and efficiency. All those things are essential, and we have to do them to get the most we can out of every bit of resources that we have. But we're not going to solve the problem without more money."
Homelessness has grown particularly quickly on the West Coast, something that led elected officials in Seattle to try and impose a head tax on large businesses to help fund homeless programs. Those efforts were torpedoed after a coalition of business leaders and residents expressed opposition, although similar plans have also been considered in the San Francisco Bay Area as cities grapple with whether they should try and solve the problem through technology or policy changes.
That has been compounded by the loss of thousands of affordable housing units nationwide, a trend that has been going on for decades as wages fail to keep up with growth in housing costs and the cost of living, according to Roman. She said that while renter households went up by nearly 10 million from 2005 to 2017, the number of affordable units went down by 260,000 nationwide. And millions of new housing is being built, but not for those with low incomes.
At #NAEH2018, NAEH president Nan Roman said there is "no clear plan" to end homelessness among individuals. There is “no clear framework or strategy for the bulk of homeless individuals," she says. "They often just get what is left over” pic.twitter.com/AmHS2ps6cP— Chris Teale (@chris_teale) July 23, 2018
Cities have used different strategies to deal with the dearth of affordable housing, including in Denver and Minneapolis, the latter of which also promised to "undo" a history of housing segregation. On the national level, leaders launched the Mayors & CEOs for U.S. Housing Investment, a coalition developed to advance public-private partnerships (P3s) that tackle affordable housing and homelessness.
That comes with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) coming in for criticism for appearing to be less concerned about fair housing policies and also for proposing rent increases for those in low-income housing.
With such concerns, Roman said it appears that more and more people are waking up to the crisis — even rap star Kanye West has plans of his own to deal with it. "All of a sudden, after years of wandering around in the wilderness, people seem to have discovered that affordable housing is a really big problem," she said.
On the national level, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-CA, outlined the Rent Relief Act, a bill she recently introduced to the U.S. Senate that would create a refundable tax credit for those who pay more than 30% of their gross income for the taxable year on their rent including utilities.
In a speech to the conference, Harris argued that while attention is on a variety of other issues at the national level, lawmakers would do well to not lose their focus on affordable housing and other quality of life issues that affect ordinary Americans.
"In the midst of all these other crises, the concern I think we all share is that this crisis is not receiving the kind of attention that it requires," Harris said. "That's our challenge above and beyond all the other challenges that are present."
"Everyone wants to end homelessness until you try and put short-term housing near their homes," says DC Mayor Muriel Bowser. How true, how true #NAEH2018— Chris Teale (@chris_teale) July 24, 2018
The bill received plenty of support from city leaders across California. "In Stockton, one in two residents will pay over 30% of their income to housing," Stockton, CA Mayor Michael Tubbs said in a statement. "We have seen some of the highest rent increases in the nation, making even finding a place to live a major challenge. It will take solutions from both state and federal officials, as well as creative improvements locally, to help solve this housing crisis."
But there have also been successes, including in Washington, DC, where local officials touted statistics that overall homelessness is down 17% from 2016 and family homelessness is down 40% over the same period.
At the conference, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said the city is taking a new approach to sheltering homeless families with the closure of the much-maligned shelter at the former DC General Hospital and the opening of new, smaller shelters in all eight of the city’s wards in the next 18 months. Bowser said the impetus for closing DC General also came in part from the disappearance of Relisha Rudd, an eight-year-old girl who disappeared in 2014 from the shelter with a janitor.
Cities must be wary of community opposition to sheltering the homeless and look to build relationships with neighbors to avoid ill-feeling. "Everyone wants to end homelessness until you try and put short-term family housing next to their homes. I don't have to tell you how that story ends," Bowser said.
Bowser said the city will continue to find new ways to help the homeless, including partnering with landlords to relax screening criteria of potential tenants and piloting programs like DC Flex, a program that offers subsidies to those who need stable housing and also to pay for other basic necessities like food.
Roman noted there is still plenty to be done, especially with the potential for rollbacks in federal funding in future fiscal years meaning the future looks "a little dicey."
"You’ve done a lot, but there is a lot more for us to do," she said.
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