A week or so before Christmas, my wife decided to hire a cleaning service to help get prepared for several large gatherings and family coming to stay from out of town. The company she used was very reputable and had great referrals. During the period of time the cleaners were at work, my wife engaged one of them in conversation and what she learned was quite disturbing. This lady has two children, the oldest being 11, and was basically homeless. She indicated they spent most nights in the homeless shelter and couch surfed whenever they could. Sometimes they had to sleep in their car. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do for Christmas, where they would be or how to get gifts for her kids. Financially, she receives a fairly decent wage, but is being paid under the table. Consequently, she has no pay receipts needed to obtain housing. The lady indicated that she did not want to quit because well-paying jobs are scarce in our area and she felt she could not take care of her family on minimum wage. She is a citizen and is not, does she want to be, on public assistance. In this day and age, situations like this is are far too common. As the gap continues to grow between the rich and poor, and the middle class erodes away, we are losing one of the essentials of life – the ability for everyday folks to have a place to call HOME!
It is inconceivable to me how a country as wealthy as the United States is cannot produce affordable, safe housing. There are nearly 600,000 homeless in the United States, 36% of these are homeless families. 69% of our national homeless stay in temporary shelters and 31% are unsheltered. California alone has about 20% of the nation’s homeless. And in truth, this number probably only realistically captures a portion of the actual homeless population. In our pristine, beautiful San Luis Obispo County, there are approximately 180 homeless families, and this amount accounts only for those known to be homeless by some governmental entity. There are many families, like our cleaner, who are unaccounted.
My agency, the Family Care Network, Inc., operates the Housing Support Program for San Luis Obispo County, through which we are tasked with finding housing for homeless families being served in the Cal Works Program. Securing safe housing is actually much easier said than done.
A few weeks ago, San Luis Obispo County received the unenviable distinction of being the 6th least affordable location in the United States. Translation – low wages and high cost of living! Additionally, the Central Coast has the lowest vacancy rates in the United States. Reality Check--it’s a landlord’s delight and a renter’s nightmare. As the demand has increased, so have the rental rates; compounded to this is the fact that there are very, very few new multiple dwelling developments in progress or being planned.
But, this is far greater than a homelessness issue; this housing crisis affects the whole of society. Many of us remember a time when it was a given that you could afford to buy a house, or secure comfortable housing on a modest middle-class wage. Those days are long gone. Significantly, two income households are struggling to find affordable housing. New housing construction is now slightly over half of its historic rate. Home ownership is now the lowest it has been in three decades. Many businesses, like mine, routinely lose staff because they can’t find or afford housing – this issue is at the crisis level on the Central Coast, and in many other communities across our country!
The MacArthur’s 2015 “How Housing Matters” survey revealed a high level of anxiety around housing. Sixty percent of Americans believe we are still in a “housing recession,” while 50% believe housing is a serious national problem; 20% have taken on second or third jobs to cover housing expenses, and an equal amount have stopped saving for retirement for the same reason. Millennials, who comprise the largest share of our workforce, are the most vulnerable. Sixty-seven percent of millennials report being forced to sacrifice in order to pay for housing, and 80% of young adults reported that it is hard for them to find affordable housing.
The lack of Affordable Housing has become one of the most critical issues affecting communities across the nation. It has created a large class of homeless individuals and families, and this issue seriously impacts the working poor, forcing them into substandard or very crowded, unhealthy conditions. Housing has now become an obstacle for a large percent of our workforce. Our extreme national disparity in income, resulting from decades of pandering to the rich at the expense of the working class, is now haunting us by limiting access and availability to housing!
Action must be taken now to ameliorate this crisis. First things first, it’s time to reframe our thinking – the largest percentage of homeless don’t want to be, but they can’t afford to avoid it! As a housing provider, my agency knows firsthand that these folks want a HOME and a normal life. It bears repeating – they can’t afford housing and what is available in their price range is inadequate or substandard junk. Contrary to the rhetoric of the right, these are not a bunch of lazy freeloaders who want to live “on the dole.”
Second, people need to be paid a living wage which includes the cost of housing in their community. Google and Facebook are opening campuses across the U.S. because even high-paid software engineers can no longer afford San Francisco, where the median home price just topped $1 million. Even if the minimum wage was $15 an hour, it would not cover the cost for housing in most communities. There is no such thing as a “Middle Class” when workers can’t afford the basic necessities of life due to wage stagnation!
Third, government at the federal, state and local levels must invest in housing. Each year the feds spend nearly $100 Billion on corporate welfare and a little over 50% of that on social programs, including health care! Yet, the republicans want to cut those social programs to keep feathering the beds of greedy corporations. If we don’t get our priorities right, we will end up in a feudal system where the masses are poor and starving, totally subservient to rich oligarchs. Think about it!
Fourth, developers and local municipalities need to build housing people want and need, allowing for greater density, and stop artificially propping up housing prices to harvest tax revenue. There is a housing need and availability mismatch. Houses keep growing larger at the same time that US households are getting smaller. For example, the average size of newly constructed single-family homes in 1980 was 1,740 square feet, now its 2,657 square feet. Millennials don’t want these houses and most others can’t afford them!
Political leaders must ensure that housing policies are flexible enough to encourage and subsidize a broader range of housing types which meet community needs. While most Americans surveyed in the MacArthur poll wanted their state and local elected officials to treat housing affordability as a priority, only 14% felt they are doing so. A healthy, needs-driven housing policy should be aggressively focused on causing a glut of housing, but current policy instead causes a shortage — of fairly historic proportions — causing our cities to become unaffordable, with lower job growth.
The only obstacle to ensuring everyone is provided a place called HOME is political will. Doing so is a moral imperative, and the right, civil thing to do!