Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Breaking through the sky-high rent logjam

Poverty | Developers say they need help to build affordable housing
by Rob Holmes
Posted 2/21/18, 02:44 pm

An affordable housing crisis looms despite cranes soaring over the skylines of U.S. cities. According to a Harvard University report, nearly 21 million households pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent, and nearly 11 million of those pay more than 50 percent of their take-home pay.

Though many city governments tout the need for more more affordable housing, policies to effect change are elusive.

In the nation’s largest cities—from No. 1 New York to No. 151 Salem, Ore.—a shortage of affordable housing exists even after 2017 apartment building completions skyrocketed by 46 percent since the previous year, MSN reported.

The Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies found renters “in all markets face affordability challenges,” according to its 2017 report, America’s Rental Housing.

“While the market has responded to rental housing needs for higher-income households, there are alarming trends that suggest a growing inability to supply housing that is affordable for middle- and working-class renters,” said Christopher Herbert, the center’s managing director.

Many development costs are nearly the same for high- and low-end buildings. But spikes in the cost of labor, land, and lumber have pushed developers to build luxury units instead of affordable housing. Developers say only luxury apartments command the rental rates that will make new housing developments break even.

Residents of North Charleston, S.C., have noticed their city’s swelling population—28th nationally for mid-sized cities—but income growth there ranks 513th of 515 cities surveyed. Neighboring Charleston, the 20th fastest growing mid-sized city, is short of cheap housing despite “building like crazy,” said Gary Long of Construction Management Charleston.

He told me a major bottleneck is the government. “For developers to get financing, affordable housing has to be in government-approved jurisdictions. And the only approved parcel I know of in the county is an old mall area no one wants to develop.”

When asked what needs to change, he said, “The government needs to approve new jurisdictions and work with municipalities on local zoning changes. With huge costs for a developer, the economics also have to work.”

Charleston’s Department of Housing and Community Development in its mission statement says affordable housing remains one of the most pressing issues facing the community.

“But the government is talking out of both sides of its mouth,” Long said.

Facebook Facebook Valley View Elementary in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

Schoolteachers role play poverty

A Wisconsin school system instructs teachers on what their impoverished pupils face through a simulated experience. In November, each teacher got a profile or role to play. Some of the teachers from the suburban Green Bay elementary school played kids, others single mothers, and all experienced in microcosm the frustrations their students and parents face.

Moving through an artificial “city” set up in the Valley View Elementary School gym, teachers had to carry out tasks and navigate between stations for housing, police, childcare, and food. The fictional city also had shelters and jails, and many teachers could not avoid ending up in them.

One teacher played the role of a single mother with two kids. “I didn’t know where to go first or what to do first. I could never pay my bills in full for the month, and that was really frustrating,” said Amanda Paul, a English language learner teacher.

The school system in Ashwaubenon, Wis., has identified 52 homeless students this year, WBAY-TV reported. —R.H.

A class on homelessness

A Franciscan university in Wisconsin teaches students about homelessness by having them spend the night outside in winter without shelter. Tom Thibodeau, director of Viterbo University’s master of arts in servant leadership, began his homelessness class in 1987 to help students empathize with those living without housing. The first year, a group of students spent a cold February night outdoors in Lacrosse, Wis., and it began an annual one-night tradition. About 450 people have taken part in the class and vigil.

Though far removed from the real anxieties homeless people face when unsheltered, students said the event and class have helped them realize some of the essential difficulties of having no place to call home. Some have changed their major and life’s direction, Thibodeau, told the La Crosse Tribune.

“By the time morning comes, the students are uncomfortable, cold and haven’t had much sleep, but they still have to go to class and face the rest of their responsibilities the next day,” he said. “They dread having to do it another night and begin to realize the physical difficulties of not having a place to live.” —R.H.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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