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Beth McKee-Huger: When two out of three isn't good

Beth McKee-Huger: When two out of three isn't good

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One is OK. Two is OK. Three is not.

As in every third local household, Lisa is cost-burdened, owing more than 30% of her income for housing. She owes 56% of her paycheck, with the rent increase plus winter utility bills. Before that, she paid rent on time, although it meant the children only ate full meals at school and she skipped lunch to save on groceries. That’s not a healthy diet, so she often can’t concentrate at work between a growling stomach and a worried mind. Will her little family be evicted?

One is OK. Two is OK. Three is not. Tyrone is cost-burdened, too. He builds luxury mansions but can only afford a tiny apartment that takes half of his construction laborer pay. In between jobs or bad weather delays, he gets behind on the rent. Will he lose his place?

The gap between income and housing cost for one in three doesn’t stop there. It ripples through the community, impacting the other two. Lisa’s employer, her kids’ school and her health clinic are indirectly affected when her paycheck can’t quite keep a roof over her family’s heads. Her landlord doesn’t get paid, she gets evicted and her children become homeless like too many of their classmates. When Tyrone can’t pay on a steady basis, his landlord doesn’t make repairs, so the apartment roof leaks, sending Tyrone and his neighbors to the hospital emergency department with respiratory distress.

It comes down to supply and demand. The number of households supported by low-wage jobs or disability income is greater than the number of housing units with rent and utility costs they can afford. With a tight rental market and higher building and maintenance costs, rents go up. As some houses and apartments fall below safety standards and are condemned, the supply shrinks even more. In the COVID-19 economy, incomes are even more uncertain as businesses adjust hours, furlough workers and close, plunging more households into the cost-burdened group.

How can we help? We can:

Vote for elected officials who set policy and budget priorities.

Advocate for a healthy and equitable community.

Invest in affordable housing.

Donate to charitable organizations.

Let’s put our voices, our expertise, and our dollars to support organizations in turning around the housing crisis.

Despite the tremendous infusion of public money for rental assistance, the generosity of donors and the diligence of nonprofits assisting the most vulnerable with legal counsel and supportive services, thousands will fall off the eviction cliff when the eviction moratorium is lifted.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered a stop to evictions for nonpayment if the household would likely become homelessness — a public health risk — but the rent is still owed, so landlords and tenants are stretched to the breaking point.

Let’s help preserve existing affordable housing and restore unhealthy housing to safe condition. Hard work and creativity have kept rehab programs doing as much as possible, despite COVID restrictions. But as each house or apartment slides into disrepair, the cost to fix it grows and the supply of decent housing shrinks.

Let’s help build new affordable housing. Investment is more complicated in areas with the greatest need — building costs are similar across the city but financing in some areas is considered too risky. On the other hand, land costs and neighborhood opposition are obstacles to building in areas with jobs, schools and other amenities.

We need massive public funding now to increase the supply and close the income-rent gap. One-third is cost-burdened at risk of losing its housing. The other two thirds can help address a housing crisis that affects us all.

Beth McKee-Huger is an Episcopal deacon, vegetable farmer, housing advocate and News & Record community columnist.

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