Affordable Housing: A Basic Need and a Social Issue

By Mulroy, Elizabeth A.; Ewalt, Patricia L. | Social Work, May 1996 | Go to article overview

Affordable Housing: A Basic Need and a Social Issue


Mulroy, Elizabeth A., Ewalt, Patricia L., Social Work


Pending cuts in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD's) fiscal year budget combined with deep funding cuts in public assistance will have a profound effect on low-income households, in turn affecting the social work profession. Low-income consumers of social work services will find that housing and employment are interrelated issues of central concern. These substantive areas will wedge their way prominently into social policy, social work methods and fields of practice, and research.

Cross-Cutting Implications

Housing

The proposed cuts in the HUD budget will reduce the supply of and access to affordable rental units. These cuts, in combination with reduced appropriations for income maintenance programs at federal and state levels for individuals and families (such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, general assistance, and Supplemental Security Income), will make it more difficult for low-income consumers to find rental housing they can afford.

Housing has unique economic, psychological, and symbolic significance. It has a pervasive impact on quality of life beyond just the provision of shelter. Safe, affordable, nontransient housing is the key that opens the door to meeting other basic needs. Its location determines personal safety and access to commercial facilities, public and social services, transportation networks, recreational and cultural resources, quality schools, and employment opportunities (Mulroy, 1995a; Smizik & Stone, 1988).

Housing Supply. Affordable units for low-income renters have been substantially lost through the demolition of distressed public housing projects, the conversion of apartment buildings and single-room occupancy hotels to condominiums, and recently what is called "expiring use restrictions" on many private for-profit housing developments. In the 1960s, federal assistance shifted from constructing public housing to providing subsidies to private developers to construct housing for low-income people at affordable rents. Developers were allowed to opt out of these rent restrictions after 20 years. Beginning in the 1980s, in areas where market rents had increased substantially, "the owners opted out and raised rents to market levels, displacing thousands of poor tenants. When conditions had declined, owners simply undermaintained their property for additional, final profits and then allowed HUD to foreclose on deteriorated buildings" (Barton, 1996, p. 109).

Housing Affordability. Housing affordability is the ratio of a household's housing costs to its income. HUD generally considers housing to be affordable when it is 30 percent of a household's income. However, more than half of all poor renters spend at least 50 percent of their income on housing (Dreier & Applebaum, 1992).

Although public housing and housing allowances have existed for several decades to ease the rent burden on poor households, their effectiveness has been limited (Mulroy, 1995b). The majority of low-income renter households do not receive any kind of federal, state, or local rent subsidy, nor do they live in public housing (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1990). Low-income residents in the private rental market are being squeezed by higher rents.

Cuts in public assistance benefit levels and changes in eligibility requirements will further reduce the incomes of already low-income households, leaving them less money to spend on rent. Long-term unemployed workers laid off from low-wage work will be especially vulnerable.

Affordability problems can lead to housing displacement, which occurs when a household is required to move because of circumstances beyond its control. People will be displaced from their residences because of eviction or the threat of eviction caused by rent increases that are beyond their ability to pay.

Section 8 certificates are subsidies that allow families who meet low-income eligibility requirements to pay 30 percent of their income for rent, and HUD subsidizes the balance of rent directly to the landlord. …

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