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.
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. Pending legislation does not authorize any new Section 8 certificates to be issued in fiscal year 1996, so families currently doubled up and living in overcrowded conditions while on waiting lists for new Section 8 certificates may also be displaced.
Overcrowding. Long considered an indicator of housing need, overcrowding has increased in the United States after decades of decline - but dramatically so in California and Hawaii. In these two states with expensive housing, 20 percent of renters live in overcrowded conditions (Meyers, Baer, & Choi, 1996).
Homelessness, the bottom rung on the ladder of housing displacement, will likely increase for the most vulnerable consumers who experience multiple personal stressors. Special populations such as victims of domestic violence, homeless people, elderly people, and disabled people will suffer disproportionately from HUD budget cuts (Citizens Housing and Planning Association, 1996). Federal preferences that favored homeless people and victims of domestic violence as priority categories, for example, have been suspended, although local Public Housing Authorities can establish their own preference categories consistent with local housing plans.
Provisions that link low-income households to wage work are features of current legislation in public welfare, public housing, social services, and community and economic development (HUD, 1995a, 1995b, 1995c). Employment - and its attendant education, training, transportation, and child care needs - will be a key issue for low-income people who rely on public assistance or who live in public housing.
Yet two considerations, one related specifically to housing and the other to complex interorganizational arrangements, may interfere with low-income consumers' ability to become and remain employed. First, repeated housing displacement is associated with family destabilization and insecurity (Bronfenbrenner, 1986), factors that are incongruent with a routine work schedule. Stable living arrangements are a prerequisite to continuous, satisfactory workplace performance.
Second, consumers may sincerely want to participate in newly created economic development programs, but such programs will likely require sophisticated skills in understanding and negotiating a complex maze of interorganizational arrangements. Diverse public agencies with mandated responsibilities to administer public assistance, social services, economic development, and public housing programs are now programmatically tied together but may lack coordinated service integration (Alter, 1990; Alter & Hage, 1993; Glisson & James, 1992).
In addition, the increase in privatization - the purchase of public services for job training, employment placement, social services, and housing management from organizations in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors - has blurred the lines between public- and private-sector functions and roles. Accountability and clear avenues for consumer participation, grievance, and advocacy are increasingly obscured.
Implications for Social Work
Affordable housing is a basic need and a social issue, not a private issue, for clients of social work services. As legislative changes move employment to center stage in welfare reform and in public housing requirements (Citizens Housing and Planning Association, 1996), both housing and employment are social work issues. They are also interdependent.
There is a socioeconomic crisis in the nation that requires new and fresh social policies to challenge the neoconservative approach to meeting human needs. First, a vision is needed that incorporates affordable, safe, nontransient housing as a basic need in society and as a goal to be achieved. If social policy "emphasizes cooperation and shared responsibility among society's institutions and its structural elements, the entire population, and the individual" (Iatridis, 1994, p. 15), then housing and employment policy should both be considered subunits of social policy. A structure should be in place through which cross-cutting implications of social policies could be analyzed, adjusted, unified, and coordinated.
Second, decentralization of decision making and government downsizing are shifting the formation of social policies to state and local levels with three effects: (1) Social workers can influence state and local decision systems directly; (2) policymakers can formulate creative solutions based on locally specific needs; and (3) progressive innovations (often initiated at the local level in response to failed federal programs) can be tested and then replicated "up" to state, regional, and national levels.
One example of local innovation is the movement to establish a social housing sector, that is, housing owned by private nonprofit corporations or limited-equity cooperatives and allocated to people according to need rather than ability to pay (Barton, 1996). Social housing uses a combination of nonprofit ownership and capital grants to provide permanently affordable home ownership and rental units for low-income people.
Generated primarily at the local level, ownership vehicles commonly used for creation of social housing include community-based nonprofit housing corporations, mutual housing associations, limited-equity cooperatives, and land trusts (Barton, 1996; Smizik & Stone, 1988). Social housing is not expected to replace the public or private sector's role in affordable housing production. However, with diminished federal responsibility for affordable housing, we will likely see an expansion of social housing as a sector.
Social Work Practice
Consumers of social work services will require practitioners to integrate three elements into their practice methods: (1) a housing element; (2) a community and economic development element; and (3) a collaborative, interorganizational element.
Housing. Children and families, elderly people, people with mental illness or disabilities, battered women, victims of child maltreatment, people with AIDS, and homeless people receiving social work services will need a housing element integrated into their service plans. This requires knowledge of the availability of affordable rental housing in a regional housing market: Who are the public, private, and nonprofit producers of affordable rental housing in the consumer's geographic area? Where are these organizations located? How can consumers get information about them, and how can they visit them? What are the eligibility criteria for any remaining federal, state, or local housing programs? Where are they being implemented?
Low-income consumers will need assistance with the housing search to have a fighting chance of competing with market renters in a deregulated housing environment. Social work services should include help in navigating the maze of public and nonprofit agencies and for-profit real estate firms in the housing business and then negotiating rents with private landlords. The more extensive the geographic search becomes, the more agencies, actors, and transactions will be required.
Community and Economic Development. Increased economic deprivation of clients, federal mandates, and revitalized agency mission statements will motivate human services agencies to continue shifting a broad range of direct services into the community. Multiple unmet needs, including housing and employment, are interrelated when the neighborhood is considered the unit of analysis.
Distressed communities with concentrations of poor people have traditionally been the target of community development, an antipoverty strategy that seeks to create new kinds of communities with strong local institutions and residents who are directly involved in planning for local needs (Sullivan, 1993). The Community Development Block Grant and the Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Community Programs are resources for community economic development (HUD, 1995a, 1995b, 1995c). President Clinton's new National Urban Policy, articulated in "Empowerment: A Covenant with America's Communities," intends to "link families to work by bringing together tax, welfare, education, job training, transportation, and housing initiatives that help families make the transition to self-sufficiency and independence" (HUD, 1995b, p. 2). Approximately 105 locations or zones have been selected in national competition (HUD, 1995b).
Social workers should know about these community economic development initiatives for three reasons: (1) to be legitimate community representatives at the decision table in the planning and design of service structures, (2) to help clients living in these zones gain access to any available resources, and (3) to facilitate consumer participation in the planning process. Participation of resident consumers is integral to successful program outcomes in neighborhood and economic development (Bendick & Egan, 1995; Mier, 1994).
Collaborative, Interorganizational Relationships. Increased consumer needs, reduced resources for human services, trends toward community-based service delivery, and the privatization of public functions all point to a need for collaborative interorganizational relationships, irrespective of a practitioner's micro or macro perspective. New systems of care call for flexibility and for a broad knowledge of resources beyond one's own or one's agency's functional area of specialization. Adaptability and cooperative behavior are required at the organizational as well as at the interpersonal level to build and sustain collaborative interagency arrangements. Though difficult to implement in a competitive, purchase-of-service culture, collaborative service networks built on mutual trust can provide social workers with more resources and consumers with effective, integrated services (Alter & Hage, 1993; Mulroy, 1995c).
The HUD budget cuts raise several issues for social work research, of which two will be discussed here - research on neighborhood poverty and research on the effects of pending legislative cuts.
First, the profession's social reform roots and the NASW Code of Ethics (NASW, 1994) suggest that social workers have a serious interest in understanding why urban poverty is increasingly concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods, what the neighborhood effects are on the poor people who live there (Wilson, 1987), and what strategies are effective in ameliorating problems. Scholars from many academic disciplines are examining these questions. Social workers who practice in poor communities seek guidance from social work research on the efficacy of social policies and programs and the outcomes of their work. Social workers want to know more about the characteristics of poverty neighborhoods; whether traditionally accepted indicators of housing need are still appropriate; how to measure service needs in neighborhoods and communities that are increasingly diverse and multicultural; and what housing and community development interventions strengthen families and neighborhoods, particularly from the residents' perspective. (For research in neighborhood poverty see, for example, Coulton, 1995; Coulton & Chow, 1991; Coulton, Chow, & Finn, 1990; and Sherraden, 1991.)
Finally, research is needed that examines the effects of the pending cuts in HUD and public assistance budgets on poor people. Policymakers and practitioners need to know what the effects will be of the simultaneous cuts in "place-based" housing strategies and in "people-based" income maintenance strategies. Social work researchers are well positioned to investigate these issues.
Alter, C. (1990). An exploratory study of conflict and coordination in inter-organizational service delivery systems. Academy of Management Journal, 33, 478-501.
Alter, C., & Hage, J. (1993). Organizations working together. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Barton, S. (1996). Social housing versus housing allowances: Choosing between two forms of housing subsidy at the local level. Journal of the American Planning Association, 61, 108-119.
Bendick, M., & Egan, M. L. (1995). Worker ownership and participation enhances economic development in low-opportunity communities. Journal of Community Practice, 2, 61-85.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1986). Ecology of the family as context for human development: Research perspectives. Developmental Psychology, 22, 723-742.
Citizens Housing and Planning Association. (1996, January 3). Summary of House/Senate Conference Committee Bill. Boston: Author.
Coulton, C. (1995). Using community-level indicators of children's well-being in comprehensive community initiatives. In J. Connell, A. Kubisch, L. Schorr, & C. Weiss (Eds.), New approaches to evaluating community initiatives: Concepts, methods, and contexts (pp. 173-199). Washington, DC: Aspen Institute.
Coulton, C., & Chow, J. (1991). The impact of poverty on Cleveland neighborhoods. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University, Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, Center for Urban Poverty and Social Change.
Coulton, C., Chow, J., & Finn, C. (1990). Social conditions affecting people in Cleveland's low-income neighborhoods. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University, Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, Center for Urban Poverty and Social Change.
Dreier, P., & Applebaum, R. (1992). The housing crisis enters the 1990s. New England Journal of Public Policy, 8, 155-167.
Glisson, C., & James, L. (1992). The interorganizational coordination of services to children in state custody. Administration in Social Work: Organizational Change and Development, 16, 65-80.
Iatridis, D. (1994). Social policy: Institutional context of social development and human services. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Meyers, D., Baer, W., & Choi, S. Y. (1996). The changing problem of overcrowded housing. Journal of the American Planning Association, 62, 66-84.
Mier, R. (1994). Social justice and local development policy. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Mulroy, E. (1995a, November 2). Achieving the systemic neighborhood network: The community context of nonprofit interorganizational collaboration. Paper presented at the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action, Cleveland.
Mulroy, E. (1995b). Housing. In R. L. Edwards (Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of social work (19th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 1377-1384). Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Mulroy, E. (1995c). The new uprooted: Single mothers in urban life. Westport, CT: Auburn House.
National Association of Social Workers. (1994). NASW code of ethics. Washington, DC: Author.
Sherraden, M. (1991). Assets and the poor: A new American welfare policy. Armonck, NY: Sharpe.
Smizik, F., & Stone, M. (1988). Single-parent families and a right to housing. In E. Mulroy (Ed.), Women as single parents: Confronting institutional barriers in the courts, the workplace, and the housing market (pp. 227-270). Westport, CT: Auburn House.
Sullivan, M. (1993). More than housing: How community development corporations go about changing lives and neighborhoods. New York: Community Development Research Center, Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy, New School for Social Research.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. (1990). Housing characteristics of selected races and Hispanic origin households in the United States: 1987 (Series H121-87-1). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (1995a, August). Recent research results. Washington, DC: Author, Office of Policy Development and Research.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (1995b, October). Recent research results. Washington, DC: Author, Office of Policy Development and Research.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (1995c, December). Recent research results. Washington, DC: Author, Office of Policy Development and Research.
Wilson, W. J. (1987). The truly disadvantaged: The inner city, the underclass, and public policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Elizabeth A. Mulroy, MSW, PhD, is associate professor, and Patricia L. Ewalt, PhD, ACSW, is dean and professor, School of Social Work, University of Hawaii, Hawaii Hall, 2500 Campus Road, Honolulu, HI 96822.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Affordable Housing: A Basic Need and a Social Issue. Contributors: Mulroy, Elizabeth A. - Author, Ewalt, Patricia L. - Author. Journal title: Social Work. Volume: 41. Issue: 3 Publication date: May 1996. Page number: 245+. © 2009 National Association of Social Workers. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.