Affordable Housing is Smart Community Investment

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June 5, 2016 by travelinggrits

Peace. The feeling that many of us have immediately upon waking in the morning, still lying in bed and absorbing the sunshine before rising to take on the day before us.

Have you ever truly been without this peace? I’ve moved across state borders and oceans, but I’ve never experienced a time when I did not have a safe place to put my head at night. Searching for short-term housing for an internship in San Francisco last summer was anxiety-producing, but I was able to draw from salary and savings to foot the bill.

However, safe, affordable housing is not available for everyone who needs it, and households with lower incomes are in the greatest need.

The reality: there is no state where even a one-bedroom unit at the fair market rent is affordable to a full-time minimum wage worker. Housing affordability is defined by spending no more than 30 percent of your household income on rent and utilities.

The burden on individuals creates a staggering total: more than 7 million U.S. households have “worst case needs” for housing. These households have incomes 50 percent or less of the local median income; do not receive housing assistance; and either pay more than half of their income for rent or live in housing with inadequate heat, electricity, plumbing, or other severe physical problems.

Paying more than half of your income for housing means tradeoffs. When rising rents outstrip your wages, what will you cut back on? Food? Health care? Will the stress of financial insecurity take a toll on your mental health as well?

Without safe, affordable housing, many households cannot reach their highest potential, which results in great costs to society. To solve this challenge, we need community investment in “upstream solutions” – getting to the root of the problem.

To create and maintain more affordable housing, nongovernmental efforts complement government programs like public housing, rent subsidies, and building incentives for private developers. You may have swung a hammer for Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit, Christian-affiliated housing organization that depends on volunteer labor for housing construction. Other housing organizations have deep impact through wise community investments, but without hands-on volunteer encounters they do not have the same name recognition.

One such organization that may fly under the radar is CASA, Inc., a nonprofit developer and manager for rental units for permanent affordable housing in three Triangle-area counties in North Carolina. The organization owns 400 units at 53 properties, of which 80 percent is supportive housing for residents with disabilities, including veterans and those with mental health challenges, and 20 percent is workforce housing for lower-income households, including families with children.

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Marcine at her CASA apartment

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to put a face to CASA’s work by meeting one of the organization’s tenants. When I arrived at the complex owned by CASA, Marcine waved enthusiastically from a second-floor balcony decorated with sunflowers. She welcomed me into her home to share her story, and throughout our conversation Marcine’s personality was as cheerful as her floral arrangements.

“It was like I had a knapsack on my back, full of troubles,” she said. “And I cut a hole in the bottom and let all of those troubles fall out. Now, it’s like I have a knapsack on my front, and I’m filling it up with all the good things in my life.”

Housing is the foundation for Marcine’s health and quality of life. She was diagnosed with diabetes several years ago, but she has been able to manage her diabetes by eating right and exercising and does not have to take insulin. Self-care is her priority for now, but focusing on her well-being is helping her better serve others. She has recently become an active member in a local church, and she expressed interest in supporting individuals at the shelter where she once received assistance.

CASA sets rent for its tenants at 30 percent of their income. Between federal grants and rent contributions, there is still a gap in funding of $250 per month for each household CASA supports, which means CASA seeks approximately $3,000 per year from outside sources to cover this cost. This is a smart community investment, however, considering the high costs of emergency health care, shelters, and food pantries for those without stable or affordable living conditions.

Hearing Marcine’s story and learning about CASA wake me up to reality, and my Bike&Build journey will continue to challenge my sense of complacency. Housing needs are great everywhere, but especially in the places I will go. For example, out of the top ten states with the largest gap between two-bedroom rent and wages, I am traveling through four of them (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island).

Join me. Read about housing costs in your county of residence in the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach report. Sleuth out a housing organization in your community that is working “under the radar.” Find a way to contribute to change, whether through an hour of your time, a monetary contribution to an organization like CASA, or a vote for community leaders that recognize the importance of affordable housing. At the very least, start the conversation with others, from your coworkers in the breakroom to your roommate/spouse. Move beyond simply being thankful for the peace and comfort of home to helping others achieve that sense of peace, too.

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