The following is a conversation between Diane Yentel, President & CEO of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: It was just about 50 years ago– April 11, 1968 to be exact– that Congress passed one of the crowning achievements of the civil rights era, The Fair Housing Act, just seven days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. But by nearly every metric, America today remains a deeply segregated society, with a growing shortage of affordable homes for low-income people. Here to discuss all that with us is Diane Yentel, the President and CEO of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. Good evening, Diane and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Diane: Hi, thanks for having me.
Denver: Tell us about the National Low Income Housing Coalition, what your mission is, and who some of your members are.
Diane: Sure. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition is a membership organization. We are dedicated to achieving socially just public policy that ensures that the lowest income people have decent, safe, and affordable homes. We focus our work and our efforts on the lowest income people, people who are seniors, people with disabilities, off and on fixed incomes, or families with kids that are working low-wage jobs and struggling to get by. And we focus on that segment of the population because our research shows that they are the only segment for which there’s an absolute shortage of homes affordable and available to them.
So, we do our work through our membership. We have about a thousand members nationally. They range from people who are in need of subsidized housing, people who are receiving subsidized housing, public housing tenants or voucher holders, those agencies that administer public housing programs, the Public Housing Authorities.. Our members include affordable housing developers, homeless service providers and concerned citizens. It’s really a full range. But we don’t represent any segment of our membership. We just focus on the needs and the outcomes for the lowest income renters.
Just since the year 2000, the number of communities that were considered to be ones of deep poverty have increased by about 75% over that period of time.
Denver: What has changed and what has not changed in the 50 years since the Fair Housing Act was passed?
Diane: That’s a big question. If we look at the goals of the Fair Housing Act, certainly some things have improved. We don’t have the same kind of overt housing discrimination that we necessarily had back before the Fair Housing Act was passed. But a lot of other things either haven’t changed or have actually become worse. In that area, I would say especially the number of communities that are deeply poor and that are segregated– very often the same communities– have increased. Just since the year 2000, the number of communities that were considered to be ones of deep poverty have increased by about 75% over that period of time.
One piece of the Fair Housing Act requires that we not have any overt discrimination in the housing market. The other really important piece of the Fair Housing Act is that communities work to affirmatively further fair housing and work toward integrated communities, and that’s a place where we still have a long way to go.
Denver: What is the traditional standard of affordability for a place to live, let’s say measured by a percentage of one’s income?
Diane: Most housing experts say that we should not pay more than 30% of our income towards our rent. If we are paying more than 30% of our income, we’re considered to be cost-burdened. And if we’re paying more than 50% of our income– more than half of our paycheck every month towards our rent– we’re considered severely cost-burdened. Those are people who are really just one financial emergency away from not being able to pay the rent and facing eviction and possible homelessness.
Denver: So, for every hundred low-income families, how many affordable units of housing are available?
Diane: 35, and that’s nationally. So, the national picture is for every 100 of those lowest income people, there are just 35 homes that are affordable and available to them. There is a range, but the shortage is pervasive. It exists in every community across the country whether urban, suburban, or rural. In Nevada, there’s just 15 homes affordable and available for every 100 of the lowest income people. The best case scenario has been Mississippi, Alabama where there’s close to 60 homes affordable and available for the lowest income people, but still a significant shortage.
We measure success by the number of people who are no longer living in poverty
Denver: There was an Executive Order recently issued by the administration that could lead to additional work requirements for those receiving housing subsidies. I know you’re not a big fan of this. You don’t believe that work requirements, in fact, work. Why not?
Diane: They certainly don’t. I suppose it depends, to be fair, on how you’re measuring success. Some of the people who are proposing work requirements today are the same people who would look back to so-called welfare reforms and say that that was the success where work requirements and time limits were implemented. They measure success by reducing the number of people who are receiving assistance. We measure success by the number of people who are no longer living in poverty; and by that measure, the first time we tried work requirements in welfare reform, what we found were, indeed, there were fewer people receiving assistance, but people who were living in poverty were driven into deeper poverty. It certainly wasn’t a success.
The challenge with work requirements, certainly in housing programs and people who receive housing subsidies, is first, when you just look at the universe of people that are receiving housing subsidies, the vast majority of them are seniors or people with disabilities; or they are working, but they’re working really low-wage jobs– the kind of jobs where it’s really tough to make ends meet, or it’s hard to even cobble together enough hours every week or every month to be able to afford the rent.
When you separate out all of those folks, you’re left with another majority of people who are caring for a person in their family– a parent or a child who has a disability and needs full-time caretaking. When you separate out those folks, you have a very small percentage of people left who maybe by some measure could be working more, and certainly we should be helping people who are able to work, to work. Or we should be helping people be able to increase their earnings, but work requirements are not the way to get there. There are actually other programs within HUD that can assist people… programs like the Family Self-Sufficiency Program, or there’s a program called Section 3 that requires federal housing dollars be used to employ low-income people in low-income communities. Those are the programs we should be working to really take to scale if the outcome that we’re truly seeking is improving people’s lives. But the work requirements that the administration is proposing are really more about punishing people for being poor than about actually helping them increase their self-sufficiency.
Denver: Speaking of HUD, how did affordable housing measures fare in the most recent budget?
Diane: They actually did pretty well.
Denver: I know there was a lot of concern going in.
Diane: Yeah, there certainly was. We started last year with the President proposing cuts of 15% to HUD’s budget, which is just an astonishing level of cuts that would be devastating to key programs and to the people that they serve. And we ended the process early this year with Congress increasing HUD’s budget by 10%. Pretty significant. One, I think really rebukes the President’s path he laid out for housing programs, but also a strong validation of the power of advocacy and of congressional champions who really fought to get the highest possible funding level for those HUD programs.
So, we have to do it again this year because again this year, the President is proposing really deep cuts, and we’ll have to push again to try to get Congress to not only reject those cuts and reject those kinds of policy proposals like you talked about with work requirements, but also to continue to increase funding. Because even that 10% increase, it’s a tremendous step forward; it’s the biggest increase that HUD has received in one year in decades. But still, it doesn’t begin to make up for the ground we’ve lost over the last 10 years and the cuts, the sort of slow-bleed of cuts, that HUD’s programs have suffered over that time. So, we have a lot more to do.
So, we started asking ourselves and some of our new partners the question of whether leaders in these other sectors were as convinced as we are by the research, that they recognize that they will not be able to be successful in achieving their own goals in the healthcare sector or education sector, civil right sector, until more people are affordably housed
Denver: One thing that I know you’re really excited about is this new campaign the Coalition is embarking upon. Tell our listeners about it.
Diane: The Opportunity Starts at Home Campaign is a new campaign that we just launched. The idea of it is, it really started with recognizing that the challenge of housing affordability for the lowest income people has increased. The housing crisis has reached historic heights and is impacting the lowest income people the most. At the same time, we have this growing body of research that makes a really compelling case for how central housing affordability is to the outcome of so many other sectors. It improves kids’ health. It improves their educational attainment. It improves lifetime earnings, has civil rights implications, anti-poverty effects.
So, we started asking ourselves and some of our new partners the question of whether leaders in these other sectors were as convinced as we are by the research, that they recognize that they will not be able to be successful in achieving their own goals in the healthcare sector or education sector, civil right sector, until more people are affordably housed; and we found out that the answer is: Yes. They recognize that and believe that and want to add their capacity and their resources to achieving more housing affordability for the lowest income people.
So we launched this new campaign called Opportunity Starts at Home with the steering committee that’s made up of some of our close housing partners. The National Income Housing Coalition founded the campaign, together with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a group called Make Room, and Children’s Health Watch. Then our steering committee is composed of leaders from many other sectors including the National Education Association, which is the largest union in the country, with the Children’s Defense Fund, Catholic Charities USA, a group called Community Catalyst, which is a big advocacy leader in the healthcare field, NWACP, UnidosUS, the Food Research Action Campaign, the National Association of Community Health Centers. All of these leaders in these other fields recognize the importance of achieving greater investments, federal investments in affordable housing solutions, and are joining us now in our advocacy to get those increased investments.
Denver: That’s very exciting, and I think we’ve all been championing for these silos to finally be broken down, and it looks like it’s beginning to happen. So, that’s great news!
Finally, Diane, there’s a national housing Week of Action which has been dubbed Our Homes, Our Voices. When is that going to be? What will take place? And how can people become involved if they’re so inclined?
Diane: A Week of Action this year is May 1st to May 8th. Last year, we had our first, what now may be come annual, Our Homes, Our Voices Week of Action. We did this to recognize this moment of increased need and increased threat to key housing programs. We asked partners and resident leaders and organizations across the country to plan events in their communities to call attention to the need for more federal investments in affordable housing solutions.
Last year, there were events in about 60 communities across the country from Alaska to Florida, to Texas, to Chicago and many areas in between, and the events really range from letter-writing campaigns, to visits with members of Congress, to rallies, to press conferences. We had thousands of people participate, representing tens of thousands more, and there were about 400 media stories based on those events.
So, we’re doing it again this year, May 1st to May 8th. And again we’re asking community leaders, residents, organizations to plan events in their communities and call attention to the need and the solutions. We have about 27, I think, events planned so far and more coming each day.
If people want to get involved, we encourage people to plan your own events, to go to our website which is ourhomes-ourvoices.org, and you can check out the events that are already planned that you can plug into. Or you could get ideas and resources for planning your own events. You can always feel free to reach out to us as a Coalition; we’d love to help you plan your events.
Denver: I’m sure it’s going to be bigger and better this year than last. Well, Diane Yentel, the President and CEO of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to be here with us this evening. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Diane: It was a pleasure to be here. Thanks for the opportunity.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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