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Opinion, commentary and analysis on everything that makes the U.S. housing economy tick -- not to mention the ghosts in the machine, too. Written by HW's team of editors and reporters each business day.

This is why fighting poverty begins at home

Housing becoming source of instability and insecurity

January 8, 2016

It’s a rare moment when those running for President find common cause and decide collectively to elevate a single issue. It’s even more unusual when that issue is as difficult and emotionally charged as poverty.

But that’s precisely what is happening on January 9 at the Columbia Convention Center, when Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senator Tim Scott moderate The Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity, which will feature numerous Republican presidential candidates sharing their ideas on effective public policy strategies to fight poverty in America.

Poverty deserves far more attention in our nation’s political discourse and kudos to the Kemp Foundation for organizing this timely and important event. 

While there are many different approaches to combating poverty, access to stable and affordable housing must be at the center of any plan.

Housing is shelter, a necessity of life just like food and clothing. It is the bridge that links us to our families, our community, and the world beyond. But a growing body of research also demonstrates that housing is critical to health, academic success, and employment opportunities. For many young Americans, the absence of a stable, affordable home at the beginning of life can portend a lifetime of struggle and lost opportunity.   

For children in particular, a stable, affordable, good quality home can substantially lower the risk of contracting preventable diseases like asthma and reduce the number of emergency room visits. For seniors, many of whom subsist on fixed incomes, the home can serve as a platform for health care and other services that support independent living and the reduction of medical costs.

Housing stability is critical to educational achievement, particularly for lower-income students. Research shows that frequent moves can lead to disruptions in school attendance and a reduction in math and reading skills.

A home located in a good neighborhood close to jobs and other opportunities can serve as a gateway to economic success. Unfortunately, those families who cannot afford to live in these areas are often forced to move to neighborhoods that are unsafe, with poor schools, and with few employment prospects. Many residents of these low-opportunity communities spend excessive amounts of time and money on long commutes.    

While housing has traditionally been a source of stability for generations of Americans, it is becoming a growing source of instability and insecurity.

A new Harvard study estimates that, in 2014, a record number of renter households in the United States (21.3 million or nearly half the renter population) spent in excess of 30% of their income on housing. That year, the number of renter households spending more than 50% of their income on housing also set a new record: 11.4 million.  

This troubling pattern is repeated in South Carolina, with 273,000 families suffering housing-cost burdens in 2014. Of this number, 142,000 families devoted more than one out of every two dollars in income just to pay the rent.

Having to spend so much on rent forces lower-income families to make difficult trade-offs.  Researchers estimate that low-income households who spend more than half their income on housing have less than $20 left each day for other expenses. Not surprisingly, many of these families will spend less on nutritious food, medical care, and other critical needs just to cover their housing costs.

Our nation must commit itself to ensuring that lower-income families have greater access to affordable housing. An expansion of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, a program that leverages private resources to build new affordable rental homes, would be a major step forward. At the local level, communities must have the vision to promote affordable housing through enlightened zoning and building regulations.

Fortunately, we know what is effective in developing, rehabilitating, and maintaining affordable housing for those families who cannot afford market-rate rents. And we have the money within the federal budget to support this goal if we are willing to debate spending priorities.

In our view, fighting poverty begins at home. We look forward to The Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity and hearing how affordable housing fits into the candidates’ plans for eradicating the scourge of poverty.

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