By Doug Maio & John Berry, Society of St. Vincent de Paul Georgia
A recent front-page article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution by Michael Kannell noted that 187,000 metro Atlanta households spend more than 50% of their income on rent and are considered “severely cost-burdened”. Most of these households are low-income and are faced daily with difficult, and sometimes heartbreaking, choices in managing what remains of the household budget after paying the rent. This was not news to us at St. Vincent de Paul Georgia; in fact, we helped connect the reporter to some of the people who were/are impacted. Unfortunately, we see a lot of them, every day.
Severe cost burdens are directly related to (and some say a cause of) a condition that sociologists, housing advocates, and policy makers call “housing instability.” While there is no common definition of housing instability, we know it when we see it.
Consider; when you are severely cost-burdened, it means that you are constantly late with the rent, incurring late fees that can add 10% or more to your monthly rent payment. It means threats of eviction when you are more than ten days late with your rent. It means losing time at work in order to seek assistance from local charities or to make court appearances. It means being reluctant to “bother” your landlord with repair requests because you are behind on your rent. It means frequent moves and stays with none-too-happy relatives. It means that your kids change schools a lot and their grades suffer accordingly. It means that you are subject to a higher risk of depression and other negative health outcomes. It means that you don’t have a lot of time or extra money to become active in your community. And in the most severe cases, it means that the sheriff is at your door to put you and your belongings out on the street.
The affordable rental housing problem is not new. And a solution is no mystery. The federal government has had in place, since the Great Depression, programs to provide assistance to low-income families and individuals. Today, the principal program is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Housing Choice Voucher program that provides assistance to low-income households by paying a portion of their rent to a private landlord of their choice. Other federal programs provide incentives to developers to build multi-family housing affordable to low-income households. The voucher program in particular has been successful in alleviating the housing burden on the poor.
Sadly, year in and year out Congress has failed to appropriate sufficient funds to provide assistance to renters who are eligible for these federal programs. Currently only one out of every four eligible households receive federal assistance because of the lack of funding, including 364,000 households in Georgia. We at St Vincent de Paul Georgia pride ourselves on helping to mitigate the effects of housing instability on our clients, however the affordable housing problem is much larger than we, or any charitable organization, can solve. Our federal safety net programs have been designed to address the basic human needs of the poor – our political leaders need to fulfill their responsibility to fund them.