In Booming Economy, Housing Problems Getting Worse

What if women's advocates and advocates for affordable housing were to join forces in a new strategic alliance to press for their multiple common goals: affordable housing, welfare reform and reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act?

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A new report, “Housing America's Working Families,” issued this summer by the National Housing Conference indicates that more than 13 million American families have critical housing needs. This means households either pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing or live in substandard housing. Of those 13 million families, some three million are moderate-income working families and some four million are unemployed or welfare dependent. Another 3.7 million are elderly and living on fixed incomes.

To the housing advocacy community, these statistics are hardly surprising. But the June report is alarming because it focuses on the housing needs of moderate-income working families, especially at a time when both parties are wooing this important voting block. The report warns, “An exclusive focus on very low-income families fails to appreciate the full extent of the country's affordable housing problems.

This nation's housing problems, during a record economy, are getting worse, not better. In writing this commentary, I considered whether and how housing relates to the concerns of women. I tried to find data that made the case for the housing needs of women and worried that I was taking a subject-housing-that is essentially gender-neutral into uncharted, gender-specific waters.

The facts contained in the National Housing Conference report and other recent reports by The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition and the Department of Housing and Urban Development make the case that the lack of affordable housing nationwide is an important and growing national concern.

Taking into account the information contained in these reports, a credible case also can be made on both a substantive as well as a political level that affordable housing should be more of a women's issue than it is at present.

“Housing America's Working Families” indicates that if a family is of “moderate income,” it may be pressed to make ends meet because housing costs, whether home ownership or rental, are greater than 50 percent of income.

Housing is definitely a women's issue

If we dig deeper into these numbers, we will find that housing is more than likely an important issue for single women, those recently laid off, divorced, widows living alone, victims of domestic violence living at home, those with substantial health care costs, especially the uninsured, and those who grapple daily with child care, quality time with children, work, commuting and the lack of affordable housing close to work. Housing is a women's issue.

With this in mind, the point is simple: Housing should not only be higher on the national agenda but also higher on the agenda of a wider circle of interests, including those who fight the good fight for women every day. Let us be clear. There are a number of groups, both for-profit and nonprofit, whose mission is to develop new housing opportunities for women. The McCauley Institute in Maryland, the Women's Housing Coalition in Baltimore and many other unheralded individuals and organizations have made a difference in women's lives by making decent-quality, affordable housing available.

But these efforts are not enough. For those who agree that women's interests are at stake in this housing crisis, the time has come to have a serious discussion between housing advocates and advocates for women about how to best address this crisis together, thereby helping millions of women nationwide enjoy an improved quality of life.

Strategic alliance between housing and women's advocates

The dialogue is needed to find common ground on a range of housing issues that affect women. While the needs of homeless women and the victims of domestic violence are highly compelling and must be addressed, these cannot be sum and substance of the discussion regarding women's housing needs. Also, a limited focus on a few selected issues, important as they are, may have the unintended effect of limiting necessary funding to meet the housing needs of women in general and also marginalizing the broader housing needs of women in both a political and a public policy sense.

The fact is that women are victimized by predatory lending practices and women are held hostage in substandard conditions because of the lack of new Section 8 rental assistance vouchers. The failure to come to grips with a national effort to produce new affordable housing disenfranchises women and families who are currently looking for affordable housing and cannot find it. When currently affordable housing is converted to market-rate housing, women and families are at risk of losing their homes. These broader issues and the work necessary to confront them must be undertaken with the same vigor as the fight for decent housing for the homeless and victims of domestic violence.

We seek a dialogue and a new political alliance between the housing advocacy community and those who fight for women. Beyond this current election, we have the chance to maximize political support for the fight for affordable housing if we can forge new alliances and bring to the table individuals and groups who together can make a difference.

Affordable housing and women's advocates can empower each other

Affordable housing advocates would be far more empowered if they joined a larger community of women's advocates at the table, stronger still if they were joined on Capitol Hill by women's advocates talking about the Housing and Urban Development/Veterans Administration appropriation bill, Individual Development Accounts that create new housing opportunities or an expanded low-income tax credit.

The efforts of those who fight for women would be enhanced if the housing community put some of its weight behind efforts to pass the Violence Against Women Act, or welfare reform reauthorization, both of which have an impact on housing and the concerns of women.

The time has come to assign housing a higher priority. The facts speak for themselves. The bottom line is that housing does matter, so let us be bold. Women can be significantly more empowered if we enlarge the circle of those who are working together to address the housing crisis we face as a nation.

John F. Bohm is Director of Public Affairs for the National Housing Conference in Washington, D.C.