A secure home is the foundation for everything else in life. So when more than twenty million Americans don’t have a decent place to live at a rent they can reasonably afford, everyone pays the price. Families are forced cut back on essentials such as food and medical treatment, and this leads to higher healthcare costs for taxpayers in the long run. Run-down homes are more likely to have issues with lead, mold and rodent infestations; this leads to more emergency room visits for children with asthma (an illness all too common for kids with insecure housing). Children living in crowded, unsafe homes are also more likely to have behavioral problems and trouble in school, leading to more crime and poverty. Affordable housing developments built to modern standards are better for the power grid and for the environment. More affordable housing means safer neighborhoods, better prepared students, and more productive members of society who are able and eager to build opportunities for future generations.
Does all this sound like wishful thinking? The data backs it up, especially when it comes to children’s well-being. Research out of Stanford University found that kids living in “high opportunity” affordable housing are likely to earn more than 30 percent higher wages when they reach adulthood. They’re also less likely to become single parents.
Families without reliable affordable housing are likely to move often; and frequent moves make it nearly impossible to succeed in school. Why? Missed school days, a lack of continuity in lessons, worse home environments for studying, and disrupted relationships with trusted teachers and friends. Among adolescents, those who moved four or more times before age 16 were more likely to use illicit drugs at an early age. Research also shows that kids who move often are more likely to drop out of school than peers with similar risk factors who don’t have to switch homes. It’s clear that housing instability is disastrous not just for the individual student but for the school environment as a whole.
As for adults, when they can’t keep up with the rent, they face a perfect storm of well-documented problems. They are less likely to fill a prescription and less likely to keep up with healthcare treatments. Overcrowding in homes has been tied to high blood pressure and the spread of infectious disease. Women without secure homes are less likely to use social services because they worry that their housing situation will cause them to lose custody of their children. And domestic violence comes into play: it’s a leading cause of homelessness for women and children, but research shows that when a decent home is hard to come by, women are more likely to return to their abusers.
None of this is inevitable: according to a study from the Center for Outcomes Research and Education, when low-income households moved into certain types of affordable housing, Medicaid expenditures fell by twelve percent (and dropped even more for seniors and the disabled). For just the 1625 people in the study group, the Medicaid savings was almost a million dollars. Expand that to the millions more households that would benefit from better affordable homes and the money saved is nothing short of staggering. As a report from the Center for Housing Policy Research put it, “The improvements in clinical outcomes and corresponding health care costs are greater than the costs of the housing improvements.”
Here’s something that’s easy to understand even without a single study (although there is plenty of research to prove it). Housing instability–meaning frequent moves, overcrowding, and the threat of eviction or foreclosure–makes people stressed, depressed, and hopeless. And unless new policies are put in place to create more homes that people can afford, these problems will only get worse.
It’s not that people aren’t working hard enough: in fact, even working full time, there is no state in the U.S. where a minimum wage earner can afford a modest one-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent. In most of the country, they would need to put in between 60-80 hours a week to afford such a place. In a typical medium-sized town in New York State, like Poughkeepsie, they’d have to work 89 hours– that’s two people working more than 40 hours a week each just to share a simple one-bedroom. (As for New York City? Fuhgeddaboudit.)
And it’s not that people aren’t looking in the right places: there simply aren’t enough affordable homes. The shortage of homes priced for the lowest income levels is so extreme that nationwide, only 35 units are available for every hundred households that need them.
Even if we could line everyone up and hand out front door keys, we’d be 7.4 million short. And every year some of the rentals priced for those at lower incomes disappear from the housing supply, either due to age and damage, or for more complicated reasons related to housing policy. (Every night some 600,000 people are homeless– many holding down jobs all the while– and a quarter of those are kids. Today only one out of four income-eligible renters gets the help they need.
So what do people do? They crowd in with relatives, friends, or strangers. They end up in homes far away from their jobs, sometimes with barely livable conditions: unsafe places without reliable electricity, water, or heat. They make impossible choices: Pay the rent and skip groceries? Cover the phone bill and risk the utilities? What will happen if I don’t refill this prescription? How long will it take to walk to work instead of taking the bus? When there’s not enough money to pay the rent, there’s simply no right answer to these questions.
But here’s some simple math: every 11 seconds another family is evicted. In the few minutes it took you to read these paragraphs, another 16 families were told to leave their homes. Data provided by the government and analyzed in depth by housing experts allows for no other interpretation: America is facing an unprecedented crisis in affordable housing. Something must be done.