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Business First of Buffalo reports that WNY has the second most affordable housing stock of all the major metropolitan regions in the US with Rochester being the most affordable.

What seems to be lacking in this article is the meaning of affordable housing. Affordable for whom? How does one define what constitutes affordable?

According to the US Census Bureau’s American FactFinder, in the City of Buffalo 33.2% of all housing units with mortgages pay more that 30% of their household income on housing. Even more disturbing is that a staggering 55.8% of renters pay more than 30% of their income for housing. The percentage of people whose housing costs are unaffordable is very similar in Rochester and other metros.

Of course we cannot forget that there are roughly 2,000 people every night who cannot afford any housing and are homeless in Buffalo.

So, really, how affordable is housing in WNY? Or in any of these other major metro regions?

These kinds of reports almost always ignore the large number of people in our cities whose housing costs are unaffordable. To accurately talk about the housing situation in our metro regions we must talk about the millions of minimum and low wage workers who struggle with very basic housing costs.

One of the strongest themes running through the debate over whether or not a local developer should be allowed to build subsidized apartments for the elderly in West Seneca is that there is something “undesirable” about the kind of people that live in subsidized housing:

“Their main concern is they don’t want subsidized housing in town,” Piotrowski said.

The bottom line, one town official said, is that many residents don’t want “a certain element” moving into West Seneca.

Something that the residents in West Seneca should keep in mind: any homeowner who takes advantage of the mortgage interest tax deduction while they’re filing for their taxes is living in federally subsidized housing.

According to the Joint Committee on Taxation’s Estimates of Federal Tax Expenditures for Fiscal Years 2008-2012, this year the Federal Government is spending $89.4 billion on mortgage interest tax deductions for primarily middle-upper income homeowners.

This year HUD will only be spending $25.936 billion on rental assistance for low-income individuals:

There are already many thousands of units of subsidized homeowners in West Seneca. Is there anything “objectionable” about that element?

For more info and analysis of the federal government’s subsidized housing policies see the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s
Changing Priorities: The Federal Budget and Housing Assistance 1976 – 2005 and the Western Regional Advocacy Project’s
Without Housing: Decades of Federal Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness, and Policy Failures.

A recent NYT article, Study Finds More Woes Following Foster Care, found that ¼ of young adults aging out of foster care are receiving public aid and about ½ of them are unemployed. Only 6% of these young adults had a college education compared to the 29% of their peer in the general population.

The results of this study reinforce an idea that we talk a lot about at the Homeless Alliance: It is incredibly difficult to escape poverty without strong support networks. Gary Stangler, director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, captures it well:

“When these kids make a mistake, it’s life altering, they have nothing to fall back on.”

Approximately 300,000 children a year age out of foster care, and as this study indicates, their prospects appear dim. As we think about the implications of this study, it’s imperative that we keep the words of Mark Courtney, lead researcher of the study, in mind:

“We took them away from their parents on the assumption that we as a society would do a better job of raising them (…)We’ve invested a lot money and time in their care, and by many measures they’re still doing very poorly.”

To get an idea of how difficult it can be when you’re starting from scratch with little support, try taking this year’s Buffalo Poverty Challenge.

We invite you to join us for the 2010 Buffalo Poverty Challenge!

The Poverty Challenge is an exercise aimed at transforming how our community thinks about poverty and how to end it. Participants can attempt to live on the budget of a minimum wage worker or on the budget of someone at the federal poverty level.

Prominent local politcal, community, and business leaders like Mickey Kearns of Buffalo’s Common Council, Aaron Bartley of PUSH, and the Vukelic family of Try-it Distributing have taken the challenge. Visit www.povertychallenge.com to see their blog posts and videos about the diffculties they faced living at the poverty level.

This year we are partnering with www.WNYmedia.net who will be hosting the Poverty Challenge on their website.

To participate send an email to:

info@wnyhomeless.org

Write “I want to take the Poverty Challenge” in the subject.

Over the past few decades and especially since the onset of  the “Great Recession,” city, county, and state governments around the country have had to cope with increasingly dire budget deficits. The go-to solution for many policy makers has been to make large funding cuts to programs that address poverty and inequality.

While this may help balance some budgets in the short term, recent reports find that not addressing poverty and inequality, especially child poverty, ends up costing billions more in the long term.

In 2007 the Center for American Progress released The Economic Costs of Poverty in the United States: Subsequent Effects of Children Growing Up Poor. In it they found:

Most arguments for reducing poverty in the U.S., especially among children, rest on a moral case for doing so—one that emphasizes the unfairness of child poverty, and how it runs counter to our national creed of equal opportunity for all.

But there is also an economic case for reducing child poverty. When children grow up in poverty, they are somewhat more likely than non-poor children to have low earnings as adults, which in turn reflects lower workforce productivity. They are also somewhat more likely to engage in crime (though that’s not the case for the vast majority) and to have poor health later in life. Their reduced productive activity generates a direct loss of goods and services to the U.S. economy.

What’s more, crime often imposes large monetary costs to the taxpayer, costs associated with administering our huge criminal justice system. And their poor health generates illness and early mortality which not only require large healthcare expenditures, but also will  impede productivity and ultimately reduce their quality and quantity of life.

How much does childhood poverty end up costing the country?

The Center for American Progress’ report results suggest that the costs associated with childhood poverty  to the U.S. total about $500B per year, or the equivalent of nearly 4 percent of GDP.

In 2008 the Human Services Policy Center at the University of Washington released The Cost of Child Poverty State by State which broke down those costs by state.

The annual cost of New York’s 888,000 children growing up in poverty?

$33.4 billion.

Thanks to the New York State Community Action Association’s recently released 2010 New York State Poverty Report we can break that down by county.

The annual cost of Erie County’s 39,528 children growing up in poverty?

$1.51 billion.

This begs the question:

When running government like a business, does it not make sense to invest in ending poverty?

The Buffalo News’ recent investigations into City Hall’s housing policies raised some very important issues.

How much is too much to subsidize the construction of homes in the city?

Should developers receive these subsidies? Or should homeowners receive these subsidies?

Should private developers be relied upon for the development of these homes or should non-profits?

These are important questions that City Hall should spend more time thinking about as they move forward with projects like Sycamore Village. However these types of questions do not begin to challenge the ideal upon which this kind of housing policy rests: homeownership.

There are obviously many benefits to homeownership and for many people it is probably ideal.

Unfortunately homeownership is not a very affordable option for many people in Buffalo.

Homeownership requires homeowners to have a very steady and relatively high level of income. As the UB Regional Institute’s new report Playing an Insecure Hand: Low-Wage Workers in the New Economy points out, an increasingly large number of people in Buffalo are only finding inconsistent low-wage work. This kind of an income prevents many people from getting past the high upfront costs associated with buying a home. Further, even if one is able to get a mortgage, the costs associated with maintaining a home can be high. Many home owners are thus at risk of falling into foreclosure.

The Buffalo News’ report bears this out:

“Of the 431 subsidized homes that resold among the 1,500 [that have been subsidized by the City], more than half — 231 — were foreclosed upon, with most — 184 — involving the original subsidized owner. These foreclosures basically wiped out the $4 million in publicly funded subsidies the 184 foreclosed owners received.”

Obviously homeownership is a risky proposition at best for many people in the city.

Even renting is unaffordable for most people! According to the US Census Bureau’s American FactFinder, 55.8% of renters in Buffalo spend over 30% of their household income on rent. HUD states that the “generally accepted definition of affordability is for a household to pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing”.

Additionally, according to the Homeless Alliance’s statistics, roughly 2000 people cannot even afford rent on any given night and as a result are homeless.

Bearing all this in mind, should homeownership be the main focus of our housing policy?

We believe that it is time for our community to broaden its outlook on the housing situation in Buffalo beyond homeownership and begin to focus housing policy on making housing affordable to all people.

PS: For a great discussion of the development of federal housing policy and issues with its emphasis on homeownership as a guiding principle see Thomas Sugrue’s article Why the New American Real Estate Dream is Renting.

Buffalo Poverty Research Workshop

Friday, February 26, 2010
1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Networking Reception: 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Merriweather Library
1324 Jefferson Avenue (at E. Utica) | Buffalo, New York 14208

Buffalo Poverty Research Workshop – Flyer (pdf)

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