Public Comment

The Homeownership Hornswoggle

By Sonja Fitz
Thursday April 30, 2009 - 07:16:00 PM

“When Secretary Alfonso Jackson in the Bush administration proposed ending Section 8 assistance to lower-income people in need of help to rent decent apartments, I objected that this would leave people with no affordable housing after five years. When I asked him directly what he planned to do for those who would find themselves in this situation if his five-year cap on Section 8 eligibility were to go through, his reply was that we would help these recipients become homeowners.” 

—Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) 


Is Washington mental? Where can you buy a home with very low income from naught but Social Security or disability benefits? The Ozarks? The Okefenokee? The still-devastated part of New Orleans? 

This exchange is extremely telling, demonstrating the brainwashing we have all experienced about the “everyone-can-have-it” American Hoax—sorry, Dream. It’s not called a dream for nothing, people: for thousands upon thousands of us, those on fixed very low incomes, who may never work more than parttime if at all, it will always be a dream. A very pretty white-picketed-fence dream. But let’s get real. 

A recent report by the Technical Assistance Collaborative Inc. (TAC) and Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) Housing Task Force, “Priced Out: The Housing Crisis for People with Disabilities,” demonstrates yet again that rental housing—the gawky, impossibly uncool cousin of the American Dreamy homeownership industry—remains an essential yet vastly underfunded option for people with very low incomes, in particular people with disabilities. The National Low Income Housing Coalition demonstrates this annually with their Out of Reach report containing state-by-state details on the “housing wage” needed to afford a mere 1-BR apartment let alone one’s own home, and California Budget Project issues an annual Locked Out report on the status of the affordable housing crisis. Here are the facts: 

Renting ain’t cheap. On average across the nation, people with disabilities would have to pay 112 percent of their monthly income to rent a modest one-bedroom unit. The national average rent for said modest one-bedroom unit rose from $462 in 1998 to $749 in 2008—an increase of 62 percent. In Oakland, the NLIHC “housing wage” needed to afford a 1-BR apt. is $21.02 an hour. 

You try living on $668 a month. In 2008, the national average income of a person with a disability receiving SSI was $668 per month or $8,016 annually—equal to only 18.6 percent of the national median income for a one-person household. That level of income was almost 30 percent below the 2008 federal poverty level of $10,400 for an individual. In Oakland, the SSI payment is $807, a whopping 17.4 percent of median income. 

It’s illegal, but it happens. In fair housing tests conducted by HUD in the Chicago area to determine the prevalence of disability discrimination in housing, people with hearing disabilities were subjected to illegal acts of housing discrimination in 48 percent of the tests. People using wheelchairs were the victims of discrimination in 43 percent of the tests. The incidence of disability discrimination in these tests exceeded levels of discrimination uncovered in testing based on race and national origin. 


We need thousands more rental housing units. We need them now. And we need them to be affordable. (And yes, Mr. or Ms. Developer, that means affordable to someone on poverty. There are developments that define ‘affordable’, for the purpose of satisfying urban construction mixed use mandates, as targeted to tenants with $40K incomes—four times what an SSI recipient receives.) 


Homelessness is the most visible symptom of the housing crisis, but there are also thousands of hidden homeless who desperately need rental housing. According to Priced Out, “A crisis of much larger magnitude remains hidden within institutions where tens of thousands of people with disabilities live, simply because they cannot afford decent housing in the community. Over 420,000 people under the age of 65 live in nursing homes, many of them residing there unnecessarily because of the lack of community-based housing. Hundreds of thousands of other people with disabilities, including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental illnesses, and physical disabilities, live in group quarters, such as Intermediate Care Facilities for the Mentally Retarded (ICFs/MR), mental hospitals, community residences, halfway houses, shelters, transitional living facilities, and board and care homes.” That’s tens of thousands of people living in institutions, dependent on the system, dignity and quality of life impaired—because they cannot afford an apartment.  


Yet we have done a disastrously poor job of creating rental housing for over three decades—in California, rental housing production fell roughly 70% between 1970 and 1990, and while it rebounded somewhat in the 2000s, the number of units created annually is still 50% of former levels: we remain far behind in terms of having adequate units to meet demand. To that end, the Priced Out authors recommends some concrete steps to help us create more rental housing for the people who need it, and hopefully nudge our ownership-obsessed national psyche towards a bit more reality, by enacting legislation to create at least 5,000 new units of permanent supportive housing (rental housing with on-site services for the disabled) each year, providing 10,000 new HUD-funded housing vouchers for people with disabilities, providing additional funding to the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund, reinvigorating fair housing (anti-discrimination) protections, and coordinating a national Disability Housing Policy across federal agencies. 


Can we all just get over the ownership mystique already? Never mind the fact that urban living necessitates higher housing density to pack us all in, never mind the fact that not everyone even wants the headache of fixing their own plumbing, mowing their own lawn, and property taxes, and most all never mind the fact that not everyone can afford a mortgage, thank you very much—the Bush administration and the Clinton administration before that pushed ownership upon us as the salvation for all of our housing woes. The result? Subprime mortgages and a worldwide economic meltdown. 


So a little more love for renting, please. Not only is it more affordable for the thousands of people who need it, it is more efficient in terms of energy consumption and land use. Climb over that white picket fence and rejoin reality. We need more rentals. 


Sonja Fitz, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS) ~ BOSS is a nonprofit organization that provides housing, health, economic development, and social justice services to help families and individuals overcome homelessness in Alameda County, California,