On an abandoned park site in New York City, two homeless men had begun building a home. By the time the city sent a crew to clear out the encampment, flooring and insulation were being installed. The situation reflects the lack of affordable housing, not only in New York but across the United States.
“Housing affordability is an issue all across the country, in large, urban cities as well as rural areas,” said Jeff Tucker, an economist at Zillow, the online real estate database company. In the Miami metro area, the typical home value is $286,700 according to Tucker. An annual income of over $70,000 – significantly higher than Miami’s median household income – is required to qualify for a mortgage; so is a 20 percent down payment. “Although monthly payments on a home may look affordable, saving for a down payment is a major financial barrier that is hard to clear for many would-be buyers,” said Tucker.
“There is a direct relationship between the lack of affordable housing and homelessness,” said Jamie Ross, CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition. Florida has the third-largest homeless population in the United States, according to the organization’s most recent report. The Florida Housing Coalition supports nonprofits and local governments with training and technical assistance in the pursuit of creating and maintaining affordable housing.
“We have close to a million households in the state of Florida who are very low income, and they spend more than half of that income on housing,” said Ross. These low-income households are often only one step away from homelessness. Any interference with a paycheck – a broken car, a medical bill, getting laid off from a job – and they won’t be able to pay their rent.
“If you’re living hand-to-mouth, living on minimum wage, and you barely have enough money to cover food and utilities, then that unexpected expense could lead to homelessness,” said Áine Duggan, CEO of The Partnership for the Homeless, a New York City organization that focuses on preventing homelessness.
“Homelessness is primarily about the lack of affordable housing,” said Duggan. “The cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing and the solution to homelessness is the provision of affordable housing.”
The Partnership’s programming is geared toward preventing eviction — the most cost-effective way to solve homelessness, according to Duggan. “With all of our programming combined, we’ve touched about 50,000 households this year,” she said.
The Partnership provides families with the extra money needed to make sure they can pay rent. The organization also mediates with landlords on behalf of tenants and offers legal assistance.
It’s incredibly difficult for low-income individuals and families to find affordable apartments in New York. Current vacancy rates are almost 9 percent for apartments that rent for more than $2,500 per month. The rate for apartments that are around $1,000 per month is a little over 2 percent.
In Miami-Dade, there is a lengthy waiting list for housing. It’s estimated the county needs to build or preserve at least 50,000 affordable units just to meet existing need.
“I get maybe a hundred calls a month from people who want housing right away,” said Antonio Villasuso, executive director of Miami Rescue Mission. Sometimes he can place ten people in one day and other times none at all. It depends on availability.
Villasuso often encounters families living in cars or motels. The Miami Rescue Mission works with different agencies to get people placed in housing as fast as possible and assists with meals and employment. The organization also provides support services such as counseling to help people remain stable in their homes once they’ve been placed.
For more than a decade, lawmakers have redirected money from the state’s housing trust fund to other priorities, leaving vulnerable populations to depend on aid from private organizations. This year’s budget allocated a large portion of the available funds to hurricane recovery in the Panhandle and may leave some areas with no state funding at all for affordable housing.