Homeless Advocates Tell Congress Gentrification is Unfair to the Poor

January 15, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Felipe, center, and George Arroyo, right, look for carton boxes to burn inside a garbage can to keep an improvised fire going at a makeshift camp on Roosevelt Road near the Dan Ryan Expressway on Jan 30, 2019. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

WASHINGTON – Advocates for the homeless described for a congressional committee Tuesday how urban gentrification is pushing up home prices and pushing out residents who are ready, willing and able to work.

The worst of the hardship is falling on families, according to witnesses before the House Financial Services Committee.

“While more than half a million people have no place to call home, there are millions more who are on the brink of experiencing homelessness because they can’t afford to pay rent,” said U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. “According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, more than 10 million low income households are severely cost-burdened, meaning that they spend more than 50 percent of their earnings on rent.”

She mentioned an example in her home district, which includes the city of Inglewood. Gentrification led developers to build a new football stadium and entertainment district.

“As a result, longtime residents have seen their rents spike or have even been evicted to make way for newer, wealthier tenants,” she said.

Rep. Katie Porter. D-Calif., spoke about a program in her home district called Welcome Home Orange County. It is a public-private joint venture between the county and the United Way.

Under the program, households receiving federal government rental assistance pay a predetermined part of their income toward their rent. The Orange County Housing Authority pays the rest of their rent directly to the property owners, up to an amount set by standards of the program.

The property owners get additional assistance, like holding fees, security deposits and free furnishings for renters. They also get to fill vacancies quickly from a wait list of pre-screened applicants.

Porter asked witnesses whether a program like Welcome Home Orange County “could be a useful benefit” in other places where renters use HUD vouchers to help them avoid homelessness.

She also asked what programs are available to help foster children who age out of foster homes and into homelessness.

The witnesses agreed her ideas could help ease homelessness but did not go into detail.

Gentrification refers to real estate development that changes the character of a neighborhood through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses.

The Financial Services Committee is considering a bill designed to offer relief to tenants hurt by gentrification.

The bill, H.R. 1856, the Ending Homelessness Act, would provide more than $13 billion in new funding for programs that serve the homeless..

It would increase the supply of affordable housing units and vouchers to subsidize rent payments. Participants also would get case management and technical assistance.

“When I speak to families in my district who are dealing with homelessness, I see the toll this housing insecurity is taking on them, including their children, who can’t concentrate in school because they’re sleeping in a car at night,” Waters said.

Rents are increasing for low-income families at a higher rate than wages, while the supply of affordable housing has decreased by four million units since 2011, according to a study by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Affordable housing refers to housing with prices affordable to those whose incomes are no higher than the median for a community, while still being able to purchase food and the basics of transportation and medical care. Many cities require developers to set aside apartments for low income people with rents classified as “affordable.”

“Only one in four households who qualify for federal housing assistance receives it due to a lack of funding,” according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report.

Although gentrification provides benefits for well-financed households, it can deepen the desperation of low-income residents, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia said in a 2016 report. The research showed that when lower income residents are displaced by gentrification, they move to higher poverty neighborhoods with fewer resources such as public transportation and employment opportunities.

Traditionally, low-income residents have used federal subsidies, known as Housing and Urban Development Section 8 vouchers, to pay around 30 percent of their rent.

Increasingly, the needs are outpacing the supply, said Priya Jayachandran, president of the nonprofit advocacy group National Housing Trust.

“According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, the gap between supply and demand for rental units affordable and available to very low-income households is 7.2 million,” she said in her testimony.

Vouchers and other federal housing assistance come with time limits and many are due to expire within a few years, Jayachandran said. As a result, more than one million families are at risk of losing their homes.

Some of the most moving testimony came from Jeffrey Williams, a Virginia-based tenant advocate who described his family’s eviction from their home.

While he worked as a security guard, his family was unable to pay their rent, despite missing some meals to save money.

“It was morning time when the knock came on the door,” Williams testified. “We were getting the kids ready for school. The sheriff’s men were outside. They told us, ‘You gotta get out. Get your stuff and get out.’”

The family left their home with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Nearly all their other possessions were piled in front of the apartment.

“Somehow, we managed to get the kids out the door and to school that morning,” Williams said. “Then my wife Kelly and I sat in a bus stop across from all our stuff piled on the lawn in front of the house so we could keep an eye on our belongings.”

The family moved from one low-rent motel to another for three years before they could finally afford a new home.

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