Homelessness Is Down, But More Families are on the Brink

For too long we've ignored America's housing insecurity crisis, in part because it happens behind closed doors, hidden from the public eye. We can no longer afford to do so.
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Homelessness in the United States is on the decline. According to a report released last week by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, on any given night about 578,000 people sleep in homeless shelters or on the street. That number has dropped by 11 percent since 2010 -- the year that the White House launched an ambitious plan to prevent and end homelessness in the U.S.

This is terrific news for our country, in part because it proves that the homelessness problem is solvable. But last week's report only tells part of the story.

As America's homeless population declines, an unprecedented number of families in the U.S. are living on the brink of homelessness. Last month, new data from the Census Department revealed that a staggering 11 million renter households -- one in every four -- spend at least half of their monthly income on rent. That number has increased by more than 82 percent since 2000, as rents have steadily increased while wages stagnated.

These families are considered "housing insecure," as they are often just one unforeseen event -- an illness, a job loss, even a drop in hours at work -- from seeing an eviction notice on their front door. In the meantime, they have to sacrifice and make difficult trade-offs simply to keep a roof over their heads. Some have to settle for overcrowded or unsafe housing, while others are left with impossible choices: make rent or buy groceries, pay the electric bill or put gas in the car to get to work.

Think about it: millions of families, every day and in every community, are living in crisis. They are parents working to provide for their children. Seniors. Men and women with disabilities. Veterans who fought bravely for our country.

For too long we've ignored America's housing insecurity crisis, in part because it happens behind closed doors, hidden from the public eye. We can no longer afford to do so.

Here's the good news: in the same way we know that homelessness is a solvable problem, we know what it takes to help families out of housing insecurity. It may seem obvious, but the answer is quality, affordable housing. And while the specific needs vary from community to community, three basic components are key to success: capital, solutions and policy.

First, we need more capital to build and preserve quality, affordable homes connected to opportunity. That requires investors who are willing to tackle the problem head on, as well as new financial tools to draw private capital into neighborhoods that have long suffered from underinvestment and neglect. For example, my organization, Enterprise Community Partners, has pioneered several innovative investment tools that bring tangible results for communities -- affordable homes, health care centers, educational facilities, commercial space for local businesses -- alongside financial returns.

Second, we need to test and scale new programs in the field. While our solutions should be local, based on each region's unique needs, we should replicate programs that are already proving effective. If a particular housing program in Cleveland, for example, is clearly effective, we should try and implement successful elements of that program in Detroit, and Atlanta, and so on. We should scale what works.

Third, we need to rebalance housing policy at the federal, state and local levels, with a focus on the families that are most in need of assistance. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the federal government spends roughly $270 billion each year to help families buy or rent homes, more than half of which goes to families that earn more than $100,000 per year. Less than a quarter went to families earning less than $30,000, who are most likely to be housing insecure. Clearly, we need to reevaluate our national priorities and distribution of resources.

As a country, we should be proud of our progress combatting homelessness and build on solutions that are proven to make an even bigger dent in the problem. At the same time, we must focus our attention on the much larger group of people that are the next homeless, the near homeless -- people who are one paycheck away from losing their home.

Like homelessness, we know that housing insecurity is a problem that we can solve for good. All we need is the will to do so.

Terri Ludwig is the president and CEO of Enterprise Community Partners, a national organization that creates and advocates for affordable homes in thriving communities linked to jobs, good schools, health care and transportation.

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