Housing Affordability and Race: A Civil Rights Issue?

FILE - In this file photograph taken Feb. 23, 2009, a foreclosure sign blows in the wind in front of a home under foreclosure
FILE - In this file photograph taken Feb. 23, 2009, a foreclosure sign blows in the wind in front of a home under foreclosure in Antioch, Calif. More than 1.5 million older Americans already have lost their homes, with millions more at risk as the national housing crisis takes its toll on those who are among the worst positioned to weather the storm, a new AARP report says. Older African Americans and Hispanics are the hardest hit. "The Great Recession has been brutal for many older Americans," said Debra Whitman, AARP's policy chief. "This shows that home ownership doesn't guarantee financial security later in life." (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

Every year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition releases its "Out of Reach" study, which analyzes the ability of low-income renters to afford decent housing. This year, the study found that a full-time worker in the U.S. must earn $18.79 per hour to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment while spending no more than 30 percent of their income -- the amount the government sets as "affordable" -- on housing costs. Currently, an average renter earns only about a $14.32 hourly wage.

Put another way, the Coalition's study determined that in order to comfortably afford a two-bedroom apartment at the average national fair market rent rate of $977, a family needs an annual household income of $39,080. A new analysis of Out of Reach 2013 by the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC) shows that there are approximately 22.5 million families (29.4 percent) in the U.S. with annual income less than the estimated threshold income. This national estimate does not take into account regional variations, but it is still helpful in thinking about the depth of housing needs in our country.

But there is also another housing affordability crisis hidden in these data -- at the intersection of race, class, and rent. While 22.8 percent of Asian families and 23.4 percent of non-Hispanic White families earn less than the estimated threshold income, a whopping 46 percent of Hispanic families and 47.6 percent of Black families earn less than this amount.

When families must shell out more than 30 percent of their income to pay for housing, they're described as "cost burdened." This means that they'll have less money to pay for health care, food, educational expenses and a host of other basic needs. And the wealth gap between the races will continue to grow since people of color disproportionately fall into this category.

It's true, of course, that most poor people in this country are white, and powerful data on homelessness and poverty resonates with most Americans, whether they live in Red or Blue states. But filtering the income data by race and ethnicity demonstrates the disproportional impact of this crisis on people of color, and shows that housing affordability is also a civil rights issue.

The vast racial differences in housing affordability should concern all Americans, since all communities will be affected. Lack of access to affordable housing has a wide range of impacts on nutrition, physical and mental health, and educational outcomes.

Americans from all walks of life will surely feel the impact as the federal government begins to slash $85 billion from military and domestic programs to comply with the Budget Control Act's sequestration. In fact, Shaun Donovan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, estimated that a staggering 125,000 Americans could wind up homeless if they lose aid from the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program because of budget cuts. These sequestration cuts will disproportionately impact low income families of color already struggling to find affordable housing.

Government actions are rarely race-neutral in their impacts -- unless the government is careful in how implementation is carried out. The sequestration is a particularly blunt instrument, and we fear that it will only serve to exacerbate the racial disparities in housing affordability revealed by this data.

The PRRAC analysis can be downloaded by clicking HERE.
For additional information on Out of Reach 2013, visit http://www.nlihc.org/oor/2013

Philip Tegeler is executive director of the Policy & Race Research Action Council, a civil rights policy organization based in Washington, D.C. Receive PRRAC's Bimonthly Updates by clicking HERE