Affordable housing?

Sept. 28 (New Castle, PA – Youngstown, OH, 17.3 miles)

Absent from many discussions of affordable housing are a few realities. First, much of “affordable” housing is substandard, owned by slum lords who charge too high a rent payment for poor quality housing. Second, many people who can afford rent payments in an affordable unit cannot manage to scrape together the standard one-month security deposit.

While I was staying at the Covenant House shelter in New Castle, Pa., I talked with one resident “Kelly” who was there because she was battling cancer. She could not work while she was receiving treatments, and, since her job as a dishwasher in a restaurant was part-time she had no health benefits. So she was forced to apply for welfare, which pays her $195 a month, and live with one relative or another until she found space in the shelter.

She is now on a waiting list to move into subsidized housing. Kelly said she has been criticized for being “too picky” in where she will accept to live, ruling out housing in areas that have frequent gun violence or are substandard.

Even before she got sick, Kelly told me, she was struggling to pay an ever-increasing rent payment. She said the house had several different owners and each new one would charge a slightly higher rent. I asked her why she didn’t simply move. Kelly said she would have moved but she could barely afford rent on her dishwasher’s wages let alone a new security deposit.

I do not know the solution to cleaning up substandard, slum housing. We cannot force someone to provide good housing–we can only prevent them from renting unacceptable housing. Perhaps local governments should be empowered to seize housing when landlords refuse to make the necessary renovations and offer existing tenants the opportunity to improve the homes through the “sweat equity” format used by Habitat for Humanity. Communities must hold slum lords accountable and ensure that a lack of a security deposit does not stand in the way of a safe and affordable place to call home.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper