By Andrew Flowers, fivethirtyeight.com
“In 2013, everything crumbled all at once,” Makera Meng said. She and her husband ran a business — an international grocery store — in South Portland, Maine, where they also owned a home. But that year, her mom died of cancer, they lost the business and her husband moved to Cambodia, where she had emigrated from three decades earlier. After 10 years of owning it, she lost her home, too. “I’m a good citizen, I work hard and I pay taxes,” she said. But she hasn’t been able to catch a break.
As a single mom raising four kids on little more than a welfare check, Meng qualifies for government housing assistance. But like most low-income Americans, she isn’t getting any. The waiting list for housing aid in South Portland is two to five years long; she’s been on it since 2013. In the meantime, she is paying $1,500 a month, utilities not included, for a three-bedroom apartment. “All the income I have is going to housing,” Meng said.
The Mengs are just one of millions of families across the U.S. that are struggling to find affordable housing. The government has established several housing assistance programs to help them, but the vast majority of poor Americans don’t receive any housing aid. And the problem is getting worse: The share of poor families that devote more than half of their income to housing costs has risen by 10 percentage points since 1991.
Activists and experts say the U.S. is in the midst of its worst affordable housing crisis in decades. “The evidence does suggest that since the 1960s, this is the worst it’s ever been,” said Barbara Sard, vice president for housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank.
Experts say there are really two distinct problems. The first is affordability: Rents are rising, particularly in many expensive coastal cities, while wages for low-income workers have been nearly stagnant for much of the past 15 years. That leaves many poor families unable to afford housing on their own. Second, government housing-assistance programs haven’t kept up with demand even though new research suggests that unaffordable housing is an important cause of poverty.
The problem starts with affordability. For nearly 80 years — dating back to the Housing Act of 1937 — federal policymakers have defined families as being “burdened” if they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, including utilities.
But poor families often spend more than that. Just 20 percent of households earning less than $20,000 per year spent less than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to the 2013 American Housing Survey. Of the other 80 percent, about half devoted more than 50 percent of their income to housing. (For context: In 2013, the federal poverty guideline for a family of three was $19,530.) That’s a stark contrast to middle-class and affluent renting families,1 the majority of which paid less than 30 percent toward housing. And this trend has gotten worse: The percentage of renters below the poverty line who spent more than 50 percent of their income on housing rose from 42 percent to 52 percent between 1991 and 2013.
“Low-income people simply cannot afford low-income housing,” said Alex Schwartz, a professor of urban policy at The New School.
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