Poor Feeling the Pinch as Low-Rent Housing Shrinks


For home buyers, this city ranks among the most expensive in the country: $182,300 for a typical one-family home. Developers are searching everywhere for land to build fancy homes for families with fancy incomes.

Their search has led them all the way to the Dudley Station area, on the edge of Roxbury, the largely black inner city of Boston. A few years ago, the Boston Redevelopment Authority announced that it planned to invest $750 million in the Dudley Station neighborhood. Speculators descended immediately to buy up property.

"Without one spade being put in the ground, one brick being put into place, housing costs have tripled in six years," said Mel King, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a defeated candidate for mayor.

Boston middle-class whites are still too fearful to move to the inner city. But the dream of gentrification in the future has already made housing too expensive for many poor people in Dudley Station.

What happened to the people who used to live in the area? "Some people moved . . . others doubled up," King said. "There's no place to go."

Poor people nationwide are finding the same thing: There's no place to go when wealthy city dwellers set their sights on their neighborhoods. Homelessness has become a more serious problem than at any time since the Depression. And now it is driven in considerable measure not only by poverty but by wealth.

"The last major outbreak (of homelessness) occurred as a consequence of the worst economic crisis in American history; the current situation exists in the midst of national prosperity literally unparalleled in the history of the world," sociologist James D. Wright asserts in his book "Address Unknown: The Homeless in America."

Gentrification is only one cause. Drugs and alcohol have thrown countless people onto the streets. The mentally ill, no longer automatically housed in institutions, make up another category of the homeless.

But many Americans are homeless simply because there is no affordable housing for them. To paraphrase what President Calvin Coolidge once said about unemployment: When a great many people cannot afford to live anywhere, homelessness results.

"Some of the homeless are broken-down alcoholics, but most of them are not," Wright said. "Some are mentally impaired, but most of them are not. Some are living off the benefit programs made available through the social welfare system, but most of them are not. Clearly, none of the popular mythologies provide an adequate portrait of the homeless in America today."

In Wright's view, inadequate housing is responsible for most of the nation's homelessness. The addicts and the mentally ill, he says, only obscure the fact that many of the homeless are ordinary Americans down on their luck.

If he is right, the crisis has an obvious cure--more low-rent housing. But that requires massive amounts of money, and support for affordable housing has dwindled since the Ronald Reagan Administration cut deep into federal housing subsidies nearly a decade ago.

The number of low-rent housing units, as defined in a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Low Income Housing Information Service, declined by 19% from 1970 to 1985. During that same period, the number of officially poor persons grew by 30%.

Nobody knows how many homeless Americans there are. Estimates range from the Housing and Urban Development Department's 350,000 to the National Coalition for the Homeless' 3 million. Regardless of their exact number, a large proportion of the homeless are unmistakable in all the nation's major cities--sleeping in parks, panhandling at subway stops, living in single-room-occupancy hotels and other shelters.

On the nights of March 20 and 21, pairs of U.S. Census Bureau enumerators counted the people who "appear to be homeless" as they entered soup kitchens and places where social service officials in 490 census districts said the homeless were likely to spend the night. But critics insist that the enumerators missed many of the homeless. The census figures, when finally released in a year or so, are sure to be denounced as inadequate.

Wright, a professor at Tulane University, has reviewed existing studies and examined the homeless populations in 12 large U.S. cities. He offered a "reasoned guess" of somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 people who are homeless every night and three or four times that many who are so poor that they could become homeless virtually any night of the year.

By Wright's accounting, six Americans in every 1,000 will become homeless during their lifetimes.

"By any standards, all the estimates point to a national disgrace, clearly unacceptable in a rich, humane society," said Peter H. Rossi, acting director of the Social and Demographic Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts.

Many poor people, unable to find work and pay rent, have avoided homelessness by moving in with relatives. But crowded homes are often tense, and unhappy homes and householders sometimes show the door to relatives who are unable to pay their share of the rent.

That happened to Willie Williams, a 41-year-old janitor at a homeless center in Philadelphia. Unemployed and unable to pay rent, Williams, his wife and their two children moved in with his sister.

"She's the kind of woman that, as long as you do what she says, everything is fine," Williams said in an interview. After a year, she evicted his family, and they had to take shelter for six months. For Williams, the homeless episode led to both a job and federally subsidized housing. But not all the homeless are so fortunate.

The homeless have always been among us. At the turn of the century, migrating workers and recently arrived immigrants found their ways into the cities without a place to hang their hats. The number of people without permanent addresses grew enormously during the Great Depression; the Federal Emergency Relief Administration housed upward of 125,000 people in its transient camps across the nation.

While World War II created a boom in employment, homelessness persisted. Hobos rode the rails, and Skid Row bums concentrated in the seedy parts of most U.S. cities. They were out of sight of most of the middle-class population. By contrast, many of today's homeless are clearly visible.

"These, truly, are the poorest of the poor--the new homeless--and they are best seen as the victims of large-scale social and historical trends assuredly not of their own making," Wright said.

The old homeless were typically male, white and 50 or older. Today, experts estimate that at least one-third of the homeless are women and children. A disproportionate number are black, Latino and American Indians. The adults are typically younger than a generation ago, more likely in their 30s than their 50s.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Low Income Housing Information Service reported that there were 9.7 million housing units in 1970 that were within the budgets of the nation's poor. By 1985, the groups said, the number had declined to 7.9 million. Their report defined poor families as those with incomes of less than $10,000 in 1985 dollars.

The report said that the typical poverty-level household in 1985 had an income of about $5,000 and spent 65% of it for rent and utilities. That left "only $145 per month--or less than $35 a week--remaining for all other cash expenses for all household members."

Fully 85% of renters, the report said, paid more than 30% of their incomes toward rent--HUD's standard for the maximum share of income that should be devoted to housing.

"Large declines in household incomes and increases in housing costs have driven housing out of the affordable range for many low-income households," the report concluded.

In cities across the country, community organizations are struggling to hold the line against the destruction of low-income housing.

Here in Boston, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, organized by Gus Newport, the former mayor of Berkeley, Calif., is buying all the abandoned and vacant lots it can in the largely black Roxbury neighborhood. The organization is racing against gentrification, hoping to give residents less reason to fear homelessness.

On the edge of Roxbury, Alphonse Mourad, a Lebanese-American landlord who lost his boyhood home in Boston to gentrification years ago, is still fighting--and still losing. Mourad bought a 276-unit low-rent apartment building from HUD several years ago and promised the tenants that if he could recoup his investment, he would sell the building to them. Otherwise, Mourad insisted, the building eventually would be sold on the open market and then demolished to make way for high-income tenants.

Mourad changed the identity of his apartment building by erecting a sign that stands vertically in white relief against the red brick: M-A-N-D-E-L-A. By renaming the complex after South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, Mourad hoped to inspire pride among the 1,500 predominately black, low-income residents.

That worked: The residents planted flowers, formed security patrols to force out drug dealers and prostitutes and organized a tenant-management committee that tried to preserve the place for low-income dwellers.

But the tenants were unable to raise enough funds to buy the building. Mourad, claiming he could not afford the assessed taxes, could not make his mortgage payments a few months ago and lost control of the development. He predicted that developers would eventually drive out his low-income tenants. "Right now, this area . . . is a prime location," Mourad said.

In Washington, D.C., the Lutheran Church's Trinity Housing Project has purchased and upgraded 20 ramshackle apartments for use by homeless families. Project director Mary Lou Tietz said that families are selected from about 13 family homeless shelters in Washington for the one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments in which they live until permanent housing is found for them.

Operating with an annual budget of about $215,000 from HUD, the project seeks to relocate homeless families from welfare hotels and overcrowded shelters and to give them an opportunity to become independent within two to three years. The transient house known as Trinity Arms, a comfortable building nestled amid federal government offices and dilapidated inner-city houses, opened in July, 1988. The first seven families at Trinity Arms have moved into apartments of their own.

"Most of the families that have come here are headed by single mothers," Tietz said. "They can't afford day care and housing costs on their limited salaries. Obviously they wouldn't be homeless unless they've suffered from a lot of problems."

One Trinity Arms resident is Doris Pryor, 40, who lives with her 14-year-old son and twin 5-year-old granddaughters in a three-bedroom transient apartment that she rents for $80 a month. Her rent is slightly more than one-quarter of the $300 she earns per month baby-sitting for neighbors.

The apartment is a colorful place filled with bric-a-brac, family photographs and wildlife prints. "I like to decorate," she said with a proud smile and a sweep of her arm to usher visitors into the living room.

"I've been moving around so much," she said, ticking off some half a dozen residences over the last decade. Just before moving into Trinity Arms, she had spent two months at the General Scott Inn, a motel serving as a homeless shelter. Before that, she lived with her mother in a house that provided shelter for a total of four adults and 16 children.

"After a year, she told me I had to go," Pryor said. "Like a mother, she had tried to take all the children in."

Tietz said that Pryor eventually will have to leave Trinity Arms and find a permanent place of her own. But Pryor dreads the idea of moving out.

"The past is just like something I'm trying to forget," she said, her head sagging. "I'm trying to move ahead now."

The Lutheran project is not a comprehensive approach to the problem of the homeless in Washington. It does little more than give temporary shelter to perhaps two dozen homeless families who are still searching for permanent, inexpensive housing.

For the bulk of the homeless, experts agree on what is needed: more low-cost housing. That might not entice all the drifters and alcoholics and addicts off the streets. But it would address the predicament of Pryor and the countless homeless like her.

Some states and cities, including New Jersey and Amherst, Mass., require developers to include moderately priced housing in their plans as a condition for zoning and building permits.

"Given the sums of money being made on real estate development, this does not seem an untoward or onerous restriction," Wright wrote. "Perhaps some federal matching money could be targeted for large-scale development projects to increase the number of low-rent units to be built."

Likewise, some cities are considering whether to increase their financial commitment to low-cost housing. In Atlanta, Jared Samples, a 23-year-old city councilman who grew up in one of the city's public housing projects, says that his advocacy of more affordable housing accounted for his election.

"Since 1968 there's been no more public housing in the city of Atlanta," he said. "Why can't you float a revenue bond to build affordable housing? The population in public housing is growing from within. We need to create something to provide some housing for some of these people."

But most analysts believe that only the federal government has the wherewithal to address the problem. Wright said that "a renewed federal commitment to subsidized construction of low-income units" is the most efficient answer to housing the homeless. "I think, roughly speaking, that would cost about $100 billion over the next decade so that by the year 2000, we would have an adequate supply," he said.

While Ronald Reagan was President, financing for low-income housing was substantially trimmed. The number of families receiving federal housing assistance--those living in public housing or receiving rent subsidies--has more than doubled from about 2 million in 1977 to 4.5 million now, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But much of the growth was fueled by commitments made before that period. New commitments to build public housing or provide rent subsidies fell from 375,000 in 1977 to a recent low of 78,000 in 1983 before leveling off at 100,000 for this year and the previous two.

Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, releasing a U.S. Conference of Mayors survey last fall that found increasing levels of hunger and homelessness in 27 big cities, observed that "it has not been the politically fashionable thing up on Capitol Hill to help poor people."

There was one exception. In 1987, Congress enacted the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, the first comprehensive federal law aimed at homelessness. The act provided funds for a medley of 16 programs, including support aimed at alleviating the problems of the homeless. The programs--some funding private agencies, others acting through state and local governments--supported shelters, food distribution, job training, health care, drug treatment and other activities.

But Reagan signed the bill into law only "with reluctance." Congress then appropriated less than the total sums of money authorized by the McKinney Act--$388 million for 1989, for example, compared with an authorization of $634 million. And the federal agencies responsible for administering the programs delayed releasing the available funds until housing advocates won a series of federal court rulings in Washington in 1987 and 1988 that forced them to do so.

George Bush, during one of his 1988 campaign debates with Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis, called for full funding of the McKinney Act. Since moving into the White House, he has come close to keeping his word. Congress appropriated $607.4 million in 1990, close to what the President requested. For 1991, the President has asked for an increase to $749 million.

Critics of federal efforts on behalf of the homeless are not impressed. The McKinney Act, they point out, does nothing to address the fundamental problem--insufficient low-income housing.

"Despite the new--and welcome--rhetoric, the Administration's proposals fall far short of providing a serious response to homelessness," according to an analysis of the McKinney Act by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

"Funding is still inadequate."

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