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One Woman’s Crisis Shows How Affordable Housing Policy Turns Its Back on the Poor
This week, a 59-year old, disabled African American woman in Minneapolis received 10 days-notice that her lease is being terminated, and almost no one cares. This woman, “Annie,” has been homeless before, and in a few short days, she will be homeless again. She was being housed under a state program through Minnesota Housing and Finance Administration called, “Ending Long-Term Homelessness.” She has had partial-complex, temporal lobe epilepsy since the age of 14, which, untreated, would cause her to suffer multiple seizures per day.
Most of her life, her condition was untreated. She also suffered a major stroke in 2010. Her neurological deficits cause her to be short-tempered, and her life experiences as a black woman growing up in the Deep South cause her to be intolerant of disrespect. She is being evicted because she lost her temper with her property manager, a woman known for being habitually dismissive and disrespectful toward her residents. This property manager was even written up in a local newspaper for harassing and intimidating residents who had issues with their apartments. (I would link to the article, but that risks identifying “Annie”). There are specific reasons why this woman can easily be tossed on the street with no options for alternative housing available to her.
All of them have to do with our countrys’ current deplorable state of affordable housing, and laws applicable to that which does exist. First, during the Clinton administration, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros drafted a policy colloquially referred to as the “One Strike and You’re Out Law” that would end up being included in the HOPE (Housing Opportunity Extension) Act of 1996. This policy was supposed to improve the living conditions in public housing by decreasing crime. In practice, it has been applied with draconian zeal to people who never committed a crime. For example, in the case Rucker vs. Davis, Pearlie Rucker, a 63-yr old grandmother was evicted because her grandson had received a drug conviction. Initially, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, saying that she couldn’t be punished for something another member of her family had done. However, our punitive, conservative Supreme Court, never missing a chance to violate the rights of a disenfranchised poor or minority person, reversed the decision in 2002, allowed Ms. Rucker to be put on the streets.
As with every decision they have ruled on in the past decade, they focused on the words of the lease contract. Which Ms. Rucker had to helplessly agree to when she signed the lease, lest she remain on the streets. This Supreme Court has shown a repeated propensity to interpret law by focusing on the letter of the contract or patent or statute rather than on the underlying (in)justice of the document in question. Over time, the “One Strike and You’re Out” Law has resulted in hundreds of thousands of evictions. A great many of these have been based on the actions of other family members, friends, and guests. They have evicted people for alleged crimes that didn’t occur near public housing. The case of Shelly Anderson is particularly egregious. Shortly before she was to receive a kidney, she was informed that she was to be evicted from her public housing unit, because of the actions of her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Her mother and her mother’s boyfriend were found in possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia in their own home. Because they sometimes watched Shelly Anderson’s children while Shelly was at dialysis, her mother had left one of her drug paraphernalia items hidden in Shelly Andersons’ home, and police executed a search warrant and found it there.
No one is accusing Shelly Anderson of being involved. Everyone, including the Housing Authority, agrees that her mother is to blame for the situation, but that is not stopping them from evicting Shelly and her three children. This is not uncommon. In a Chicago Reporter article, the author found a stunning 86% of Chicago residents evicted from public housing were sent packing because of the actions of someone other than the lease holder. Many other stories abound of people evicted from their public housing units, and many other stories are never told. There’s 77-year old Herman Walker, who requires round-the-clock care, who lost his housing because his caretaker was caught with a crack pipe. This occurred despite the fact that Mr. Walker fired this caretaker once he found out about her offense. And now, there’s “Annie”, who is being evicted on a one-strike offense unrelated to drugs. This disabled woman with a temper issue known to be related to her neurological disability is being evicted because she “threatened” her property manager, a woman well known for her ill treatment of residents. Aside from the casualties of the War on Drugs that result from the One-Strike Law, there are other major issues with affordable housing that will result in Annie returning to homelessness. Affordable housing is defined in terms of how great the percentage of total monthly income a household’s rent or mortgage payment represents. Far too many people are paying more than 50% of their income for housing. This week, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported that unmet need for rental assistance has skyrocketed, resulting in a 47% jump just since 2007.
The availability of truly affordable housing or Section 8 housing has become so limited that waiting lists have not only become years long, in many locations the waiting lists themselves have been closed to further applicants (like the Twin Cities where the list has been closed since 2008). Landlords have themselves contributed to lack of affordable housing by ending their participation in Section 8 programs. Thereby hoping to charge higher rents as renters flooded the markets during the post-mortgage meltdown crisis. Another tragedy is that for those lucky enough to get into the scarce units of public housing, HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) admits the units have become dilapidated and need about 26 billion dollars in maintenance, having gone without repairs or upkeep in years. The number of units of housing available to rent at a lower cost is grossly insufficient, and the country could benefit substantially from a large-scale building project, (which would also serve nicely as a jobs program). However, 90% what passes for affordable housing in the United States doesn’t even begin to help people who are truly needy. Most of the country’s investment is in a program called the Low Income Housing Tax Credit or Section 42 housing originating in 1986 under Reagan.
Essentially, this program provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits to investors who ostensibly build low-income housing. Here’s how that works in reality. A company builds say 100 units in a high income area like Minneapolis where Annie lives. As “investors,” they get to write off the costs of acquiring, building and/or developing a property in exchange for promising to have at least 20% of the units rented by households whose incomes are 50% of the area median income and 40% of the units rented by households whose incomes are 60% of the area median income. To break down what that means, the area median income for Minneapolis is approximately $81,000 (in 2009). The “low-income” home developers/investment partnerships thus must rent 20% of their units to people making $40,500 or less and another 40% of their units to people making less than $48,600. The end result is that these allegedly low-income, affordable units are potentially going to people with incomes two times the poverty line for a family of three ($19,090). Under this program, the landlord can charge government-specified rent values for the Minneapolis area that result in a one-bedroom costing $650 a month, barely less than “fair market rates. “Annie” lives in one of these “rent-controlled” apartments built by the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, and thus supported by the largest affordable housing program in the country. If she had not been fortunate enough to participate in the “End Homelessness Now” program, her rent would have been $588 for her efficiency apartment (discounted $4 from fair market rent because of the participation of her property in Section 42), but because of the program, it was $389.
While this helped “Annie”, it is still over 50% of her income, which comes from SSI disability income of $710 a month. She receives the average $118 a month in food stamps for a single person. She will be unable to access Section 8(or 202, the elderly and disabled equivalent) housing, which actually does bring down the monthly rental costs of poor people to levels they can afford, because, again, the program’s waiting list is years long, and won’t be opening up any time soon. So, in ten days, an African-American, disabled woman, living in poverty will be kicked out of her “low-income housing” that for most people was never really all that affordable to begin with, but at least her property company participated in a program that brought down the rent enough that her SSI check could cover it. Her options on the open market are non-existent as she will not be able to afford the fair market rent of $592 for an efficiency apartment, and still pay utilities, medical co-pays, transportation costs, basic living expenses, etc. She has no chance of ever accessing the only real program for low-income renters, Section 8. “Annie” is going to be homeless, and almost no one cares.