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In the housing crisis,we all live under one roof

Sunday, February 27, 2011; G01

For the past few years, I've been working with a single mother who has had to move four times, renting rooms in other people's homes so she wouldn't have to spend more than 50 percent of her monthly income on housing.

Sadly, this college graduate who earns a decent salary is not alone.

I'm going to walk you through some numbers from several reports on the housing crisis. I'm not just talking about people who have lost or risk losing their homes to foreclosure or whose property values have declined. This is about the millions nationwide - renters and homeowners - who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Don't get weary by these numbers. Take them to heart.

Nearly one in four working households spent more than half its income on housing costs in 2009, according to a report released by the Center for Housing Policy, the research affiliate of the National Housing Conference.

About one-fourth of working renters had a severe housing cost burden in 2009. Working homeowners fared better, but not by much: 21.2 percent spent more than half of their income on housing.

And consider this. The calculation of affordability in the report is based on monthly costs as a percentage of monthly gross income. For renters, this includes rent and utilities. For owners, it includes all mortgage payments, property taxes, utilities, insurance and homeowner association fees. But the housing affordability problem is far bleaker if we base the calculation on what people are paying as a percentage of their monthlytake-home pay.

A study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that nearly three-quarters of all U.S. households with incomes below the federal poverty line spend more than 50 percent of monthly household income on rent.

So-called worst-case housing needs grew by more than 20 percent from 2007 to 2009 and by 42 percent since 2001, according to a report released this month by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD says people designated as worst cases are renters with very low incomes (below half the median in their area) who do not receive government housing assistance and who either paid more than half their monthly incomes for rent, lived in severely substandard conditions, or both. The increase in worst-case housing needs represents the largest two-year jump since HUD began reporting this segment of the rental market in 1985.

So if the problem of affordable housing is at crisis levels, why then do both the Obama administration and the House Republicans target affordable-housing programs for major budgetary cuts?

But even as I ask the question, I know there are many ready to argue that if people (meaning poor people) just worked harder, they too could afford to live in a nicer place.

Yet many people are working hard, slashing unnecessary expenses from their personal budgets, and they still can't afford a decent place to live. The rise in housing hardship is the result of high unemployment, underemployment, shrinking incomes and the growing competition for already scarce affordable units, the studies found.

The administration has proposed to reduce federal aid to a program it concedes accomplishes its goal of increasing the supply of low-income housing. President Obama's budget also includes cuts to two programs that provide grants and operating subsidies to nonprofit groups that construct multi-family housing for very low-income elderly and very low-income people with disabilities.

The House GOP budget version calls for even deeper cuts to housing-assistance programs.

"The large cuts being proposed in government housing programs couldn't come at a worse time," said Jeffrey Lubell, executive director of the Center for Housing Policy.

I'm a fiscal conservative. I believe we all must endure some pain so that our federal, state and local governments can balance their budgets. But if we slash affordable-housing programs, which are already struggling to help the most needy, we will increase the number of homeless families and make the economic crisis even worse. Families won't have much left in their budgets to pay for such essentials as nutritious foods, child care and health care, Lubell said.

The homeless population increased in 31 states and the District of Columbia from 2008 to 2009, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In the United States overall, it rose 3 percent.

We all have to care about this. Affordable housing should be a fundamental right.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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