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Poverty Housing Defeats Families

By Tracy Kaufman

“The test of our progress is not whether we add to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough to those who have little.”
-Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States


Abandoned and dilapidated houses in Detroit not only pose the physical threat of collapsing, they can also be targets for arsonists and hideouts for squatters, drug dealers, and addicts.

Safe, affordable housing is a basic necessity for every family. Without a decent place to live, people cannot be productive members of society, children cannot learn and families cannot thrive. Until our nation’s housing crisis is remedied, other social problems will be inadequately addressed. Families will continue to lose the battle against crime, poor education, inadequate nutrition, decaying neighborhoods, insufficient health care and welfare dependency.

While many types of households in the United States face a housing crisis, it is especially important to look at the needs of households with children for two reasons: because of the special circumstances these families face in the housing market; and because, as a society, we need to address these issues to assure the well-being of the next generation. The problems faced by these families are not widely understood and the magnitude of the housing problem is appreciated by even fewer.

The Low Income Housing Information Service recently released a report entitled “Housing America’s Future: Children at Risk.” Using data from the 1993 American Housing Survey and the 1990 Census, the report looks closely at the housing needs of families with children and discusses the specific housing problems millions of American families face every day. These problems include cost burdens, housing quality problems, lead paint hazards and overcrowding.

According to the report, more than 17.6 million households with children experience at least one major housing problem. That equates to more than one out of every two households with children in this country.

Additionally, poorer families are more likely to confront housing problems–almost 87% of poor households with children experience at least one major housing problem. But by far, the most widespread challenge facing poor families is housing affordability. It affects millions in less tangible ways than other housing problems because families who pay large parts of their incomes for housing often have little left for food, clothing, health care or other necessities.

According to the report, more than 9.2 million households with children pay more than 30% of their incomes for housing. Of these, almost 3.8 million households with children pay more than half their incomes for housing, and more than 2.2 million households with children pay more than 70% of their incomes for housing.

Inadequate housing also impacts the physical and psychological development of children and the problems can be irreversible. Lead paint, for example, can be a cause of developmental and behavioral problems. High blood lead levels can have a devastating impact on young children, affecting virtually every system of the body.

The report found that more than 9.6 million households with children live in housing highly likely to contain lead paint hazards, almost half of which have children under the age of six. And, more than one out of every three renter households with children under the age of six live in housing highly likely to contain lead paint hazards.

Homeownership rates for very low income families with children dropped by more than 20% in the last 15 years. This is a concern because renter families are much more likely than homeowner families to experience housing problems such as being forced to live in unsafe housing, doubling up in single family living space, or facing homelessness.

This nation’s housing budget is being slashed at a time when housing problems continue to expand for millions of families. Almost 92% of households with children that confront housing problems receive no housing assistance. As a result, more than 16.1 million households with children are left to face their housing problems alone, while the housing of the vast majority of higher income homeowners is subsidized through tax deductions.

“The housing needs of the poor in America are profound and pervasive,” says Robert Adams, executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Of the array of housing needs in this country, none deserves more attention than that facing America’s children. We have a national responsibility to see that the childhoods of our next generation are not scarred by substandard housing and homelessness.”

Tracy Kaufman is a research associate with the National Low Income Housing Coalition/Low Income Housing Information Service. For more information, or to order “Housing America’s Future: Children at Risk,” contact the National Low Income Housing Coalition at 1012 14th St. N.W., Suite 1200, Washington, DC 20005; or call (202)662-1530, ext. 237.