Homeless issue must be addressed

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Congress is not doing anywhere near enough to help the poor meet their housing needs.

In the appropriations bill that just passed, Congress raised by 5 percent the amount it spends on the Section 8 housing program to subsidize rent payments. But this amount covers only a tiny fraction of those who need support.

Then Congress went in the opposite direction and cut funds for housing assistance to the disabled, the elderly and the homeless.

Housing is by far the largest expenditure for most lower- and middle-income families. Some 13 million American households must spend half or more of their income for rent or mortgage payments, according to the most recent Census data. This leaves insufficient money for proper food, health care, transportation to work, child care and other basic needs.

Sadly, housing costs are rising far faster than incomes. To pay rent for a two-bedroom apartment in a typical metropolitan area requires an hourly wage of $15.21, reports the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That is almost three times the federal minimum wage. With the national poverty rate up for the third straight year, a decent place to live is almost unattainable for tens of millions of Americans.

Added to these financial realities is the steeply rising cost of heating fuel, which is eating up even more of the family budget.

Due principally to housing costs, between 2.5 million and 3.5 million people are homeless, according to most estimates. And many more are “pre- homeless,” temporarily doubling up with relatives or friends.

Poor housing conditions contribute to serious health and safety problems, such asthma, lead poisoning and fires.

Far too many of the poorly housed are concentrated in minority ghettos, leading to what sociologists term “hyper- segregation.” Millions of low-income families, mainly black, are isolated from the mainstream. Confined to such ghettoes, they miss out on the contacts, job opportunities, schools and community facilities that enable social, economic and geographic mobility.

Part of the problem is old-style discrimination. Laws notwithstanding, there still is rampant discrimination by landlords, Realtors, lenders, insurers and other gatekeepers. Urban Institute studies, done for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, using “paired testers,” document blatant differences in how blacks and whites seeking to buy or rent housing are treated.

Discriminatory residential patterns rob many minorities of the ability to accumulate wealth through rising home values. Racial wealth disparities are far larger and more significant than income disparities.

Fifty-five years ago, Congress established a National Housing Goal of “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.”

We have fallen woefully short of that goal.

Housing ought to be a right — like free public education, Social Security and Medicare and Medicare.

Congress can — and must — do more.

Chester Hartman is director of research for the Poverty & Race Research Action Council in Washington.