The Squeeze

In most city neighborhoods, the flight to the suburbs continues--with families leaving the city the moment they acquire the means. However, in a handful of trendy cities, there's been a movement in the opposite direction. This may be just what the cities thought they wanted, but it often leaves the poor with nowhere to live.

Rents are surging not just in New York, but in the hot housing markets of San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston, where lots of well-off people are vying for a limited number of apartments and houses. Among the rich and the upper-middle class, incomes may be keeping pace with the bounding rents, but incomes at the bottom are not. In each of these cities, housing activists report seeing increasing numbers of poor families shelling out 50 percent or more of their income in rent or crowding more than one family into an apartment. Across the country, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates, 5.4 million households now live in these substandard conditions, up from 4.8 million only nine years ago.

The imbalance between housing need and affordable supply is something the government used to make its business to redress. But for 25 years, federal investment in affordable housing (defined nowadays as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of a household's income) has steadily declined. Nationwide, the total number of low- to moderate-income housing units made affordable by federal rent subsidies, construction subsidies, or public housing programs is now down to 4.3 million--less than half the estimated need. In San Francisco, the wait for public housing is three to eight years. Seattle estimates the current wait there for a rent voucher at up to three years.

In Boston even families with a federal rent voucher in hand often can't find affordable housing. One of the city's agencies for helping the homeless, in fact, takes busloads of people to look for apartments in less prosperous cities an hour or more away. For single mothers on welfare, says Alfredo Ribot, who works at a Boston shelter for homeless women and children, moving away from friends and family they've counted on for support can be both daunting and costly. Even for those with more resources, moving this far away from their jobs, families, neighbors, and church parishes can be traumatic.

Nonetheless, the need for affordable housing gets virtually no national political attention. The two major presidential candidates both had official "issue positions" on the subject--Bush focusing on moderate-income families that wish to buy homes and Gore essentially proposing to continue Clinton administration policies--but they hardly ever mentioned them. The Clinton administration's main housing strategy was to call for more rent subsidy vouchers. (In 1995 Congress froze the number of vouchers issued, and it didn't permit any increase until last year, when a mere 50,000 new vouchers were finally issued to help the estimated 5.4 million households needing them. For next year's budget, Clinton asked for an additional 120,000 vouchers, and Congress approved 80,000 in appropriations bills. While the additional vouchers would be useful in many parts of the country, they wouldn't accomplish much in markets as desperately short of housing as Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. There, what's most needed is new construction.

Specifically, we need construction subsidies targeted at people with very low incomes. The few federal construction programs that still exist don't reach them. Housing advocates say the Home Investment Partnerships Program, called HOME, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit--the two major federal programs that help build apartments to be rented at discounted rates--are used primarily to help people who earn about 60 percent of the median income, or $36,000 for a family of four.

When nonprofit or commercial developers want to build housing for families poorer than that, they need to cobble together a myriad of subsidy sources to make the project financially possible, says Anne Gelbspan, a project manager for the Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development, a nonprofit provider of housing and support services to poor families in Boston. And the extra time and work that goes into grubbing for money makes these projects even more expensive. Gelbspan says that to build 26 units recently for very low-income grandparents raising their grandchildren, the Women's Institute had to pull together tax credits, money from state and city programs, loans from a Federal Home Loan Bank, and foundation support. And still the group needed to work with local authorities to create a pool of rental vouchers to be attached to the building, which was the only way they could charge rents low enough for these poor families to afford.

In San Francisco last year, the gentrification driving lower-income families out of neighborhoods they have lived in for generations was a hot issue in the mayor's race. This year, there are two propositions on the November ballot targeted at the dot-com companies many feel have taken over the city; both propose to restrict office construction. Meanwhile, San Francisco's Mission District--a neighborhood of working-class Hispanics and activist artists--reports growing numbers of vandalized SUVs and renovated buildings tarnished with anti-yuppie graffiti.

In Boston, where the city is requiring convention center and waterfront developers to put money into a fund for building at least a small amount of affordable replacement housing, a major brouhaha has erupted over the distribution of these funds among desperate neighborhoods--and over the hopes of at least one politician in the Irish-American enclave of South Boston that the new housing could be for current (i.e., white) residents only. People in the old neighborhoods of these trendy cities feel like they are under siege and, often enough, at each other's throats.

"My family and community are going away," said Frances "Lucky" Devlin after a passionate and packed neighborhood meeting in South Boston this summer. "This is becoming a community of the rich; we're just pushing the poor out. Where do they go? Who is watching out for them?"

In a nation whose largest public investment in housing is the markedly regressive mortgage interest tax deduction--which is good on home loans up to $1 million and is expected to cost the U.S. Treasury $100 billion in lost revenues this year--more people should be asking Lucky Devlin's question. ยค