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Hidden crisis’

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Lack of affordable housing, off radar screen, has big impact.

[Editor’s note: This article is the first in what will be an ongoing series on North Carolina’s affordable housing crisis.]

By Ret Boney

More than 700,000 North Carolina families do not have housing they can afford, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Including the state’s homeless, nearly 750,000 families are forced to live in substandard housing, become homeless or forego other critical needs to afford shelter.

Chris Estes, executive director of the N.C. Housing Coalition, calls the lack of affordable housing and its ripple effects a “hidden crisis” – hidden from many well-off North Carolinians and largely hidden from many policymakers.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers housing “affordable” if no more than 30 percent of gross income is spent on housing costs. Those costs include rent, utilities, mortgage, taxes and insurance.

Well-off families might be able to pay more than that, given their higher disposable income.

For low-income families, however, finding housing often means making critical tradeoffs that affect their quality of life, such as living farther from their workplaces, or foregoing health insurance.

Hardest hit are those who earn from zero to 30 percent of the state’s median income.

A family at the high end of that category, making $16,185, could afford to spend up to $405 a month on housing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

A family earning the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour could afford to spend $268 a month.

The fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit, by comparison, is $603 a month.

It is this extremely low-income group that often must settle for substandard housing, or become homeless.

“When people can’t afford housing, it creates problems for society,” says Estes.

Martha Are, homeless policy specialist with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, says the lack of affordable housing is a problem for the state as a whole, not just individuals who are suffering.

This is especially true, she says, for the chronically homeless population, the vast majority of whom have disabilities of some sort.

“When affordable housing is not available, these people ping-pong from one state program to another,” she says. “At some point, we must recognize the true cost of not having affordable housing.”

Estes says part of the problem is pure economics.

It is difficult, and impossible in some cases, to build and maintain quality housing at rent levels low-income families can afford, he says.

Much of that is due to the high cost of land.

Land close to the jobs and services low-income families require is expensive, and while land farther out may be less expensive, the distance puts additional burdens on struggling families.

“We can intervene in the housing market, but it takes investment,” Estes says.

This investment, he says, must occur on two fronts: Providing subsidies to encourage people to build housing, and providing rental assistance to low-income families to bridge the gap.

Right now, he says, North Carolina is not investing enough in either of these areas to change the equation.

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