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Updated and expanded recent developments in the housing sector.

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Abstract and Keywords

Housing, especially homeownership and affordable housing, remains essential to the American Dream but also among our most challenging social issues, particularly given the collapse of the housing market in the early 21st century. Housing and affordable housing are inextricably linked to both our national economic crisis and our wavering social policies. Housing is both symptomatic of and a catalyst for overarching social and economic issues, such as poverty, economic and educational inequality, and racial disparities, and it remains an unmet need for a significant portion of our population, such as the elderly, disabled, victims of abuse, those aging out of child welfare, veterans, ex-offenders, and others who encounter unique difficulties and lack of supportive services and service coordination. Advancing comprehensive and coordinated housing policies and programs remains important for social work and in the struggle for decent and affordable housing for all.

Keywords: affordable housing, aging out, community development corporation, cooperative housing, disability, discrimination, disinvestment, economic crisis, fair housing, foreclosure, gentrification, homelessness, homeownership, HOPE IV, housing bubble, housing choice, housing cost burden, individual development accounts, mixed-income housing, mortgage default, New Urbanism, predatory lending, public housing, redlining, rental assistance, rental vouchers, Section 8, smart growth, sprawl, subprime lending, underwater, working poor

Among the myriad problems that beset our society, few have proven as stubborn and challenging as our nation’s affordable housing dilemma. Social work, from the Progressive Era through the decades of varying housing and human service policies, has remained a strong advocate for adequate shelter and affordable housing as a basic human need. For the social-work profession, housing problems remain at once a symptom of and a catalyst for other overarching issues, such as poverty, income inequality, racial disparities, and discrimination. Long-standing shelter and housing issues must now be viewed in the wake of the “housing bubble” that collapsed, along with our economy, in 2007 and the resultant economic crisis, often referred to as the “Great Recession.” Housing is also reflective of other social problems, such as domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, and other conditions, that put citizens at risk of homelessness and in search of affordable housing. Housing remains a significant private trouble and public issue, but one to which fewer resources and less public policy are being devoted.

Elizabeth Mulroy (1995), in the entry Housing, noted that housing is a key issue for social workers in the 1990s because it reflects a continued failure of policy and programs that have fallen short of our national goals and weakened the American Dream for many. Almost two decades later, with a housing crisis that has only deepened in the wake of our economic crisis, social work’s voice seems even weaker in the housing arena. Housing, however, continues as a major social issue for compelling reasons:

  • The collapse of the housing bubble and housing market in the financial crisis of 2007 resulted in plummeting home values and a skyrocketing number of mortgage foreclosures; foreclosures rates climbed to high of one every 13 seconds in 2009 and, while declining in through 2013, continue to be problematic in many states (Center for Responsible Lending, 2012).

  • Housing remains our largest household expense, at over 25% of one’s income, but over 20 million people—most renters—are “cost overburdened,” paying more than 50% of their income (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2012).

  • A total of 95 million people, or a third of the nation, have housing problems, whereas 41 million people, 14.6% of the U.S population, lacked health insurance, and 33.6 million or 12% lack food security (America’s Neighbors, 2004).

  • Housing and location choice continue to contribute greatly to the condition and quality of one’s life, including opportunities for a good education (Schwartz, 2010).

As income and other social indicators document a growing socioeconomic divide in our country, housing problems only further accentuate the class divide in America between the “haves” and the growing number of “have nots” and “used to haves”—those with mortgage foreclosures. Our nation’s housing ills are symptomatic of and contributors to other problems in poverty, education, employment, racial segregation, and other forms of discrimination, subtle or overt. Homeownership, the hallmark of the American Dream, has faltered:

  • By the fourth quarter of 2011, the homeownership rate dropped to 66%, the lowest since 1998 (Braave, Bolton, Couch, & Crowley, 2012).

  • Housing demand has slowed dramatically since the recession, with fewer net new households formed each year between 2007 and 2011—the lowest levels since the 1940s. The largest declines were among the under-25 and 25- to 34-year-old populations, which contributed about equally to the slowdown as many more members of these two groups lived with their parents rather than on their own (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2012).

  • Subprime lending rose from near zero in the early 1990s to 20.1% in 2006, which led to mortgage foreclosures (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2007) and helped precipitate our national housing and economic collapse (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2012).

Since the start of the 21st century, our nation’s housing crisis has continued under the faltering policies and programs from the 1980s and 1990s, with the following results:

  • Between 2007 and 2010, the number of U.S. households paying more than half of their incomes for housing rose by an astounding 2.3 million, bringing the total to 20.2 million households(Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2012, p. 5).

  • A total of 42 million households (37%) pay more than 30% of their income for housing (moderate burden), whereas 20.2 million (18%) pay more than half (severe burden). Between 2001 and 2010, the number of severely cost-burdened households climbed by a staggering 6.4 million (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2012, p. 27).

  • The number of poor households spending more than 50% of their incomes on rent increased by 6%, from 5.9 million in 2009 to 6.2 million in 2010, with 75% of all poor renter households having severe housing cost burdens (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2012).

  • The year 2009 saw a shortage of 3.4 million affordable housing units (Braave, DeCrappeo, Pelletiere, & Crowley, 2011).

  • On any given day, about three quarters of a million people are homeless (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2007), a trend that continued until 2011–2012, which finally saw a drop in the homeless rate of 1%, largely attributed to federal rapid rehousing under the “stimulus program” (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2012).

  • Even when the minimum wage is fully implemented, households with an individual minimum wage earner will still be unable to rent a basic two-bedroom unit anywhere in America (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2007). In 20 states, even households with two minimum wage earners cannot afford a fair-market-rate two-bedroom rental unit (Braave et al., 2012).

In their State of the Nation’s Housing 2007 report, the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University concluded that “affordability” continues to be the most pressing housing challenge into the 21st century and that the heaviest burden falls on the shoulders of the working poor, the disabled, and retirees (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2007); the situation has fared no better in the 2012 report (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2012). The housing crisis in America can be seen in the levels of homelessness, the greater share of household incomes dedicated to meeting housing needs, and the increasing levels of mortgage foreclosures in the wake of the recent housing and economic crisis. Social work must reengage in the housing arena to better connect to the range of social and community needs that contribute to this crisis.

Housing Policies Past and Present

Early housing issues, largely from the Progressive Era, focused on concerns of health, sanitation, and overcrowded conditions, especially in urban areas. The Depression saw rampant unemployment, homelessness, and overcrowded conditions, but out of this economic disaster emerged a range of emergency relief and housing acts to address these shortages of adequate housing and to shore up the weakened housing finance industry, such as the Federal Home Loan Bank System (1937); the National Housing Act of 1934 that established the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration to insure mortgages; the U.S. Housing Act of 1937 that promoted slum clearance for building public housing; and even the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (the “GI Bill”) that provided guaranteed loans and led to major home building, especially in the new “suburbs.”

In the middle of the 20th century, the U.S. government, with the Housing Act of 1949 (1949), declared that the nation’s health and living standards required “the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family” (Section 2.63 Stat. 413).

All subsequent housing policies and programs have built upon and sought to address this core goal of decent and suitable shelter for its citizenry, to various degrees of success and failure. However, it is important to recognize that even the 1949 act’s major public housing unit goal targeted for 1955 was not realized until more than 2 decades later (Oberlecke, as cited in Lang & Sohmer, 2000).

The construction of public housing, which began in the Roosevelt era, continued through the postwar years, especially through the Housing Act of 1954 and with the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965 as a cabinet position. These urban policies escalated in the 1960s, spurred by domestic unrest and, with the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966 or “Model Cities” Act, supported various programs for urban renewal, such as slum clearance, infrastructure improvements, rental subsidies, and especially mortgage support toward homeownership that underscored the “Great Society” programs of President Lyndon Johnson. Although these efforts did help reduce the shortage of housing and improved housing conditions, they also increased homeownership along with a significant out-migration from city to suburb that has continued into the 21st century, leaving behind in many cities an older and poorer population and fomenting in new ones “suburban sprawl.”

The Housing Moratorium in 1974 under the Nixon administration halted this frenzy of housing-related programs and, with the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, consolidated many programs within HUD and advanced new strategies of revenue sharing and other housing initiatives, including a rental assistance program, Section 8 under this act. These and other federal initiatives under Nixon began devolving housing and other social policies and programs from federal to more state and local levels.

The last 2 decades of the 20th century saw housing policies and programs draw attention to aging and deteriorating housing stock, promote community development strategies, address issues of affordability, and extol the virtues of homeownership. All this occurred while housing was undergoing a substantial federal retrenchment, especially under the Reagan presidency, when HUD’s subsidized housing programs fell from their $32.2 billion peak (1978) to merely $9.8 billion by 1988. While programs like the project-based development subsidy of Section 8 for constructing low-income, affordable housing were being phased out and rental subsidies fell by nearly three quarters annually from 1978 (Bratt, 1997), greater emphasis was given to the mainstay of U.S. housing subsidies (that is, income tax credits), such as the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program under the Tax Reform Act of 1986, as well as enhanced focus on the Housing Choice Voucher Program under Section 8 of the 1974 act. These low-income tax incentives built upon the country’s long-standing and largest housing subsidy, the “homeownership tax deduction” established with the Personal Income Tax in 1915.

Despite the Clinton administration Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) initiative, which was more an effort to change the face of public housing communities from low- to “mixed-income” communities than to generate additional housing, housing programs and HUD itself have struggled for survival. The HUD budget at the close of the Bush administration stood at $35.2 billion (HUD, 2007), roughly equivalent to its peak budget of $32.2 billion (HUD Archives/Budgets 1978, 2007). The 2012 HUD budget showed a 9% reduction, mostly in community development block grants to states and other housing rehabilitation programs that, unfortunately, are significant employment generators. Federal subsidies and renewals for Section 8 project-based developments and Section 8 voucher programs have been threatened at a time when waiting lists in most cities numbered in the thousands. Although many new communities replaced aging, deteriorating, and dangerous public housing communities to the satisfaction of the modest number of returning residents, serious questions remain regarding the fate of tenants, especially at-risk families, displaced under HOPE VI (Popkin et al., 2004) without adequate case management, resources, and follow-up for effective transition. Public housing demolition has continued in many cities; however, now relocation, support services, and management of subsidized housing are largely nonexistent.

The focus on community development strategies in housing policy programs reflected a further step in the devolution of policies and programs from the federal to state to local levels, notably to county and city authorities, as well as to community and faith-based nonprofit organizations (Swanstrom, 1999). Programs such as Habitat for Humanity have demonstrated the importance of local, voluntary support and sweat equity; however, despite their noble efforts, they are too modest in scope to make a major impact on either housing supply or community development. Community development corporations—community-based organizations that engage in housing and commercial revitalization—have assumed significantly greater responsibility for low-income housing construction, rehabilitation, preservation/reuse, and homeownership programs in cities across America. However, in the wake of the housing and budgetary crisis, many community development corporations and their intermediary funding and technical support agencies are fading from the urban landscape.

Much of the nation’s housing development strategies came to a screeching halt in the wake of the housing and economic collapse that began in the waning years of the Bush administration in 2007 and has continued with only modest relief during the Obama administration. Blame was initially heaped on those who took advantage of predatory lending practices and easy-to-get mortgages to become homeowners—moving households from renting to homeowning was a major Bush housing strategy. However, the deeper realities of economic collapse in 2007 revealed how a largely deregulated financial industry had manipulated and grown the housing bubble as an engine of financial, not housing, growth, until it burst (Krugman, 2012). Even government-backed housing lenders Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae succumbed to this mortgage crisis that fueled the nation’s economic collapse. Unfortunately, the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 was one of the few federal initiatives, and the impact of policy in this crisis has been limited, with national mortgage relief programs’ response for individual homeowner refinancing was seen as constrained by overly cautious bureaucrats and lenders (Applebaum, 2012). However, the disparity between the government’s massive financial bailouts for the banking industry and modest and constrained aid extended to “underwater” homeowners whose mortgages now outstrip their homes value has not gone without criticism (Krugman, 2012). How America’s policy response in this housing and financial crisis will be judged eventually is a matter for future analysts, but aid to individual homeowners in distress has not seemed a priority.

Housing Discrimination and Fair Housing

Housing discrimination laws enacted through congressional acts and presidential orders have powerfully influenced housing opportunities and redressed glaring inequalities and disparities in housing. Among the better known of these are Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin and discrimination in housing; and Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968—better known as the Fair Housing Act—which prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings and in other housing-related transactions based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability.

Several subsequent policies from the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 further address housing-related discrimination based on disability in any program or construction supported with federal funds. Fair housing has also been the focus of several presidential orders, which are used to clarify national policy through their programmatic implementation, notably Executive Order 11063, which addresses discrimination in properties and facilities owned or operated by the federal government or with federal funds, and especially Executive Order 12892, which requires federal agencies and their grantees to “affirmatively further fair housing.”

Many of these laws and regulations addressed discrimination in the housing sector relative to federal programs and funding; however, the private financial and real-estate sector became a growing concern in the late 1960s and early 1970s over issues of “redlining”—marking off areas where housing lending would not be encouraged and to which certain racial groups would be steered. Whereas the Fair Housing Act addressed racial steering, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 enforced financial institution investment in otherwise “disinvested” communities.

Even successful housing strategies, such as the cooperative housing movement, which spurred urban housing markets between World War I and World War II, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, did more to advance the housing needs for those of middle and upper income (Seigler & Levy, 1986). Although envisioned as a housing movement to address the needs of those of low and moderate income, more often cooperative housing served to further discrimination in housing through exclusionary housing practices by cooperative ownership boards and managers.

The HUD and its local governmental agencies were also the targets of legal actions in the 1990s through consent decrees around issues of discrimination in housing choice, racial composition of housing, and lack of affordable housing or other housing resources (Popkin et al., 2003). Despite legislated reduction in glaring discrimination, inequality of opportunity by race continues, often fueled by the limited social safety net, a lack of coordination in social policies and programs (Popkin et al., 2003), growing disparities in income and housing affordability (Burchell & Listokin, 1995), and an ongoing not-in-my-backyard mentality.

The current economic and housing climate has seen a drop in homeownership and a drastic rise in housing foreclosure (Bravve et al., 2012), leading more households to become renters. In this challenging housing landscape, issues of housing affordability and the difficulties of economically distressed homeowners to secure mortgage relief have somewhat blurred racial and ethnic distinctions in a growing mix of economically distressed households. Instead, this economic and housing crisis has placed a brighter spotlight on economic disparity and the growing inequality between the haves and the have nots.

Further Considerations: Trends, Issues, and Program Implications

As the 21st century unfolds, housing policies, programs, and practices must consider social and economic trends and issues that will continue to shape our housing and social policies, programs, and practices for decades to come. Unfortunately, the economic crisis has set a somber tone for homeownership and affordable housing policy, and as the ranks of renters have grown (Braave et al., 2012), the concern regarding affordable housing has also increased.

Economic restructuring in the growing global marketplace, which saw huge declines in U.S. industries and jobs (Mulroy, 1995), especially middle-class jobs (Krugman, 2002), is fueling the rise of low-wage jobs that has resulted in a new class of “working poor” in America that is the subject of government reports (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005) and books (Ehrenreich, 2001; Shipler, 2005). That this situation has worsened with the 2007 housing collapse and economic recession is not surprising. With a middle class ever more at risk of job loss by outsourcing in the global community or their increasing debt load, greater housing costs, and rising health-insurance dilemma (Warren, 2006), the faltering of this American economic cornerstone can only foreshadow even greater difficulties for those most at risk, the poor and the working poor. For these populations, affordable housing remains an economic enigma (Harkness & Newman, 2004).

Beyond the growing inequality in socioeconomic status, we must be cognizant of essential demographic changes in the United States (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2006, 2007; U.S. Census, 2010) and how they shape housing consumption (Masnick, 2002). Ethnically and racially, the United States is experiencing a significant shift as the White population ages and declines and minority populations, largely from both legal and illegal immigration, continue to swell until, as predicted, by the mid-21st century Whites will be in the minority. In addition to ethnic and racial make-up, the composition of households is changing, with traditional family households waning, whereas other household configurations show continued increase. Demographics on a growing aging population, as well as aging disabled populations with longer term chronic needs and housing needs, are another disconcerting trend. Although “who we are” is radically changing, “where we are” is equally in flux with migration to the South and West, along with sizeable immigration to these regions, marking major populations shifts away from the East and Midwest’s older, industrial cities to new and growing urban cores in warmer regions of the country. This shift has resulted in housing shortages and extreme cost increases in new population zones, whereas older locales have seen increased vacancy and aging housing stock.

The base of homeownership has also shifted, from older White homeowners to younger Whites, as well as a growing minority homeownership, particularly from immigrant groups (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2007). However, in this time of growing economic uncertainty, there is a drop in young homeownership because young, unemployed adults (18 to 25 years old) are returning to live with their parents and those in the 24- to 35-year-old group are finding it difficult to secure home financing, especially when they are already saddled with student loans, which is swelling the rental ranks (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2012). In many economically strong regions with expanding urban housing markets, low-income residents are being squeezed out of their own neighborhoods by increased housing costs and the movement back to cities. This process of “gentrification,” although advantageous to rebuilding local communities, exacerbates the lack of availability and affordability of housing for those on lower and fixed incomes (Kennedy & Leonard, 2001).

The community development struggle to balance social and environmental goals, a focus of the New Urbanism (Talen, 2002), underscores competition among urban, suburban, and rural development, especially poorly planned and densely concentrated commercial and housing growth often called sprawl (Bruegmann, 2005/2006). Extending urban and suburban growth into rural landscapes has raised health and environmental concerns, along with concerns that inner-city poor residents are being further cut off from commercial and housing growth areas, prompting an increased focus on “sustainable development” or “smart growth” that seeks a balance of social, economic, and environmental goals. In many urban areas, the first-ring suburbs are now older and more economically, racially, and ethnically aligned with the urban core than the outer suburbs, and many are facing declines in homeownership and housing values (Puentes & Warren, 2006).

The cost of housing and of homeownership continued to rise (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2007), fueled by housing and lending markets that, as predictions and stock market volatility portend, were overextended and at risk of serious retrenchment, if not collapse, bringing even deeper economic impact (Wilson, 2007), and came to a disastrous reality in 2007. A major issue for the then-unstable housing market was “subprime” lending—higher and variable-rate loans for those with higher risks of default—which has served more as a catalyst for just such loan defaults (Renuart, 2004). The growing concern had been with “predatory lending,” especially among those of low and moderate income, whose purpose seems to be to move citizens ever deeper in debt while generating profits for loan providers (Wilson, 2007). The toll from this subprime lending, among other financial debacles, was the collapse of both the nation’s housing market and the economy. Adding to the high cost of housing and the lack of affordable housing amid growing economic disparity is the rise in personal bankruptcies, which had already reached record rates in 2003 and continued at a high level (Weller, 2005). Now, with millions of homeowners “underwater” on their mortgage and many just walking away from their homes, personal bankruptcies have become almost commonplace. Home sales were already down 10% in 2006 and housing starts were down even more (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2007) before ominous economic predictions hit home. Since 2007, housing sales have fallen precipitously; however, in 2012, the first glimmer of growth in home sales began to offer some hope of eventual recovery (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2012).

Unfortunately, as homeownership has declined and rental housing has increased, the number of Americans spending more than half their income on housing is rising rapidly, and "cost-burdened" Americans represent nearly one in seven households (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2007). According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Report, America’s Neighbors (2004), and its current report, Out of Reach 2012 (Braave et al., 2012), well over one third of the nation is experiencing housing problems, and two thirds of those are low-income, of whom nearly 90% are severely cost burdened. Whether renting or owning, the incidence of cost-burdened housing remains high for those on low and fixed incomes. This problem is particularly daunting for low-wage workers with limited government subsidies (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2007). The nearly 70 million Americans facing housing cost burden are both a result of poverty and a major contributor to it. When more than 30% of one’s income must be used for housing costs, less is left for other life essentials, which greatly reduces the quality of life for these households.

As the federal government has reduced its support for many social programs, including housing, it has devolved policies and programs down to the state and local levels. The mainstay for addressing these issues as they impact housing rests on an ever more fragile social safety net and the efforts of state and local agencies, along with a network of community-based organizations (Swanstrom, 1999). Housing development within a broader framework of community revitalization continues to face challenges, from lack of federal funding to local government constraints, including local attitudes against subsidized or Section 8 developments. Any limits in the supply mean higher prices and less housing available for those of lower income (Quigley, 2006), as has been the case with fewer middle-income households able to purchase or retain homes and hence becoming renters.

Some groups are more at risk in this housing market, not only because of poverty, but also because of other characteristics and needs. These groups include the elderly; the mentally, physically, and developmentally disabled; youth aging out of the child welfare system; victims of domestic and other abuse; veterans experiencing transitional issues; substance abusers; ex-offenders; and others with behavioral risks, as well as the swelling ranks of illegal immigrants and the longer term homeless populations (Pelletiere, Treskon, & Crowley, 2005). It is with these populations that social work is particularly focused within the housing arena, but these groups are also now caught up in these larger trends, issues, and challenges of this economic recession, which should also be of concern to our profession.

Moving Forward: Goals, Strategies, and Roles for Social Work

Critics of our housing policies and programs on all sides of the political spectrum (Bratt, 1997; Hockett, McElwee, Pelletiere, Schwartz, & Trekson, 2005; Redburn, 2006) note that the federal government routinely subsidizes substandard housing and offers subsidies to families in locations where they are in constant fear of violence, poorly educated in the worst schools, and isolated from economic opportunity. Moreover, our housing programs have provided little solid evidence as to who benefits, under what circumstances, and in relation to what other forms of assistance. For our country to pursue a more progressive path in response to housing needs, we must be cognizant of key trends and issues, assess where needs are greatest, and develop stronger guidelines and practices that consider housing within the larger context of poverty, community development, and social needs. We also must recover from the dire economic circumstances that have put our nation and much of our population back on its heels, if not on its knees. Sadly, it has proved hard to chart a progressive path in response to this crisis, and it is hard to find social-work leaders leading progressive initiatives in this “Great Recession” as Harry Hopkins and Frances Perkins did for the Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression.

The first step now must be on developing or even implementing current policies that help foreclosed homeowners and “cost-burdened” renters survive this economic crisis. Although home buying is beginning to start up (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2012), the Center for Responsible Lending’s foreclosure ticker shows foreclosure rates are still climbing. Advocacy is needed to ensure that the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 provides meaningful help to the many households in foreclosure, even those at financial risk who were victims of predatory lending practices that helped put our nation underwater. Rapid rehousing programs that were once part of the Stimulus Bill should also be renewed, especially as targeted efforts on at-risk veterans helped reduce homelessness by 1% between 2011 and 2012 (Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2012; National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2012). In this weakened economy, supported housing programs that help move low-income households out of poverty to self-sufficiency are more critical than ever. However, much of this challenge is economic and stems from the mismatch between earned wages and fair-market housing rates. When the working poor on minimum wage cannot afford to rent a two-bedroom unit at fair-market rental rates in any state, and even two minimum wage earners are unable to jointly afford a fair-market rental in dozens of states, then the issue is one of a “liveable wage” (the Living Wage Campaign) to ensure that the working poor can afford decent and safe housing without an extreme cost burden.

Once we are able to restore our economic and housing equilibrium, developing a more balanced national housing policy that invests in both people and property would be an essential next step. In responding to the trends and issues previously discussed, future federal, state, and local housing policies and regulations must tackle difficult challenges, including the following:

  • Developing housing for growing and shifting populations while meeting the nation’s need for affordable housing;

  • Housing those populations that are difficult to house (for example, multiproblem families, ex-offenders, public housing evictees, and the mentally and physically disabled who require greater social support or more expensive housing to accommodate their needs);

  • Overcoming regulatory barriers (such as zoning, building codes, and land use) that entail both benefits and pitfalls from gentrification and restricted accessibility and housing choice;

  • Addressing the competition between urban reuse—smart growth—and easy suburb new growth that can lead to “sprawl.”

In reflecting on past policies and programs, a former director of HUD’s Office of Policy and Research and her colleague have offered several principles that should guide housing policy in the new millennium (Schill & Wachter, 2001), including linking housing policy with other social policies, such as education, and making housing vouchers the mainstay of housing assistance programs.

Social workers should be particularly engaged in helping connect social welfare reform and housing policy. Current welfare policies at some times pose barriers and at other times fail to provide incentives for moving families and households to self-sufficiency, including affordable housing (Swartz & Miller, 2002). Coordinating housing assistance and services at one-stop job centers and expanding individual development accounts to encourage family savings for homeownership (Schreiner & Sherraden, 2006) are important approaches in an affordable housing strategy. In addition, domestic violence often presents serious housing issues for abused children and spouses, in terms of not only shelter needs, but also welfare regulations and limitations. Moreover, the issue of housing affordability for the working poor and the need for livable wages should be issues for further social-work advocacy.

Social work’s domain also finds housing connected to a myriad of social needs and groups, particularly children, the elderly, and the disabled, who are most vulnerable in the housing arena and, at times, at risk of homelessness. It is within this venue of broader social-service needs and coordination, rather than in housing policy and advocacy, that social work has been engaged during the past several decades and must be focused in the decades ahead.

The Child Welfare League of America recognizes that thousands of children each year are separated from their families or unable to leave foster care because their parents are homeless, live in inadequate housing, or are displaced because of domestic violence. Young people preparing to age out of the foster-care system are also facing homelessness and critical housing needs upon their discharge (White & Rog, 2004). Although the affordable housing crisis is placing a growing burden on the child welfare system, child welfare professionals are rarely trained to assist youth and families with the difficult tasks of finding adequate housing.

Scarce affordable housing for the elderly is a problem that is only getting worse, including a lack of subsidized apartments compounded by the need for subsidized housing for the poor elderly and those who are increasingly frail and in need of services. Subsidized buildings are often the main settings where these seniors can get help. Although it is a tribute to our medical technology and humanity that we can extend life for those with chronic conditions, housing options have not kept pace, as media reports abound. Similarly, the growing number of elderly caring for aging developmentally, mentally, and physically disabled children or siblings of the “baby boom” or from the height of deinstitutionalization in the 1960s and after presents a unique social-work challenge in years ahead.

The challenge of building inclusive communities certainly raises concerns for the housing plight of people with disabilities. Although housing programs and Fair Housing requirements specify addressing the needs and access of the disabled for housing, affordable housing remains problematic (O’Hara & Miller, 2000). Going It Alone: The Struggle to Expand Housing Opportunities for People With Disabilities notes that discrimination remains a barrier despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, housing for the disabled remains a low priority among state and local housing officials, and the lack of collaboration between most public housing agencies and disability organizations furthers these difficulties (O’Hara & Miller, 2000). The issue of the aging disabled populations, especially those aging in group homes or other supported-living facilities that are not targeted for maintenance or new-construction funding, will become an even greater concern as younger disabled populations seek these limited resources.

The H.R. 558—100th Congress: Stewart B. McKinney Act Homeless Assistance (1987) defines a homeless person as one who “lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence.” The National Coalition for the Homeless recognizes that only 20–25% of the single, adult homeless have some form of serious mental illness or disability (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006), with children under 18 comprising the largest percentage (39%) of a broad range of other homelessness that includes elderly, families, ex-offenders, substance abusers, veterans, and victims of domestic violence (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2007). Homelessness in the early 21st century is not merely the result of deinstitutionalization from the middle of the 20th century, but a combination of limited income/poverty and affordable housing options mixed with a lack of community support services and failed managed-care systems that put more people at risk (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006). A growing concern is that when affordable housing options are limited, care for the mentally ill and others with cooccurring disorders, such as substance abuse, is shrinking while the homeless population is rising, and the only significant residential institutional growth in America is within the prison system. Developing supportive community services and housing resources for those in housing crisis should be a critical concern for social work.

As federal housing strategies continued a community development approach that moved away from mass public housing to redeveloping mixed-income communities, initiatives such as HOPE IV and HUD’s own Office of University Partnership sought to engage higher education institutions in these revitalization and housing efforts. Many schools of social work and social-work professionals were involved in HUD’s HOPE IV housing relocation initiatives, as well as the dozens of Community Outreach Partnership Centers that sought to mobilize university resources to address community-identified problems (Soska & Johnson-Butterfield, 2004), such as that in Newark, New Jersey (Newman & Anglin, 2005), where university–community partnerships are aiding in local revitalization. Many schools of social work have engaged in these university–community partnerships and assumed significant roles in connecting social services to those in housing transition, such as the Campus Affiliates Program at Tulane University, which provided HOPE VI relocation case management for residents in one New Orleans neighborhood (Kreutziger, Ager, Harrell, & Wright, 1999).

Similar to these community partnership revitalization efforts under HUD, community development corporations and other community planning interests are important allies for social workers in connecting social services to housing and community development initiatives. The social-work profession could find a strong affiliation with those advancing New Urbanism and "smart growth" strategies that see social and environmental needs being addressed in tandem (Talen, 2002). All of these efforts have at their core participatory planning, civic engagement, and equality of access to resources, interaction, and interconnectedness, which resonate well with the social-work profession.

Finally, despite policies to safeguard housing choices, America must also ensure fair and equal housing opportunities for all and overcome discriminatory practices that continue to plague the housing market. Housing inequality is tied to other disparities, most notably educational opportunity, which is often a matter of where one lives (Schwartz, 2010). Policy makers, officials, and community leaders will need to address the goal espoused in the Housing Act of 1949, which, despite real improvements since the 1960s in how we house people, seemingly remain beyond the reach of many Americans (Lang & Sohmer, 2000). Social work must embrace the affordable housing challenge within its national agenda. Social work has a major role to play in this continuing economic crisis and in connecting housing to other social services and issues, as well as in advocating on the larger issue of poverty and racism impacting affordable and adequate housing in our country, which continues to keep us from realizing our Housing Act of 1949 vision of “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family as soon as feasible” (Section 2.63 Stat. 413).


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                                                                                              Further Reading

                                                                                              Child Welfare League of America:

                                                                                              National Alliance to End Homelessness:

                                                                                              National Coalition for the Homeless:

                                                                                              National Housing Institute, Shelterforce Online:


                                                                                              Smart Growth:

                                                                                              State of the Nation's Housing 2007 fact sheet:

                                                                                              Sustainable Communities:

                                                                                              Universal Living Wage Campaign:

                                                                                              Urban Institute, Housing America’s Low Income Families:

                                                                                              U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD):

                                                                                              U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of University Partnerships: