America’s mayors have stated that affordable housing, particularly for the homeless, is an issue of primary concern in their cities. NLC’s Elisha Harig-Blaine shares the story of one homeless veteran who was able to obtain housing — but only with the help of a local nonprofit in partnership with the city.
For the fourth consecutive year, NLC’s State of the Cities Report shows affordable housing as one of the most pressing concerns facing communities.
In 2017, it was one of the top five issues discussed by mayors in their annual State of the City speeches. While the lack of affordable housing is no longer a “big city” issue, the shortage is particularly acute in larger cities — and NLC’s analysis shows that homelessness was the second most mentioned issue related to housing.
Larger cities are uniquely positioned to understand the connection between affordable housing and homelessness, as their costs increase when individuals and families who can no longer afford housing rely on municipally-funded housing resources.
Despite the increase in federal investment in affordable housing from HUD during the previous administration, overall housing affordability continued to be a challenge for an increasing number of people. Without important federal investments, housing affordability will only be exacerbated. However, under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, critical funding sources such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and the HOME Investment Partnership Program are slated to be cut.
Further, the proposed HUD budget reduces support for housing voucher subsidies while continuing an underinvestment in the Public Housing capital budget. Just a few weeks ago in London, we saw the deadly consequences of chronic under-investment in public housing.
While these resources may not always come directly to cities, mayors and local elected officials know they are on the front lines when it comes to the implications of these decisions. In fact, local leaders have shown they can make progress on issues that once seemed intractable when their federal partners join them and provide the proper resources.
In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser and her team have prioritized affordable housing and homelessness by bringing focus to efforts around chronic, veteran, and unsheltered homelessness. “We want to ensure that our residents — whether you have been here for five generations or five minutes — can afford to live in Washington, D.C.,” said Mayor Bowser during her 2017 State of the District address. “We are forging a path to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring. We are transforming our family homeless system, and together we will end veteran homelessness once and for all.”
In her address, the mayor proposed to continue for a third year her promised $100 million annual funding of the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund. For every $100 million invested by the city, an estimated 1,000 units of housing are either constructed or preserved. The mayor also announced an additional $10 million dedicated solely to preserving housing in order to leverage private investments that are anticipated to yield nearly $40 million dollars for preservation efforts. To leverage these local resources, the mayor and the city partner with local nonprofit organizations like Habitat for Humanity and philanthropies like the Home Depot Foundation.
Since its inception 27 years ago, Habitat for Humanity of Washington, D.C., has constructed nearly 200 homes. In 2012, the organization began making veterans more of a priority in their work. To expand their work on affordable housing development and preservation, Habitat for Humanity is a partner with the District of Columbia through the Housing Production Trust Fund. In addition, these municipal resources are leveraged thanks to work with philanthropies like the Home Depot Foundation.
The Home Depot Foundation has made a quarter of a billion dollar investment in veteran-related causes. Through partners like Habitat for Humanity, they have helped 2,000 cities including Washington, D.C., improve more than 30,000 veteran homes or facilities. As a result of the city’s leadership, focus, investments and partnerships, chronic, veteran and unsheltered homelessness have all declined by more than 21 percent, 29 percent, and 37 percent, respectively, in just the last four years.
But as all city leaders know, there are real people behind these numbers.
One of those people is Kevin. Kevin’s father was a solider in the U.S. Army, so Kevin was born into a military family and moved from place to place. Military service called both Kevin, who enlisted in the Army in 1983, and his brother, who served in the Marine Corps. During his time in the Army, Kevin was trained in communications and served in Texas and Germany until he was honorably discharged in 1989.
Kevin moved back from Germany that year and tried to find work in New Jersey. When that didn’t happen, he moved home to be with his family in Hampton, Virginia. After returning to Hampton, he was able to find work in the telecommunications industry and as a restaurant server — but neither job paid enough for him to be able to afford housing.
“I was always living with other people, I could never afford my own place. First, I lived with my mom, then my sister, then other family and friends. Eventually, I had nowhere to go, so I began living in my car,” explained Kevin.
He continued to look for new jobs and moved to Washington, D.C., hoping to find a higher-paying position. Not having any luck, Kevin eventually moved into a shelter. There, another homeless veteran told him about a transitional housing program. For nearly four years, Kevin lived in transitional housing. During that time, he learned about home ownership opportunities through Habitat for Humanity.
Over the next several years, Kevin worked to improve his credit. He found work as a personal trainer and as a valet at an area hotel. Today, Kevin drives for Uber — and, thanks to Habitat for Humanity, he is a homeowner.
As Kevin’s story illustrates, affordable housing will remain a challenging issue for cities for the foreseeable future. However, despite rising housing costs and declining federal support, success stories like Kevin’s can happen. Local leadership plays a strong role in ending veteran homelessness, especially when that leadership is combined with the necessary levels of federal support and community-driven collaborations between nonprofits and philanthropies.
Now, more than ever, city leaders must educate their Congressional representatives about the state of their cities. Confronted with data and stories from the districts they represent, members of Congress are more likely to recognize the fact that real problems such as veteran homelessness require real solutions backed by real investment — not empty rhetoric.
Featured image from Getty Images.
About the author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the principal associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter @HarigBlaine.