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Housing Advocacy

Housing quality and safety: connecting the policy dots
     A blog post at Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) this past week tells the story of the US government assessment of "housing adequacy” in the American Housing Survey (AHS). Instead of just reporting on the dry statistics, researcher Irene Lew puts the data into context. 
     Some of the progress in the “adequacy” measurement comes because older houses have been demolished and new units must comply with tougher building standards. The report notes: "Stricter building codes have certainly helped to encourage higher quality, particularly the construction of units with complete plumbing and heating systems. As a result, severe physical deficiencies have been rare among the rental stock, especially among newer rentals. Just 1 percent of rentals built 2003 and later was classified as severely inadequate, compared to 4 percent of those built prior to 1960." 
      When the adequacy standards were adopted, researchers only looked at physical systems like heating and plumbing. The report notes that "...the AHS adequacy measure does not account for certain health-related quality issues such as the presence of mold or structural issues such as holes in the roof or foundation, so housing quality problems may in fact occur at higher rates than the survey reports." 
     Still, not surprisingly, low income households are most likely to suffer from inadequate housing. "In 2013, 11 percent of units occupied by extremely low-income renters (those with incomes less than or equal to 30 percent of area medians) were physically inadequate, compared to just 7 percent of those with incomes above 80 percent of area medians." Lets do the math. If 11% of all units are inadequate and 11% of units occupied by low income renters are inadequate. that means that, statistically, ALL of the inadequate housing is occupied by low income renters. 
     So, what does RHINO mean by “connecting the policy dots?” Just this. It is easy to point to a housing problem, harder to solve that problem for an individual household, and harder still to prevent the problem. The “policy dots” are the examples of problems that can be used to create policies and programs that can prevent the problem.So, let's connect the dots to specific policies that can improve rental housing quality and safety. 
1. Problem: Improve housing quality. 
Solution: Local code enforcement that forces owners to upgrade or remove obsolete houses from the rental market can solve the problem of housing adequacy. At the same time, tenants need to be respected and protected. That means that tenants should not be afraid to report problems for fear of retaliation or being forced out by local government.2. Problem: Housing should be more than “adequate.” In today's world we know more about the health risks of housing from lead, mold, and pests. 
  • Solution: County Health Departments need to become proactive in following up on “healthy homes” complaints like lead, mold and pests. Just telling the tenant to wash a moldy wall with bleach or put down boric acid for roaches doesn't solve basic housing needs. 
  • Solution: Social agencies that work with renters need to include healthy homes information with their package of services. Helping tenants avoid home health risks with a simple check list or home inspection can make a big difference. 
  • Solution: Medical providers need to support healthy homes services either directly or by funding housing and social service organizations to inspect for water leaks, asthma triggers and lead risks. 
3. Problem: Low income tenants need housing subsidies to help them pay for safe and decent housing. Just paying more rent doesn't automatically improve housing quality, but for many landlords, being able to raise rents can provide the funds needed to cover health and safety repairs. 
  • Solution: Right now only about 1/3 of low income households receive housing assistance. Housing subsidiesshould be a universal entitlement or a universal housing subsidy.
  • Solution: Emergency assistance provided by social agencies and faith groups should focus on keeping people in housing instead of forcing them to move. It is cheaper to fix problems than to trigger involuntary move outs. As with rent deposits, providing mediation services between landlords and tenants can stabilize the relationship and prevent rental instability. 
4. Problem: Local government officials don't care about tenants. It is true that nowadays the housing policy arguments in DC are over how to send more money to developers (Low Income Housing Tax Credits), how to keep low income housing out of suburbs (blocking AFFH regulations) and how to force public housing tenants back into a stagnant employment market (Moving to Work). 
  • Solution: Encourage renters to vote in local elections and stay in touch renter voters around rental housing issues.
  • Solution: Local advocates don't need to travel down to DC to meet with some staffer or send an email in order to get a “canned” response. Contact your local elected leaders and educate them to the needs of your family and the families of the people you work with. DC politicians depend on local editors to inform them about their constituents and local elected officials to support their campaigns for re election. 
  • Solution: Learn from the news media. When CNN wants to tell you a story about housing policy, they first tell you about someone who is a victim of a broken system. Your stories about local needs are valuable as campaign donations...when it comes to making change. 
5. Problem: Local advocates can't do everything individually, but you can coordinate and play to your strengths around a common housing agenda.
  • Solution: Local coalition efforts can help very different organizations to support each other and address the range of issues. Coalition sounds like a lot of work, but it doesn't have to be. Gather together, prepare an agenda of ALL the issues that need to be addressed.
  • Solution: Each coalition member selects a project or activity that contributes back to the success of the agenda. Grassroots membership organizations can focus on their elected officials. Legal services organizations can do legal research and prepare testimony and position papers. Social service providers can help victims tell their stories and document social conditions. Planning and development agencies can coordinate housing providers, local governments and funders.