The Reports are In: Homeownership Rising, Renters Suffering, Income Gaps Growing

City Life, Homeownership, and the American Dream

Americans’ impressions of cities are improving, according to Fannie Mae’s 1997 National Housing Survey, City Life, Homeownership, and the American Dream. Where the 1991 survey found that more people saw cities as the source of problems rather than progress, the 1997 results show respondents’ opinions evenly divided on the question. Respondents cited cultural attractions, entertainment, high quality stores and services, and job creation as attractions that set cities above suburbs or small towns. This is not to say that Americans are moving back to the cities in droves. While 66 percent of respondents felt that downtown areas have improved due to an increase in things to do, only 33 percent felt that cities have become better places to live. Most respondents felt that overcrowding, traffic, racial tensions, crime, and environmental problems had increased in cities, while home values, the quality of life, and “a sense of community” had improved in suburban areas.

Available from Fannie Mae, 202-752-7000.

Out of Reach

Across the country, lawmakers designed new welfare assistance levels that fail to pay the rent of moderate two-bedroom homes. Some may say, “good, get a job,” but Americans with minimum wage jobs who work full-time cannot afford to maintain an adequate household in any state, according to Out of Reach: Rental Housing at What Cost?, the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual study of rental housing costs. While the new welfare law’s purported goal was to move recipients into good jobs, Out of Reach documents how shortages of affordable housing and living wage jobs could impede welfare reform’s success.

In all 50 states, a person earning minimum wage must work at least 60 hours per week to afford the average two-bedroom rental. In high-rent localities such as San Francisco, paying the rent requires working 144 hours a week, leaving 24 hours for essentials like sleeping, eating, and raising children. Even after working full-time all year, minimum wage earners still must borrow or use savings to pay basic living expenses. Families unable to acquire a savings or borrow money, Out of Reach reports, are often left to choose between paying for their housing or other basic needs.

Available from the NLIHC, 202-662-1530.

The State of the Nation’s Housing

Homeownership is on the rise, particularly among minority and immigrant households, reports The State of the Nation’s Housing: 1997, issued by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In the last three years, the national homeownership rate has climbed by  3.4 million to 65.4 percent, according to the report. Minorities account for close to 30 percent of the overall growth.

The report attributes the growth also to demographic changes that meant that baby-boomers were trading up to larger and more expensive homes, and to an increase in affluent elderly households. The report predicts that homeownership rates will continue to rise, and that lenders and builders will increasingly target this population.

The report notes the trend toward spatial and economic segregation of households, as higher-income homebuyers’ exodus to the suburbs and low-income families’ isolation in deteriorating center-city regions continues unabated. The report also acknowledges the decrease in opportunities for low-income homebuyers, and says that federal cutbacks, including massive reductions in subsidized units, will likely be devastating to low-income renters nationwide.

Available from the Joint Center, 617-495-7908.

Hartford Housing Discrimination

A class action lawsuit recently filed in U.S. District Court alleges that the Hartford, Connecticut, Housing Authority actively discouraged residents from moving to suburban areas when it tore down the 1,000-unit Charter Oak Terrace project and displaced about 360 residents.  Although the housing authority cited an ongoing initiative to desegregate large housing projects as the reason for the move, tenants allege that the housing authority misinformed them about usage rules for Section 8 vouchers and failed to provide information about housing outside of Hartford.

According to the September 28, 1997, New York Times, the lawsuit charges that the Hartford Housing Authority violated civil rights and fair housing laws and seeks damages to assist residents who wish to live outside the city. The charges that many residents were forced to find housing within the city – much of which was substandard – are particularly sensitive because Hartford is one of 18 cities participating in a HUD program designed to provide Section 8 certificate holders with more options on where to live.

The Housing Authority denies the charges, pointing out that 18 percent of the displaced tenants did move to the suburbs outside Hartford. The city responded to the charges of substandard housing by pointing out that all units were inspected and found to be up to code prior to any occupant with a Section 8 certificate moving in.

(Read a Shelterforce review of a book about Charter Oak Terrace.)

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