Terner Center Blog: No Limits

Monthly Archives: 07/2015

Housing: The Silent Crisis?

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This piece was originally published on the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foudation for Housing America's Families Blog on June 30th, 2015. The original post can be found here.

June 18th marked the official launch of the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families. As a member of their National Advisory Committee, I was in attendance for the event, and had the opportunity to share some thoughts on the “Silent Housing Crisis.” The subject is of particular interest as I prepare to launch The Terner Center for Housing Innovation, which shares many of the goals of JRT Housing. Both JRT Housing and Terner have formed in recognition of the urgency and complexity of today’s housing landscape, in which housing affordability is increasingly elusive, and new tools, approaches and solutions are sorely needed.

The housing crisis, though increasingly audible as a subject of policy debates and media attention, is often considered silent because many of its effects are either indirect or long-term. For a family facing housing insecurity and instability, this experience has the potential to impede their socioeconomic mobility; accumulation of intergenerational wealth; the healthy development of their children; the physical and emotional well-being of their households and communities and; the environmental health of their neighborhood, city, and region. The breadth and depth of indirect and long-term impacts of a housing market in crisis is vast.  

But before looking more carefully at these silent, or “hidden” effects, lets be clear about the more direct and immediate impacts. For the forty one million families that are “burdened” or “severely burdened” by their housing expenses today (paying 30% or 50% or more of their income, respectively), there are often insufficient funds leftover to cover other basic necessities. Families trying to make a mortgage or rent payment must often forego reliable transportation, secure and safe childcare, healthy food, consistent heat, or some combination of these. Foregoing these necessities can, in turn, make accessing and maintaining good employment challenging, further exacerbating the pressures of high rents or mortgage payments. For these families, the consequences of a housing market that lacks decent affordable options are near-term, pressing and profound.

But I am not the first to tell these stories. By now, the significance of housing affordability issues in the daily lives of American families is relatively well understood. What is less known, or at least less discussed, is what these consequences are long-term. For families, housing insecurity can take a deep psychological, emotional, and physiological toll. Data shows that healthy childhood development is interrupted by housing instability, and for adults, the emotional and psychological toll of chronic fears and shame surrounding potential eviction, foreclosure, or loss of housing are extensive.

Furthermore, in the particular mutations of today’s housing crisis, the double burden of tight credit and limited abilities to grow down payment capital mean that far fewer families are becoming homeowners than in previous generations. Especially for families of color, this compounds generations of exclusion from access to one of the few pathways to the American dream. But even for those families that fall into the traditional demographic of homeownership, the effects are being felt more widely, among more people, than ever before; the reach of the housing crisis is growing rapidly. The consequences here too, are large and long term: inequality will continue to grow, and an increasingly small percentage of families will enjoy true economic security.

The implications of this trend are not limited to the forty one million (and growing) affected families, though that should be reason enough to take action. The silent housing crisis, if it is to continue on this trajectory of declining rates of homeownership and increasing rates of severe rent burden, will have lasting impacts on the nation’s economic health. Fewer homeowners and more low-income families trapped in a cycle of poverty precipitated by housing instability means a dramatically diminished middle class- a fundamental component of a functional and thriving economy.

As the nation continues to chart a path out of the great recession, and towards recovery, it cannot afford to overlook the implications of an unhealthy housing market. The crisis may appear quiet now, but with large numbers of Americans anticipating the worst is yet to come (Macarthur/Pew Survey), it won’t be silent for long.