Lack of Affordable Housing Remains the Leading Cause of Homelessness

affordable housing crisis

The median wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment is approximately $21.21 while the federal minimum wage is just $7.25 an hour. A minimum wage worker would have to put in 122 hours every week to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Even amid an opioid crisis, inflated unemployment rates, and a slew of natural disasters, lack of affordable housing still ranks as the number one reason for homelessness in the United States and all across the globe. By failing to remember this, we fail our communities as well as ourselves.

Picture This: A City Street, a Washed Out Scene, A Missed Opportunity to Understand

Darkness falls over a city, covering all that we try not to see. A well-meaning man passes. He sees what he mistakes for a pile of garbage. In reality, that pile is a treasure trove for someone else, consisting of all the belongings they own in the world. The person whose prized possessions are oft-mistaken for garbage is homeless and feeling prematurely defeated as he senses a new set of eyes on his goods. “Nobody values my possessions” quickly starts to feel like “nobody values me”.

The well-meaning man continues on. He sees what he mistakes for a dirty blanket. In reality, that blanket is the homeless person’s bed, or in a worse scenario, their home. The well-meaning man realizes that the person beneath that blanket is shivering. There is a pause now as reality settles in. There’s a short-lived instance where the homeless man beneath that blanket feels seen.

“That person shivering is a human like myself,” the well-meaning man decides.

He reaches into his pocket with a heart full of good intentions. He and this homeless man could have a great deal in common. Perhaps they grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, or even fought in the same wars. Due to modern conditions, it’s entirely possible for two people to grow up as brothers in the same household, making near identical decisions, and for one of them to become homeless while the other does not. That’s because modern homelessness is almost always the result of community inaction, as opposed to individual action.

The well-meaning man clasps a pile of folded dollar bills between his fingers. It is only at the moment he realizes he must sacrifice his own earnings in order to aid this fellow human, that he learns his heart is also filled with excuses- millions of minuscule justifications that eventually give way to doubt.

He reflects on the opioid crisis with disapproval. He toys with the idea that the homeless man is merely lazy, choosing to live on the street instead of just getting a job. After all, how could anyone be homeless in the richest nation on Earth? Little does he know that more than half a million Americans fit this description on any given night and their plight is heavily rooted in a lack of affordable housing, something they can’t control.

“Probably just an addict,” the well-meaning man shrugs.

He pulls his hand back out of his pocket. It is empty. Good intentions are never enough. The city is permeated with boarded up houses. Trash lines the street from traffic light to corner. The well-meaning man sees no relation between the state of his neighborhood and the state of his neighbor.

We must change the way we see each other. We must come to grips with the ugly truth.

Homelessness Starts at Home

While very few people are born homeless (although that sad reality also exists), every two minutes an infant is born into extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is another leading cause of homelessness. But many people currently living under the burden of housing insecurity are not considered extremely poor.

The bigger issue exists in the ever-growing gap between rent increases and wage increases. Statistically speaking, wages have been steadily decreasing at a rate of approximately .1% each year. In stark contrast, rent has significantly increased at a rate of approximately 3% annually, leaving millions of working Americans falling by the wayside as they fail to make up the difference.

To put things into perspective, a surplus of over 11 million households currently spend more than 50% of their income on rent, a circumstance that has been coined “severely rent burdened” and escalates their susceptibility to homelessness. But in truth, renters shouldn’t realistically spend more than 30% of their monthly income on their homes. Keeping this figure in mind, we now see that an astounding 17 million households currently face the looming threat of homelessness. It’s worth mentioning that this number has gone up 19% since 2001.

Who’s Struggling to Pay Their Rent and Why?

Just because we’re in the middle of a major drug epidemic does not, in any way, support the fictional myth that all or even most people struggling to pay their bills are addicts. The opioid epidemic is an entirely separate issue. Research shows that addiction is often an after effect of homelessness, not the original reason. Below is a list of the types of individuals who are likely to be rent burdened.

  • College graduates working entry level jobs
  • College students
  • Veterans
  • People with jobs in service industries
  • Racial minorities
  • Single parents
  • Working families of all kinds

As you can see, there is a very broad spectrum of different types of individuals who have only housing insecurity in common. Yes, there is a disparity in wages playing a major role in our harrowed landscape, but the problem is also in the housing budget and the houses themselves.

What Secure Housing Looks Like for Everyday Working Americans

Since the recession, it’s become more difficult to purchase a home. What’s more, the price of renting is on the rise as well. In fact, rental prices have increased by 18% over the course of the past five years. Money Magazine says “monthly payments are the highest in 30 years” and adds that the median rent has doubled in the past two decades. The National Low Income Housing Coalition released an extensive report in 2018 reflecting the state of the nation. Here are some of their most noteworthy findings:

  • The necessary median wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment is approximately $21.21 while the federal minimum wage sits low at just $7.25 an hour
  • A minimum wage worker would have to put in 122 hours of hard labor every week (the approximate equivalent of three full-time jobs) in order to reside in a two-bedroom apartment
  • Even a one-bedroom apartment would require a service worker to take on at least two jobs

Experts cite several factors for the lack of affordable housing, including:

  • Lack of budget
  • Multiple foreclosures
  • Expensive building materials
  • Unaffordable land
  • Greed
  • Fraud within low income housing institutions and/or lack of surveillance of government run programs

The Other Top Causes of Homelessness are Also Related to Communal Issues

All too often, we assume homelessness is the result of something a homeless person did. Don’t be so sure. The next time you witness a neighbor living on the street, consider the fact that lack of affordable housing is the most likely reason they have nowhere else to go. The next four most common causes of homelessness are as follows:

  • Unemployment
  • Poverty
  • Insufficient Wages
  • And, for women, domestic violence comes in at number five

New Housing Alternatives

The nation is brimming with new housing alternatives that could either end or significantly reduce homelessness. From tiny homes to shipping container architecture to unexpected temporary residential fixtures like greenhouses and converted abandoned shopping malls, we are finally coming together and working toward concrete solutions.

Our Cities Are Rich with Buildings. Everyone Should Have Somewhere to Live.

With all this potential for progress and millions of Americans in need, we cannot afford the recently proposed 14% cut to the already lacking HUD budget. Please remember to contact your legislators and support your neighbors who might be just a few paychecks away from losing their homes.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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