A member of the parish of St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Manhattan, whom I will call Francine, lives modestly on Social Security, her monthly pension of $200 and the small salary she receives as a part-time receptionist for another church. Francine has lived comfortably in a studio apartment in Manhattan in what had once been a so-called Mitchell-Lama building. The Mitchell-Lama program gave developers tax breaks and low-interest mortgages in exchange for charging tenants below-market rents. Landlords were free to leave the program after 20 years if their mortgage was paid up. Although Francine was paying below-market rent for her apartment, she still had to rely on a federal Section 8 housing voucher to afford what the landlord was permitted to charge. Her landlord recently informed her that he was withdrawing his building from the Mitchell-Lama program and that her rent, after the Section 8 voucher is applied, will rise from $491 to $648—an increase of 32 percent. Her rent will now be more than what she receives in Social Security, and she may also have to pay for utilities.
There is a major housing crisis throughout the United States, and this housing crisis is being felt especially in New York City. A number of factors have converged to create the perfect storm in New York City’s housing market. Having never fully recovered from the economic effects of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the city has been hit particularly hard by the sluggish national economy. There is an increasing number of low-wage workers seeking a diminishing number of low-cost housing options. In 2002, 22.5 percent of the city’s renter households had incomes below the federal poverty level ($15,260 for a family of three). The diminished inventory of affordable housing stock is the result, in part, of an overall divestment in affordable housing development and preservation at all levels of government. The convergence of these factors has created a housing market in which moderate- and low-income workers are finding it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing. According to standards set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, rental housing is affordable when a family is paying no more than 30 percent of its gross income for rent. By this standard, a family of three, living at the federal poverty level, should pay no more than $381 per month in rent. Unfortunately, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New York City, as calculated by HUD, is $1,073. It should not be surprising, therefore, to learn that 22.5 percent of New Yorkers are forced to spend more than 50 percent of their gross income on rent alone. Clearly, New York City has a housing crisis.
In response to the pressing need for more affordable housing, an alliance of civic, business, labor, community and religious organizations has been formed under the banner of a group called Housing First! Since its launch in May 2001, it has forged a broad consensus for a 10-year, $10 billion plan that would produce 100,000 new units of housing and preserve at least 85,000 more. Despite the events of Sept. 11 and the ensuing deterioration in the city’s economy, Housing First! has helped to keep affordable housing at the top of the public agenda. As a result, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg began the city’s most significant housing initiative since the 1980’s. His initiative, called the New Housing Marketplace, aims to produce and preserve 65,000 units of housing over the next five years.
Numerous Catholic organizations are included within the Housing First! coalition, including the New York Province of the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits’ participation in this work is a concrete expression of the commitment called for by the U.S. Catholic bishops in their statement on political responsibility issued in fall 2000 for the national elections in 2001, Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility in a New Millennium. In this document the bishops reminded us: “Every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things that allow them to live a decent life—faith and family, food and shelter, health care and housing, education and employment.”
Having recognized the legitimacy of these social and economic rights, the bishops went on to advocate concrete steps to implement them in our society. “The lack of safe, affordable housing is a national crisis. We support a recommitment to the national pledge of ‘safe and affordable housing’ for all and effective policies that will increase the supply of quality housing and preserve, maintain, and improve existing housing. We promote public/private partnerships, especially those that involve religious communities.” The participation of Catholic religious organizations in the work of Housing First!, therefore, is a necessary part of our effort to secure the right of affordable housing for all.
The fact that a broad spectrum of religious groups has come together in support of Housing First! affirms the bishops’ teaching that the right to affordable housing is a fundamental right of all persons and not simply a privilege to be dispensed at society’s pleasure. Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders have acknowledged that securing affordable housing is both a social responsibility and a theological imperative. The Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures all speak of the primary obligation we have to attend to the needs of those who are vulnerable in our midst, so that all can live in dignity. The high cost of rental housing in New York has contributed directly to the growing number of families in homeless shelters. It has placed families and individuals in situations in which their basic rights are set in competition with one another. People are forced to choose between paying rent or eating, or paying medical bills, or even obtaining needed clothing. Basic human rights cannot be set in opposition to one another. Rather, our society has the obligation to insure that each of these rights is secured for all. This is the teaching of all three religious traditions that recognize Abraham as our ancestor in faith.
The issues that Housing First! seeks to address in New York City are unfortunately replicated throughout the United States. The National Low Income Housing Coalition publishes a highly respected annual report that documents what families in various jurisdictions throughout the United States must earn in order to meet prevailing housing costs. Its most recent study, Out of Reach 2003, clearly documents a continued housing affordability gap in every jurisdiction in the United States; that is, wages are not keeping pace with rising housing costs. The report notes, for example, that even in Nebraska, where there is the lowest gap between renter income and prevailing rental costs, fully 36 percent of renter households are still unable to afford the prevailing rate for a two-bedroom apartment. In Massachusetts, the state with the worst housing affordability situation, 60 percent of the renter households are unable to afford the prevailing rate for a two-bedroom apartment. Current estimates are that one in three households in the United States now must pay considerably more than they can afford for their housing.
The impact of this crisis in housing affordability is enormous. It translates into families keeping the rent paid only by resorting to food pantries and soup kitchens to eat. It can mean that children never receive a proper education as families move repeatedly in pursuit of affordable housing. It translates into the fear felt by an elderly widow who watches as her rent or property taxes increase while her pension remains fixed. There is not a single jurisdiction in the United States that remains untouched by the crisis in affordable housing and the problems that this crisis creates.
The scope of the housing crisis, and its ripple effects on individuals and communities, is what leads communities of faith to become involved in the good work of organizations such as Housing First! The organization has brought together different faith traditions in a common commitment to securing the fundamental right to safe, secure and affordable housing for all. We recognize that in a nation that currently spends more than $1 billion a day on defense spending and an estimated $153 million a day on continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have the resources to insure that no one must sacrifice other basic rights in order to enjoy the right to decent housing. Our faith traditions compel us to speak out on this critical issue and to mobilize our members in advocacy efforts. These efforts are not an inappropriate intrusion of faith into the political process, but rather the fruit of our reflection on the moral dimensions of a major public policy issue. Support for Housing First! has provided a powerful opportunity for religious communities to give public witness to the values that shape us as people of faith.
Reflecting on her situation, Francine commented sadly, “My situation is not so bad, because I at least had the knowledge and means to look for alternatives to my current housing. Older neighbors of mine, however, are terrified that they will lose apartments that have been their homes for years.” Should low-income people in the United States live in fear of losing their affordable housing?