A Crisis in Story County

Many are unaware of it, even after it has taken a toll that exceeds that of any storm or flood we have ever seen. It has caused more families to be homeless than for any other reason.  It is a crisis manifest in the increasing inability of many in our community to afford that most basic of needs – a place to live. Affected most are those whose life has become a daily struggle to make ends meet, whose housing expenses have risen faster than their incomes for more than three decades. They are finding that these costs now require such a large part of their incomes they can no longer afford a home.

It seems like a game of musical chairs; watching people desperately seeking places that, for some, do not exist. Our concern for the homeless should also extend to the far greater numbers who are living on the edge, the near homeless. The stress of living with an uncertain future, only a car repair or a doctor’s visit away from calamity, takes a great toll on parents and their children.

Hundreds of Story County families lose their homes every year, either by an eviction or under its threat. Record numbers of people are seeking housing help. A few years ago, a survey of households in Story County by Habitat for Humanity found nearly 5900 whose incomes were low enough to qualify for a Habitat home. This was nearly a quarter of all our households. The crisis is also seen in the numbers of people who must commute to their jobs in Ames. Included are a majority of our service sector and factory workers. Some may choose this, but many have no choice. Close to 80% of the maintenance workers at the Iowa Department of Transportation and at Iowa State University commute. They are further hampered by fuel costs and the increased maintenance expenses on their vehicles. Many have resorted to “doubling up” wherein a host family and a guest family share an apartment, often in crowded high stress conditions and usually in violation of housing ordinances,

We see them every day; where we shop, the cashiers and those who stock the shelves. Or when we dine out, those who prepare our food and wait on us, those who watch our children at daycare, or who clean our motel rooms and our workplaces. These are the people most likely to have the greatest difficulty affording a place of their own.

Some of the conditions creating this problem, such as growing nationwide poverty, challenge any community’s efforts for a remedy. We can do more however. We can make it a goal that the range of housing prices in our community is reflected in the range of the incomes of our citizens. We can work for an inclusive community in which anyone who works and contributes to our well being can, in the very least, afford a place to live. Though not easy, it is possible if we have the will. Can we justify doing less. We can help our leaders identify solutions and then provide them with the support they need, including when necessary, a willingness to pay for them. We may also need to stand up to vested interests. Continuing on our present course should not be an option.

A key to understanding this predicament lies in an examination of the percentage of their incomes that many must pay for housing. This percentage has been steadily increasing for households in the lower 40 percent of the income range. It acts as a threshold that, as it continues to rise, makes it difficult and eventually impossible to overcome. The benchmark affordability level for housing expenses is they not exceed 30 percent of household income. The U.S. government, financial counselors, and mortgage lenders nationwide use this figure. By this definition, 5,554 households in Ames, 48.3 percent of all rental households, cannot afford their housing. The Ames figure is close to the state and national figures of approximately 40 percent, an indication that we are not unique in this respect.

The poorest households in Ames, those with incomes at or near the minimum wage, are most severely affected by the housing squeeze. An average one-bedroom apartment, renting for $198 in 1980, required 36% of a full time minimum wage income, then $3.20 an hour. In 1997, the average one bedroom apartment rented for $439 and took 49% of the $5.15 an hour minimum wage income. By 2005 before an adjustment, 62% of minimum wage was needed. Those who need more than one bedroom face an even grimmer picture.

A ten year old Story County Housing Assessment Study found a shortage of 3,136 affordable rental units for those whose incomes put them in bottom one fifth of all households. Part of the shortage can be attributed to the loss of lower income housing through development, and the removal of six mobile home courts and dozens of older homes and apartment houses.

A solution to affordable housing predicament lies in increasing incomes, and lower housing costs. The increased income avenue, which would include improving job skills, job readiness, and job placement should be pursued with vigor. It seems likely that there will continue to be many low paying service sector jobs however. Minimum wage increases could be a source of relief for the lowest of these. Minimum wage has never been tied to any cost of living index nor adjusted on any regular schedule. The 2005 increase followed a gap of eight years, as did the 1989 increase. There is great resistance to any changes however.

There must also be a great effort on the housing cost side. The simplest and most widely used way to make housing affordable to low-income families is through direct subsidy. This type of support has been far outpaced by increasing need however, and waiting lists, if not closed altogether, are often measured in years. Increasing numbers of children will grow up without ever having a home of their own.

Zoning covenants and tax incentives for providers have lowered housing costs for some and these could be expanded. Private organizations such as Habitat for Humanity are meeting a small part of the need, and could do more with increased public and private support. Community Land Trusts and an approach called Shared Equity Investing have a proven track record but are also under utilized.

Continuing on our present course should not be an option. As having a home becomes a more fleeting dream for many, at question are our own moral values.

-Vic Moss