The News and Tribune wrote a wonderful Editorial on the need to prioritize truly affordable housing in this region, and those are the key words — truly affordable.
Affordable housing used to mean so much more than it does today because planners and politicians absconded with the word and redefined it.
Affordable housing today is being built for people at or below 80% of poverty; to truly address the needs of the poor and homeless we need housing for those at 30%-50% of poverty. Average rents are $850-$900 for a one bedroom; $1000 and up for two; and some three are $1300-plus per month.
That is so out of reach for many in our community. Those living on the edge and surviving can’t afford that cost and neither can those trying to resolve their homelessness. We can commit to building “affordable housing” but until we truly get what that means we aren’t going to be able to adequately house those living below the poverty level.
Everybody tends to throw their hands in the air and talk about how complicated it is and how we have built and planned for the poor but to no avail. We did not. The War on Poverty did but it ended in 1983 even though it was proving to provide good opportunity and it did help increase the numbers of those in the middle class.
It costs too much was the mantra of the Reagan Administration. The cost of dismantling it was even greater. By 1985 we saw the first of what is contemporary homelessness with the defunding of the Mental Health Centers in this country. Millions of people in care were sent back to their communities with little or no money to support them, many had lived in those hospitals for many years.
In 1985 I met my first truly homeless man when the Mayor called to ask for my help with a man sleeping under the bridge. He had been deinstitutionalized from Madison State Hospital and came back to his home community to no home or family.
Over the years there have been many. Programs were closed, doors shuttered and never reopened, and the mythology of the Welfare Queen was promoted. Poor people work hard just to survive. If they earn less than $25,000 per year they live on $17,000-$18,000 per year after taxes. With two kids non-school-age child care is astronomical. Couple that with transportation, housing, utilities, and the other essentials and there isn’t much left to save for a rainy day.
We are brutal to young families in the private sector working in low-wage jobs.The News and Tribune was right, lots of money is coming to these two counties and it is money intended to deal with all issues with housing being a priority.
We have the opportunity to be transformational in the way we think and plan. Why not provide builders with incentives to build mixed-income housing in their units. For many it would be a no brainer. If we truly want to eliminate blight, homelessness, and improve the living conditions for the poor we will do just that but not from a municipal perspective only.
Builders could easily incorporate a percentage of their units for people at lower levels of rent that would be truly mixed-income housing and strategic. New Albany’s Housing Plan does that but for public housing, this will take more than governmental and public agencies to accomplish.
We need private sector developers to step up, and while this money is available we should offer them incentives to do that. We can and should end homelessness but not by shipping people out of our community but taking care of the total business of our community.
Numbers don’t lie. Floyd County has a population base of 80,184 people with 10.6 of those people — or 8,531 people — living below poverty and Clark County has a population of 121,093 people with a poverty level of 9.7% or 11,746 people. These are U.S. Census Bureau statistics. In the two-county area, 20,277 people live below the poverty line, which is alarming.
The barriers are as serious today as 30 years ago. More so. Then we had the Rural Transit Authority, which provided transportation from rural communities for $1 per ride for work. There were child care vouchers, subsidies for housing was greater, but slowly that infrastructure was eroded.
We can build all the bridges, repair all the streets, and build new parks, but after a while we have to acknowledge the human infrastructure of our community is hurting and needs attention as well. If we leave one person behind because we failed to act what kind of community are we?
As you look at who is running for office watch their platforms. Look to those who lead with compassion and plan with an attitude of inclusivity. All the shiny whistles mean nothing if you can’t visit a park without climbing over people sleeping in it. If we fail for one person, we fail for all people.
We have a very human task in front of us. We need to demand from those in leadership roles to make decisions on what we as a people want. Ask for community forums to give your input, call or write to your elected leadership. The more prudent you are in holding leadership accountable, the more responsive it will become.
Our river communities are a special place, there is a huge sense of caring in our citizenry but there is a disconnect between what that citizenry believes in and what leadership responds to.
Let us take this opportunity to change that, become more active, challenge leadership more frequently. We will probably never see the amount of unencumbered funds in this region again. We need to do right.