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A Home by Any Other Name: Enhancing Shelters Addresses the Gap in Low-income Housing

Over the past thirty years, the number of low-income Americans has risen as the number of affordable housing rental units has declined. This report explains the factors that contribute to this gap, and how homeless shelters can be part of the solution.


By the beginning of 2010, the economy had begun to improve, the housing market was rebounding, and the nation was starting to recover from the Great Recession. However, hidden among this rise in fortunes was a devastating countertrend. More than 1.6 million persons lived in homeless shelters at some point in 2010.1

The number of homeless families with children has seen a generally steady rise despite fluctuating economic circumstances. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports a 20% increase in homeless families from 2007 to 2010.2

While this change is sobering, it is hardly surprising, as family homelessness has risen for the last three decades. Families constitute an ever-growing proportion of homeless households. By 2010, more than 37% of homeless individuals across the country were in families—a number that had increased by 37% since 1985.3

Reducing the number of homeless households requires a series of policy interventions to support poor families in a variety of ways, including reducing unemployment and increasing educational attainment. However, a continually growing shortage of affordable rental housing makes it particularly challenging for homeless families to find places to live and remain out of shelter.

In 2009, 7.1 million households had worst-case housing needs, earning less than 50% of the local median income and either paying over half their income in rent, living in severely substandard housing, or both.4 The decrease in the number of low-cost apartments surely contributes to the rise in homelessness, and the shelter system is increasingly becoming home for many of the nation’s poor.

Figures 1A and 1B

National Affordable-housing Trends

Despite some fluctuation during the prosperous economic times of the mid-2000s, the gap between the need for and availability of affordable rental units for poor renters is at an all-time high.5 In 1970 the number of low-cost rental units was greater than the number of low-income renters.6 However, the ratio of inexpensive units to poor renters has slowly shifted, with the number of lowincome renters exceeding that of units. Though there was slight fluctuation during the intervening years, 1970 and 1995 saw nearly the same number of inexpensive apartments. Meanwhile, the number of poor households increased by 69.4%, to 10.5 million. With rising poverty and a worsening shortage of affordable units, family homelessness and the number of shelters increased as well. In the early 1980s shelters began to become the alternative to low-cost housing.

The 2000s saw a continuing lack of units affordable to poor households. From 2001 to 2009 that gap in affordable rental units rose by 44.7%, to its highest-ever level of 5.5 million units (see Figures 1A and 1B.)7 As 2007–09 saw the largest recorded drop in the number of low-cost units (11.5%) during the decade, the number of poor households also showed the largest increase (13.5%), leaving 50.5% of poor renters without affordable units. Additionally, HUD estimates that higher-income renters occupy nearly 42% of low cost rental units.8 This makes the number of affordable units available to poor renters even smaller. In other words, working poor families who are doing all they can to maintain housing and keep their families together are being pushed out and forced into worse neighborhoods with fewer amenities and inferior schools.

A portion of the growing affordable-housing gap is likely caused by a decline in the number of project-based public-housing units. Public housing requires that renters pay no more than 30% of their income on housing costs, making it affordable for poor rental households. However, as a result of the physical inadequacy of the units and a conversion to market-rate rentals stemming from expired contracts, the number of public-housing units declined by 700,000 from 1995 to 2009.9


1 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, The 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.
2 United States Conference of Mayors, Hunger and Homelessness Survey: A Status Report  on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities, A 27-city Survey, 2011.
3 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, The 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress; United States Conference of Mayors, Hunger and Homelessness Survey: A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities, A 27-city Survey, 2000.
4 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Worst Case Housing Needs 2009: A Report to Congress.
5 Affordable units are defined as housing costing no more than 30% of a renter’s income. “Poor” describes a household earning less than the poverty level for a family of three.
6 The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, In Search of Shelter: The Growing Shortage of Affordable Rental Housing, 1998.
7 ICPH analysis of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Affordability Data System, 2011.
8 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Worst Case Housing Needs 2009: A Report to Congress.
9 The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, America’s Rental Housing, 2011.


The American Almanac at a Glance
10/2013

An Unstable Foundation: Factors that Impact Educational Attainment among Homeless Children
9/2013

Head Start and Housing (In)stability: Examining the School Readiness of Children Experiencing Homelessness
9/2013


Number of Poor Rental Households and Available Affordable Units

Gap Between Need and Availability of Affordable Units for Poor Renters

Housing Cost as a Percentage of Income for Households with Children

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