Report: Impoverished Households Face ‘Critical’ Rental Shortage

The Altgeld Gardens Homes on Chicago’s Far South Side provide affordable housing to low-income households, something Illinois and Chicago have a significant shortage of, according to a new report. (Zol87 / Wikimedia)The Altgeld Gardens Homes on Chicago’s Far South Side provide affordable housing to low-income households, something Illinois and Chicago have a significant shortage of, according to a new report. (Zol87 / Wikimedia)

For extremely low-income households, there is a shortage of affordable housing across the U.S., according to a report released Thursday by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

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In Illinois, there are 32 available and affordable units for every 100 such households; that number drops to 26 in Chicago, according to the report, which identifies extremely low-income households as those with income at or below the poverty guideline, or 30 percent of the area’s median income.

Those figures puts Illinois 33rd nationwide and Chicago 37th in city rankings for availability of affordable housing. There are 324,178 extremely low-income households in Illinois, according to the report.

“This year's analysis continues to show that extremely low income households face the largest shortage of affordable and available rental housing, and have more severe housing cost burdens than any other group,” the report states.

The shortage of affordable and available housing directly correlates to levels of homelessness, according to Housing Action Illinois Policy Director Bob Palmer, who sits on the board of directors of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“People often attribute the causes of homelessness around poor personal decisions or health issues,” Palmer said. “But the main reason there’s homelessness is people can’t afford housing.”

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty cites insufficient income and a lack of affordable housing as the “leading causes of homelessness.”

Another indicator of homelessness is the rate of people who fall into the “severe cost burden” category, spending more than half of their household income on housing costs. The report found that 76 percent of extremely low-income households in the Chicago metro area are severly cost burden.

As outlined in the Housing and Urban Development Act, it’s been the rule of thumb since 1981 that households should spend no more than 30 percent of income on rent in order to still have enough left over for other spending.

“Often [severely cost-burden households] are just one paycheck or rent payment away from being homeless. It’s very disturbing that people have to be in this situation.”

–Bob Palmer

Access Living, an agency that assists individuals with disabilities throughout Chicago, has encountered significant challenges in finding adequate and affordable housing for its clients. Though the group directs its clients to public and private housing providers, they’re often placed on waiting lists.

“People have to wait months if not years to find something that’s affordable,” said Gary Arnold, a public affairs manager for Access Living.   

Palmer identified a number of potential solutions, nearly all involving public sector assistance. He said the profit margins for providing and maintaining low-income housing have been too minimal for private entities to build the necessary infrastructure in demand. 

The Campaign for Housing and Community Development Funding published a report Monday citing congressional testimony in which private sector developers said “without federal resources, the private market wouldn’t invest in affordable housing at all.” Calling for increased federal investments in affordable housing, the report highlighted Access Living as an example of an affordable housing success story. 

On top of building more housing for low-income households, Palmer suggests that federal and state agencies provide more housing vouchers to reduce the cost burden on households. He pointed to the success housing vouchers have had in reducing the veteran homeless population over the last six years as an impetus for increasing the supply of vouchers for low-income houesholds.

Another local initiative to tackle the affordable housing shortage has come in the form of ordinances. The Chicago Housing Initiative has been advocating for the “Keeping the Promise” ordinance that would require the Chicago Housing Authority to allocate some of its surplus funds toward building and sustaining affordable housing.

It would also give City Council oversight of the CHA in efforts to ensure the organization spends funds on affordable housing.

While advocacy groups have proposed possible solutions, Palmer insists that without political support the shortage of affordable housing will continue throughout the city and state.

“This is definitely a problem that can be solved,” Palmer said. “But, we’ll definitely need political will.” 

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