Housing: A basic human right

It's a Catholic social justice issue

Last week, the Greater Green Bay Habitat for Humanity celebrated the completion of its 107th home, which was built in partnership with the homeowners, the Thao family. It was a great moment for Habitat, the Thao family and the city in an effort to respond to a national crisis, the shortage of low-income affordable housing.

Home ownership, which Habitat for Humanity helps to make a reality for low-income families, is obviously the American dream. But even renting an apartment is out of reach for many Americans.

In its March 2018 report, “The GAP: A Shortage of Affordable Homes,” the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) stated that the United States is 7.2 million rental units short for extremely low-income (ELI) households. For every 100 U.S. households in need of housing, only 35 affordable rental units are available.

Catholic News Service reported March 16 that more than 8 million low-income U.S. households are cost-burdened, which the NLIHC defines as having to pay more than 30 percent of one’s income on rent and utilities.

In Brown County, 44 percent of renter-occupied households are cost-burdened, according to a 2016 Leading Indicators for Excellence (LIFE) study of Brown County. However, community leaders in the LIFE study gave “expanding housing opportunities for low-income residents” the second-lowest score (22 percent) on a list of 17 priorities.

Housing for low-income families is a Catholic social justice issue and requires the support of church leaders and its members. In a 1988 pastoral letter, the U.S. bishops stated that the church “has traditionally viewed housing, not as a commodity, but as a basic human right.”

Many challenges exist, however.

“There is a tremendous pressure on the existing affordable housing market,” Randy Kessler, a grant specialist for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development told Catholic News Service. He’s concerned that property owners nationwide are bypassing low-and moderate-income people in favor of higher-income professionals. A new challenge is the impact Airbnb rentals are having on the rental market of larger cities.

Federal rental assistance programs also face cutbacks. For example, President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget will slash the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) budget by $8.8 million (18.3 percent) below its 2017 budget. “Notably, the plan slices more than $4 billion in rental assistance programs, particularly for housing vouchers and public housing,” reported CNS.

As government agencies seek to balance their budgets, support for low-income housing faces scrutiny. That was the case last January when the city of Green Bay’s finance committee asked the Green Bay Housing Authority, which provides affordable housing to city residents, to increase its tax payment to the city.

The housing authority paid $9,200 in taxes to the city in 2017, which was based on the income of families renting its approximately 50 low-income units. The city maintained that it would receive $33,000 in tax revenue if those properties were on its tax roll.

The housing authority, which is federally funded through HUD, has agreed to increase its tax payment to the city by altering its payment formula to HUD, but at the expense of other services.

Ideally, Habitat for Humanity homes for the poor would be the norm, but Colleen Peters, Greater Green Bay Habitat for Humanity program and marketing director, concedes that building costs make affordable housing difficult. “Today there are over 38,600 families with in the poverty guidelines in need of housing in Brown County,” she told The Compass.

As we prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and his returning home to his Father, let’s not forget our brothers and sisters who long for homes or fear the loss of their homes due to poverty.