- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2000

The region's soaring economy has created more jobs and higher wages for most area residents, but prosperity also has fueled rising housing costs in the District of Columbia putting some poor in the city closer to homelessness than ever.

Affordable housing is growing harder and harder to find in the District, according to the officials on hand Monday at the Washington Council of Governments' Annual Regional Homeless Conference.

"As the District's renaissance proceeds … there's a squeeze there," said J. Stephen Cleghorn, deputy director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.

"They don't have the college degrees and so forth that command larger salaries," said Sheri Link of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, Va.

"But they are an important part of our society. They service our homes, they pick up our garbage, they work in our day care centers," she said.

Unemployment nationwide is at its lowest level in 25 years, inflation is at the lowest rate in more than three decades and the homeownership rate is the highest in history.

Yet, in the District, there are 68,000 renter households with "worst case" housing needs living in severely substandard housing or paying 50 percent of their income on rent.

Thirty-two percent of renters are unable to afford fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit. A worker earning the minimum wage would need to work 108 hours per week to afford such a home.

The problem extends into the suburbs. Arlington, Va., has lost 18,000 affordable units in the last 10 years.

"These sobering statistics remind us why we are here, why we are dedicated to fighting poverty and homelessness," said the Rev. Joseph R. Hacala, part of the interfaith outreach at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Conference participants emphasized that better partnerships between the faith community and government are needed to keep low-income families off the street and out of substandard housing. A Council of Governments task force is addressing this issue.

Father Hacala urged more participation with HUD's Center for Community and Interfaith Partnerships, a group that works with churches to identify and satisfy housing needs in the community.

A record $1.125 billion is available from the government for homeless programs this fiscal year, he said.

"Government cannot do this alone," Father Hacala said. "Community and faith-based organizations cannot do this alone. But together, by combining our strategies, our resources and commitment, we can build communities of opportunity."

Miss Link said she would like to see the owners of pricey apartment buildings offer a unit at low cost to a working family, like a young police officer or local day care provider.

Mr. Cleghorn said he would like to explore a program begun in Minnesota by Gov. Jesse Ventura's administration that seeks to solve the affordable housing problem by heavily publicizing it.

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