- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

About 30 percent of families in the United States struggle to find affordable housing, even though homeownership is at record levels, a study released last week said.

Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies said that people in the nation’s lowest income brackets often pay more than what is recommended for housing, and that the supply of low-cost homes is dwindling.

The Federal National Mortgage Association, known as Fannie Mae, and the Federal Home Mortgage Corp., or Freddie Mac, recommend that families spend no more than 30 percent of their yearly income on housing. Harvard said about 31.6 million families — many of them earning little more than minimum wage — spent more than the recommended 30 percent in 2002, and 14.3 million families put more than 50 percent of their incomes toward housing.

“Housing problems fall most heavily on those in the bottom fifth of the income distribution, who can barely afford to pay enough to cover the cost of utilities, property taxes and maintenance on even modest units in the less desirable communities,” the Harvard study said.

Of these families in the bottom fifth, about 34 percent receive some sort of federal, state or local assistance in paying for housing.

The rate of homeownership in 2002 was a record high 67.9 percent, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. Additionally, people are buying new homes at a record clip, with 970,000 units purchased last year, up from 908,000 in 2001.

Despite the housing boom, the Harvard study noted a lack of new construction of lower-cost units. Although record-low interest rates have made homeownership more affordable for many families, the cost of housing is rising faster than the incomes of the nation’s poorest families.

The study said the number of low-cost rental apartments, particularly those with two to four bedrooms, has dwindled since 1993. The Northeast has 264,000 fewer rental units than a decade ago, and the Midwest lost 240,000 units during the same period.

The issue of affordable housing has been highlighted in the District, where officials earlier this month started a marketing campaign to attract 100,000 new residents. A key part of that plan is ensuring housing options for people of all incomes. The push for more affordable housing has led to renovations of several distressed properties, including Clifton Terrace and Meridian Manor in Columbia Heights.

The national median price for a single-family home was $158,000 in 2002, the National Association of Realtors said. In the Washington area, the median price was $250,000.

The loss of rental units outlined in the study prompted low-income housing advocates to call for a federal housing policy that would include a greater emphasis on expanding rental options. Many families need to rent at least for a short time to save money to buy a home, and others can’t afford the cost of repairing and maintaining a home, the National Low Income Housing Coalition said last week.

The group said money should be set aside to establish a National Housing Trust fund, which would be used to redevelop distressed properties and convert them to low-cost rental homes. Legislation to create such a fund was proposed in Congress last year but has languished in committees.

“As long as national policy continues unequivocally to reward home ownership while devaluing rental opportunities, American households, especially low income households, will be at a disadvantage,” the housing coalition said in a statement.

The Harvard study, which emphasized the struggles of families in the lowest income brackets, also said many people with middle incomes, such as janitors and clerks, find many housing options out of reach.

Other groups, including the National Housing Conference, a District-based affordable-housing advocacy organization, say suitable housing is out of reach for many people with community-oriented jobs, such as schoolteachers, police officers and firefighters.

In the Washington area, on average a person working in such a profession would not make enough to put aside the recommended 30 percent of income toward an average-priced home, the National Housing Conference said.

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