- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

My son and I were amazed at the smoke billowing from the apartment buildings across from my condo. The fire trucks blocked the streets coming in and out, and the firefighters were rushing in to carry out their rescue.

Neighbors poured out to watch, even bringing out lawn chairs and eating sandwiches while watching firefighters mount ladders to climb through windows and break down doors to defeat the flames inside.

We pointed out hot spots and lifted our children high so they could see the destruction.

In the process was destroyed the final bit of affordable housing in that portion of our town.

You see, these apartments had been targeted to be used as a firefighting training exercise. The apartments were to be demolished and new, larger, luxury garage town homes were to go up in their place.

What was now becoming a charred skeletal structure used to be the home to scores of working Hispanic families. These were the guys who got roused at 5 a.m. with a honking horn from their foreman, driving into the parking lot with the work truck. They would drag themselves out of bed and hop in the back with their coolers, waving goodbye to their wives as they headed toward another day of construction, road work or lawn maintenance.

Then the notice came in. "Your apartment has been sold; you must leave in 60 days," or something like that. I'm sure the residents didn't get an invitation to tour another set of homes for the same monthly payment.

Where do they go? What houses can they afford in one of the most affluent counties in the United States, Fairfax County, where the average price of a house is $301,000 and the median household income is $80,000-plus?

These few, older row houses were one of the last places where a family could live without having to share a two-bedroom or three-bedroom dwelling with another family.

More than likely, they moved a couple of counties away. The next county west was making sure they couldn't afford to live there, either, with new land-use legislation requiring 5-acre to 20-acre lots per house, preserving the county for the rich.

So now these workmen will have to get up even earlier to catch the car pool to their jobs, to go to take care of building, cleaning and maintaining houses and structures for those who can afford to live where they work.

Thus, in the affluent Washington area, is created suburban sprawl and, at worst, homelessness.

Estimates vary, but of the 500,000 to 7 million homeless people in the United States, nearly a fifth of them are employed. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, they are working people like the Hispanic laborers who were forced out of their homes.

We want our yard work done, but we aren't willing to pay a living wage to have it done. We don't care where those workers have to come from to do it. At the end of the day, when they set out on their 40-mile or 50-mile commute, we wonder why traffic is so thick.

We must preserve more housing for those who don't hold the white collar or unionized jobs. While that seems to be a concept beyond our society's grasp, fortunately we have many private and government-backed organizations that are stepping up to help those who are on the brink of homelessness.

Here are several such organizations:

• Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, www.iugm.org; 816/471-8020.

• Department of Housing and Urban Development, Web: www.hud.gov/hmless.html.

• Habitat for Humanity International, Web: www.habitat.org; Phone: 800/422-4828.

• Health Care for the Homeless, Web: www.hchirc.com/; Phone: 888/439-3300.

• Housing Assistance Council, Web: www.ruralhome.org; Phone: 202/842-8600.

• National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Web: www.nchv.org/; Phone: 800/838-4357.

• National Coalition for the Homeless, Web: www.nationalhomeless.org/; Phone: 202/737-6444.

M. Anthony Carr, director of communications for the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, has written about real estate for more than 12 years. Reach him by e-mail ([email protected]).

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