The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

I Will Build This

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After four years working in the field of homelessness prevention, I’ve zeroed in on one big way to help end homelessness. It isn’t education and it isn’t a shelter. (I’ve written before about why shelters are not the solution.) It’s something more attainable and concrete.

I have many dreams (to create an Oscar-winning documentary, to become a bluegrass singer, for example) but the one I am focusing all my efforts towards and shaping my goals around is this: to build high-quality, truly affordable housing as a lasting solution to homelessness.

The “Solutions” That Don’t Work

Why is affordable housing an important solution to homelessness? In short, because welfare is unsustainable and inadequate, and because the minimum wage will take too long to go up. These “solutions” to homelessness don’t work. Let me explain. When I encounter a homeless family that has been referred to the rapid rehousing program at my organization, one of the first things I look at is their income. I will use that to figure out what sort of payments they can make towards rent now, and what sort of apartment they might be able to afford after our subsidy ends. Most clients are either getting by on welfare checks, Social Security Income (because of a serious mental or physical disability that prevents them from working), child support (with payments ranging from $2-$50 a month, i.e. negligible) or wages from a job. Everyone is also receiving SNAP benefits (i.e. food stamps).

So, let’s discuss these potential income streams for accessing housing. First, welfare. Welfare checks are a pitiful $653 per month in the state of Wisconsin, regardless of family size, and it’s nearly impossible to find anything bigger than a crappy studio apartment for less than $400 or $500. (And this, coming from a remarkably affordable city. Studios in other cities can be as much as $8000 or $1200). $500 means almost an entire monthly welfare check will be eaten up by rent, leaving little left over for all the normal expenses of daily life. And that only applies if you can actually fit your family into a studio apartment. So, for a single mom with 2 kids, there’s literally nowhere affordable to live, because even if she was willing to cram into a studio apartment, most landlords won’t allow more than 2 people per “bedroom” space within a unit. So in short, if you’re living on welfare, you can’t afford an apartment in Milwaukee. Period. I’d hazard a guess that in other areas, where cost of living is even higher, it’s even more impossible to get by on welfare.

On another note, numbers aside, welfare income usually has time limits. In Wisconsin, welfare is only available for adults who are parents or guardians of a child, and only then for a period of 5 years. After that, you’re on your own. Definitively, welfare is not a sustainable solution to poverty or homelessness.

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Another income stream is employment. I think most people would look at the problem of poverty and say, “Those people need jobs.” And this might be true. But first, consider that populations in severe poverty experience higher rates of depression, abuse, PTSD, lack of high school or college education, lack of support system, and more. All of these factors make it very challenging to secure and maintain a well-paying job upon which to support oneself or one’s family. Nonetheless, most people, unless they have a severe mental illness or disability, can work to some extent, and employment is a good source of sustainable income, right? Not necessarily. Even those who can find jobs (a big challenge while you’re homeless) are often only able to work part-time, either because of health issues, or because of the simple fact that most jobs with low barriers to entry are part-time. This means that even among our clients who work, most are making less than $1,000 per month. Returning to that single mother of two, maybe now she’s able to squeeze into a 1 bedroom unit for $600 or $700, but she’s still in a very precarious position. She’ll barely have enough to pay her utility bills, transportation and other costs of daily life, especially with two children. It would be better if her hard work paid more, right?

Thus, the next option to consider is raising the minimum wage. If those minimum wage jobs paid enough to allow families to afford housing, we would solve our problem. Unfortunately, as many state and city governments have demonstrated, it’s incredibly challenging to pass minimum wage increases, not to mention fraught with other potential economic consequences. We’ve seen cities like Seattle and Los Angeles take bold steps with regards to minimum wage but it will be a very long time before our country has adopted these policies nationwide. And by then, inflation may have risen so much that the increases aren’t nearly enough anyway. This is the depressing state of our economy and job market.

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What I Want to Build

So, I have come to my conclusion: The best, most attainable and lasting solution to homelessness is affordable housing. When housing is affordable, we take fluctuations in welfare and low-wage income out of the equation. When housing is modest and priced in a modest way, it becomes broadly accessible, even to families and individuals with diverse needs and abilities.

My vision is this: An affordable housing building (and hopefully, eventually more than one), located in an area that is highly transit-accessible and walkable, close to schools, close to grocery stores and near to a hub of economic activity like a downtown. The units would be varying sizes–studio to 3 bedroom perhaps–but all with a focus on efficiency (especially energy efficiency) and compactness in order to keep them affordable. The apartments would have all the usual amenities like stoves, fridges, and shared laundry facilities, plus a fitness center, community meeting room, and interfaith meditation/worship space. The first floor of the building would be occupied by local businesses, with some specifically aiming to hire and job-train residents in the building. An on-site day care (perhaps occupying the second floor) would be ideal as well. Case management services and support groups (like AA or grief groups) would be offered to residents who needed them. An adjacent outdoor space would be open to the public, with benches, trees, flowers and a playground.

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I would also ensure that the affordable housing building had low barriers to entry, because most homeless people don’t just struggle to find housing due to a lack of a lack of income but also because of their background. They often have extensive debt, evictions, petty crimes and/or bad credit–all of which make it very challenging to convince a landlord to rent to them. In this affordable housing complex that I hope to build, I would want staff who screen potential tenants to have a forgiving, “second chance” attitude.

Now, I’m not saying that a building like this (or even hundreds of buildings like this) will end homelessness forever, for all populations. However, I am saying that it will significantly and sustainably decrease the amount of people who are homeless in this country. There will always be people who find themselves temporarily without a home because of a crisis, but with the systems already in place like shelters and case management, they can swiftly move out of that situation and into an affordable apartment.

I’m excited about a movement going on in the Strong Towns and Lean Urbanism communities that encourages “small developers”–people like you and me who don’t have a lot of money, but who can purchase land or property in an area where it’s cheap, and turn those empty lots or abandoned houses into productive, economically viable entities that contribute to their communities. A couple years down the road, this is how I’ll start.

By sharing this idea now, I’m holding myself accountable to make it happen in the future, and my readers should hold me accountable too. We all have to do our part to make the world better in the ways that we’re capable, and building affordable housing is something I know I can do in the future. So look for more ideas and blueprints in the coming months.

Photo credits: 1, 2, 3, 4

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4 thoughts on “I Will Build This

  1. I like your dream. I’m curious to understand more about your assumed financial model for this endeavor. Is there a current existing model that you want to emulate? If so describe or …. What is the down payment and assumed monthly mortgage payments for you the owner of this building? Is the day care breaking even through day care subsidy payments from the government or non-profits or…? Is there a non-profit in the facilty that is providing the various case management services that you desire and if so what is the financial model for the non-profit? What makes the units affordable? Are rents kept down through government of philanthropic subsidy?

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    • Thanks Harry. These are all great questions to think about. I have definitely not figured out all the details yet. I would need to get investors and a team for the initial build. I think the daycare would need to be run by a separate entity that might rely, in part, on subsidy payments. The case management could be under the umbrella of the building, or it could be contracted out to another entity. As for the affordability of the units, they would need to be built affordably to begin with (i.e. small, efficient), and then also utilize Section 42 tax credits, and/or a nonprofit model, developing support through private donors, government funds and/or foundation grants.

      Lots to think about.

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  2. Rachel, wow! I am (as usual) so impressed by your thoughtfulness and energy. There is a apartment complex right next door to my building that is a lot like what you describe: Castle Gardens. Focusing on the formerly incarcerated vs. the homeless, but of course there is so much overlap in the issues addressed. http://www.thenyhc.org/CastleGardensSpotlight

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