Fifty years after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we all recall the dreams expressed by our civil rights pioneers. Words from Whitney Young continue to ring in my ears in particular: “[Negro Americans] must march from the rat-infested, over-crowded ghettos to decent, wholesome, unrestricted residential areas disbursed throughout our cities. . . ”
That most of the inadequate housing conditions have been addressed is a testament to our country’s commitments and strength. Since the 1960s, homes with one or more serious problems related to heating, plumbing, and electrical systems or maintenance have become a very small segment of both the whole “worst case needs” population and the bigger group of households.
But there are also very low-income households that continue to face housing problems that are caused entirely or partially by the poor physical quality of the homes they occupy—and these numbers have grown during the recent housing crisis and recession.
In its recently released 2011 Worst Case Housing Needs report, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) notes that 6.7 percent of the very low-income unassisted renter population in 2011 had severely inadequate housing— about 570,000 very low-income renter households at last count. There are also an additional 650,000 renters that aren’t very low-income and 922,000 owner households that live in severely inadequate housing conditions.
Further, there is a slight racial gap in housing quality. Just over three percent of white and 3.5 percent of Hispanic very low-income renters live in severely inadequate housing. Nearly five percent of very low-income African-American renters live in these conditions.
Interestingly, the numbers of owner households who are facing just moderately inadequate housing have slightly dropped during the recession, while the severely inadequate housing numbers have increased. Are properties simply being allowed to fall into disrepair? On the whole, we know that American housing does not suffer from severe physical problems. When these problems do exist, they tend to be addressed efficiently, so we might expect severe conditions to be rectified once the economy improves.
But for the rental market, both severely and moderately inadequate housing have increased. When we look at the lowest-income households, the picture is even starker. But is this not a temporary situation for them as well?
For very low-income households that own their homes, in fact, we see a similar decrease in moderate inadequacy and increase in severe inadequacy over the recession years as we see in the overall population—though with the severely inadequate housing now slightly surpassing those in just moderately inadequate housing.
For the renters among these families, though, both moderate and severe housing inadequacy increased significantly over the recession. These conditions give pause.
Affordability is still the most critical factor for most households, and the challenge of finding affordable homes should not be understated for all of the very low-income unassisted families. But the persistence of poor quality housing in the U.S. is inexcusable on all counts. With cities having fewer municipal staff to monitor these conditions, tenants being unable or willing to complain about poor housing conditions because of their lack of options, and decreased public and private funds to repair or replace this housing, we just might see this “tiny” segment of Americans and American homes continue to expand.