The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 26, 2021 1:00 am

Help in holding on to home

On path to security, too many families face twin hurdles of affordability, low income

Sarah Lance

Do you know the feeling you get when you return from work or get back from a trip? You are home.

I love that feeling of coming home, and the security of arriving at a space I know is safe and mine. The reality is that not everyone shares my experience when they come home.

Home may not be a safe place. Or home may be a considerable burden that takes up all of a family's financial resources, depending on where they work and the income they earn. This arrival home may be after 40 hours – or after 80-plus hours of work.

They may arrive home to a pile of utility bills they cannot pay – or maybe they don't even think about those bills because they are automatically withdrawn from a full bank account.

The reality is the cost of “having a home” is a burden that low-wage earners can barely meet. Housing security is not something that can be taken for granted.

Affordable housing in Indiana is a limited resource.

Indiana and Fort Wayne, in particular, have a reputation for a low cost of living. At the same time, wages remain low, making affordable housing for Hoosiers a challenge, including for those working in the food service industry, home health care, retail, or as teaching assistants, janitors, stockers, nursing assistants, or freight, stock and material movers.

Affordable housing, spending 30% of your income or less on rent, is becoming out of reach for many families.

And sadly, “low-income workers and communities of color are disproportionally harmed,” said Diane Yentle, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Rents are rising, the housing market is shrinking, and wages are stagnant for the most vulnerable and marginalized among us.

Did you know that Fort Wayne is 13th in the nation for the highest eviction rate? Low-wage jobs are making it hard for many low-income families to keep up with the rising costs of rental homes.  And while evictions dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of the eviction moratorium, the evidence points to a rise as soon the moratorium is lifted.

In 2019, 5,037 eviction cases were filed. During the pandemic in 2020, evictions fell, and only 2,668 eviction cases were filed. More than 600 of those evictions came in August 2020 when Gov. Eric Holcomb temporarily lifted the eviction moratorium in Indiana.

In the meantime, there is some good news. A recent article in The Journal Gazette shines a light on the collaboration of the Allen Superior Court with its nonprofit partners. They are working to connect landlords and tenants to Fort Wayne's Emergency Rental Assistance program, with more than 2,000 households benefiting from the relief payments 

With the eviction moratorium ended and the longer-term concerns about affordable housing, how many families will find themselves without any place to go in the coming months? How many families will end up in the shelters of Vincent Village, the Rescue Mission, Just Neighbors or on the couches of family members? How many children will find an already-challenging school landscape disrupted even further by a profound change in their home life? How many families will have no place to come home to in the months to come?

A National Low Income Housing Coalition report shows that currently, more than 145,000 Hoosier households are spending more than half of their low-wage income on housing, which means that less funds are available for utilities, food and transportation, let alone saving for times of crisis  And in crisis, the balance can shift from barely making ends meet to homelessness.

“Research identifies the lack of affordable housing as the primary driver of homelessness among families,” according to the 2015 report “Rapid Re-housing.” Affordable housing was a crisis before the pandemic and will continue to be a problem until we bring wages for the lowest income earners into balance with affordable housing options.

The hope is that with distribution of COVID-19 Emergency Relief Funds in progress, the current crisis will be averted.

And that leaves us to face the fundamental problems of affordable housing and changing the system that keeps families at risk of homelessness.

Sarah Lance is director of resource development for Vincent Village Inc.

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