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"Poor Families and Poor Housing: Virginia's Private, Unassisted Market,"

by C. Theodore Koebel March/April 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

Over the past two decades, the real value of income assistance for poor families has diminished substantially. In 1970 a typical Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) payment allowed poor families to afford half the rental housing units available in their communities in Virginia. By 1990, a typical AFDC payment could only afford the bottom 5% of the rental housing market.

These families are eligible for federal housing assistance, but the number of families in need of this assistance far exceeds the funding provided. Consequently, only one in five households below the poverty level live in government-assisted housing. The remainder face an almost impossible problem in finding decent, safe and sanitary housing they can afford within their meager incomes. Given the meagerness of public assistance, many of these families must live on the edge of disaster-in physically inadequate units; exposed to unsafe housing and neighborhood conditions; often having to move because in any given month they might not be able to pay the rent or utilities; and constantly at risk of becoming homeless. But no research was available to document these conditions.


With the help of grants from PRRAC and the Greater Richmond Community Foundation and in-kind support from the Virginia Housing Development Authority, Virginia Commonwealth University, and the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech, a group of concerned housing advocates conducted a state-wide survey to measure the housing conditions of AFDC families who obtain their housing in the private market without government housing assistance. Since the cost of a state-wide survey conducted with professional interviewers was prohibitive, interviews were conducted by trained volunteers from local social service departments.

Twenty-four local social service departments participated in the survey. The 24 jurisdictions were selected to give regional representation from the entire state. Jurisdictions were selected based on their region, size (number of AFDC recipients), and potential willingness to participate in the survey. For the most part, the largest jurisdictions in each region participated. Each jurisdiction was given a random sample of cases selected from the state's computerized recipient list. Initially this sample was screened according to the shelter code on the recipient's record (which supposedly identified households living in government-owned or-assisted housing), but this proved unreliable in describing the recipient's current housing. A second, supplementary sample was drawn without regard to the shelter code. In order to check for any regional bias due to over representation or under-representation of jurisdictions in the sample, the cases were weighted based on their probability of selection. A comparison of the weighted and the unweighted data indicated that there were no significant differences in the results.

Interviewers were trained by a VCU faculty member and were instructed to make three call-backs to complete an interview or to determine if the household was ineligible because of residence in government-assisted housing. All interviews were conducted within the home. Use of volunteer interviewers presented some advantages and disadvantages. The obvious advantage was the reduced cost. As a group, the volunteers were well educated and very professional, but they were also inexperienced at conducting interviews. The number of volunteers available varied from community to community, and it took much longer than anticipated to complete the quota of interviews established for some communities. It was also impossible under the budget constraint to closely supervise call-backs or re-interview households to help confirm the reliability of the data collected. Nonetheless, there were no indications of irregularities or that the interviews were conducted under anything but high professional standards.

Survey Results

The results of the survey confirmed some of our expectations but also provided a few surprises. As expected, low-income Virginians who do not receive rental assistance are forced to live in seriously inadequate housing, for which they have to devote virtually all of their income. Over one in five of these families were found to be living in units with severe physical problems-almost six times the level experienced by Americans nationally and nearly four times the level experienced by Americans below poverty.

Very few families received any emergency government housing assistance except for energy assistance-despite various housing problems. In addition to AFDC, Food Stamps, and energy assistance, these families relied heavily on assistance from churches and non-profit agencies, and particularly from relatives. Unfortunately, even combining assistance from several sources was often inadequate compared with the cost of housing. The median rent-for those with cash rent-was $265, which requires 75 percent to 100 percent of the maximum AFDC payment to these families. Utilities added another $50 to $100 to the family's housing costs. This level of housing burden demands a continuous struggle to obtain decent shelter and pay for other necessities. Consequently, many of these families had to double up with relatives in order to obtain shelter.

At least 39% of the households were in housing shared by adult relatives of the AFDC mother or by non-relatives. Based on inference from household characteristics, as many as 11% of the households classed as living independently might have been doubled up or been in extended, multi-generation families. Doubling up mostly involved the AFDC family moving into the home of a relative. It occurred primarily in single-family, rental housing and did not normally cause over-crowding.

One of the biggest advantages of doubling up is the sharing of housing costs between the guest family and the host family. Of AFDC families in doubled-up housing, 11% had no cash rent and 33% paid only a portion of their rent. This compares with 6% and 10%, respectively, for those living independently.

Doubling up reduced the incidence of minor physical housing problems, but had little impact on severe problems. Nonetheless, those in doubled-up housing were less likely to have received emergency government housing assistance (5% vs. 12%); government heating assistance (24% vs. 48%); and assistance from churches or other charitable organizations (11% vs. 24%).

Doubling up is symptomatic of the instability of the residential environments of many poor families and is, for most, only a temporary solution to their housing problems. Nearly half of the families interviewed in this survey-including those doubling up-were worried about becoming homeless; 15% had previously been homeless, several more than once. On average, those who doubled up in the past did so for only a year-and-a-half. Almost one in five families had been evicted in the past, and 50% would not know where to go next if they were evicted from their current units.

Despite obviously high levels of residential instability and physical housing problems for all of these families, only 21% were on waiting lists for assisted housing. Many families in obvious need of such assistance probably did not apply because of the long wait involved.

Advocacy Steps

The study was used to make several policy recommendations and in supporting subsequent advocacy efforts to educate the public and the state legislature. The study recommended that housing assistance programs, particularly the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program and the new HOME program, should be evaluated for all opportunities to provide housing assistance for those most in need. It also recommended that property tax relief through a "circuit breaker program" be considered in Virginia to reduce this aspect of the housing cost burden for poor families.

Other housing policy recommendations included examination of occupancy rules regarding extended families and doubling up in assisted housing programs in order to give relatives the flexibility to help each other without undue overcrowding or violations of health codes; recognizing doubling up as a priority for providing housing assistance to families; and expanding emergency housing assistance. Identifying the substantial amount of doubling up required under the current system, the study recommended that social service programs be designed to help doubled up families find independent housing and, in the meantime, help families manage the social stress that likely accompanies doubling up.

The study's most important recommendations dealt with inadequacies social welfare and taxing policies. recommended that AFDC payments adjusted for differences in regional and local housing costs; that earned income be allowed without penalty until the family's income reaches the federal poverty level; and that families be allowed to save enough money, without penalty, to make housing deposits and have emergency reserves for at least six months' rent. It also recommended enactment of a state Earned Income Tax Credit to enhance the earnings of the working poor.

The report on the study's findings and recommendations coincided with public hearings by two legislative and executive commissions on poverty and housing: the Poverty Commission, focusing on welfare reform, and the Housing Study Commission, focusing on low-income housing needs. The report helped to validate the testimony given in public hearings held across the state. It was especially helpful in documenting housing and children's needs, as well supporting the needs assessments presented by advocates for affordable housing, welfare reform, and a state Earned Income Tax Credit.

The public was reached through press releases and copies of the report to major newspapers and radio stations in Virginia. The Virginia Forum, an organization devoted to providing the media with the views of state experts on major public issues, published an article entitled "For Virginians Poor, Some of the Worse Housing, Least Safe Neighborhoods in the Nation" based on the report. Th report was also given to select member. of the General Assembly to help increase their knowledge about the housing need; of their poorest constituents-AFDC recipients and their children.

C. Theodore Koebel is the Director o the Virginia Housing Research Cente and a professor of housing and planning at Virginia Tech (401 Wallace Hali Blacksburg, VA 24061-0451, 703/231_ 3993). The full 125 page report is avai, (free) from Dr. Koebel.

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