Having a place to live is one of the most important parts of everyday life - and for those of us who know where our next rental or mortgage payment is coming from, it can be one of the easiest to take for granted. However, far too many people don’t know what they are going to do when the end of the month comes, and they don’t have the money to write that check. In the Baltimore region alone, more than 70,000 households are spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs. In practical terms, that means every month they are choosing between either keeping a roof over their heads or providing for other basic needs, like putting food on the table, having transportation to their jobs, and taking care of themselves and their children when they get sick. Without any savings, it can also mean being one crisis away from eviction. Once that happens, often the only options are staying with a friend or family member, going to a shelter, or just ending up wherever they can find a place to sleep.
As Christians, the call to love our neighbor means caring about their needs, and there are few needs more fundamental than the ability to afford a place to live. But with such a large and complex issue, how can we begin to find solutions?
From a public justice perspective, we must start by asking what the right roles and responsibilities are for government, for individuals, and for civil society organizations in addressing our housing crisis. If we are to promote a society where everyone is included, especially the marginalized members of our communities, it will require understanding what each of those actors can do to make sure that all have access to affordable housing.
For many Christians, the first place to look to when community members lack tangible needs is the Church. The Church can, and absolutely should, be part of addressing this crisis. The problem, however, is structural, and not individual. One family becoming homeless might be the result of personal circumstances; millions of families struggling to get by points to a more systemic set of challenges. At the most basic level, the biggest of these structural issues is that housing costs keep going up, while wages have stayed flat or even decreased over time. In Maryland, one study estimates that it would take 129 hours of work per week at the minimum wage to afford a 2 bedroom apartment. With only 168 hours in a week, it’s not possible for many working families to afford housing under those conditions.
Churches are not going to be able to solve that type of problem on their own. This problem requires restructuring the economy and the housing market in such a way that everyone can have decent, quality housing. However, people of faith can be active participants in working with different partners across the public sector, private sector, and community groups, to implement solutions. We have a valuable role to play as Christians because we have a Kingdom-vision where everyone has a place to live and no one is left out.
If we are going to live out that vision, we must recognize that government does have a role to play. Housing Choice Vouchers, often referred to as “Section 8,” can be one of the most effective tools for providing people with rental housing. These vouchers allow a family to find a place to live, and then caps their rent payments at 30 percent of their income, with the housing authority covering the rest of the cost. Getting one of these vouchers can be a lifeline for a struggling family. With stable housing and sufficient remaining income, they are not forced to make day-to-day choices about their basic needs, and can focus on building a better life for themselves and their children.
However, receiving these vouchers comes with challenges, and that’s where the faith community can be supportive. While technically the vouchers can be used anywhere in the private market, in practice many landlords refuse to rent to voucher holders because of stereotypes about these families - stereotypes that can also lead to people feeling unwelcome in their new community. Some places have been able to pass legislation that protects these families from this practice, which is called “source of income discrimination,” but in other areas it remains completely legal. The supply of vouchers is also much lower than the need; Baltimore City’s waiting list is capped at 25,000 families, with tens of thousands more who could not even get on that list. We can, as Christians, offer hospitality to families who use vouchers, support local anti-discrimination ordinances, and ask federal officials to prioritize affordable housing in the budget.
Community land trusts, driven largely by local organizations, are another solution. Unlike vouchers, which help people pay for rental housing, community land trusts can develop shared-equity housing where the local neighborhood and housing residents are effectively co-owners of the home. A local neighborhood board maintains control of the land, while selling the home to the new resident under a lease agreement that preserves the long-term affordability of the property. This model provides the new homeowner with the opportunity to build wealth, gives neighborhoods more involvement in their own development, and only requires a one-time subsidy to provide permanently affordable housing, rather than ongoing funding. However, the implementation of community land trusts depends on local engagement - things like talking to residents about their goals for the neighborhood, overcoming political obstacles, and obtaining both public and private financing. These are all areas where churches can be tremendously important partners.
In order to be successful on a broader scale, these solutions require participation from a variety of institutions. Churches have values that are grounded in our desire to follow Christ, like a concern for the needs of those who are most neglected in our societies. Those values are important when we communicate to elected officials about our support for efforts like ending source of income discrimination, and when we show our willingness to hold accountable those who ignore the poor. Christians also have resources - time, talent, treasure - that we can make available in a way that coordinates with, and supports the work of, local community groups. We have the ability to make a difference in the lives of those who are struggling with their housing, and so we should commit ourselves, and our churches, to the work of being a society where everyone has a place to call home.
-Steve Holt is an Anglican priest serving the city of Baltimore, a project manager in the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), and an advocate for great neighborhoods.