No Place to Call Home, March 2000

Denver Women's Commission
No Place to Call Home, March 2000

March 13, 2000
Prepared by Chaer Robert
For Colorado Woman News

No Place to Call Home

Picture a homeless person. Were they female? Forty-four percent of the homeless adults in metro Denver are women. Half of metro Denver’s homeless are families with children. Two out of three are one-parent families. A woman heads 98% of homeless single parent families. At last count (June, 1998) there were 944 homeless single women in our city. Contrary to stereotypes, for 43%of the more than 6,000 homeless, their last permanent address was in the suburbs. Thirty-eight per cent were from the city. Five percent came from elsewhere in Colorado. Only 14% were from out-of-state.

What went wrong? Are this state and this city not enjoying an unparalleled period of wealth and abundance? For many, the booming economy is the cause, not the cure, for homelessness. The basic cause of most homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. Our economic boom has increased the competition for each affordable apartment and has driven housing prices up faster than most other metro areas.

Wages have not kept pace with the cost of housing. In the last 10 years, average rents have risen 75% in the metro area. Average wages have risen 47%. The average price of a two-bedroom apartment is $733. A minimum wage worker would have to work 96 hours per week to keep housing costs at 30% of income.

What about public housing? In public housing, people pay 30% of their income for rent. With 8841 families on waiting lists, metro area housing authorities have closed the lists. What about “Section 8” vouchers, which allow you to rent an apartment for 30% of your income? They are in such demand that the Denver Housing Authority allots them by an occasional lottery. Even the lucky “winners”, however, often return the vouchers unused. Few landlords accept the vouchers, when potential renters are so plentiful. Aren’t there “rent-control” or section 8 apartment buildings? Many apartment houses built with public money twenty years ago were required to reserve a percentage of the units for low-income renters. This limitation was in effect for a 20-year period. Now those landlords have completed the requirement. Most are eager to get market rate rent. Thousands of units are up for renewal this year. Under discussion in Denver is formation of a trust fund for low-income housing. Many hope such a vehicle could help save some section 8 apartments.

Aren’t people building affordable housing? It’s extremely difficult to build a new unit for less than $65,000 in construction and land cost. Thus, to break even, apartments need to rent for $700-$900 per month. To make housing affordable to the homeless, or any low wage workers, requires either an ongoing rental subsidy, or money up front to defray building costs.

HB 1302 in the State Legislature uses $40 million of the excess revenue above the TABOR spending limit as tax credits to developers building affordable housing over the next five years. A similar Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit has been helpful, though developers tended to build housing for those on the higher end of what was considered low-income, i.e. $30,000--$40,000 per year. Affordable housing is also needed for this group. But what is affordable for those in this income range, is not affordable for the homeless. Fortunately, much of the $2 million increase to the Colorado Division of Housing approved last year is targeted to helping develop housing for those with the lowest income.

Forty-four per cent of the homeless in the U.S. have worked in the last month. They just do not earn enough to pay market rent and security deposits. One bill that could help is HB 1049. Backed by the Women’s Lobby of Colorado, it would raise the state earned income tax credit to 10% from 8.5% of the federal earned income tax credit. This refundable tax credit (along with the State Sales Tax Rebate) can put much needed money into the pockets of the working poor. Individuals earning under $10200, and families with one child earning under $26,928 or 30,580 with two or more children, would be eligible for up to $35., $231, and $382. respectively. Those earning about minimum wage earn the maximum benefit. Making the credit permanent is essential so that other permanent tax credits don’t erode the excess to the point that the EITC is not available.

Many homeless families receive TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But $356. per month for a family of three covers only a faction of rental costs, let alone other living expenses. For the 66% of Denver’s welfare recipients who do not live in subsidized housing, it is very difficult to maintain a place to live. Doubling up with friends or family is a frequent option. Meanwhile, a survey of those who left Colorado’s roles in the first three months after welfare reform, found that 43% moved in with someone else.