Housing and the homeless

It is a time of plenty for most Americans, a time to be grateful. Despite tensions in many parts of the globe, the world is at relative peace. But this is a time, too, for thinking of those who are less well-off: the hungry, the tired, and especially the homeless. President Reagan has asked those who can to donate food and funds to the many charitable organizations now aiding the needy. The work of these groups is one of the inspiring elements of the past year, as Americans learned the extent of the need of many fellow citizens and moved to help fill it through donations of time, of caring, of food , and of money.

The short-term demand remains enormous, though statistics are more episodic than national. Across the nation the estimate is of some 500,000 to 2 million homeless. Many volunteer urban organizations report their shelters for the homeless are full nightly; some have to turn people away. There are several reasons why many Americans have great difficulty finding a place to spend the night and have no home of their own. Some are young people migrating from city to city, in part in search of jobs; some are persons confronting major personal challenges, often of a mental nature. Some are unemployed.

But some simply are unable to find affordable housing. Providing more low-cost rental housing is one of the long-term answers that will help alleviate the homeless problem, say specialists.

As with the homeless, so with low-cost rental apartments: Precise national figures are not available. But experts feel confident in saying that today there exists the lowest national vacancy rate of low-cost housing ever, expecially in large cities where so many homeless people live. Between a 5 and 6 percent vacancy rate is needed to accommodate the mobile population this nation has, specialists say. Yet they put rental vacancies in cities at less than half of that, based on statements by big-city mayors, increasing lists of applications for public housing in many areas, and the pattern of rent increases in recent years in apartments generally.

Unfortunately, there is insufficient construction of new units and rehabilitation of old ones to meet this need. Since the early 1970s most low-cost apartment units have been built with major federal subsidies, but the government in the last few years has dramatically curtailed its subsidies in this area. At its peak the government was providing funds to build half a million apartment units a year for the poor; the housing bill passed earlier this month provides funds for fewer than 50,000 units, which include only about 5,000 for public housing. (Not counted are some 2,500 for public housing on Indian reservations.)

In an effort to get the most housing for its money, the government properly has been emphasizing the rehabilitation of existing buildings, especially in the cities. But here, too, the effort -- while helpful -- is not commensurate with the need. The new housing bill provides funds for rehabilitation of no more than 30,000 housing units nationwide for low-income tenants.

Such efforts as are being made should not be denigrated. Every time a housing unit is built or rehabilitated, one family is aided.

But the national need greatly exceeds the national effort. And whereas having a low-cost apartment of their own is not the full answer for many of today's homeless Americans, it is part of that answer.

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