Housing dream fades for middle and poor America. [ on zee page: Caught in the housing crunch ]

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Affordable housing is out of the grasp of more Americans now than at any time since the depression. Many homeless individuals and families, middle-class working parents, and senior citizens on limited incomes face a dilemma in finding a home that is safe, decent, and affordable.

``The nation is providing very badly for low-income, for lower-middle income, and for middle-income families,'' says James Rouse, a Baltimore developer and head of a national housing task force. ``Conditions are far worse here than in other free, industrial nations. We are anesthetized, it has existed for so long now. It gets worse, not better.''

While most Americans live in nicer homes than their grandparents did, the vital signs for housing indicate an increasingly unhealthy situation.

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The number of American families facing housing problems increased by 26 percent between 1975 and 1983, according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. These include inadequate housing, overcrowding, and high costs. The rule of thumb is that housing should cost 30 percent or less of a person's income. But more than 1 in 4 Americans spend beyond this limit.

THE poorer a household is, the higher the percentage of its meager resources that are spent on housing. Half of all low-income renters - households earning less than $10,000 a year - pay more than 50 percent of their income toward rent. In 1983 (the most recent available statistics), only 28 percent were receiving federal assistance.

Often, housing for the poor is dilapidated and in unsafe, poorly serviced neighborhoods. Santiago Ramirez lives in a two-bedroom apartment in the South Bronx with his wife, Barbara, and a teen-age grandson. Drug dealers line the street and loiter in the doorless lobby. Mr. Ramirez, a Vietnam veteran, has been out of work and on disability for several years after having a minor stroke. He receives about $200 in housing assistance every month for the $281 rent. Mrs. Ramirez pays the difference, plus utilities, with money she earns at a hamburger stand.

The Ramirezes' neatly kept apartment is a refuge from the drug dealing that takes place at all hours. But despite efforts to make it home, the family has to cope with leaky ceilings in almost every room, including a bathroom ceiling that has fallen in several times. Ramirez shows shoes and dressers that have been ruined as new leaks occur. Promises of repairs are broken month after month.

Ramirez wants to stay in the apartment, despite the crime and the lack of repairs. He knows he would not be able to find another affordable apartment, even in this neighborhood.

``It's not very easy at all [to find new homes],'' says Ramirez, who is active in housing issues as a community volunteer at Christ the King Church. He points out that in several of the newly renovated buildings nearby, only 20 percent of the apartments are held aside for low-income families like his.

But the very poor aren't the only ones who are feeling the housing crunch. It hits middle-class families and the elderly on fixed incomes, too.

Edith Engel, a resident of Larchmont, N.Y., is a senior citizen who lives alone and makes do on an annual fixed income of about $12,000. This is augmented modestly through some investments. Mrs. Engel wants to stay in the house she has lived in for 31 years; she likes her neighbors; several shops are within walking distance; and her four grandchildren can stay with her when they visit.

Engel says most of her money goes for the upkeep of her home and taxes on her property, as well as for basic living expenses. After a comfortable upper-middle-income life, she now has little money ``for any comforts,'' not even for visiting her brother in Florida. She would like to take advantage of a reverse annuity mortgage which would allow her to use the equity in her home to stay put for another five years. But banks in her area are not interested in the program. Engel, with her poodle, Rorschach, at her feet, says she may have to give up her house.

Another disturbing trend is that the home ownership rate among households headed by people aged 25 through 34 has decreased steadily since 1978, despite surveys showing that 90 percent of adults under 35 consider home ownership a high personal priority. Part of the decline is due to life style; some young Americans are postponing marriage and parenthood and are content renting rather than being saddled with the responsibility of a house.

But William Apgar, a housing expert at Harvard University, says that high costs are the main reason for the decline. For many so-called baby-boomers, the rapidly rising cost of buying and maintaining a home in the 1970s and '80s discouraged them from buying. Housing prices and mortgage interest rates rose four to five times as fast as real household incomes between 1970 and 1986, according to David Schwartz, Richard Ferlauto, and Daniel Hoffman, authors of the soon-to-be-published book ``A New Housing Policy for America: Recapturing the American Dream.'' At the same time, personal savings plummeted.

Marian Siwek and her husband, Lou Angelo, are witness to this trend. They have been renting in Los Angeles for nearly a decade. Because they both work in the film industry, their income varies greatly from year to year. Now both in their 30s, they would like to buy a house. The problem is saving enough money for a down payment.

``We'll probably put down 10 percent,'' says Ms. Siwek, noting that better houses sometimes require a 20 percent down payment. The couple's combined salary came to about $70,000 last year, enabling them to get their savings up to $30,000. But ``what about closing costs? Property taxes? We'd like to get a two-bedroom house, and we'd be willing to get one a little run down. But L.A. is ridiculous. People pay $300,000, $400,000 for a shack,'' she says.

``I'm still wondering if we have enough [for a down payment],'' says Mr. Angelo. ``I never considered being a homeowner in Los Angeles. But now it is so expensive to rent. Paying for a mortgage wouldn't be much more, and the value of real estate goes up and up.'' The couple pays about $1,000 a month for rent.

Other signs indicate that progress made in rural areas in the 1970s is being undone. Between 1970 and 1980 the incidence of substandard homes dropped 42 percent. But that progress has come to a standstill, says Robert Rapoza, director of the National Rural Housing Coalition. Budget cuts threaten both renters and families seeking ownership through low-interest loans. Isolated rural areas have a much tougher time attracting both for-profit and nonprofit developers.

Another problem in both rural and urban subsidized housing is the potential conversion of low-income housing to market-rate housing. Some developers took advantage of federal loans to build low-income housing or accept low-income tenants, with the requirement that it remain affordable for 20 years. For some, that period is coming to an end. And because of pressure from some owners, prepayment of loans has also allowed these owners to opt out of low- and moderate-income housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development denies that much affordable housing will be lost, but activists argue otherwise. Mr. Rapoza notes, for example, that over 5,500 out of 125,000 units have been lost since 1984.

Regionally, the housing picture is varied. Costs are the highest on the East and West Coasts. The average price for a house or condominium in San Francisco is $179,400; in New York City it's $191,200. Housing in other parts of the country is more reasonable. Houses or condos in Cleveland sell for an average of $89,400; in St. Louis the average is $89,600. In economically bustling towns like Nashville, Tenn.; a family of four can find a house for $60,000. The depressed oil industry in cities like Tulsa, Okla., and Denver means an increase in home foreclosures, which has left many homeless. Nationally, both new and used homes sales have decreased overall since the late 1970s.

``There is not a lot available,'' says Blossum Blum, executive director of Westchester Residential Opportunities Inc., a nonprofit housing group. ``There still are homes that you can find for $100,000 to $150,000. Mostly there are condos [in the affordable range].''

Ms. Blum says that towns in the county are trying incentives like density bonuses for developers in order to spur affordable housing. In these towns, affordable housing is defined as homes that public servants such as police and schoolteachers can afford.

Indeed, the median price of new one-family homes sold in the US in 1987 is an estimated $105,000, according to the National Association of Home Builders. That is up 14 percent from 1986, and the rise is due in part to the 2 out of 3 home buyers who are affluent trade-up buyers looking for larger houses. The median price for existing homes is expected to be $85,700 for 1987. One real estate expert estimates that at current interest rates, less than one-third of all American families could afford a home at that price.

First of three articles. Tomorrow: How the shortage of affordable housing affects local governments and economies.

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