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