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Housing squeeze has a ripple effect. Communities and businesses pay a price because of crunch

By Victoria IrwinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 1988



New York

The shortage of affordable housing in the United States is taking a toll on the poor and on those trying to buy their first home. But signs of the crunch can also be seen on the larger canvas of regional economies, community activities, and local governments. Businesses in areas with high housing costs are finding it difficult to attract employees. Many of the communities ringing New York are experiencing a labor shortage, and the high cost of housing is definitely a component, says Samuel Ehrenhalt, Middle Atlantic Regional Commissioner for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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In the Connecticut suburbs, employers cannot fill such semi-skilled jobs as restaurant work, so they are van-pooling workers in from other areas. In New York's Chinatown the vans pull up early in the morning and a clutch of riders - mostly Chinese men - piles in. They are headed out to the suburbs.

In areas surrounding Philadelphia, hundreds of office and service jobs are opening up as corporations, shopping malls, and conference centers burgeon. The Philadelphia Private Industry Council, which concentrates on training and placing the city's unemployed, has been exploring ways to place the city's jobless in suburban jobs. But again, the talk at this point is of transportation, not housing.

The lack of affordable housing does not just affect businesses trying to fill lower-paying jobs. Companies in cities like Boston and San Francisco often find it hard to recruit white-collar employees from cities with more moderate housing costs. In the New York City area some corporations have even decided to move their facilities, citing lack of affordable housing as a major reason. Others are offering employee housing benefits.

The housing shortage has a legal dimension. In wealthy Westchester County, housing costs of more than twice the national average led to a shortage of corrections officers and clerical workers who were legally bound to live in the county but could not afford to. In 1987, as a result of the shortage, the law requiring most county employees to reside there was repealed.

Besides contributing to a labor shortage in certain regions, the crunch is affecting the national economy as a whole. The drop in home ownership - 2 percent nationally - has affected home builders and financiers, who depend on healthy housing starts and sales. That is one reason groups such as the National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of Realtors, and the Mortgage Bankers Association of America are actively promoting a new national housing policy.

A recent report from the National Association of Home Builders hints at how many actual and potential job are at stake. It asserts that from 1983 to 1987, 8.6 million new houses and apartment units were built, creating 2.5 million full-time jobs and $55 billion in wages each year.

Local economies are drained by the costs of providing temporary shelter for the homeless - which may take the form of congregate shelters for single adults or welfare hotels. And the number of homeless is on the rise.

Some of the increasing homeless population is made up of the mentally ill, who have not been able to settle in housing. But part of the increase is because of gentrification, the tightening of the rental market because of the increased number of young adults who stay in rental housing rather than buy their first home, and the deterioration of low-income housing. In towns like Tulsa, Okla., many new poor who lost jobs during the oil industry slump have been evicted or foreclosed on.

When communities take responsibility for addressing the housing situation, there can be dramatic effects on institutions. For instance, churches and synagogues have found themselves in the shelter business.

Robert Wollenburg is the pastor of Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Church in Manhattan. His small parish is hard at work running a community soup kitchen and a shelter for homeless men, a time consuming project. It means duty at the shelter, finding funding, dealing with city agencies, coping with emergencies, and spending time with the clients.

``It's a long-term project,'' the Rev. Mr. Wollenburg says. ``And it takes a great deal more involvement than I imagined. I thought we'd get [the shelter] on its feet and then I'd do more pastoral ministry.''

Sadly, increasing awareness of the homeless is, in a sense, a ``friend'' to those hoping to recommit the federal government to a national housing policy, says James W. Rouse, a Baltimore developer and chairman of the National Housing Task Force. The searing pictures of men sleeping on grates and families living in cars has pricked the country's consciousness.

But some advocates of low-income housing say it will be the problems facing the middle class that will bring housing to the national agenda. These are the constituents that politicians actually worry about, they say.

Second of three articles. Tomorrow: A patchwork of solutions.