red house, two green houses sitting on a $100 billUpwards of $22 TRILLION!

That’s what some experts estimate we’ve spent since LBJ launched his Great Society in 1964 in an attempt to eliminate poverty and racial injustice in America. Yet, little has changed.

More than 50 years later, 46.5 million Americans live in poverty — 16.1 million of them are children.  Millions more live on the edge, one job loss or one illness from an impoverished existence.

What went wrong?

Among other things, “Our housing policies…for decades have simply created islands of poor and low-income families, who for all intends and purposes, have been ignored and cut off from mainstream society,” says a paper recently published by the NHP Foundation, a national affordable housing nonprofit headquartered in New York City.

It goes on to say that these “housing policies have forced entire generations of Americans into neighborhoods—whether labeled public housing, low-income housing, or undercapitalized affordable housing—offering little supportive educational or social services.  The result has been chronic unemployment, ever-increasing crime rates, drugs, gangs, domestic violence, child abuse, high rates of incarceration, and premature deaths. “

The sad news is that these dire social issues will only become worse, more widespread, intractable, and irreversible as the crisis of unaffordable housing continues to spread from poor, underclass households to those earning average median incomes—and above.

According to an NYU Furman Center and Capital One study, households with incomes of 80 percent to 120 percent of area median income also are struggling to find affordable rental units in all 50 states.  Like many low- and moderate-income families, these households are forced to spend a disproportionate amount of their income on housing.

The government considers a family “cost burdened” if its housing costs are more than 30 percent of its income.  Yet, according to the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing—which leaves little left over to purchase necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care, let alone save for things like education, retirement or unexpected expenses.

If housing policies remain as they are and wages stay stagnant, that number is expected to grow to nearly 15 million within a decade, according to a report by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and Enterprise Community Partners.

More than 55 percent of American adults—approximately 138 million—are struggling financially, according to the Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future, many still reeling from financial losses suffered as a result of the Great Recession.

The pressure on local communities and nonprofit housing groups to create enough affordable housing to meet demand is enormous—and this at a time when many foundations and government agencies are shifting their focus from housing to social justice and equality issues.

Studies show, however, that where and how people live are good predictors of their life outcomes.  If social justice and equality are our desired goals, providing quality, safe housing that people can comfortably afford should be our top priority.

The low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program has been an extremely effective tool, but has fallen far short of demand.  According to the National Council of State Housing Agencies, the LIHTC has provided financing for the development or preservation of nearly 2.8 million units.  But to meet demand a whopping 8.2 million more units are needed.

So what’s to be done?

The NHP Foundation recommends building support among public and private-sector leaders to increase funding and re-engage the philanthropic community to help nonprofit affordable housing developers provide services that improve the quality of tenants’ lives.

Perhaps the most important recommendation put forth by the Foundation is to get everyone “to see this housing crisis for what it is—i.e. a root cause of social inequality.”

To paraphrase Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning Washington think tank, we need to stop treating poor people as liabilities to be managed, and begin to see them as assets to be developed.

In short, rather than isolate entire segments of our population in dilapidated, rundown tenements that are Petri dishes for antisocial behavior, a good place to start is with providing people with quality, safe housing where they can thrive, have opportunities to succeed and feel that they are a part of the mainstream of our society.

Larry Checco headshotGuest blogger Larry Checco is president of Checco Communications in Silver Spring, MD. Larry is a nationally sought-after speaker on branding and leadership, and serves as a consultant to both large and small organizations, companies, foundations and government agencies. In addition, Larry is a faculty member of the NeighborWorks® Training Institute and an adjunct at Southern New Hampshire University. Larry has authored several books including Branding for Success: A Roadmap for Raising the Visibility and Value of Your Nonprofit Organization, and Aha! Moments in Brand Management: Commonsense Insights to a Stronger, Healthier Brand.

Contents Copyrighted © 2016 by Larry Checco.  All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission.