As we approach the end of the year, there is new and unsettling–but hardly surprising–news that the problems faced by working families trying to find a decent and affordable home are increasing. The National Housing Conference and its research subsidiary, the Center for Housing Policy, have released a new study entitled America’s Working Families and the Housing Landscape, which reaffirms the fact that working the equivalent of a full-time job does not guarantee American families a decent, affordable place to live.

The report, released on Nov. 19, indicates that the number of working families spending more than half their income on shelter rose 67% to almost five million from 1997 to 2001. There was a 30% rise just between 1999 and 2001.

The report makes clear that this is not just a problem for renters as some might all too quickly presume. In fact, in 2001, working families with critical housing needs were more likely to be homeowners than renters–53% homeowners versus 47% renters. Between 1997 and 2001, the number of homeowners with critical housing needs rose by about 64% compared to a 55% for renters.

Working families with critical housing needs are found in both cities and in the suburbs. While housing needs continue to be highest in the Northeast and the West, they are growing most rapidly in the Midwestern states. Overall, despite the economic expansion between 1997 and 1999, the total number of families with severe housing problems remained virtually unchanged at 13 million. However, the study reveals that in 2001 approximately 14.4 million–one in seven–families had critical housing needs.

So what are we conclude from this new data and, more important, how should we proceed to address this growing problem? First, it is very clear that the nation’s housing problems are not going away. In fact they appear to be getting worse with each passing year. Second, the data, as revealing as it is, do not tell the whole story and do not speak to the tremendous difficulty and stress faced by lower-income families below 50% of median who continue to have the greatest needs. Third, the statistics do reveal that this problem is affecting a wider and more economically diverse population of working families.

Indeed, in what are referred to as housing hot spots (New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco), families with incomes as high as 120% of area median have critical housing needs; an unprecedented turn of events over the past several years. Finally, we are moving toward a far better understanding of the critical role housing plays in the lives of working families and how significant the cost of housing has become as these same families try to stay above the water line in these uncertain times.

This latest research reminds us that even in better economic times, working families were in fact struggling in greater numbers to provide decent shelter for their families at an affordable cost. In a more troubled, less certain economy, more working families will be challenged to meet their housing needs unless we are moved at all levels–federal, state and local–to action. As Boston Mayor Tom Mennino stated “This report shows that now, more than ever before, it is clear that the housing crisis is not going away and that without a major new national commitment to housing production, the crisis is only going to get worse.”

We need to strengthen this nation’s support for good housing. The reason why is simple: housing matters. Good housing is necessary for a strong economy; it is essential for families and children and good for our communities. There are three things that must be done if significant progress is to be made on this issue. First, we must increase the supply of affordable housing through new construction as well as rehabilitation of the nation’s existing housing supply. Second, we must increase access to affordable housing in all communities. Finally, we must increase levels of housing assistance, particularly to lower-income families that have fewer options.

Our ability to make progress on these objectives in the weeks and months ahead will have a dramatic impact on the lives of one in seven families that are faced with critical housing needs.

Bob Reid is the executive director of the National Housing Conference, a nonprofit policy organization dedicated to advancing affordable housing and community-development causes.

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