It’s time to make a federal case out of Dallas’ homeless problem

Originally published by The Dallas Morning News.

Stable housing is a prescription for good health, but it’s out of reach for many North Texas families, especially the poorest who are hardest hit. It doesn’t take a doctor to diagnose the housing shortage in North Texas. Pediatricians see everyday families that cannot solve the puzzle of how to pay rent, put food on the table, and have enough money left over to give their children opportunities to thrive.

According to the 2017 Beyond ABC report published by Children’s Health, homelessness among children is steadily increasing in Dallas, Cooke, Denton and Fannin counties. Many more families are living on the brink of homelessness.

In fact, a single parent working minimum wage in Dallas County would need almost three full-time jobs to afford a decent two-bedroom apartment for a family. This family is not alone; roughly half of Dallas County renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing because wages have not kept up with housing costs. In North Texas, according to a report from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, there are 19 homes available at an affordable rent for every 100 of the lowest income renters, a rate tied for fourth worst in the nation.

Research from Children’s HealthWatch shows housing instability can have lifelong consequences on health and education. Families and housing advocates alone cannot solve this challenge. Housing is important to all the areas of life that we care about the most: health, education, civil rights, veterans, the economy, and more.

That’s why we are broadening the movement for affordable homes through a new national, multi-sector campaign called Opportunity Starts at Home, pushing for stronger solutions at the federal level. The campaign’s steering committee consists of national faith-based, civil rights, health, education, homelessness, housing, mental health and anti-hunger organizations. Each brings its own perspectives and concerns, but all share the belief that their goals are inextricably linked to whether people have access to safe, decent, affordable homes in thriving neighborhoods.

Both of us have worked on improving housing stability at the local level. There is no doubt that states and localities play critical roles, but more robust federal action is also necessary not only to expand resources but to set overarching policy priorities. Federal housing assistance remains chronically underfunded, so over the coming years, the campaign will mobilize its network to advocate for ambitious responses in three key ways:

  • Making ends meet for renters: Significantly expanding rental assistance for households with extremely low incomes, such as Housing Choice Vouchers. Such assistance would help bridge the gap between income and rent, and help expand access to high-opportunity neighborhoods with strong schools and job prospects.
  • Creating more homes people can afford: Significantly expanding the supply of housing units affordable to those at the lowest ends of the income spectrum, which requires larger investments in production programs like the national Housing Trust Fund.
  • Stabilizing households in crisis: Creating a national program to provide temporary financial assistance to help cover rent for poor households experiencing an unexpected economic shock (such as loss of work hours, unreimbursed medical bills, a broken car). Coupled with stability services, this program would extend an emergency cushion to families in times of crisis, helping them avert the downward spiral of housing instability and homelessness.

While the campaign pushes for a more vigorous federal response, states and regions such as North Texas must also do their part. For example, a significant expansion of federal housing vouchers would be most effective when complemented with state and local efforts to eliminate source-of-income discrimination. States and localities should also work together to reduce barriers to housing development, such as restrictive zoning policies that constrain supply and increase costs.

Clearly, our children need safe, decent, affordable homes so they can grow, learn and thrive. The future of our nation depends on it. A broad range of stakeholders from various sectors will be necessary to advance these beliefs as political priorities. Together, we will educate policymakers about this vital need and urge them to take the necessary, long-overdue action.

Mike Koprowski is the national campaign director of Opportunity Starts at Home in Washington. He was executive director of Opportunity Dallas and chief of innovation for the Dallas Independent School District.

Dr. Megan Sandel is an associate professor of pediatrics at the Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health and co-lead principal investigator with Children’s HealthWatch.

They wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.