A stable and adequate place to call home is the cornerstone to a stable life for children and adults alike. As a nationally recognized leader in its efforts to address homelessness, Connecticut recognizes the importance of a stable home. With steady investments of state resources by the administrations of both Gov. Ned Lamont and Gov. Dannel Malloy before him, and tremendous team effort by nonprofits and state agency partners, our state has made noteworthy progress in reducing annual homelessness at a time when many states have seen tragically large increases in this terrible problem.
However, a growing number of households in Connecticut are facing challenges in accessing and affordably maintaining adequate housing. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Connecticut was facing a rising cost of housing, an inadequate – and declining – stock of affordable housing, and wages failing to keep pace with the rising cost of living.
An increasing number of households in Connecticut pay more than half of their income toward rent. We are not alone: this is a national affordable housing crisis. And the COVID-19 pandemic is making this crisis even worse. To solve this, we need a substantial expansion of federal resources dedicated to building and maintaining our nation’s stock of affordable housing.
The recently released 2020 Connecticut United Ways ALICE Report (on households who are “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed”) revealed that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 38 percent of households in our state struggled to make ends meet. The ALICE report identified housing as the single largest monthly expense for single adults, and second largest expense for families with young children after childcare.
ALICE is the essential health care worker caring for our aging parents at home and for COVID patients in our hospitals. ALICE is the teaching assistant who helped our children adapt to virtual learning, or the bus driver who gets our kids to school. ALICE fixes our cars and works in our local shops and restaurants. ALICE is our friend, neighbor, co-worker, and family member. We – and our economy – lean on ALICE for support in a number of ways. Yet, right now, ALICE households are struggling to feed their family, ensure their medical care, and maintain their housing.
Housing costs in Connecticut are the 10th highest in the nation. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a typical two-bedroom apartment requires a household to earn an hourly wage of more than $26 per hour. But, as the ALICE report shows, 45 percent of workers in Connecticut earn less than $20 per hour. And only two of the top 20 jobs in our state pay enough to support the ALICE household survival budget for a family of four – including housing. In fact, the 45,000 people employed in our state as cashiers – the most common occupation in Connecticut – earn less than $12 per hour. Given this growing gap between rent and wages, it’s no surprise that nearly 120,000 households in Connecticut spend more than half of their income on rent.
These are big issues that cannot be fixed with a single silver bullet. Some have suggested that the homeless response system should have broader eligibility and provide more resources to those with inadequate housing, rather than focusing on those currently or on the verge of facing homelessness on the street. We think this suggestion is missing the point.
The homeless response system is already under-resourced. Simply changing definitions and eligibility to define more people as “homeless” only adds to the need without adding any more resources to help. It would be like building a larger hospital emergency room without adding the resources to help people maintain good health through adequate primary care. Moreover, it would be like telling the emergency room to serve patients on a “first come, first served” basis – regardless of acuity and severity of their health issue – rather than assisting those with life-threating injuries before attending to less urgent complaints.
Expanding the definition of homelessness is not an answer, and will not help our families living paycheck to paycheck. We do not want more people entering into our emergency shelter system – any more than we want more people presenting at emergency rooms instead of seeking appropriate primary care. We want more Connecticut residents in stable housing they can afford, in the communities where they work.
Low wage workers, ALICE workers, are essential to the viability of our workplaces and the success our state. We cannot continue to ask our ALICE households to choose between food for their families, care for their children, and a place to call home. At this time when so many more households in our state are facing job loss and a decline in income on top of those already experiencing homelessness and housing challenges, it has never been more important for Connecticut to have both adequate investments in emergency shelter assistance and permanent housing.
Securing adequate investments in housing assistance is something that our state cannot do alone. Connecticut already spends a relatively greater share of its state budget on rental assistance than many states and our current budget situation remains bleak. Funding for housing and rental assistance has traditionally been a federal responsibility, but one that has seen declining investments relative to need in the last few decades. Connecticut needs the federal government to significantly step up the level of resources for homeless response and affordable housing.
In the near term, we need Congress to pass a COVID-19 Relief Package that includes additional resources for housing security and upstream supports to prevent homelessness and support those facing severe housing cost burdens.
Recently, the House of Representatives voted to approve the revised Heroes Act stimulus bill. Included in this bill is more than $59 billion in rent relief and other housing services. We also need to protect and expand the National Housing Trust Fund, which provides resources to states to expand and preserve their stock of affordable housing. And we need a larger, permanent commitment of federal resources to support the cost of rent for families across our nation who are working as hard as they can at the jobs available to them, and cannot make ends meet.
We urge Congress to fight to keep additional housing resources – starting with the Heroes Act. We urge Connecticut voters to make their voices heard on this important issue at the polls on November 3.
Lisa Tepper Bates is the President and CEO of the United Way of Connecticut and Richard Cho is the CEO of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. Between them, they have 30+ years of experience working in housing and homelessness.