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09/20/2014
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QUESTION:  What is “inadequate” housing?

 

People are curious.  Before they give us their support, our volunteers and donors often want to know, “How do you pick your families?”  Habitat for Humanity uses three criteria when evaluating families for its housing ministry:

 

1)  Need

2)  Ability to pay

3)  Willingness to partner with Habitat

 

The second and third criteria are relatively easy.  Just refer to an official chart to determine whether the income is “low” but still enough to make the house payments.  Then, keep track of the “sweat equity” hours the family works, and check off the list when they attend their educational workshops and meet other requirements.

 

But determining “need” requires making a judgment call.  We will consider a family for a Habitat home only if they are currently living in inadequate housing and unable to obtain adequate housing through conventional means.

 

To many of us, “inadequate housing” would mean a three-bedroom, 1,056-square-foot house with only one bathroom.  Or it means having only a one-car garage, or a master bedroom that’s merely 10 feet by 12 feet with a closet you can’t walk into.

 

But let’s get serious.  What is “inadequate housing?”  Habitat’s definition includes, but is not limited to, lack of structural integrity; violations of existing building codes as they pertain to plumbing, electrical systems, heating and cooling systems; or eminent threat of property condemnation.

 

Here are some descriptions taken from the home visits of Loudon County families recently accepted into the Habitat program:

 

Family #1 – A family of four shares a small home with a relative’s family.  The family sleeps in the attic; the parents on a mattress and the children on pallets of cushions.  Access to the attic is a steep staircase with no handrails or lighting.

 

Family #2 – A mother and son reside in an old singlewide mobile home infested with termites and with serious mold and mildew damage.  The back door has no steps, leaving a 5-foot dropoff.  The heating and air system works erratically and there are plumbing problems.  The family pays $400 a month rent.

 

Family #3 – A family of eight lives in a two-bedroom, one-bath older mobile home.  They rotate sleeping arrangements among the two bedrooms, a couch, and a bed in the living room.  The bathroom floor is squishy; there are severe mold and mildew problems, and the stove short circuits.  This family pays rent of $350 per month.

 

“Inadequate” is so . . . well . . . inadequate to describe these living conditions.  Maybe “appalling” would be more accurate.  Or “deplorable.”  It’s easy to see that these people need better places to live.

 

So why don’t these families just move into better housing?  How do we know they’re “unable to obtain adequate housing by any other means?”

 

Another measurement we use is the “overabundance of housing cost burden,” an official term that means the cost of housing exceeds 30 percent of the household income.  According to the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA) the burden is “moderate” if less than 50 percent, and “severe” if more than 50 percent of income.  Again, this is fairly easy to determine by working the math:  compare the family income to the rent and utilities they’re paying.

 

So, even if comfortable, structurally sound housing is available, if the cost of that housing exceeds 30 percent of the family’s income, it’s considered “inadequate” for that family.  A statistical sample taken from the 2000 census reports 835 families in Loudon County paid 30 percent or more of their household income for rent.

 

Each year the East Tennessee Development District (ETDD) surveys its counties to determine the average rent and vacancy rate.  According to the 2005 ETDD survey, the average monthly rent in Loudon County was $482 that year.  For a three-bedroom apartment, the average rent was $497.

 

But here, another factor slips into play—the availability of rental housing.  In the 2005 ETDD survey, Loudon County reported an overall vacancy rate of 3.5 percent in its apartment stock.  According to ETDD, “it is generally accepted that there should be at least a 5-percent vacancy rate in order to allow people an adequate selection of housing.”  Keep in mind that this is availability of “apartment stock” in all price ranges, not just in the price range that our low-income families can afford.

 

Numbers and statistics have a tendency to cloud the mind, and sometimes cloud the issue.  What do all these facts really mean?

 

Charles missed work often because of frequent severe headaches caused by the extreme mold and mildew damage in the small house his family lived in.

 

Michelle hurt her leg when she fell through the rotted floor of her family’s singlewide mobile home.

 

And then, there are the children.  Bradley’s “bedroom” was a closet.  Baby Brayden wasn’t allowed to crawl on the floor because his family lived in the basement of his grandparents’ home and the basement had a cold concrete floor.  Deanne and her mom slept on Granny’s hide-a-bed and her younger brother lived close-by with another relative.

 

Each of these five families is now living in a simple, decent, affordable, energy-efficient home built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity volunteers.  Each of these families is making house payments of approximately $300 on a 20-year, no-interest, no-profit mortgage.  Each of these families is living in that house described earlier that most of us would consider “inadequate”— that three-bedroom, 1,056-square-foot house with only one bathroom, a master bedroom that’s merely 10 feet by 12 feet with a closet you can’t walk into.  And each of these families is now thriving.

 

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