Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) has long advocated for equitable communities: communities that respond to the needs of their citizens and reflect their values, that treat all members fairly and equitably, without discrimination, and that provide them with opportunities for success. In 1965, WRJ adopted an Anti-Poverty Program resolution, urging its members to participate in programs and projects that provided jobs, training, economic and educational opportunities, as well as housing, for low-income families. In 1985, in its resolution on Economic Justice, WRJ recognized that: “There is … a rapidly growing number of individuals and families who have no homes and are forced to wander the streets. Although the problem of homelessness is not a new one, the rate at which it is increasing is alarming”. In this 1985 resolution, WRJ affirmed its commitment to equality for men and women in all respects, including equity in pay, housing and jobs, urged responsible government spending to meet the needs of low-income individuals and families, and urged aid to the homeless. However, these problems persisted through the end of the Twentieth Century and extend to the present day.
“If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your hand and lend them sufficient for whatever they need.”
Every day we are faced with new and disturbing headlines—dramatic increases in homelessness; erosion of the middle class; insufficient housing to meet demand; wages stagnant or in decline; housing prices soaring. For the last half century, the issues of affordable housing and wage equity were more issues of the urban centers/big cities. Now, throughout the world, the issues have moved to the suburbs, farmlands, recreational venues and industrial communities.
Housing affordability is an on-going crisis which continues to reach new heights across North America. In the National Housing Act of 1937, which established America’s public housing system, Congress declared that the policy of the United states was to remedy the “acute shortage of decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings for families of low income, in rural or urban communities.” To be eligible for public housing, the act required that a tenant’s income could not exceed five to six times the rent. This standard formed the basis for the conventional public policy indicator of housing affordability in the United States that families should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. This 30 percent rule continues to be a benchmark for housing affordability today and a household that pays 30 percent or more, particularly at the low-income level, is considered burdened. Between 1991 and 2013, the percentage of renter households in America dedicating under 30 percent of their income to housing costs fell from 54 percent to 43 percent. During that same time, the percentage of renter households paying at least half of their income to housing costs rose from 21 percent to 30 percent.
Today, in the United States, the majority of people that fall within the lower-middle and lower income brackets - at all age levels - put more than 50 percent of their income towards housing. Rents are rising while wages of the workers are flat. The supply of affordable housing and rental assistance has not kept pace. As a result, record-breaking numbers of households cannot afford a decent place to call home.
The greatest need for affordable housing is concentrated among extremely low-income renters who earn no more than 30% of the area median income (AMI). 75% of the poorest families are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their income on rent and utilities. In the worst cases, these families become homeless. According to Out of Reach 2017, a report published on June 8, 2017, by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the national two-bedroom housing wage is $21.21 per hour. A household must have an annual income of at least $44,120, requiring a full-time minimum wage earner to work 117 hours per week, 52 weeks a year, to afford a two-bedroom rental apartment.
Housing prices also have risen dramatically in Canada, as they have elsewhere in the world. Income levels in the upper quintile have increased exponentially while those in lower quintiles have remained stagnant. The rising income gap presents a significant challenge for Canadian households that are "priced out" of rental and ownership housing markets. Today, “one in four Canadian households is paying more than it can afford for housing, and one in eight cannot find affordable housing that is safe, suitable, and well maintained”. On November 22, 2017, Canada announced its first ever National Housing Strategy, a 10-year, $40 billion initiative that will “help reduce homelessness and improve the availability and quality of housing for Canadians in need”. Even so, this strategy recognizes that its goals will not meet all the needs of the currently 1.7 million Canadians experiencing “core housing need”.
In the United States, beyond changes to the structure of many federal housing programs, no significant investment in new housing affordable to the lowest income people has been made in more than 30 years. Since the creation of the Section 8 programs (vouchers) in the early 1970s, no new federal program has the deep income targeting necessary to meet the needs of people with the greatest housing affordability burdens. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit, created 1986 as a temporary program and made permanent in 1993, provides a tax credit to developers, to encourage investment in low-moderate income housing. This program creates housing only for people who earn more than very low income, but are not yet middle-income.
The majority of federal housing programs are appropriated, meaning that the funding amounts can change from year to year, or disappear altogether. State and local programs can be similarly volatile, because they are often dependent on revenue from fees or other market-driven sources, and are also vulnerable to being swept into non-housing uses.
In the U.S. there are only 21 units of housing affordable and available for every 100 extremely low-income Americans. Federal housing assistance only serves one quarter of those who qualify for it. Housing vouchers help 5.3 million people in 2.2 million households afford decent housing in the private market, the vast majority of which are seniors, people with disabilities, or families with children.
In the mid-1980s, homelessness reached the national housing agenda, in part because of the shortage of housing for low-income families, and in significant part because of an emerging practice of mainstreaming persons into society who had been institutionalized for mental disabilities. Additionally, there were no programs in place for those who were returning from active duty in the military, to assist in the transition.
Today, special populations, such as disabled veterans returning from combat or lower income seniors, are increasing in number and need. At the same time, the existing stock of affordable rental housing is disappearing both due to expiration of affordability covenants and private owners rehabilitating their units and increasing the rents, thus removing them from the affordable housing market. Our nation loses two affordable apartments every year for each one created. Most housing agencies have closed their waiting lists because the number of households seeking assistance far exceeds the supply of housing and vouchers; families who do get on a waitlist must often wait several years before they receive housing.
Increasing the supply of affordable housing and rental assistance in the United States, as well as in Canada, especially in areas connected to good schools, well-paying jobs, healthcare, and transportation, helps families climb the economic ladder and leads to greater economic and community development.
Better access to affordable housing is one of the single most effective ways of combating childhood poverty. Affordable housing allows families to spend funds on other priorities such as food and medicine and can give children access to better schools and a safer environment, advantages that can lead to better academic outcomes and higher cognitive achievement.
Housing that is sound, safe, and affordable to people of all income levels is essential to healthy communities and a healthy nation. Quality affordable housing that is fully incorporated into a community rather than isolated and set apart, attracts retail and service businesses, supports diverse communities, and makes for healthy neighborhoods.
Women of Reform Judaism, reaffirming its ongoing commitment to equity, affordable housing, and economic justice, and believing that these issues go hand in hand, therefore, calls upon its sisterhoods, women’s groups, and individual members to:
- Educate themselves and their members about and partner with local advocates and agencies (both public and private) to advocate for affordable housing in their communities.
- Urge their elected officials to increase the supply of affordable housing and rental assistance.
- Urge their elected officials to increase public sector investment in new affordable housing.
- Urge their elected officials to promote private sector investment in new affordable housing and housing financing options that will encourage private sector development of affordable housing.
- Urge their elected officials to provide better access to affordable housing to families with children, veterans, seniors and other vulnerable low-income populations.
 Creating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities. United States Environmental Protection Agency.
 1930s: Wagner-Steagall Act, 1937 (on U.S, Housing Authority). Documents of American History II, The Congressional Timeline.
 Schwartz, M. and Wilson, E. (2006). Who Can Afford To Live in a Home?: A look at data from the 2006 American Community Survey. US Census Bureau.
 National Rental Housing Landscape Report Finds Poor Households Continue to be Severely Cost-Burdened, National Low Income Housing Coalition.
 A Brief Historical Overview of Affordable Rental Housing. National Low Income Housing Coalition.
 The Housing Affordability Gap for Extremely Low-Income Renters in 2014. (April 2017). Urban Institute. P. 1.
 A Brief Historical Overview of Affordable Rental Housing. National Low Income Housing Coalition.
 Millions of Families on Voucher and Public Housing Waiting Lists. (March 7, 2016). National Low Income Housing Coalition.
 Reducing Child Poverty in the US Costs and Impacts of Policies Proposed by the Children’s Defense Fund. (January 2015). The Urban Institute.
 Housing’s and Neighborhoods’ Role in Shaping Children’s Future. (Fall 2014). Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.