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People’s Self Help Housing: 50 Years of Improving Housing and Lives

It is the 50 year anniversary of People’s Self Help Housing PSSH (PSSH).  PSSH has been working to increase the availability of affordable housing in California’s central coastal area since 1970.  PSSH’s mission is to help low income families build and purchase their own homes while also providing affordable rental housing.

 PSSH started with the help of a group of local citizens and community leaders who wanted to tackle the shortage of available low income housing. These concerned citizens and community leaders were able to address the lack of low income housing after the Fair Housing act of 1968. PSSH was founded in 1970 with Jeanette Duncan leading the way as founder and President/CEO. 

Over the last 50 years PSSH has helped build 1200 homes in the central coastal area of California through Mutual Self Help housing.  PSSH was one of pioneering organizations that employed this innovative approach to help low income families get the home of their dreams.  The Mutual and Self Help Housing program is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture  and is the only federal program where sweaty equity is used in combination with affordable loans and technical assistance. Families that are helped by this program work nights and weekends to provide 65% (or 1,000 hours) of the construction. Nationally families that participate in Mutual Self Help Housing are able to earn on average $18,215 in equity, decrease construction costs and make lasting investments. The hours the family puts in not only reduces the overall construction cost for the family but most times it gives them a better appreciation for their home. It also allows them to learn the construction process necessary to build a sound home.

PSSH also helps build affordable housing complexes for farm workers and their families. People’s Self- Help Housing owns and manages over 1,900 rental units in California. With that they are able to provide low cost, comfortable housing units to over 5,000 individuals and their families.  Canyon Creek is one example of PSHH’s efforts to not only increase the supply of affordable housing but also provide important services. PSSH has established a learning center and health screen clinic at the development. This provides the 69 farmworker families who reside at Canyon Creek access to important health and education resources. People’s Self- Help Housing has also helped many families and their children by offering site based programs such as after school tutoring and college prep. Thanks to these programs PSSH has made it possible for many young adults to be the first ones in their family to attend college.

Today, John Fowler leads PSSH. Throughout these 50 years PSSH has made access to affordable housing more available and has helped many low income communities and families prosper while also allowing them to have place that they can call home.

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The Dwindling Supply of Affordable Rental Housing

In September 2019 Elizabeth La Jeunesse, Alexander Hermann, Daniel McCue and Jonathan Spader of the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, authored the paper  

Documenting the Long-Run Decline in Low-Cost Rental Units in the US by State. In this paper the researchers sought to answer the following questions: “1) has the number of low-cost rental units indeed declined since 1990, and if so, by how much? 2) Over which periods of time did this decline take place? And 3) are there any differences in the size and timing of losses across US states?  

The study conducted by the research team at the Joint Center found that for every 100 low income renter households there are only 58 affordable housing units available for them to rent. Overall from 1990 to 2017 the number of rental units available for $600 per month or less declined by 4.0 million units.   A monthly rent of $600 is the maximum an individual making $24,000 can afford. This decline is in stark contrast to the 10.9 million overall rental stock growth over the same time period.


The steepest decline in low income housing availability occurred during the 2012-2017 time period. During this 5 year period the amount of rental units available for less than $600 dropped from 14 million to 11 million units. The share of affordable rental housing stock also dropped from around 40% to just 25% during this 5 year period. 

Even though there are some variations in losses of rental units in all 50 states all states saw a decline in units. A total of 27 states and the District of Columbia saw almost a 1/3 loss in rental units for less than $600 dollars per month between 1990 and 2017. Only 16 states between the years of 1990 and 2017 saw less than a 20% decline in rental unit shares for less than $600 dollars a month. This decline in readily available affordable rental housing means that more and more low income individuals compete for fewer and fewer low cost rental units.

While the report does not address rental housing in rural America, other, previous Joint Center reports document the lack of affordable housing in small towns and farming communities. Rental housing where it is available, often costs too much.: 41 percent (5 million households) of rural renters are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing costs, and 21 percent (2.1 million households) of rural households that rent pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing.[1]


[1] Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, “America’s Rental Housing.” 2017. http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/harvard_jchs_americas_rental_housing_2017_0.pdf

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NBC News Gets it Right: USDA Housing Needs More Investment

By Bob Rapoza, NRHC Executive Secretary

We read with great interest the recent report by NBC News Rats, roaches, mold: Under USDA’s watch, some rural public housing is falling apart. The families profiled in the article are living in a terrible situation that must be remedied, and Washington policymakers must take action to ensure other families aren’t put in similar situations in the future.

NBC News correctly notes that a 2016 USDA report estimated that $5.596 billion is needed just to preserve the agency’s rental housing over the next 20 years. In recent years, USDA budgets have not only sought to eliminate programs designed to finance new developments and repair and preserve USDA-financed multifamily housing, but also proposed to terminate other rural housing programs –for homeownership, repairing existing housing, and financing for housing for migrant and seasonal farmworkers.

While Congress has repeatedly rejected theses budget cuts, USDA’s leadership has persisted, proposing budget cuts and policies that result in fewer field staff, fewer local offices, and diminished organizational capacity, thereby undermining the administration of rural housing programs and delivery of housing assistance to rural families.

Years of declining investment in the renovation of existing housing and construction of new housing in small towns and farming communities has resulted in a housing deficit. According to U.S. Census data, between 1999 and 2008, the average annual production of new single-family houses in non-metro areas totaled 221,000. In the period 2009 to 2017, average production fell to just 68,000 per year.

Where housing is available, it is apt to be in poor condition. Of the 25 million units located in rural and small communities, over 5 percent, or 1.5 million, of these homes are considered either moderately or severely substandard, due to the lack of funding for repairs and renovations and local economic conditions. What’s more, a recent report by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies found that 41 percent of rural renters, or 5 million households, are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing costs, and 21 percent (2.1 million households) of rural households that rent pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing. This means that rural families are often forced to make impossible tradeoffs between paying rent and covering their other basic needs.

By any measure, much of rural America has still not recovered from the great recession. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, since 2007, rural median income has averaged 20 percent below the urban median income. Over 15 percent of all rural counties, which accounts for more than 300 counties nationwide, are persistently poor, with at least 20 percent of the population living in poverty for the last 30 years.

Rural Housing programs have been under attack from both the current and previous Administrations. Congress has signaled time and again that it will not go along with the wrongheaded and clearly failing policies proposed by USDA. In particular, the Agriculture Appropriations bill passed by the House of Representatives (H.R. 2522) rejects proposed rural housing program eliminations and provides modest increases in programs designed to increase affordable housing resources for rural families. The House bill is a good first step, but much more needs to be done to improve conditions in existing rental housing and to add to the stock of decent, affordable housing in rural America.

USDA’s leadership talks about supporting ‘rural prosperity,’ but ignores the lack of decent housing in rural America and strategies and programs designed to improve housing conditions in small towns and farming communities. We often tell USDA officials that they have a success story on their hands: providing mortgages so low-income families can own their own homes; helping families gain equity in their homes through mutual self-help housing; housing some of the poorest families in America in decent, affordable rental housing; and providing grants to low-income seniors to repair a roof or furnace–this is the picture of success.

The drive to curb government spending has resulted in limited housing choices for rural families and communities. The sad, disgraceful story described in Florida is an example of the neglect of rural America by the federal government. This unfortunate situation should be a reality check for Congress and the Administration—it is time for them to invest in rural America and USDA’s housing programs.

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The NRHC Turns 50

NRHC Turns 50

The Annual Meeting of the National Rural Housing Coalition (NRHC) is scheduled for December 4, at 10 AM at Inter-American Dialogue, 1155 15TH St NW, Suite 800, Washington DC.  The NRHC board will meet immediately afterwards.  NRHC will also hold a reception on Capitol Hill on evening of December 3.  More information on that is forthcoming. 

The meeting marks the 50 year Anniversary of the NRHC.   The original by-laws for the Coalition were adopted on October 31, 1969.  NRHC was incorporated in the District of Columbia on December 17, 1969.  Among the signers on the articles of incorporation: Clay Cochran and Jim Hightower who was the first NRHC employee and who did the work in pulling the original board together as well as the paperwork involved in establishing NRHC.