Last year, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart worked hard to defend thousands of unwitting renters who were tossed from their homes because of the foreclosure crisis. Then, Rep. Will Burns (D-Chicago) tried to right the wrong in Springfield by sponsoring a Renter's Bill of Rights. But at the eleventh-hour, lenders managed to strip out even the most basic protections, including habitability standards that would ensure units are “safe, healthful, and fit for occupancy." No organization better understands the stress that renters are facing as a result of too few protections than the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO). And after fielding thousands of calls from Chicagoans living in substandard conditions, the non-profit has drafted a State of Chicago Renters report (PDF) that concludes it's time for the federal government to intervene on behalf of low-income households and help stabilize an increasingly difficult market. More from the report:
"For too long, national housing policy has relied on moving Americans toward homeownership. The current housing and financial crisis suggests that during the last decade, growth in homeownership rates and increases in the numbers of owner-occupied units were unsustainable.
Prior to the foreclosure crisis and the economic downturn, thousands of renters were forced to move as rental units were converted to condominiums. Renters have been in an affordable housing crisis for sometime ... They continue to suffer from an acute shortage of affordable rental units."
After listening to 150,000 calls fielded by their own hotline and comparing the data with foreclosure estimates provided by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development and Census data, MTO found that foreclosure-related rental problems are creeping into some unlikely Chicago neighborhoods: those on the city's outskirts that were traditionally occupied by homeowners. The shift is largely attributed to the scramble among many of the city's 1.3 million renters to find an affordable place to live. That hasn't always panned out, though. Even before the foreclosure crisis set in, 9,000 affordable units were vanishing each year between 1990 and 2005. As a result, the number of households who are "rent burdened" -- paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing -- has continued to grow, increasing from 40 to 53 percent since 2000. Worse yet, a staggering 30 percent of those households were spending at least half their income on rent. Few have been spared from what's become a regional problem. MTO researchers found that as rental rates continue to outpace inflation and flat incomes, even high-income households are feeling the squeeze. And that has only placed more pressure on low- and moderate-income households who are trying to compete.
The good news is that stress in the Chicago region could be alleviated considerably with some straightforward federal housing policies:
-Fully capitalize the National Housing Trust Fund and expand the HUD budget to stimulate subsidized housing projects that create long-term rental stability;
-Re-enact federal legislation requiring the one-for-one replacement of public housing units to stop the continued loss of units through demolition;
-Increase the number of vouchers available to low-income renters to provide immediate relief.
Rental housing still makes up a majority of the housing units in Chicago. And as MTO points out, "renters make significant and direct investments in neighborhoods," totaling nearly $450 million in 2007 alone. Regular readers know that local housing advocates have been calling for more renter-friendly policies for sometime now. But leadership at the national level could finally force Mayor Daley to commit hefty investments in truly affordable housing.
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