45 Years of Housing Justice: Housing Stability and How It Affects People’s Lives

“A safe home is a lot more than just a roof over your head. It gives stability to people’s lives,” said Andy Heidt with Bayview Foundation.

Think about how housing stability allows people to contribute more to our housing-3-cute-boyscommunity. It’s easier to keep your job. Children can concentrate in school, and maybe you as parents can go back to school.

“People in quality affordable housing can save money, move up the economic ladder, and follow their dreams,” Heidt noted.

And without decent, safe, stable housing? You deal with leaky roofs, mold, bugs and rodents, broken fixtures—which you ask your landlord to fix, but many don’t bother to comply. You probably fear being kicked out even for small infractions if you push the landlord too much about needed repairs. And you’re definitely under stress.

“Getting to work every day, and living in substandard housing, is hard enough. If you don’t have a rent subsidy, and you’re paying half of your income just for rent, you’re really living on the edge of homelessness,” said Heidi Wegleitner with Legal Action of Wisconsin.

“Sometimes if just one thing goes wrong—getting sick, or having your car break down—there is no way you can meet all of your financial obligations,” added Diane Eddings with Common Wealth.

Here CSW member groups describe the reality of housing instability and what they are doing to ensure housing stability for the low-income people they work with.

“Being Homeless Was the Hardest Job I’ve Ever Had”

“Someone once told me, ‘Being homeless was the hardest job I ever had.’ Logistically, daily life is a nightmare. It’s incredibly stressful to try to find food and shelter, and try to stay on the move,” said Anders Zanichkowsky with Tenant Resource Center, noting that homeless parents have it especially hard trying to raise children on the streets.

“If a homeless parent doesn’t want their kids living on the street, it means splitting up the family among friends or relatives—or the possibility of having Child Protective Services take the children,” Wegleitner pointed out.

Zanichkowsky added that it’s more likely for a homeless person “to be the victim of a violent crime, to be assaulted for sport, or to be forced into survival sex. As dangerous as it is for men, it’s even more dangerous for women.”

Worse, Zanichkowsky said, “homelessness is criminalized. You live under added police surveillance, and it’s easy to get arrested by breaking laws targeting the homeless—laws against loitering or sleeping in public. If I’m relaxing on the Capitol lawn and I fall asleep, I won’t be arrested, but someone who looks homeless will be.”

Housing First

“The Housing First movement advocates getting homeless people into permanent housing as quickly as possible. We will have the first Housing First model, using best practices, set up here in about six months,” said Dean Loumos, referring to Housing Initiativeswork. “Getting chronically homeless people into permanent homes, and with support services, will help stabilize their lives.”

Loumos refuted the idea that many homeless people don’t want housing. “The overwhelming majority want a home. A small minority—those who tend to be extremely confused—say they don’t want housing. But by offering skilled services, and by developing relationships with them, we can get them into homes and help them learn how to be successful: how to be a good tenant, how to reduce self-harm.”

With fewer people living on the streets, the costs to a community—for police, emergency health care—are reduced as well.

Stable Housing and Education

“Stable, permanent housing is a key part of sound education policy,” explained housing-3-boy-and-girlLoumos, who is also on the School Board in Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). “MMSD has nearly a 5% homeless rate—about 1,500 kids. The resulting instability in the kids’ personal lives significantly impacts academic achievement.

“How can a kid do well in school when she’s in a shelter, sleeping in a car, or bouncing from one friend or family member to another? She’s not eating well. And the trauma all of this creates for children absolutely affects their achievement in school,” Loumos added.

Heidt noted that at Bayview, families benefit not only from affordable housing, but from the other services that Bayview provides to help children improve academically. Take J, a fifth grader, who was in Bayview’s educational program this summer. His teacher’s comments point to J’s progress in academic growth. Before the summer program, she said  J’s “writing was almost entirely copied from the text.” By the end of the summer J’s written answers “had sound reasoning and details, great voice, and solid word choice (his own, not copied from the text). He made great improvement in all areas.”

Stable Housing and Job Growth—Nestor’s Story

“Every time I needed them, they were here for me,” Nestor said about the staff at Common Wealth, the nonprofit that provides his affordable apartment. “It’s a great organization.”

Nestor Bacque, Common Wealth Affordable Housing Tenant

Nestor Bacque, Common Wealth Affordable Housing Tenant

Originally from Uruguay, Nestor spoke very little English when he first moved here, but he has always worked—first laboring on farms, then at a grocery store, and now, with his good English skills, at a car dealership. Yet initially he couldn’t find a decent, safe apartment.

Then he found affordable housing through Common Wealth, “and he seems to love the small efficiency he has had with us for five years,” Eddings explained. “Recently he was so pleased when he became a U.S. citizen that he stopped by our office to share the good news with us.”

About citizenship Nestor said, “It feels good—and it’s good to vote. I already voted [in the presidential election]!”

Eddings noted that Nestor is like a lot of people she works with. “They need a good, stable place to land. We often see people like Nestor transform their lives when they finally have access to stable housing.”

She added that Common Wealth makes a long-term commitment to it tenants and its properties, “because only long-term stability fosters real change. It’s in everyone’s best interest.”

Assisting Renters with Challenges

Tenant Resource Center works 1:1 with tenants (and landlords) to inform them about their rights and responsibilities.

Legal Action of Wisconsin helps renters enforce their rights, representing them when they’re faced with eviction, or having their rent assistance terminated. The lawyers also advocate for tenants who are trying to preserve or obtain section 8 rent assistance. “Our clients get denied or terminated from section 8 based on allegations of program violations.  Sometimes the allegations are untrue, supported by insufficient evidence. The theme that runs through our work is supporting families, keeping families together, and preventing homelessness,” Wegleitner explained.

Citizens Utility Board (CUB) advocates for electricity and gas ratepayers “who today pay fixed rates charges that have more than doubled statewide in the past two years,” said CUB’s Kurt Runzler. “Before you turn on any electricity or gas, you’re paying drastically higher fixed charges. Wisconsin has the highest average electric rates in the Midwest. And that hits low-income people especially hard. What do they cut to make up for those higher utility bills: medicine, food?”

The work of Project Home “is in a sense a preventative approach to homelessness,” said Jason Hafeman. “We keep people in safe, quality homes by making needed improvements—and by saving some utility costs with our weatherization program for owners and renters.

“These repairs not only improve the look and safety of the home, they relieve stress for people who didn’t know how they could otherwise stay in their homes. It also frees people, like ‘Maggie,’ to make other improvements in their lives.”

Hafeman explained that Maggie was a single mother of three, working two jobs to get by, and struggling with major home repair needs. “We made significant repairs to her home. Once that stress is relieved, we often see positive changes like we saw with Maggie. She soon got a better job, was able to spend more time with her kids and says she’s much happier. Now she has started volunteering in the community. It’s great to see that when you offer people a little help, 95% say they want to give back by helping others.”

And Bayview Foundation can point with pride to the fact that “of the 210 families who have left Bayview in the past 27 years, 41% have bought their own homes! We attribute this to our long-term affordable housing coupled with our high-quality supportive services,” said Heidt.

What We Take for Granted

It’s good for us to reflect on the “liberties that homeowners take for granted,” said Wegleitner. “When you’re a tenant, especially in a multi-family housing project, you have to put up with thin walls, lack of privacy, limited flexibility, and lots of stress. Just one argument with your partner, overheard by neighbors, and you could be evicted.

“The lack of protections for tenants, compared to homeowners, is striking,” she pointed out. “You have so much more freedom in your home. You get much more leeway if you’re behind on your loan.  You typically don’t experience the housing insecurity that low-income tenants deal with every day. And that housing insecurity comes at a high cost to our society.”

“Housing is a basic human right,” Hafeman added. “We all work hard, we’re busy. But imagine coming home and facing major problems in your home or apartment. It’s not the type of safe home base that recharges you for work, or life, the next day.”

“Affordable housing is priority number one. But low-income people often need various types of support in the community to find their way to more permanent housing stability,” Eddings said in conclusion. “The more we can do to help people deal with issues—whether it’s loss of a job, mental illness, domestic abuse, drug addiction, sick children—the better off they will be, and the better off we’ll all be as a community.”

Look for the next article in the series: Ensuring Housing for People of Color and People with Disabilities.