If you have a home and the means to maintain it, these may seem like the best of times. But if you have limited income, a disability or other challenges, finding a suitable, safe and convenient place to live while still being able to afford other necessities can be just as difficult during an economic upswing as during a recession.
The need for affordable housing is clear, as The Journal Gazette's Dave Gong reported on Sunday, and part of the answer lies in new housing initiatives in diverse parts of the city. But proposals such as Slocum Pointe, a plan for a northeast apartment development for low-income and disabled people, inevitably engender concerns and fears.
There are two governmental agencies involved in meeting Fort Wayne housing needs, the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services, and the Housing Authority. And there are several strategies, including building housing complexes with controlled rents or providing vouchers that pay part of a struggling family's rent to a landlord.
The goal is simply to ensure people can secure a decent place to live without becoming “housing-burdened” – a phrase to describe what happens when more than 30 percent of a family's income is spent on rent. Almost 45 percent of Fort Wayne renters are housing-burdened, according to 2016 statistics from the Purdue Fort Wayne Community Research Institute.
Being in that situation, said Kelly Lundberg, Housing and Neighborhood Services director, can force families to cut corners on other basic needs. “If you're paying too much for your rent, then you can't afford child care,” Lundberg said in an interview Tuesday. “It's kind of a vicious cycle, which means it's harder for you to work.”
Some survive by moving into substandard and possibly dangerous housing, or by staying with friends or relatives. Some become homeless.
“The demand for affordable housing is very high right now,” Lundberg said. “There are waiting lists for a majority of the housing units in the city.” The Housing Authority, which periodically accepts voucher applications, received 2,923 last July. Almost a year later, there are 2,035 applicants waiting.
The complexes on the city's southeast side are full, and demand for more units there continues. But under guidelines for use of federal housing funds, the city is focusing on diversifying its low-income housing locations. “When you concentrate poverty – and a lot of times that also means you're concentrating people by race – you're limiting their opportunities to wealth development and their access to some of our community assets and jobs,” she said.
That diversification involves building affordable houses on vacant lots among existing homes, or voucher-holders being accepted as tenants in traditional neighborhoods. It also requires placing developments in areas adjacent to established neighborhoods, which can lead to conflicts.
There are some myths about low-income housing. In some cases, research has shown, low-income developments can lower neighborhood property values. But they don't foster higher crime rates and sometimes help lower them. Local agencies do extensive background checks on potential renters or voucher recipients and continue to see that properties built with public support are well maintained, Lundberg said.
“That is a very large misunderstanding in the community that we need to work on, so that people understand the need for this type of housing, and the great neighbors that these people will make,” said Mary Tyndall, spokeswoman for Community Development, of which Lundberg's agency is a part.
Slocum Pointe was approved last week by the Fort Wayne Plan Commission over protests from some who live nearby. Neighbors have the right to have their concerns taken seriously, just as landlords have the right to refuse or accept vouchers. If problems develop, the city must stand ready to solve them.
But leaving local housing needs unmet is not an acceptable answer, nor is trying to cram all low-income housing developments into the city's southeastern neighborhoods.
A community set on improving its quality of life, as Fort Wayne surely is, must make sure no one is left behind. That sometimes requires officials to make hard choices, and residents to accept change.