Housing And Jobs: A Tightrope Balance And Indicator Of Community Health

Housing and job “shortages are two sides of the same coin,” wrote Ben Winck and Andy Kiersz for Business Insider in 2021. “Cities with the most job openings don’t have the affordable housing needed by many workers. And areas with cheaper housing don’t have the promising labor markets to make them attractive.”

Their article compared San Francisco to Columbus, Ohio. Home real estate in the San Francisco Bay area averages $741 to $811 per square foot; homelessness is a contentious and chronic problem; even some tech-sector workers cannot accept jobs there because of the cost of housing. Back in the Rust Belt, home real estate in Columbus, Ohio, went for $185 per square foot in 2023 (so far) and the city is practically begging for laborers. The relationship between jobs and homes may be one marker of local health, but it’s a mere economic marker. Community health is far more complex, and its canary in the coal mine, so to speak, is what is happening to its most vulnerable populations – children, elderly, disabled, impoverished, unhomed / homeless and food insecure.

Economic health may be the benchmark for politicians, but the best leaders grapple with the needs of the whole population.

There are almost 17,000 people trying to live their own way, next to each other in this county, Crawfordsville Mayor Todd Barton noted in an interview this past week, and he’s trying to strike a balance where his constituents can find good-paying jobs and affordable shelter in a safe, thriving culture. As mayor, he also works with companies because they bring the jobs people need to pay their bills.

Barton has been grappling with pernicious problems that constituents keep bringing to him. Local employers keep asking where the workforce is because they have jobs they’re desperate to fill. Local non-profits, church members and community organizations like the League of Women Voters are posing a seemingly “opposing” question. Why are we seeing an apparent uptick in requests for food and short-term bailouts for people waiting to get into subsidized housing? What is the mayor’s office approach? What can we do about it?

When League members asked Mayor Barton about this during the August Lunch with the League, he said that these issues have confounded him and other local mayors. Initially, he speculated that one factor might be too much subsidized housing. How could there be too much, especially when the Crawfordsville Housing Authority often has a long wait list for its Section 8 voucher recipients?

First, it’s critical to define the term subsidized housing, since there are several kinds. There are HUD apartments where management companies / landlords receive funds directly from the government to reduce the rent charged to qualified residents. These are governed by agencies in Indianapolis.

Then there is the local Crawfordsville Housing Authority which offers a Section 8 housing voucher to domestic abuse victims, low-income elderly, disabled, and single parents with children. Residents apply to the local office and if they qualify for a voucher they have 60 days (with two possible 30-day extensions) to find any place to rent where the landlord agrees to participate in the program. Landlords who participate get guaranteed rent because the voucher covers 70 percent and CHA ensures that residents can pay the final 30 percent. Both the renter and landlord get regular inspections. Other subsidized apartments do not include these benefits.

It should be a win-win for both parties though in the past the local housing authority board had members with a conflict of interest – landowners “vending” or renting their own properties. As Mayor Barton noted, the benchmark for the Crawfordsville Housing Authority (CHA) is ensuring there’s a safe roof (appropriately sized) over the head of every person who qualifies for the voucher, Barton said. The complication is the shortage of landlords who participate in the program. In 2021, Stacey Doty, CHA’s current director, had plans to reach out to landlords and invite them to participate. The pandemic and other complications slowed those outreaches. (But landlords are encouraged to contact Doty to find out how to help put a roof over people’s heads!)

Meanwhile housing for low-income households remains a mess. The women’s short-term shelter, Pam’s Promise has a waitlist. Trinity Mission approached Mayor Barton because men graduating from its program have no place to go. Management companies tend to reject anyone with an eviction or prior conviction, and increasingly, many complexes expect two months’ rent and a deposit, as well as certain credit scores, to lease. Then there’s the quality of some subsidized complexes. Barton said that a few complexes in the county have higher rates of public safety calls, and people are living their lives in poor conditions. In an attempt to improve conditions, the city passed a local measure to inspect rentals and ensure that there was heat, running water and a solid roof, but that doesn’t mean the places are warm and welcoming.

“Housing is a sensitive topic,” Barton said. Those with a substance use disorder, a prior conviction or eviction, low credit, may not qualify for shelters or subsidized housing, which creates insurmountable hurdles. Even without a prior conviction or eviction, many people are paying almost 50 percent of their income on housing when financial planners say it’s important to pay no more than 25-30 percent.

Barton suggested that the planned influx of more affordable apartments will create competition and alleviate the pressure. We can hope it will but it places a lot of faith in competition to drive down prices, but the problem of higher, unaffordable rent reaches far beyond our locale. Larger companies that scooped up properties during the pandemic are backed by investors who expect high profits and dividends. Real estate is their stock market investment. Smaller property holders are recovering from the pandemic freeze on evictions, and there are other complications like short-term rental platforms like Airbnb becoming the small property investors’ business model.

Then there’s the persistent question. If more affordable apartments will alleviate the problem for those who need unsubsidized housing, how can there be too much subsidized housing?

Barton speculates that too much subsidized housing creates peripheral issues. The county has a promising labor market and the promise of more affordable housing, so if there are too many jobs, not enough workers, and too many subsidized units, but not enough social support, there’s a disconnect.

In next week’s column, we’ll explore further what factors may hide within the complexities.

-The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website; or, visit the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Indiana Facebook page.