Advocates say Alabama housing trust fund funding could help prevent homelessness

Anne Rygiel runs a homeless men’s shelter in Birmingham called Firehouse Ministries. As the weather gets colder and the holidays approach, Rygiel has to turn away more people every night for lack of room to sleep.

“It can be a matter of life or death,” she said. There are 92 beds in his emergency shelter and an additional 10 to 15 people arrived on Monday evening. The shelter moved to a new building at the start of the pandemic, doubling its capacity. Rygiel hoped this would be enough, but she said rising rents were leading more people to homelessness, especially young and old.

“Many of them are the fathers of the people. They are husbands, they are workers, they are worth the investment. The amount of talent wasted just because people don’t even look them in the eye is shocking, ”she said.

“Everyone has potential and no one deserves to die alone on the streets. “

Rygiel says his group cannot find enough affordable housing to help people secure permanent housing. It’s a growing statewide problem, which advocates say could be addressed by funding the state’s existing, but empty, affordable housing trust fund.

States and cities across the country have funded the development of affordable housing through housing trust funds. Alabama created its fund in 2012, but it is one of a handful of states with an empty trust fund.

“There’s no money in there because we haven’t really provided a dedicated funding stream for it. There have been attempts after (the fund) was created to devote (a) funding stream, but those bills have died in the past, ”said Dev Wakeley, policy analyst for Alabama Arise, a community-focused advocacy group. on low-income Alabamians. .

In 2020, Alabama lawmakers considered providing a source of funding by slightly increasing mortgage registration fees – the taxes collected when a home is sold – but that failed. Had it been successful, the law would have added $ 15 million per year to the fund that could be used to create affordable housing, prevent homelessness and increase homeownership in Alabama.

“People’s ability to be safe in their homes really has an impact on every aspect of their lives,” said Michael Anderson, director of the Housing Trust Fund Project at Community Change, a national justice-focused nonprofit. social worker campaigning for the establishment of state-level housing trust funds since the 1980s.

Advocates see an opportunity for Alabama to use part of the state’s federal COVID-19 relief funds to fund the trust fund next year. The state is expected to receive another payment of more than $ 1 billion in mid-2022.

“The locations (are) increasingly expensive that the core elements of the workforce can no longer afford to live in these communities,” Anderson said. “This is when our communities really start to unravel and get stressed. The personal stress of the household, the disruption, the displacement, it then affects our community. “

Shoes at the Firehouse Ministries refuge in Birmingham

Other states

Bambi Baughn leads a group that helps house the homeless, the elderly and others in need in a rural part of Ohio. She remembers an electrician calling her office to ask for help with an elderly widow who was without heat and needed money to have her furnace repaired.

“We put (in) an oven with inclement weather, and she was able to stay in her house and be warm,” said Baughn, executive director of the Fayette County Community Action Commission in Ohio.

Because Ohio has a statewide housing trust fund with funding of $ 55 million in 2021, Baughn was able to help. The Ohio fund relies on a mortgage registration fee tax, similar to the funding model that was rejected by the Alabama legislature.

The state allocates half of the fund’s dollars to support affordable housing efforts in rural parts of the state, like Baughn’s, which do not benefit from existing federal funds focused on housing in urban areas.

“There are always people who are going to need help. They won’t be self-sufficient, whether it’s a mental handicap, drug addiction or a handicap, a physical handicap, “Baughn said.

“If someone didn’t help them, they would be literally homeless on the streets and probably dead. “

Marcus Roth, communications director for the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, said the state trust fund has helped fund new affordable housing and has also opened the door for some organizations that host the homeless.

“It’s really having a big impact in some of the most neglected parts of the state that don’t have access to the same federal resources as the most urban counties,” he said.

“The shortage of affordable housing is really the number one cause of homelessness. “

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Homeless in Alabama

Finding affordable housing is a growing problem for Alabamians.

About 3,351 Alabamians are homeless every day, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

An Alabamian earning minimum wage must work 72 hours a week to rent a one-bedroom apartment for fair rates in the state, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

The group found that 30% of renters in Alabama, or roughly 176,034 people, are very low-income and face a shortage of nearly 73,075 affordable housing units statewide.

During the pandemic, rents rose and housing insecurity went with them. Data from this fall’s federal census showed more than 40% of Alabama renters feared eviction by the end of 2021, the highest concern rate in the country.

A 2014 report by economist Dr Keivan Deravi, then a professor of economics at Auburn University, estimated that investing $ 20 million per year in the state fund to build and rehabilitate affordable housing would have created 6,500 full-time jobs, 7,101 housing units and $ 1.1 billion in economic output over a decade.

“(Creating) affordable housing and preserving it through rehabilitation is one way to ensure residents stay in their homes,” said Ashley Brown, Affordable Housing Program Manager for the City of Nashville. She said gentrification is happening so quickly in Nashville that many people are being evicted due to rising costs. To remedy the situation, the city established a trust fund in 2013, allocating more than $ 15.8 million in 2021.

The fund comes from a penny tax levied on Airbnb rentals as well as general city revenue.

Brown says having local dollars available allows the city to be creative and adapt from year to year, whether it’s responding to a natural disaster or supporting small developers.

“We are one of the most proven tools in the affordable housing toolkit,” said Brown.

Long-term solutions

The Washington State Housing Trust Fund has been in existence since 1986 and has helped build 55,000 affordable housing units. In 2021, it was funded by $ 175 million from the state’s investment budget, as well as an additional $ 120 million for a rapid home acquisition program.

Nathan Lichti, general manager of housing finance at the Washington State Department of Commerce, recently launched a 70-bed housing project for chronically homeless people in a rural county north of Seattle.

“What the trust fund is helping to do is identify priority housing needs, attract resources and help local communities develop the types of housing they need,” Lichti said.

He said state dollars help leverage federal HUD and other limited funds, especially when it comes to housing the homeless, especially homeless youth.

“Our housing trust fund gives us access to home ownership. We are also able to support down payment assistance programs, habitat type models, community land trusts, and we take advantage of volunteer work, donations, all kinds of things that help expand the supply of affordable housing.

COVID Relief Money

Alabama may have a unique opportunity to fund its housing trust fund, given the available COVID federal dollars the state can devote to pandemic recovery, advocates say.

“It is one of the most flexible funds to ever reach from the federal government to state and local governments. They can do a myriad of things, as long as they can show it has something to do with… repairing the damage caused by COVID, ”Anderson told Community Change.

According to the Alabama Department of Finance, the state is expected to receive $ 1.06 billion in aid in 2022, funds to be allocated by the state legislature. This figure represents the second half of the Federal Fiscal Stimulus Fund dollars going to the state, a total of more than $ 2.1 billion.

Alabama plans to spend $ 400 million in funds for building prisons.

Wakeley, along with Alabama Arise, estimates that putting just $ 15 million a year into the housing trust fund would allow the state to build 500 affordable units each year.

“This type of investment would dramatically reduce housing costs and the shortage we experience in the long run,” he said.

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