The fight to stay housed

Colleen Vesperman

Communities all across the country are in a growing housing crisis stemming, in large part, to a lack of reasonably priced housing. Housing is considered “affordable” when a household spends up to 30 percent of their income on shelter, even as the remainder is needed for utilities, food, transportation, healthcare, daycare and savings.

Recently however, a 2017 study by United Way entitled the ALICE Report, found that 39 percent of Virginia households struggle to support themselves. The term “ALICE” describes a household that is Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. The report documents the increase in the basic cost of living, the decrease in availability of jobs that can support household necessities, and the shortage of housing that is affordable to workers in the majority of the state’s jobs.

Locally, the number of ALICE households equates to 34 percent in Rappahannock County, 43 percent in Madison County, 40 percent in Culpeper County, 28 percent in Orange County, and 31 percent in Fauquier County.

Why are so many families struggling? The short answer is that while the cost of living continues to rise, wages have lagged behind. Families living from paycheck to paycheck are going without savings needed for emergencies. ALICE households are working households; they often work two jobs, pay taxes, and make up the majority of services needed to keep Virginia’s economy thriving. They are teachers, first responders, daycare workers, home health aids, laborers and office assistants.

According to the ALICE Report, 57 percent of jobs in Virginia pay less than $20 per hour. Households without sufficient income for housing end up forgoing preventative health care, accredited childcare, healthy food, or car insurance. As a consequence, not only do individuals and families suffer, but the community does, too. Reduced productivity, increases in insurance premiums and taxes affect us all.

Everyone knows ALICE; maybe we are ALICE — a new graduate just starting their career, a young family, or a retiree. Some households become ALICE when an emergency arises such as an unexpected medical bill, job loss, or family crisis. Unfortunately, ALICE households have incomes above the federal poverty line, making them ineligible for government assistance. They fall through the cracks of the system and are left to struggle invisibly. The ALICE Report hopes to change all that.

Finding solutions will be complicated and political, but the ALICE Report at least allows the discussion to begin. Recommendations from the report include decreasing the cost of household basics — shelter, transportation, healthcare, daycare — while improving job opportunities. Additionally, changing demographics will need to be addressed. The number of married parents with children households is declining while single parent households — which especially need daycare — continue to increase.

None of these recommendations can be done overnight, and will require a multitude of agencies, organizations and businesses working together. These changes are achievable and necessary to ensure Virginians and future generations of Virginians can thrive. To view the entire ALICE Report, visit https://www.unitedforalice.org/.

The writer sits on the Advocacy Subcommittee at the Foothills Housing Network, its goal to raise awareness on housing needs in this region. She speaks for the entire subcommittee.

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