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Poor Feeling the Pinch as Low-Rent Housing Shrinks

Building Crisis: Poverty in America. Second in a series.


BOSTON — For home buyers, this city ranks among the most expensive in the country: $182,300 for a typical one-family home. Developers are searching everywhere for land to build fancy homes for families with fancy incomes.

Their search has led them all the way to the Dudley Station area, on the edge of Roxbury, the largely black inner city of Boston. A few years ago, the Boston Redevelopment Authority announced that it planned to invest $750 million in the Dudley Station neighborhood. Speculators descended immediately to buy up property.

"Without one spade being put in the ground, one brick being put into place, housing costs have tripled in six years," said Mel King, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a defeated candidate for mayor.

Boston middle-class whites are still too fearful to move to the inner city. But the dream of gentrification in the future has already made housing too expensive for many poor people in Dudley Station.

What happened to the people who used to live in the area? "Some people moved . . . others doubled up," King said. "There's no place to go."

Poor people nationwide are finding the same thing: There's no place to go when wealthy city dwellers set their sights on their neighborhoods. Homelessness has become a more serious problem than at any time since the Depression. And now it is driven in considerable measure not only by poverty but by wealth.

"The last major outbreak (of homelessness) occurred as a consequence of the worst economic crisis in American history; the current situation exists in the midst of national prosperity literally unparalleled in the history of the world," sociologist James D. Wright asserts in his book "Address Unknown: The Homeless in America."

Gentrification is only one cause. Drugs and alcohol have thrown countless people onto the streets. The mentally ill, no longer automatically housed in institutions, make up another category of the homeless.

But many Americans are homeless simply because there is no affordable housing for them. To paraphrase what President Calvin Coolidge once said about unemployment: When a great many people cannot afford to live anywhere, homelessness results.

"Some of the homeless are broken-down alcoholics, but most of them are not," Wright said. "Some are mentally impaired, but most of them are not. Some are living off the benefit programs made available through the social welfare system, but most of them are not. Clearly, none of the popular mythologies provide an adequate portrait of the homeless in America today."

In Wright's view, inadequate housing is responsible for most of the nation's homelessness. The addicts and the mentally ill, he says, only obscure the fact that many of the homeless are ordinary Americans down on their luck.

If he is right, the crisis has an obvious cure--more low-rent housing. But that requires massive amounts of money, and support for affordable housing has dwindled since the Ronald Reagan Administration cut deep into federal housing subsidies nearly a decade ago.

The number of low-rent housing units, as defined in a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Low Income Housing Information Service, declined by 19% from 1970 to 1985. During that same period, the number of officially poor persons grew by 30%.

Nobody knows how many homeless Americans there are. Estimates range from the Housing and Urban Development Department's 350,000 to the National Coalition for the Homeless' 3 million. Regardless of their exact number, a large proportion of the homeless are unmistakable in all the nation's major cities--sleeping in parks, panhandling at subway stops, living in single-room-occupancy hotels and other shelters.

On the nights of March 20 and 21, pairs of U.S. Census Bureau enumerators counted the people who "appear to be homeless" as they entered soup kitchens and places where social service officials in 490 census districts said the homeless were likely to spend the night. But critics insist that the enumerators missed many of the homeless. The census figures, when finally released in a year or so, are sure to be denounced as inadequate.

Wright, a professor at Tulane University, has reviewed existing studies and examined the homeless populations in 12 large U.S. cities. He offered a "reasoned guess" of somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 people who are homeless every night and three or four times that many who are so poor that they could become homeless virtually any night of the year.

By Wright's accounting, six Americans in every 1,000 will become homeless during their lifetimes.

"By any standards, all the estimates point to a national disgrace, clearly unacceptable in a rich, humane society," said Peter H. Rossi, acting director of the Social and Demographic Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts.

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