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Affordable housing is the answer

The General Assembly just has to ask the right questions.

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The A.J. Fletcher Foundation in Raleigh, brought to us by the fortunate family behind Capitol Broadcasting (WRAL-TV etc.), got a new leader a year ago, and a new mission. Barbara Goodmon, wife of Capitol Broadcasting CEO Jim Goodmon, took over as the foundation's executive director. In place of its old-timey interests in opera and the arts--passions of the eponymous founder, Jim's grandfather--Barbara turned the foundation toward improving social services, her longtime interest.

Whereas a few million dollars a year goes a long way in the arts, it doesn't really make a ripple when it comes to helping people who are seriously disadvantaged, whether by bad fortune, bad health, bad behavior, or some combination thereof.

Which, of course, Barbara Goodmon knows better than most of us, given that she's a member and former chair of the Wake County Human Services Board, the appointed volunteers who watch over the county's social welfare programs and--finding them perpetually underfunded--go tug on the sleeves of the elected county commissioners for a little more bread, kind sirs and madame.

The question, then, as Goodmon told a group in Raleigh earlier this month, was how the foundation could invest its money so as to "make a chain reaction"--get the most bang for its bucks, surely, but also cause local and state governments to improve their social-services efforts.

Seeking the answer, Fletcher's board talked to a broad spectrum of folks who help the victims of child abuse, those with mental disabilities or physical ones, recent immigrants, ex-offenders, substance abusers, and so on. What would help them the most? Soon, a surprising consensus emerged. Whatever the specific problems for a given population, there was a common denominator in their solutions: affordable housing.

"People do better," Goodmon says quite matter-of-factly, "when they have a decent place to live."

Well, yes, now that you mention it, it is kind of obvious. This country's got a lot of food and clothing, but when it comes to life's third basic necessity, decent housing is in short supply, as the relentless rise in housing prices demonstrates. It's simple supply-and-demand.

Take a look at what's going up in downtown Raleigh, in Cary, in Chapel Hill, and in South Durham--where the jobs are, in other words. It's all high-end houses and condos. Want something affordable? Try Franklin County.

And yet, when the phone rang and Goodmon was on the other end to say to Bill Rowe at the N.C. Justice Center and Chris Estes at the N.C. Housing Coalition (formerly the Low-Income Housing Coalition) that her foundation was putting housing on the top of its advocacy docket, they could hardly believe it.

The Justice Center and Housing Coalition have tried for years to persuade our elected officials that the growing shortage of affordable housing in this state is a major cause--not just an effect--of serious social disorders. Not only that, but federal support for housing programs has been slashed over the last 25 years, or since the dawn of the Reagan-Bush era. Federal policymakers continue to subsidize McMansion-sized mortgages, but rental assistance for the entry-level apartment unit is on the wane.

Put more money into housing programs, activists urge the General Assembly each year. And the legislators' response? A hardy ho-hum. Everybody thinks housing's a great idea, according to Estes. But when the money's doled out, education and transportation get the lion's share, and housing's relegated to an honorable mention. "We've always said that our support is a mile wide," Estes jokes, "and an inch deep."

The Goodmons' backing, though, "is a momentum-building thing," Rowe adds, with the potential to push housing up the legislature's list in a hurry. For one thing, Barbara Goodmon is a dynamo. For another, Jim Goodmon's never been afraid to put Capitol Broadcasting's clout behind a cause--and WRAL-TV spots are in the works already.

Just in general, legislators would rather be on the same side of an issue as their local TV station than be pointed out as an impediment to progress.

And, for what it's worth, remember that the Goodmons are Republicans, but contribute to candidates in both parties who support their social-services goals.

Thus, sunny optimism was the order of the day as Rowe and Estes, along with the leaders of Triangle United Way, presented their "Campaign for Housing Carolina," a lobbying effort with a simple aim: boosting the appropriation to the state Housing Trust Fund from $3 million a year to $50 million.

Too much? Florida's counterpart ("the Holy Grail of housing programs," Rowe says) gets $200 million a year, even under Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

Not only is this not something "that's way out there," Barbara Goodmon adds, it's building on a program with a proven record of success. Created in 1987, the Housing Trust Fund, according to state figures, has used its meager funding total of $70 million to leverage $402.1 million worth of new housing--14,000 homes and apartments in all--which has thrown back $55 million in tax revenues (so far) to the state and municipal governments.

Or, as Goodmon put it in good Republican-ese, "It's not just handing out money."

Indeed, this is the great thing about housing. In this country, it's the most accessible way for people without a lot of money to build up some wealth. It's the basic tool of community economic development. It puts people to work. Today, you're hauling lumber for a contractor. Tomorrow, you could be the contractor.

Moreover, as its advocates point out, the absence of a decent, affordable place to live can put a family under enormous mental strain. Good housing near where the jobs are translates into kids doing better in school (and staying in school), dad controlling his temper, mom and dad able to afford a night out occasionally.

Unfortunately, that's not the way things are headed. With rents rising and wage rates falling or stagnant, an estimated 44 percent of households in the Triangle who rent apartments can't really afford the typical two-bedroom apartment, which goes for about $800 a month.

If they live in it anyway, Estes says, it means they're paying too much of their income for housing, with too little left over for other needs. Or they may be shoehorned into a one-bedroom place, or live in a substandard house or apartment somewhere that isn't safe or convenient to their work.

"What we have is a lot of people paying too much for their housing, and under a tremendous financial strain as a result," he says.

And that's for working people. For folks with serious disabilities, whose only income typically is a federal SSI check of about $500 a month, decent housing is an impossibility without deep subsidies of the kind the Housing Trust Fund--if it were properly funded--could provide.

Just for example, as policymakers ponder the subject of mental health reform and moving people out of institutions and "into the community," the magic words are "supported housing." Social workers are ready with the support. It's the housing part that's so hard to find.

That's what Barbara Goodmon heard when the advocates came to talk. Maybe 2005 will be the year the General Assembly hears it, too.

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