The effects of housing instability can be – and often are – devastating to families in Cleveland. I view this issue as a core challenge to our community – a challenge that needs to be both understood and regarded as a key priority for city government.

Following the example of cities like St. Louis, Missouri, I will create the Cleveland Affordable Housing Commission (CAHC) – to take a broader and more comprehensive approach to enhancing our City’s work in this area.

Introduction

After graduating from college and returning to Cleveland, I began work as a Jesuit Volunteer Corps member – assigned to do social work at the West Side Catholic Center. After that, I spent many years at Recovery Resources, a Cleveland mental health agency.

I quickly learned that my clients with mental health needs had challenges and problems similar to many people – but in other ways, their needs were much greater and more serious. In addition to the support and encouragement they needed to help them maintain regular therapeutic care and medication compliance, they also needed support to overcome other challenges – like finding or maintaining stable housing.

My work with Recovery Resources was my first exposure to the massive problem of housing instability in Cleveland, a challenge shared in many communities in the United States. The problem stems from poverty, the lack of affordable housing, and an inadequate federally subsidized housing system. This also spurred my interest to develop the Right to Counsel program, for tenants facing eviction in Cleveland Housing Court.

Nature of the Problem

Residential instability has been defined by The Urban Institute as “when the frequency of residential mobility in a household or individual is high or occurs in short intervals.” While moving from one residence to another can be positive, forced moves can trigger instability – which can lead to housing insecurity, which can lead to homelessness or other harmful outcomes for a vulnerable family.

As noted above, the effects of housing instability can be – and often are – devastating to families in Cleveland. This is a core challenge we must treat as a priority.

Causes of Housing Instability

In the article referenced above, The Urban Institute convened 40 practitioners, advocates, public officials, researchers, and funders to discuss insights and policy solutions to address residential instability. They identified several major causes of instability, including individual and household characteristics, housing conditions, neighborhood and housing market dynamics, and lack of assistance and safety net support.

  • Individual and Household Characteristics: Families in poverty, or who experience income or benefit changes, job loss, family conflict or physical and mental health challenges are at greater risk to housing instability. Children in low-income families were 4 times more likely to experience residential instability (5 or more moves) as compared to children in families with incomes double or more of the federal poverty level (p.3)A key aspect of the challenge for poor families is the percent of income dedicated to rent. The number of renters paying more than 30% of income on rent (a common benchmark) was at almost 21 million households in 2016, translating to 83% of very low-income renters who face that challenge. Paying an excessive percentage of income on rent results in the obvious need to cut back on other household essentials (p. 4). Income and benefit volatility play a major role for low-income families as well. In one study cited by The Urban Institute, low-income families had income at 25% above or below their average level over a 5-month period. Factors other than income can also have a major impact. Families with children face obstacles because of occupancy limits, pressure to find new homes quickly, and family discrimination.
  • Housing Conditions: Poor conditions in housing – including damage or other code violations related to health or safety – can lead to conflicts with landlords and a higher likelihood of eviction. The Joint Center for Housing Studies (2015) reports that 1 out of 7 affordable housing units is “physically inadequate” – which can include environmental hazards that cause or contribute to health conditions and developmental harms to children.Because most low-income rental housing units are not owned by conglomerates but by individual landlords, there can be limited property-management experience and financial reserves – which can lead to substandard housing quality.
  • Neighborhood and Housing Market Dynamics: Neighborhood-level challenges – such as safety, vacancy, and changes in market conditions – can make housing instability worse. Broader market conditions make an even greater impact. There are only 45 adequate, affordable housing units for every 100 extremely low-income renter households in the United States (Getsinger study, p. 5). Large urban counties face a greater shortage and competition for adequate units among low-income households which reduces the likelihood of long-term tenancy. The long-term effects of exclusionary zoning, racial segregation and housing discrimination are an obvious element of the problem. A housing study found that nonwhite families seeking housing are told about and shown fewer homes and apartments than white families, leading to fewer housing options.
  • Lack of Assistance and Safety Net Support, Other Systems: Federal assistance for low-income renters is inadequate and has not kept up with increased demand. In a 2015 report, 1 in 4 eligible households received assistance (p. 6). Additionally, incarceration patterns and reentry challenges can harm family stability – resulting in increased instability.

Consequences of Housing Instability

Housing instability is possibly the most impactful of all challenges faced by low-income families. The Urban Institute report identifies several primary areas of concern, including education, health, financial security and employment, and social and neighborhood stability.

  • Education: Children who move frequently have much worse academic outcomes than their peers with greater housing stability – a well-known concern to educators (p.7). For schools with frequent student turnover among a low-income population, the effects are multiplied in relation to need for support services and impact on the learning climate.
  • Health: Instability can lead to homelessness – which has an obvious impact on a family’s health. And, housing-quality issues related to lead paint, mold and moisture, or other safety concerns can have a direct impact on children’s health and development. The Lead Safe Cleveland program, an initiative I helped create in partnership with Councilman Blaine Griffin, the current Administration, and a wide variety of community stakeholders and funders, helps to address this challenge. 
  • Financial Security and Employment: Relocation in and of itself carries a financial cost – including the housing search, security deposits, and moving expenses. Frequent moves can also impact employment prospects, when job applicants are scrutinized for their residential history and/or credit history, or when housing instability affects attendance at work or ability to complete a training program.
  • Social and Neighborhood Stability: Often forgotten is the impact of housing instability on a family’s ability to build social capital and neighborhood strength. High turnover prevents neighbors from building social structures and working together to solve individual and community issues, or to participate in broader community policy development.

Solutions to Residential and Housing Instability

Addressing housing instability in Cleveland requires the will to understand the problem and take concerted action to address it – while assuring that goals are set, and outcomes are measured as part of the process.

A wide variety of solutions to the problem have been identified, as follows:

  • Improve the collection of meaningful data on the problem;
  • Augment housing services and tenant supports;
  • Address issues in the legal system related to evictions and housing quality;
  • Create a connection between housing and family support services – including educational systems, health, and other social services; and
  • Advocate for improvement in federal funding and support for low-income housing

These are all important, and any meaningful plan will include these elements. But to truly make an impact, the City needs to focus its attention on increasing the availability and supply of affordable housing in all its neighborhoods.

The creation of housing trust funds has been successful in some communities, as well as using bond issuances to support housing development. Support for “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) has been suggested and implemented in some locations. As Lead Safe Cleveland has demonstrated, any successful effort will include landlords in the process — many of whom own a small number of properties and can benefit from training and support. A focus on housing supply is key, and Cleveland needs a method and vehicle for making this happen.

Creation of the Cleveland Affordable Housing Commission

While Cleveland has supported residential development and the building and retention of affordable housing in the city, there is a need to take a broader and more comprehensive step to enhance the work in this area.

Following the example of cities like St. Louis, MO, I will create the Cleveland Affordable Housing Commission (CAHC). In 2001, St. Louis voters supported the creation of an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and its Affordable Housing Commission (AHC) was implemented to oversee the fund. Every year, the AHC:

…awards grants to non-profit and faith-based organizations and loans to housing developers working with community and housing organizations to fuel community-driven housing solutions. It is through this framework that the Trust Fund capitalizes on its financial strength, social commitment, brain trust, organizational muscle, and volunteer energy of our partner agencies. (St. Louis Affordable Housing Commission Report to the Community, 2020)

In 2020, the St. Louis AHC awarded almost $6 million to fund 48 programs in support of a variety of affordable housing programs and projects, and over $25 million in low-interest loans to 6 housing developments. The return has been almost $19 for every trust fund dollar invested. Since its founding, the AHC has awarded $32.9 million into developing 3,821 homes – and these developments have invested a total of $650 million in the City of St. Louis to address the issue of housing instability.

Cleveland has the knowledge, expertise, and community stakeholders to implement an Affordable Housing Commission. As Council President, my involvement in and support for the Right to Counsel and Lead Safe Cleveland has only increased my interest in taking a bolder step to support housing stability. As Mayor, I promise to bring the political will and actions necessary to do so to the equation.