Filed under Housing

Housing Assistance for Faculty and Staff

As the Town of Blacksburg updates it’s comprehensive plan, I’ve been having lots of discussions about the need for more affordable housing in town and nearby. Often the town talks about housing for graduate students, staff and junior faculty as being a need and priority. The town also values affordable student housing. Inevitably, these discussions lead to folks to ask, why do we have a housing affordability problem? Why is housing so expensive and why can’t some people afford to live in town? Part of the answer is a high demand and a small supply of housing. Another part of the answer is low wages paid to staff and some faculty at the university.  Median gross rent (rent plus utilities) is $887/month in Montgomery County according to the latest American Community Survey estimates. In order to comfortably afford the median rent, a household needs to have an annual income of about $42,576. The median gross rent in Blacksburg is higher, $998/month. A household would need an income of $47,904 annually to comfortably afford $998 per month. The university pays nearly half, 44%, of it’s employees, less than $50,000 per year. 395 employees earn less than $25,000 annually. Some workers could not afford the County median rent if they shared the cost with someone making same amount of money. The lowest paid workers would be living well below the U.S. poverty line if they are a single-earner household with any dependents. You can find this pay information in the Richmond Times Dispatch “2016-2017 salaries of Virginia state employees” database.

So, what is the University’s responsibility? Certainly to pay a living wage, but if need be, could they provide a housing benefit?

George Mason has developed rental housing for faculty and staff in response to high housing costs in Fairfax County. ‘Masonvale” has 157 rental units with below-market rents which the University offers to faculty, staff and county municipal employees for up to three years. The idea is that Masonvale provides “stepping stone” housing  for new employees who may not be able to afford housing in Fairfax County until they have been working in their position for a number of years. The housing is basically a recruitment tool and assumes that those taking advantage of this benefit will be earning a living wage/salary and have enough saved for a security deposit or down payment within a few years. You can read more in this Urban Land Institute case study.

Other universities offer housing benefits in the form of down-payment assistance. The university of Chicago “provides up to $10,000 in down payment assistance and up to $2,400 in rental assistance to eligible employees who move to one of the communities surrounding campus depending on home or rental location.” The University of Chicago’s housing benefit is probably one of the oldest housing benefits for  university employees and was born out of an effort to gentrify the surrounding neighborhood when crime rates discouraged student applications, but other universities are offering similar benefits. Here are some more examples: Temple, the University of Colorado, and the University of Kentucky. UK’s benefit seems most earnestly aimed at helping employee who earn lower wages to buy a home which is really important because homeownership is the primary way households built wealth in the US.

So, conclusions: Housing benefits can help universities recruit employees and help increase employee quality of life, thereby helping the university retain employees. As of yet, Virginia Tech does not offer any such benefit, but maybe something is in the works?!? Afterall, it seems exploitative to pay some employees so little that they must commute from West Virginia in order to access housing and even then, they are likely still financially strained.

Housing Insecurity Among Students: Part 2

In my previous post I promised to return to the subject of college student homelessness and discuss what can and is being done to help college students who experience or are at risk for homelessness.

As a faculty member and PhD student at Virginia Tech, I wanted to see if I could find out about our University’s efforts first. Although I feel confident that the Dean of Students Office would offer help if a student made his or her challenges known, not much regarding resources is available online. In a 2013 VT News article about the 209 Manna Ministry, a food bank near campus for students experiencing food insecurity, the Dean of Students, Tom Brown, was quoted: “Occasionally, about once a year or so, we will identify a homeless student.” So, maybe student homelessness is too rare to have specific resources dedicated to this challenge, however I imagine that student homelessness is similar to homelessness at-large– it’s hard to identify and count people experiencing homelessness, so the most important thing is to make resources available, well publicized, and to the degree possible, reduce the stigma around accepting those resources. And, the 209 Manna Ministry, might be an excellent place to do just that!– food banks and other places providing food for people experiencing homelessness are often program intake points. A more recent article in the Roanoke times reports that the food bank serves about 12 students a week and has more than 50 students registered on its permanent role, about 10% of whom come to the pantry seeking items for their children. Based on the number of students served by the Manna Ministry and on the number of self-reporting students experiencing homelessness nation-wide, most colleges should probably have a well-publicized “Single Point of Contact” for students experiencing homelessness or other kinds of housing insecurity.

A single point of contact is one of the strategies recommended in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) resource, “Addressing Housing Insecurity and Living Costs in Higher Education: A Guidebook for Colleges and Universities.” The report discusses 13 high-level strategies for serving students who are experiencing housing insecurity, some of which seem like easy-to-implement, primarily administrative actions:

  • Proactive, systematic outreach;
  • Connect students with benefits, coordinating aid and partnering with other organizations that offer services to people experiencing homelessness;
  • Allow students to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits on campus– I can’t find evidence online that you can use SNAP/EBT anywhere on campus at Virginia Tech.

Other solutions seem to be more complicated or require additional funding, but would make a big difference for students who are are at-risk for homelessness or already experiencing homelessness. Here are the last few strategies recommended by HUD PD&R:

  • Ensure that financial aid is provided in time for students to secure housing (pay security deposits, etc)
  • Provide emergency housing and housing during breaks for students who need it
  • Provide emergency aid and microgrants (think emergency heating assistance)
  • Provide financial literacy classes/programming and
  • Coordinate/provide childcare.

All-in-all, a little could go a long way for a student at-risk for homelessness. Just one of these strategies might help them avoid homelessness all together, which can save them (and their children) from a host of consequences stemming from homelessness and involuntary mobility.


Housing Insecurity Among Students: Part 1

The impact of housing instability on children is well documented. Children who experience housing instability have negative heath outcomes and less academic success than children with stable housing. And what’s more, these negative impacts extend into adulthood, impacting their future economic opportunities. Housing instability among college students is less well documented– perhaps because people think of low-incomes among college students as a somewhat temporary, less serious circumstances. On the contrary, homelessness not only impedes academic performance and degree completion, but could put students at risk physically and the associated financial insecurity could threaten their future.

I was surprised to read some of the stats in a HUD PD&R (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research) guidebook: “Addressing Housing Insecurity and Living Costs in Higher Education.” The guidebook explains that many college students have responsibilities that compete with academics for their time and money. The most striking stat was that more than 15% of undergraduate students are single parents. The Wisconsin HOPE Lab co-authored the guidebook with PD&R, so there are also a lot of stats on Wisconsin but these problems are not likely to be isolated to Wisconsin, so they’re interesting.  In a survey of 4,000 students in 10 community colleges, HOPE Lab found that nearly one half of respondents struggle with food or housing insecurity.

I snooped around to see what else I could find on this topic. Another PD&R article, “Barriers to Success: Housing Insecurity for U.S. College Students” notes that college tuition, like housing costs, is rising while real incomes remain stagnant or even decrease, making it harder and harder for students to afford both tuition and necessities like housing, food, and medical care. The article explains that many students struggle to find adequate affordable housing and that at least 56,000 college students experience homelessness.

The Chronicle of Higher Education had tackled the subject in “How to Help the Students With No Homes?” The Chronicle profiles a Virginia student who has been chronically homeless since age 7. During the school year she lives on campus in the dorms, but during breaks, she experiences homelessness. The Chronicle also gets to what I mentioned in the beginning of this post–college student homelessness is not well documented. The article explains, “homeless college students remain a largely invisible population — often indistinguishable from their peers and overlooked in policy debates. They get less attention than former foster youth and are often excluded from programs and policies benefiting such students. Many hide their homelessness from professors and peers out of shame or fear of being pitied. Many college administrators aren’t even aware that homeless students are present on their campuses.” What’s more, most of the information I found on college student homelessness is somewhat dated even though the problem is still widespread and sure to get worse if new taxes are imposed on graduate students.

So what can be done and what is being done to help college students who experience homelessness? I’ll look for solutions and discuss what’s out there in a follow-up post.

Living Tech

Our homes and the way we use them are changing as technology becomes more expansive and accessible. Now, realtors hear prospective buyers ask about upload speed before school quality and crime statistics. More and more people work from home at least some of the time, many learn from home, and we consume more entertainment media from home. On-campus student residences (dorms) are no different, in fact they’re at the forefront of this trend. But, is the in-dorm, learning experience diluting or enhancing the college experience? There are faculty on both sides of the argument, but I think, at the end of the day, it’s got to enhance the learning experience.

The New York Times published an article in 2010 about students taking online classes from their dorms. Even though they could walk to class, they chose to stay home and attend class online. Other classes were only online, with too many students to accommodate in a classroom. Some faculty lamented the loss of in-person teaching and learning while others embraced it for practical reasons like budget requirements and ability to re-watch the lecture. Now, we’re a long way from just taking classes from the dorms. Universities and their students are beginning to integrate learning in the dorms in a big way– with high tech labs adjacent to (or in!) students’ rooms.

Here are some examples:

Residence-life coordinators seem to have fully embraced this opportunity as an enhancement for students (at least that’s what the propaganda suggests), but how do faculty feel? My scan of a whole lot of articles seems to indicate that faculty embrace the living-learning model and make it ever-more successful. That said, this seems like an “opt-in” role for faculty, not a prescribed technological change. Some faculty go all in and opt to become faculty in residence. There are ups and down’s to becoming a faculty in residence, as one might expect. The experience of a few is documented in this article from Inside Higher Ed.  Further, this article from the Chronicle suggests that faculty experience unforeseen benefits from cross-disciplinary interactions with other faculty in living-learning environments. The benefits don’t necessarily stem directly from the technology, the technology just helps to set the mood.  I had to hunt for it, but there are also unforeseen consequences documented in David Buchanan Smith’s dissertation, Unintended Consequences of Collegiate Living Learning Community Programs at a Public University. Although I didn’t read the whole thing, the gist seems to be that students experience consequences when, over time, faculty and coordinators disengage. However, he doesn’t cite technology as part of the challenge, rather lack of planning, lack of maintenance and contentious relationships between faculty and staff were all cited as possible sources of the consequences. Indeed, I think that technology is usually an enhancement with the right planning and maintenance bolstered by good communication, the bedrock of good relationships.

Housing Trust Funds

Nearly every state, including Virginia, has at least one housing trust fund. There are 471 city-based housing trust funds (2 in Virginia) and 57 county based funds (3 in Virginia). The National Housing Trust Fund, established in 2008, is still awaiting funding. The Virginia General Assembly established the Virginia Housing Trust Fund last year, allocating 7 million dollars from the the general fund to the housing trust fund. This spring, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and the Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA) will accept the initial round of applications for funding through the Virginia Housing Trust Fund. They will be looking for shovel-ready demonstration projects to make the case for future contributions to the Fund. With the state’s initial funding round imminent and more Virginia municipalities considering local housing trust funds as a tool for dedicating money to affordable housing, I have been reading the scholarly analysis of housing trust fund mechanics.

Unfortunately, the scholarly analysis of housing trust funds is sparse. Since the 80’s fewer than a dozen scholars have published studies regarding the establishment, operations and outcomes of housing trust funds. Mary Brooks, director of the Housing Trust Fund Project at the Center for Community Change is certainly the leading authority. Brooks and her team keep tabs on each housing trust fund established in the US and offer a catalog of resources for communities that may want to establish their own housing trust funds. Brooks has also published general information on housing trust funds in scholarly journals (1995, Affordable Housing and Community Development), but her work does not explicitly analyze or evaluate the effectiveness of housing trust funds.

A number of authors have evaluated state housing trust funds, especially as these funds are established as part of an effort to augment decreased federal fund for affordable housing initiatives. Publications by Corianne Payton Scally, and one by Kristin Larson make up the most recent and relevant scholarly literature available. Here’s a summary of their conclusions:

  • housing trust funds, which are typically funded through real estate transaction fees, are easier to fund in places with high rates of development (Scally 2012, Housing Studies; Larson 1993 Housing Studies)
  • favorable political climate and a recognized community need for affordable housing help the process along (Scally 2012, Housing Studies; Basolo and Scally 2008, Housing Policy Debate)

So, why so little research regarding housing trust funds? A housing trust fund is not much more than an account were funds for affordable housing are protected from being reverted back to a general fund or “raided” for purposes unrelated to the development or preservation of affordable housing. The policy that raises the money that goes into the fund and the policy that governs how the money is spent is what’s interesting. The thing is, those affordable housing policies can exist and have existed without at housing trust fund. More than anything else, a housing trust fund it a formal way for a community to say they are planning to raise or dedicate money to develop and preserve affordable housing.

The most popular ways to raise money for housing trust funds seem to be developer fees, impact fees, linkage fees, and in-lieu [of developing affordable housing required by inculsionary zoning] fees.  Other ways include redevelopment taxes, transient occupancy taxes, property taxes, document recording fees, demolition taxes etc.  Many funds combine sources.

The most important consideration for any community should be to determine the most efficient and justifiable way to raise and transfer funds to affordable housing. That is, communities should raise revenues based on evidence of negative impacts on housing affordability or they are likely to encounter well reasoned political and legal opposition. Check out this example in California. Once a policy is in place to raise revenues, communities should make every effort allocate that money as efficiently as possible. Easier said than done, right?

The nuances of policy efficiency are the subject of extensive economic theorizing and testing. I’m planning to devote much of my future reading (and blogging) to the economics of affordable housings policy. Although the best solutions are likely to be unique and creatively tailored to the communities where they are adopted, I ought be be able to identify some economic mantras to keep us focused. In the mean time, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund offers lots of food for thought.

Sequestrable Funds for Housing

My inbox is filling up with opinions about the sequester. March 1st is two days away, so everybody weigh in.

Over this morning’s reading session I have found lots of numbers: more than 100,000 individuals who were recently homeless may be removed from their current housing, 125,000 low-income families may not be able to depend on their Housing Choice Voucher and thereby may be put as risk of loosing their current housing, 21,000 less homes would receive funds for rehabilitation, 400,000 fewer households would receive aid from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program,  at least 1,000 fewer homes would be weatherized. Given the rhetoric, it would seem that these numbers only represent the  “tip of the ice-berg.” But NRP, one of my most trusted news sources, says “But what if the sequester, which would cut $85 billion from federal spending between March 1 and the end of September, turns out to be less of a calamity than Obama has warned?

I’m depending on my paycheck Friday, and I’m expecting another check on March 15th. With others feeling much less secure, I owe it to them to develop some perspective. My primary interest is housing, so that’s where I’ll weigh in and try to give some perspective. The rhetoric is killing my interest, so I turned to the technical documents posted on the OMB website. I’m trying to answer the question, what kinds of cuts are we experiencing right now, and how does that compare to what we would experience under 1 year of unaltered sequestration.

Looking at the FY 2012 Budget and the FY 2013 Budget, I see that spending for the Dept of Housing and Urban Development decreased by $3,139,000,000 between the end of FY 2010 and the end of FY 2011. OMB estimates another decrease ($214,000,000) between the end of FY 2011 and the end of FY 2012 (wish these numbers were available). FY 2013 Sequestrable funding for HUD totals $3,622,000,000, if nothing changes. So, in the short term, we can expect more of the same (for programs not individuals). We can expect to experience basically the same kind of cuts we experienced over the past two years (it will definitely feel like getting hit where you already have a bruise).  That’s the example, but look to USDA and the Dept of Housing and Human Services for more cuts that will directly effect housing initiatives.

Throughout the US Government Budgets, there are explanations of cuts, consolidations, additional spending etc. THE SEQUESTER, the beast that it is, does not offer or allow this reasoning. Some people think that’s the worst part. So is it not the size of the cuts, but where the cuts land that matters? Where they land certainly matters to those that are hit directly, but the Obama Administration argues that it will directly impact each of us. So who will be affected the most? Those loosing their homes? Those who can’t count on their pay check? There are infinite ways to view this situation.

When infinite perspectives present themselves, I usually meditate on the simple economics of the situation. The current politics of our government has led to uncertainty (for everybody). As long as the SEQUESTER goes forward without an accepted budget, we will experience continued uncertainty, in addition to less government spending. Less government spending (SEQUESTER) + less private investment (due to uncertainty) = slow/no economic growth.  I could add detail, but the picture does not look better close up.