Housing instability weighs on least able to pay

(This is the third in a series of articles about housing in Columbia County.)

GHENT—What does the lack of affordable housing mean to the roughly 15% of county residents who experience it? For this article focusing on those who pay more than 50% of their income for housing or those who cannot find stable housing arrangements at all, the simplest answer is that the consequences are many—none of them good.

Parents paying half their wages just to house their families experience daily stress over their inability to meet other basic needs, like food and health care. Moreover, to keep afloat, many work two and three jobs, leaving their young children unattended or attended by their older siblings. Loss of a home whether due to an inability to pay rent or eviction due to the turnover of units (by owners capitalizing on higher property values) is “an extremely traumatic event, often felt as a deep humiliation,” says Christa Hines, Executive Director of Hudson River Housing, a non-profit affordable housing developer that also provides supportive services. In turn, the loss of a home leads to families who must “couch surf” with relatives or may be altogether unable to find appropriate shelter. Effects can snowball. A displaced worker may have trouble getting to his job, or she may suffer credit problems, making relocation difficult. A feeling of failure may be paralyzing.

At Taconic Hills Central School District Henry Pollinger, the Director of Pupil Personnel Services, estimates that 10-15% of the children in that district experience housing instability. In turn, many of those suffer poor attendance (either not attending at all or being chronically tardy) because of transportation issues or the need to care for siblings. Although schools are legally required to provide transportation to students even when they move out of the district in certain circumstances, Kim Lybolt, the Director of Student Services for the Hudson City School District, notes that often the district lacks sufficient drivers to cover all the needed routes, as drivers are in short supply and often are already running double routes.

In turn, poor attendance affects skills development and may even disqualify a student from enrolling in other supportive programs like BOCES, QUESTAR and Tech Valley. “Doubling-up” in a relative’s home or county-provided emergency housing which is often a single motel room for a family (the county has no “homeless shelters”) may also mean that a student lacks a quiet space in which to study or a place to keep and organize books and supplies, affecting performance. More profoundly, students may slip into apathy, feeling that schooling is irrelevant in the face of their many other needs and challenges.

Heather Larkin, Associate Professor in the School of Social Welfare at SUNY Albany, has studied the effect of adverse childhood experiences on children—of which housing instability is one. As she explains, the accumulation of traumas—like housing instability, frequent moves, even long commutes, homelessness, family dysfunction and family stress—have been shown to affect mental health and physical well-being; the more co-occurring problems a child experiences, the more likely he or she will be vulnerable in adulthood to problems ranging from an inability to maintain consistent home and work relations through to homelessness or substance abuse. Indeed, scholars link toxic stress during a child’s early years (pregnancy through three) when a child’s brain is developing, to effects on the architecture of the brain that can lead to lifelong learning, behavioral, and mental and physical health issues.

Physicians look at these “stressors” similarly. Housing instability is among the “social determinants of health”—social stressors that accumulate over a lifetime to constitute an “allostatic load” that “affects many long-term health issues and has a direct negative impact even at the cellular level,” according to Ron Pope, who serves (among other things) as Director of Medical Education at Columbia Memorial Health.

Most importantly, the professionals in education, social science and medicine all agree that adequately addressing housing needs is not only in the financial, educational, developmental and health interests of those experiencing instability but also those of the entire community. Without affordable housing, younger citizens leave for communities where they can find housing, leading to worker shortages; families suffer debilitating stress; youth do not reach their full potential educationally and hence professionally; and the community bears greater health and support services costs. As Professor Larkin pus it, “the payoffs for investing in preventative and supportive services have been amply documented by economists and plainly strengthen the community as a whole.”

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