Housing remains a struggle in Gainesville

In a recent conversation with an elected official, he stated that he would like to put the Gainesville Housing Authority (GHA) out of business. I know what he meant, but I wonder what was he really saying.

This year, GHA is celebrating its 50th anniversary of providing decent, safe and affordable housing for the elderly, disabled, low and very low income families in our community. Where would this community be if the Gainesville Housing Authority did not provide a place to call home for the almost 2,000 families that are served by Public Housing and the Housing Choice Voucher, formerly known as Section 8, programs?

I reminded the elected official of a conversation that I had with an elderly GHA resident who said, “I don’t want to move out of public housing, where else would I go? I can’t afford the rents in Gainesville. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

There are working moms and dads in Gainesville, who are able to give their children the stability of a place to call home through U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funded housing. There are graduate students attending the University of Florida who can afford to further their educations because the Housing Choice Voucher program affords them the peace of having a roof over their heads without incurring more student loan debt. For GHA residents who are without skills and training, GHA has developed the Jobs Training and Entrepreneurial Program designed to help residents gain employable skills that will help them secure jobs and even help them start their own businesses.

It is a recognized standard that housing costs should not exceed 30 percent of total household income. Federal guidelines indicate that families paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing may have difficulty paying for food, clothing and other necessities. In many cities, like Gainesville, families are spending a greater share of their income on rent, mortgage payments, utilities and other housing-related expenses.

As a matter of fact, Gainesville is ranked seventh in the U.S. among communities where residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing-related expenses. Recent studies show that on average, Gainesville residents are spending more than 41.5 percent of their income on housing. This disproportionate amount of household income spent on housing has a negative impact on our local economy, while driving low-income families to legalized loan sharks called payday loan establishments, dragging them deeper into the pits and shackles of poverty.

I applaud the foresight of President Lyndon B. Johnson in signing the legislation creating HUD, as well as his 1964 declaration of a War on Poverty. President Johnson recognized that America’s landscape was changing. The fertile grounds of prosperity were unavoidably connected to those who would or could not grow and flourish at the same rate. He also recognized that prosperity required responsibility.

I’m the 11th of 13 children. We grew up very poor in rural America. As a child, I didn’t like the scripture that said that “the poor would always be with us” (Matthew 26:10). I thought it meant that I would always be in a raggedy house with outdoor plumbing. I thought it meant that the niceties that I watched other children enjoy were simply not for my family. While my Daddy never signed up for any social programs, there were relatives and other people in the community who would kindly lend a hand.

Those angels amongst us lived the words in Deuteronomy 15:11: “You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.” Those words were written thousands of years before President Johnson’s campaign to create a Great Society — a campaign with a promise of wiping out the manifestation of the prophetic words of Jesus, “The poor would always be with us.”

Over 50 years later, we still face the challenges of addressing the needs of the poor. The basic need of an affordable place to call home remains a struggle for many families in Gainesville and across Alachua County. Putting the GHA out of business by wiping out poverty was not a reality in 1960s and is not a reality in 2016.

Can we solve the problem of the widening gap of the haves and the have nots? How will we address the seemingly unsolvable problem of the homeless, the under housed and the growing aging population needing affordable housing? The answers to these questions will force us to deal with a reality rooted in Christianity that may not fit into our political pockets.

Now that I do have indoor plumbing and a clean decent place to live, over and over again, I remind myself, “but by the Grace of God, there goes I.”

— Pamela Koons is housing development officer for the Gainesville Housing Authority.