BY: THOMAS SHELLABARGER
Mr. Shellabarger is policy adviser, Office of Domestic Social Development, U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC.
Homes Play an Important Role in Forming and Influencing People's Lives
According to Catholic social teaching, housing is not a commodity but
a human right. To ensure that all people—especially low-income elderly
and other vulnerable populations—have access to affordable housing,
the church has established a variety of programs, services, and advocacy
Much of this work is based on key concepts: preserving existing housing
stock, creating new programs to provide more options for the underserved,
empowering residents and communities to deal with housing issues, establishing
partnerships to make organizations' efforts more successful, making housing
affordable, and ending discrimination in housing.
Although church ministries, community groups, the private sector, and
other players must work together to find solutions to the housing crisis,
federal leadership is essential. Especially with the housing affordability
gap growing and the U.S. population aging, the federal government must
provide the resources, leadership, and direction for effective housing
In Catholic teaching, housing is not a commodity, but a basic human right.
Pope John Paul II notes that "a house is much more than a roof over one's
head." It is "a place where a person creates and lives out his or
her life."1 The Holy Father reminds us that the physical and
social environment plays an important role in forming and influencing the lives
Catholics take this teaching seriously, and our institutions and agencies are
responsible for building or maintaining literally thousands of places that house
tens of thousands of people. The Catholic community also promotes home ownership
through counseling, fights homelessness through shelters and transitional housing
programs, and comforts the elderly in their own homes or in nursing homes. Although
the church serves the housing needs of families, people suffering from HIV/AIDS,
and people released from prison, its focus in this area is on the elderly and
people with physical and mental disabilities, particularly those with little
The Scope of the Problem
Housing, which plays an important role in the U.S. economy, broke records in
2004.2 Residential investment—home remodeling—was up. New
home sales and home-ownership rates were up. Home prices continued to soar.
The combined value of home equity increased, as did total mortgage debt. America's
experience with housing has been exhilarating. Indeed, many experts argue that
housing has sustained the nation's economy in recent years.
Even so, for a growing number of families the cost of housing consumes more
and more of their income. Many families have difficulty paying for the other
necessities of life—food, clothing, and education—once they pay the
rent. At the turn of the century (2001), one third of the nation—some 95
million people—had serious housing problems, either paying more than 30
percent of their income on housing or living in overcrowded or poor-quality
housing, or having no home at all.3 For too many Americans, housing
is no longer affordable.
Many workers in low-wage jobs struggle to keep up with escalating rents. Of
the 2.1 million waiters, waitresses, and cooks who rent, nearly half spend more
than 30 percent of their incomes on housing.4 More than 40 percent
of renter households in which one member is a child-care worker, home health
aide, cashier, library assistant, maid, housekeeper, or janitor are similarly
The average hourly wage needed to rent a two-bedroom apartment in 2004 increased
to $15.37 an hour, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition—about
three times the current minimum wage, $5.15 per hour.5
Some recent studies bring critical information and perspective to the "affordability
gap" in the American housing market. Among them is Meeting Our Nation's
Housing Challenges, a study by the Millennial Housing Commission. A bipartisan
group formed by Congress in 2000, the commission was charged with "examining,
analyzing, and exploring: The importance of housing, particularly affordable
housing which includes housing for the elderly, to the infrastructure of the
United States."6 After 17 months of conducting hearings and
gathering data, the commission concluded: "First, housing matters. Second,
there is simply not enough affordable housing."
Another report, A Quiet Crisis in America, should be of particular interest
to the Catholic health ministry because it links the housing needs of elderly
people with their health care needs. The work of another bipartisan commission
created by Congress, the report outlined an ambitious agenda for Congress and
the American people.7 The "Seniors Commission" (as it was
known) conducted what it called "a nationwide discussion," eliciting
testimony from policy experts, researchers, demographers, government officials,
civic leaders, activists, care providers, and seniors themselves. It found that,
over the next 20 years, the senior population will increase by more than 50
percent. More than 80 percent of this population will own their homes; nearly
half will be over 75 years old; and almost 8 million will be disabled, which
will increase demand for home-based or community-based services.
The commission developed five principles to address the problem of meeting
the increased needs of an expanding population of elderly people.
Preserve the Existing Housing Stock We must save the housing currently
serving seniors. Religious organizations, most of them funded through the Section
202 senior housing program, own and operate much of the senior rental housing.
However, affordable senior housing, like its occupants, is getting older. Preserving
seniors' homes while simultaneously meeting their changing needs thus becomes
a complex challenge.
Expand Successful Housing Production, Rental Assistance Programs, Home-and
Community-Based Services, and Supportive Housing Models Given the looming
crisis, more housing units will be needed. The Seniors Commission recommended
the production of a variety of housing types, serving people with a range of
incomes: single-family homes, service-enriched senior apartments, and continuing
care retirement communities.
Link Shelter and Services to Promote and Encourage Aging in Place Institutional-based
models for service delivery must change, particularly in the area of long-term
care facilities. Seniors want more choices in the services they receive and
in the way they receive them. Programs must provide services that are based
on the needs and preferences of the individual.
Reform Existing Federal Financing Programs to Maximize Flexibility and Increase
Housing Production and Health Care and Service Coverage Because the federal
government created the secondary mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae
to ensure that enough money was available to potential home buyers, more than
68 percent of all Americans own their own homes. These agencies, along with
the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), should expand housing
and care facilities for seniors.
Helping to meet the housing and service needs of many of the neediest seniors
will necessitate working creatively with the Medicaid and Medicare programs.
For example, Congress could increase the amount of money from Medicaid that
seniors could use for living situations other than the traditional nursing-home
model. States would need incentives to implement these new home- and community-based
service programs. Also, Medicare should address the growing needs of seniors
with chronic conditions. Finally, more people need to be trained to work in
Create and Explore New Housing and Service Programs, Models, and Demonstrations
Yesterday's demonstration or pilot programs often become today's most successful
approaches to the delivery of service-enriched housing for seniors. Creative
and innovative responses to a growing senior population are needed.
Unfortunately, Congress ignored the advice of the Millennial Housing Commission
and the Seniors Commission. In fact, the 2005 omnibus appropriations bill cut
HUD's budget by 2 percent. Most affordable housing programs—including Section
202 elderly housing, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and the Community
Development Block Grant —received cuts of about 4 percent. Only the Housing
Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) was spared. In response to pressure from
housing advocates, Congress increased spending on vouchers to provide just enough
money to maintain the vouchers currently in use.
Catholic Community Involvement
The Catholic community cannot ignore the terrible impact such funding cuts have
on people and their dignity. Because many Catholic groups are directly involved
in housing, the current demographics and congressional retrenchment are of major
An unpublished study of Catholic-sponsored housing of a few years back gives
a clear picture of the size and scope of the Catholic Church's involvement as
one of the nation's largest providers of not-for-profit housing for the poor,
the elderly, and the disabled.8 That study noted that:
- More than 51,000 units provided housing for at least 70,000 people. Of these,
more than 20,000 were sponsored by 124 (out of 185) dioceses, 13,000 were sponsored
by 137 religious congregations, and 12,000 were sponsored by 51 Catholic Charities
- Nearly 50 percent of the units were HUD supported.
- Nearly 40 percent of the operating budgets were government funded.
*Nearly 90 percent served low-income people, mostly
the elderly and disabled.
In addition to the commitment reflected in this data, the Catholic community
makes an enormous effort to shelter the homeless, care for our elderly religious,
and house our pastors and vowed religious.
Toward a New National Policy
The nation's Catholic bishops recognize that it is not their role to prescribe
the specific policies and programs to meet the needs of homeless people or families
that cannot afford adequate housing. However, they have repeatedly expressed
their belief that a national housing policy should include certain specific
goals.9 The goals are:
- Preservation Effective policies to help preserve, maintain, and improve
the low-cost, decent housing that already exists.
- Production Creative, cost-effective, and flexible programs that will
increase the supply of quality housing for low-income families, the elderly,
and other vulnerable people.
- Participation Active and sustained involvement and empowerment of
the homeless, tenants, neighborhood residents, and housing consumers. We need
to build on the American traditions of home ownership, self-help, and neighborhood
- Partnership Ongoing support for effective and creative partnerships
among not-for-profit community groups, churches, private developers, government
at all levels, and financial institutions to build and preserve affordable
- Affordability Efforts to help families obtain decent housing at costs
that do not require neglect of other basic necessities.
- Opportunity Stronger efforts to combat discrimination in housing against
racial and ethic minorities, women, those with handicapping conditions, and
families with children.
Federal Participation Is Needed
Across America, too many families struggle to maintain a roof over their heads.
Too many people struggle to live out their lives in overcrowded quarters;
far too many remain homeless. Churches, community groups, the private sector,
and state and local government must all do more to meet our common responsibility
for housing. However, there is no substitute for an involved, competent, and
committed federal government providing resources, leadership, and direction
for a broad and flexible attack on homelessness and poor housing.
- Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace, What Have You Done to Your
Homeless Brother? The Church and the Housing Problem, Rome, December 27,
- Joint Center for Housing Studies, State of the Nation's Housing 2004,
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 2004, at www.jchs.harvard.edu/publications/markets/son2004.pdf.
- Joint Center for Housing Studies.
- Joint Center for Housing Studies, State of the Nation's Housing 2003,
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 2003, at www.jchs.harvard.edu/
publications/markets/son2003.pdf. Other statistics cited in this paragraph
are from the same source.
- Winton Pitcoff, Danilo Pelletiere, Mark Treskon, et al., Out of Reach
2004, National Low Income Housing Coalition, Washington, DC, 2004, at
- Millennial Housing Commission, Meeting Our Nation's Housing Challenges,
Washington, DC, May 2002, at www.mhc.gov/.
- Commission on Affordable Housing and Health Facility Needs for Seniors
in the 21st Century, A Quiet Crisis in America, Washington, DC, June
2002, at www.seniorscommission.gov/pages/final_report/html_Index.
- Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate, Georgetown University, National
Catholic Housing Survey, Washington, DC, April 1996, updated in 1997.
- See Administrative Board of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops,
Homelessness and Housing: A Human Tragedy, a Moral Challenge, U.S.
Catholic Conference, Washington, DC, 1988.
Copyright © 2005 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.