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Love in Not Enough- Kids Also Require a Place to Live

February 28, 2012

By Amy Lemley

The editorial page of Monday’s San Francisco Chronicle addressed the ongoing question of housing affordability in San Francisco. At issue is how Mayor Ed Lee and the Board of Supervisors will balance the competing needs of middle class families facing rising housing costs with the needs of the city’s homeless. Two different groups, but the cost of housing affects them both. 

Less obvious is how housing affordability directly affects our child welfare system and the fate of California’s children in foster care.  The lack of affordable housing for low-income families can impact these children and youth in three important ways.

First, high housing costs hurt the child welfare system by putting a chokehold on foster care placements. In high-cost areas like California, space is at a premium. Families may have a willingness to help a child in need by being a foster parent, but who has the extra bedroom? Even so-called empty nesters are increasingly finding themselves housing their own adult children, closing off the option of providing a home to a child in need.

High housing costs also have implications for foster care placements by driving low-income extended family members out of central cities to the exurbs, where housing costs are much lower. San Francisco has seen this out-migration from the Bay View/Hunter’s Point neighborhood to communities far a field, such as Fairfield, Suisun and Antioch. When this happens, children must leave their community, friends and school to be placed with their extended families. Of course, placement with a relative is best practice, but due to the lack of affordable housing in urban centers, it can come with the unintended consequence of placing a child at a distance from their parent and their community.

A final way that the lack of affordable housing hurts children is by making it harder for families at-risk of child welfare involvement or those ready to be reunified. For some families, the lack of adequate housing is a primary factor in the placement of a child in out-of-home care. In other circumstances, a lack of housing delays a child from being discharged from an out-of-home placement and reunified with their family.

For these families, the lack of affordable housing is literally breaking up families. These circumstances are so widespread that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has created the Family Unification Program, which provides a Housing Choice Voucher to families facing these circumstances. The program is a great one for those who can access to, but funding is limited and most can’t.

Clearly, housing and child welfare are closely related. We will not meet the goals of achieving safety, permanency and well-being for the children in California’s child welfare system if we fail to think about this important aspect of a family’s life.

Given this importance, it was great to learn that last week President pro Tem of the California State Senate Darrell Steinberg and Senator Mark DeSaulnier introduced Senate Bill 1220, which would establish a permanent funding source for affordable housing in California. The legislation would create a trust fund to support the development, acquisition, rehabilitation, and preservation of homes for low- and moderate-income households, including emergency shelters, transitional and permanent rental housing, foreclosure mitigation, and homeownership opportunities. Funding for the trust fund would come from a $75 document recording fee on real estate transactions and is expected to generate $700 million annually.

Despite the modest, one-time fee proposed by SB 1220, there will be tough opposition ahead, with the realtors association making the case that the fee will cool home sales. That argument is a hard to buy, given that the average price of a home in California is roughly $300,000, making the $75 recording fee just .025% of the transaction cost.

As someone who recently re-financed my home, I would have no problem adding an extra $75 onto the cost of the transaction. And I don’t think most people would, if they understood that the affordable housing trust fund could make a measurable difference in the lives of so many vulnerable children.

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