March 2, 2007

Affordable housing bill passes in Indiana House

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

“Providing affordable housing is the single most effective way to solve homelessness in our state and nation,” said Bill Bickel, director of Holy Family Shelter and Holy Family Transitional Housing in Indianapolis, which is part of Catholic Charities. “And House Bill 1351 will do just that—help provide affordable housing in Indiana.”

Rep. Jeb Bardon

(D-Indianapolis), author of House Bill 1351, said, “There are two sides to this issue—a moral issue for society and a fiscal issue for government. This bill will help a segment of society that is struggling for survival.”

The bill passed in the House by a 62-36 vote on Feb. 27.

The groups expected to be helped by the bill include the homeless, many of whom are single moms with children; victims of domestic violence; former convicts and seniors in transition.

“It will also help reunite families since one-third of all kids in foster care could go home if their family had a more stable housing situation,” Rep. Bardon said.

He said that the only opposition to the bill is from the real estate and building industry because of the additional fees that they may have to pay when they get documents from the recorder’s office.

“Some think that poverty and homelessness is only an urban issue, but it’s an issue that affects those living in rural counties as well,” he said.

“We will get a better output on schools when poor children have a stable home environment,” Rep. Bardon said, “and also save on health care because there will be less of a need to use the emergency room on cold nights as a means to survive.”

Rep. Bardon, who is a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Indianapolis, said “providing affordable housing for the poor is an issue everyone agrees is the ethical thing to do from a moral perspective and the right thing to do fiscally for the state, but there is a difference on how to achieve that.”

Under House Bill 1351, affordable housing funds will be paid for by a mix of permanent funding sources, including new fees from the county recorder’s office, a portion of the interest from other state funds and an adjustment in big box retailers’ sales tax collection discount. Current law does not provide a permanent funding source for affordable housing.

“Holy Family Shelter and crisis shelters in general were created to be temporary crisis relief shelters,” Bickel said, “but, unfortunately, due to the enormous lack of affordable housing, these shelters have become permanent housing. This is completely unacceptable.

“Our faith calls us to uphold the dignity of each and every person—including the poor. Those who are at or below the poverty level can receive a subsidy to pay for their housing under this bill.

“For example, let’s say the rent of an apartment is $750,” he said. “A poor family could live in that apartment and pay $250, and the affordable housing fund would pay the difference of $500.

“What’s great about how this fund works,” Bickel said, “is that poor people are not singled out by putting them in projects or subsidized housing. Lower-income families could quite feasibly live side by side with other middle-class families. That’s the beauty about the way this fund is set up because no one knows who is receiving the subsidy except the owner or property manager who receives the check.

“The family maintains their dignity, and the property owner is guaranteed the rental income,” Bickel said. “It’s a win-win situation. Indianapolis is also in a good situation to handle increased rental tenants because there is ample stock of rental properties. In some states, they have to build, but that would not be the case in Indianapolis since we have ample housing.”

Indiana is actually behind the curve on this issue since neighboring states already have permanent funding sources for their affordable housing funds, he noted.

Bickel, who also is an Indiana Catholic Conference board member, said his shelter and others like it will not benefit directly in the sense of getting a check handed to them, but noted there will be a tremendous benefit for those that they serve because they will have a much better chance to find permanent housing, which he said is equally or even more rewarding.

Bickel explained that there are some concerns among those who work with housing and homelessness issues. Some feel that with ample affordable housing some lawmakers might think that temporary shelters won’t be needed. But Bickel said, even with ample affordable housing, emergency shelters are “unequivocally necessary.”

“There will always be people and families for some reason who will need emergency housing, just like there will always be a need in a community to have an emergency room at the hospital,” he said.

Rep. Bardon is hopeful that the bill will only improve as it makes its way through the Senate.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.) †

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