GUEST COMMENTARY: Increase access to clean, safe, affordable housing

2013-02-24T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Increase access to clean, safe, affordable housingBy Mark Heckler nwitimes.com
February 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

About 800,000 people call Northwest Indiana their home, and I am glad to be among them. We live in an important region comprised of industrious people who contribute to the success and prosperity of our state and nation.

In 2012, One Region published its quadrennial Quality of Life Indicators report, which analyzes 10 key markers of the quality of life in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. An update of the 2000, 2004 and 2008 reports, this report presents and analyzes vital information that helps us understand what is happening across Northwest Indiana. From this report, we can focus our energies on important changes that will improve our region’s quality of life.

The chapter on housing begins with this vision statement: “We aspire to be a region where everyone has a home in a safe, inclusive and friendly neighborhood.” This should be more than a vision for our region. It should be reality.

Having a home is a critical component of human flourishing. It is a vitally important goal, but one that will require leadership and focus.

When the 2000 Quality of Life Indicators Report was first published, about one-third of Northwest Indiana residents could not afford fair market rent, and the majority of residents did not have access to good-quality affordable housing.

The housing bubble burst in 2008, causing many homeowners to see their property values decline drastically. Turmoil in the housing industry, combined with staggering unemployment rates, has made it increasingly difficult for both homeowners and renters to maintain or improve their housing conditions. Here is what the statistics tell us:

Housing starts peaked between 2001 and 2005 and then declined sharply. Overall, the annual number of housing starts in the region fell by 63 percent from 2000 to 2010. Moreover, the number of vacant homes in the region increased from 7.3 percent in 2000 to 9.6 percent in 2010.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago reports that in 2010, 5.15 percent of homes in Lake County were in foreclosure. In Porter County the rate was 3.75 percent, and in LaPorte County it ranged from 3.76 to 4.46 percent.

Yet, the average home value in Northwest Indiana is on the rise. The average median home value was $145,167 in 2010, a 40 percent increase from $103,867 in 2000. However, homeowners are spending a greater portion of their income on housing, and more than a quarter of the region’s homeowners are paying more than 30 percent of their household income on housing.

Today, rental homes are more difficult to afford. The average median rent increased by 33 percent from 2000 to 2010, and more than half of renters in Northwest Indiana are paying more than 30 percent of their household income on housing.

These statistics are discouraging. The vision of being a region “where everyone has a home in a safe, inclusive and friendly neighborhood” appears beyond reach for a greater and greater proportion of our citizens.

Overall indicators, however, suggest that the employment and housing situation in Northwest Indiana is stabilizing. Indiana’s private sector added 8,300 jobs in December, bringing the total jobs added in 2012 to nearly 54,000 — the largest growth in a calendar year in more than a decade. This, combined with increasing home values, portends growth and progress as we look toward a more prosperous future.

A key to that prosperous future, of course, is training and education. Northwest Indiana’s future success depends on access to quality education and affordable housing. Both enhance our lives and strengthen our ties to one another, but only if they are genuinely accessible for all families.

Our lenders and elected leaders must work with other community leaders to increase access to clean, safe and affordable housing, and to provide assistance to those who continue to struggle with mortgage payments in this weak economy. And our educational institutions must do everything they can to ensure quality education is attainable for those who strive for it and yearn for a better future.

The vision of equitable housing for all can become reality, but there is much work to do. Everyone deserves a safe place to call home. Let us commit to working together as one region to make it possible.

Mark Heckler is president of Valparaiso University. The opinions are the writer's.

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