American dreams deferred

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Article Social Justice
Catholic charities struggle to help families meet basic needs.

“Here in San Jose, there’s a street that they call the ‘empty street’ because every single house on it is foreclosed,” says Gregory Kepferle, CEO of Catholic Charities in California’s Santa Clara County. Kepferle reports that his office is seeing an increase in demand for services from rental assistance to homeless shelters, though San Jose has fared better than other California cities.

The economic crisis is taxing both low-income families and the Catholic groups that support them. “We are our brothers’ keeper, and we are affected by what happens in our community,” says Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those who stand to lose out the most, Saile says, are low-income and single-parent families.

The USCCB has supported measures to alleviate the strain on those living paycheck to paycheck, including an extension of unemployment benefits and an increase in funding for food stamps and energy assistance programs. The bishops also have called for stronger protection for people who rely on subprime loans, for those who are susceptible to predatory lending practices, and for renters who lose their homes when banks foreclose on their landlords’ properties.

PICO National Network, a group of faith-based organizations, is working to stop preventable foreclosures through the political process and through renegotiating mortgages. At an event launching the campaign hosted by Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Antioch, California, homeowners facing foreclosure learned about their options from bank representatives. The group wants banks to be required to rewrite loans, allowing families to stay in their homes.

Catholic Charities U.S.A. has seen an enormous increase in the use of its services, according to a survey of 44 local offices released last November. Seventy percent of the offices reported an increase in demand for rent or mortgage assistance. Most also saw an increase in requests for temporary housing, utility assistance, and housing counseling. Ninety-one percent reported an increase in the working poor seeking assistance, while 52 percent reported an increase in middle-class clients.

The most troubling part of the housing crisis, Kepferle says, is that the increased demand for these services is coming from families. In San Jose rental prices are increasing as people lose their homes, and overcrowding is common.

The USCCB is committed to the long-range goal of “creating...affordable housing so that families can have a safe decent place to live that’s in a community,” Saile says.

The USCCB’s lobbying efforts in the past year included support for the bill creating a National Housing Trust Fund, passed in July 2008. The fund, available in 2010, is the first to secure a source of reliable long-term financial support for the construction and restoration of low-income housing.

Still, funding for organizations serving the poor is thin. Local Catholic Charities offices reported decreased state funding, private donations, foundation and corporate grants, as well as losses of investment revenue.

Mercy Housing, a national Catholic organization dedicated to creating low-income housing with support services for residents, also reports that funding is down. “Our ability to continue to develop affordable housing is going to be limited,” says Chief Financial Officer Vince Dodds.

As foreclosures increase, more people are turning to organizations like Mercy Housing for a place to live, Dodds says. “Demand is going to go up and supply is constrained.”

Keilia Jo Moreland, 58, earns less than $30,000 a year, but the Nashville resident is buying her first home. “I didn’t think it was something I would be able to do.”

Moreland’s case represents a catch-22 of the current housing crisis. A glut of unsold homes has driven down prices to within reach of low-income buyers, though the resultant credit crunch has made it tough to obtain a mortgage.

Eddie Latimer, a former chaplain and CEO of Affordable Housing Resources, Inc., condemns risky lending practices that propelled low- and no-income buyers into houses they couldn’t afford. But he also says there are good programs across the country that help worthy low-income buyers.

Moreland’s fixed 30-year mortgage, obtained from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, required her to take a home-buyer education course. If people have never lived in a house they or their parents owned, Latimer says, they simply need to learn how to care for and financially manage a home.

Most loan programs for low-income homebuyers also require folks to have some money for a down payment and a decent level of credit. Such programs are targeted to people of a specific income level buying a modest first home.

“It’s not a big house. It’s not a fancy house,” Moreland says. “I’m an artist who chased that dream my whole life.” But now, she says, “I want something that’s mine.”

—Matt Bigelow and Megan Sweas