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How do policy makers define 'affordable housing,' and how severe is Springfield's shortage?

Pixabay, used with permission

In our first of 10 segments on housing and homelessness, we look at the data behind Springfield's shortage of low-income housing units.

At the Veterans Coming Home drop-in center near the intersection of Jefferson and Chestnut Expressway in Springfield, Diana Summers is one of dozens of people mingling. Here, Springfield’s homeless can eat, take a shower, and find some donated clothes. Currently pregnant, she says she’s been trying to find permanent housing for four years—and she’s still waiting.

“What I’d like to see is a better solution for us, because there is none. There’s nothing out here,” Summers said.

There are plenty of problems facing Diana and other unhoused people in Springfield, but a core issue for many of them is they simply can’t get into the affordable housing they need.

Springfield faces a severe shortage in its housing stock—particularly for incomes considered very low, according to the Community Partnership of the Ozarks, the agency tasked with addressing homelessness locally.

At a November City Council study session, Michele Garand of CPO called it a “crisis.” She also talked to us for this series.

“Being able to connect 14,000 households to housing that they can afford is the job of our community right now,” Garand told KSMU.

14,020 households – that’s how many housing units Springfield is short, according to CPO’s data. The bulk of that shortage is in lower-income tiers, which is disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable in our community, like the homeless population.

Since Springfield and many other cities moved to a Housing First policy, shelters are seen as an emergency solution—a place to stay safe for a night or two. But the ultimate goal for those facing homelessness is affordable housing, a more permanent place to call their own.

How policy makers define 'affordable housing'

Affordable housing isn’t just a relative idea. It’s actually a specific term used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which defines affordability as no more than 30 percent of an individual’s income.

And Garand said Springfield is looking for ways to add a lot more units to meet this community’s needs.

“In order to address that large number we need to attack it from all fronts,” Garand said.

An approach from “all fronts” includes the construction of entirely new dwellings and other means, like fixing vacant homes throughout the city.

“It’s not 14,000 units in one neighborhood, essentially. That would overwhelm any system, right? It’s really discovering throughout Springfield the units that would be available that could be affordable for individuals who would be seeking that,” Garand said.

How the shortage is perpetuating homelessness

Here’s where the crisis comes in: when people are ready to transition out of shelters, there’s no place for them to go. That means shelters are operating at capacity—and many homeless people remain on the streets.

“Right now individuals that would enter that system would not be able to exit the system at this point and we’re seeing a real bottleneck,” Garand told City Council members in November.

There are a number of organizations in Springfield who offer shelter for unhoused population while trying to get them into the permanent housing that they need.

Jeff Smith from The Salvation Army of Springfield helps shelter homeless men through their Harbor House facility. He said it can take an exceptionally long time for the people they work with to get into adequate housing. Clients often begin applying for housing three weeks into their three- to six-month program there.

“That’s helpful because a lot of times the waiting list can take several weeks for someone to get in. So then that gives the resident the chance to work on their goals and make progress here. So hopefully by the time they get a referral for their housing they’re at where they need to be,” Smith said.

A similar backlog exists at other shelters in Springfield.

Meleah Spencer, CEO of The Kitchen, Inc., said their shelter is constantly full. It’s worked to develop 222 housing units across the city, but Spencer says just soon as they’ve gotten someone out of the shelter, they’re already getting someone else in.

“It would be great if we could eliminate that need for shelter, just to eliminate what I call a pit stop, a short term solution to get them into a more permanent place. But because we don’t have enough affordable housing ready to go, we have to have a shelter for them to be able to stay safely housed, work on themselves and securing stability so they are ready to be successful in a permanent home,” Spencer said.

The most important message from experts like Michele Garand is abundantly clear: Springfield critically needs more affordable housing units to meet the needs of the community.

“We know our goal. We know how many units we need to have in this community to be able to balance that on supply and demand, so now we just need to set those specific goals and work as a community to meet those goals,” Garand said.