The newly formed House Task Force on Vulnerable Kentuckians had its first meeting in Louisville on Wednesday, discussing widespread poverty across the state and lack of affordable housing available for families struggling to support themselves.
Last month, House Speaker Greg Stumbo formed the bipartisan task force, which will hold meetings in each of Kentucky’s six congressional districts this year to discuss the many challenges related to those mired in poverty. By the end of the year, the task force — chaired by Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville — will report its findings and offer recommendations to be considered in next year’s session of the General Assembly.
Wednesday’s discussion focused heavily on the need to increase affordable housing, but began with a presentation by demographic and economic consultant Ronald Crouch on the trends of poverty in Kentucky, as 19 percent of the population currently lives below the poverty line.
Crouch showed that while Kentucky has recovered jobs lost during the Great Recession, much of these these are low-paying jobs that are difficult to support a family on, while higher-paying jobs in manufacturing and coal mining have continued their steady decline from recent decades. This trend has hit eastern Kentucky especially hard, where the poverty rate ranges from 30-44 percent in many counties, and the number of children living in poverty ranges from 40-65 percent.
These eastern Kentucky counties also have suffered from significant population loss through migration, as people move to more urban areas to find employment and opportunity. Life expectancy is also much lower in this region, as males in Harlan County live 66.5 years, compared to 78 years in Oldham County.
Kentucky’s population is also aging, as births have remained fairly flat for decades, while unmarried births have steadily increased to 42 percent — a factor that contributes to both childhood poverty and increased childcare costs as more women enter the workforce in low-paying jobs.
Curtis Stauffer, executive director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky, gave a presentation on how difficult it is for many near or below the poverty line to find quality, affordable housing with a rent that does not eat up most of their paycheck.
While 34 percent of Kentucky households are renters, Stauffer said 25 percent of these households must devote more than half of their monthly incomes to pay their rent — well above the recommended 30 percent. Additionally, 72 percent of renters earning less than 30 percent of the area median income are severely cost burdened by the amount of rent they have to pay, and there is a shortage of nearly 200,000 affordable and available rental units to meet the needs of such families. Even among homeowners, 27 percent of such households devote over 30 percent of their income to housing.
Stauffer added that many in poverty are also burdened by the quality of the housing conditions, as most of the state lacks legally established habitability standards. Such families often lack resources for needed repairs and face high home energy costs, especially those living in mobile homes — which make up over one-third of all households in much of eastern Kentucky.
Though Stauffer noted that urban areas such as Louisville and Lexington have been able to significantly decrease their homeless population in recent years by cutting back preconditions on those seeking housing, such progress is threatened by new cuts in funding by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In Louisville, these cuts amount to $1.1 million, which will affect emergency services and transitional housing for those staying in homeless shelters.
Both Crouch and Stauffer noted that the extent of homelessness may be hidden and underreported in many communities throughout the state, as people often sleep in cars or crowd into the homes of their extended families.
While Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes for the first time a significant $2.5 million appropriation for the Louisville Affordable Housing Trust Fund to tackle the city’s housing needs, Stauffer noted that the Kentucky Affordable Housing Trust Fund receives no general fund appropriations for housing development. Instead, it relies on real estate transaction fees collected by county clerks — which amounts to roughly $6 million — while no state funds go directly toward housing and services for the homeless.
Rep. Jim Wayne told IL after the meeting that an increase in real estate transaction fees may become a legislative recommendation for the task force, as the amount collected for the housing trust fund is not nearly enough to tackle the state’s large deficit in quality affordable housing.
“(The real estate transaction fees) produced 10,000 housing units in the last 20 years, but we saw today that the need right now in Jefferson County alone is for over 22,000 annually,” said Wayne. “So it’s a far cry from what we need.”