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OPINION | BRUNO SHOWERS: Money on table

Arkansas leaving renters in lurch by BRUNO SHOWERS SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | May 5, 2022 at 2:52 a.m.

No matter what we look like or where we come from, we all want to live in a state where families and children can reach their full potential.

But the governor’s decision to turn away federal dollars that could support Arkansans in need makes our state a harder place to live for children and families.

Making sure Arkansans have stable, affordable housing is a critical component in making Arkansas a great place to live, work, and raise children. We should accept federal funds to help meet immediate needs, and we should use state revenue to permanently fund the state housing trust fund for the longer term.

According to Census Household Pulse Survey data, tens of thousands of families in Arkansas are struggling to pay rent and keep a roof over their heads. Research suggests that women and children are more likely to face eviction than childless households. Black women, statistically paid the lowest wages, are the most likely to be evicted.

Workers and families are facing rising costs because of global supply-chain disruptions and inflation. And while unemployment is low, wealthy corporations too often refuse to pay people the true value of their work. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates it would require 53 hours of work weekly at the state minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom rental in Arkansas on average—and more in some places.

That $146 million in Emergency Rental Assistance from the federal government could help a lot of Arkansas’ families.

Taking all available federal funding to help families make ends meet is the bare minimum we ought to accept from our state government, and Arkansas should be doing so much more. Not only do we need to welcome the $146 million, our policymakers should also make sure our state’s housing trust fund has a permanent, recurring source of funding.

The housing trust fund was created in 2009 to provide affordable housing for families; invest in rehabilitating older housing; build more affordable housing units; help families become homeowners; and help renters afford housing. Although some funding has been appropriated for the housing trust fund over the years, it never lasts long. And there has never been a guaranteed source of annual revenue, which is what we know is needed.

In 2013, it was estimated that the housing trust fund would require $15 million in annual revenue to make significant advancements to meet our housing needs—although we know that number has grown as the cost of housing has risen.

These issues are personal for me. I experienced homelessness on and off for years as a child due to my parents’ struggles with addiction and incarceration. I lived at a family homeless shelter.

Last month, Gov. Asa Hutchinson mentioned that, as an alternative to using the $146 million to provide rent relief, he would like to use some of it to support organizations like Our House in providing services that can help families like mine gain and maintain stable housing.

While I applaud the governor for his attention to these challenges that face too many families in our state, accepting more rent relief could help keep more families from becoming homeless. And we need to keep in mind that this one-time funding from the federal government is not the same as a guaranteed source of recurring revenue.

Arkansas can do more on a permanent basis to provide services to help families experiencing addiction, mental illness, or involvement with the criminal justice system, aiming to prevent Arkansas’ children from ever experiencing homelessness to begin with.

These challenges existed long before the pandemic and will still exist after. With a projected state budget surplus of more than $1 billion, now is the time to rethink how we use state revenue to meet these needs.

Arkansas will be the greatest state it can be when our elected leaders stop racing toward the bottom and instead start providing families with the tools they need to thrive. We can start here with housing.

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Bruno Showers is senior policy analyst at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

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