Monday, November 11, 2013

Housing Strategies for Veterans (and the rest of us)

"On the 11th hour of the 11th Day of the 11th month" - 95 years ago, the Great War ended and later Veterans Day (originally Armistice Day) was born as a celebration of the outbreak of peace.  I've always enjoyed thinking about the duty of veterans in that context.

Different faces of veterans (photo from VA.gov)

Several generations of my family (along with a few friends and classmates) have served in the Armed Forces, and today is a day to thank them and their their fellow service-members for their service. It's also a great American custom to separate celebrations of Memorial Day (for those that have passed on) from Veterans Day to have a special day to celebrate those who are living (countries that celebrate Remembrance Day generally combine both). Since attention is focused on veterans today, this is a time of year that we hear stories about the challenges that veterans face. One can expect to hear about health care problems, the high suicide rate of veterans (22 a day), and the long backlogs of VA claims.

I don't focus on those policy areas, but I am always struck by the fact that they share similarities with problems faced by other Americans. The Veterans Administration was created in 1930 to "consolidate and coordinate Government activities affecting war veterans" in an attempt to streamline bureaucracy in regards to claims and other issues. On that same VA history webpage, we can read that the current administration is focused on 16 major initiatives, and the first one listed is "Eliminating Veteran homelessness."  The overlap of that initiative with general efforts to end homelessness is clear. There are many factors that enter into homelessness, but I agree with the National Alliance to End Homelessness that "the main reason people experience homelessness is because they cannot find housing they can afford."

That part of the solution is straightforward - we need to build a larger supply of housing that is affordable to people of all income levels. There are simply not enough housing options that meet people's needs - the AARP Foundation focused one of their impact areas on housing to help the 13 million households over 50 that cannot afford their housing costs, and  the National Housing Trust Fund  (which has yet to be funded) has the potential to create more housing options. According to AARP's public policy on homelessness, "Permanent supportive housing can address homelessness by providing affordable and adequate housing combined with services specifically targeted to the physical, mental, and social needs of the individual." A recent NY Times Op-ed from LISC's Larry Oaks gives an example of a supportive model that has worked in New Jersey and could be replicated elsewhere.

Note that this includes mixing "veterans" and "general" programs - some programs that are specially developed for veterans (such as HUD-VASH vouchers) can work with more general affordable housing programs (such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit) to create these options.

Most importantly, what would serve all of us (including our veteran relatives and friends) is to create a housing stock with more housing options that are affordable and accessible. Universal Design strategies mean that we create homes that work for a wider range of people, including adults with no limitations, a veteran with a disability that inhibits walking difficult, or an older person who may have trouble navigating steps. People (especially veterans) are amazing adaptable and can "work with" an amazing array of circumstances, but we need to create options that work for all.  The housing policies in AARP's Policy Book reference many ways that existing programs can be used to increase the number of housing units that are built with universal design-inspired approaches - not to create specialized housing for those with disabilities, but to improve the way that we build housing for all.

Luckily, my relatives and friends who recently served in Iraq, Korea, Afghanistan and elsewhere came back without serious physical injuries, and I believe that most of them are in stable housing situations. Despite the relief that this brings, I know that their experience does not match the experience of many others. We should create the housing options that their friends need, and while we are at it, we can create options that work for all people.

Happy Veterans Day (and Happy Remembrance Day, Canada). What reflections do you have  on Veterans Day?  I'm happy to continue the conversation below or on social media.You can follow me @DrUrbanPolicy on twitter and facebook.

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