The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines “literally homeless” as someone who:
(i) Has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not meant for human habitation;
(ii) Is living in a publicly or privately operated shelter; or
(iii) Is exiting an institution where (s)he has resided for 90 days or less and who resided in an emergency shelter or place not meant for human habitation immediately before entering that institution.
While this definition aligns with most people experiencing homelessness in urban areas, it does not necessarily include thousands of people experiencing homelessness in rural areas across the country.
People experiencing homelessness in rural areas are often referred to as the “hidden homeless.” They often live in a car, overcrowded, small homes or move from couch to couch. Their migratory nature poses a real challenge to the Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing (ORFH) in Yakima, Washington, a NCRC member organization that develops affordable housing. An accurate count of the number of people experiencing homelessness helps developers determine how much housing is needed, but Executive Director Marty Miller wonders, “How do you quantify all the homeless people living in [a] Winnebago?”
Access to affordable housing is an important step to gaining financial stability. However, incomes in rural areas are usually much lower than urban areas and can be a barrier to obtaining housing. The median household income in rural Yakima County, Washington, was $49,871 in 2019. In King County, where Seattle is the county seat, the median household income was $89,418. According to Miller, “the [housing] market is not developing for low-income people in rural areas” since it is often not economically advantageous. This leads affordable housing developers in rural areas to be more dependent on state and federal funds for new developments.
According to the Housing and Urban Development’s 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, the share of those experiencing homelessness in rural and suburban areas increased from 23.1% in 2016 to 27.5% in 2017, while the total share of people experiencing homelessness in urban areas decreased from 76.9% in 2016 to 72.5%. Because rural people experiencing homelessness are less visible than their urban counterparts, it is likely that this proportion is much greater than indicated.
Rural populations with different work and cultural backgrounds also have different housing needs. Seasonal migrant workers and members of Native American communities exhibit different housing patterns than many traditional workers. The ORFH develops projects for these migrant workers who may only move to rural Washington for a few weeks or months. Seasonal housing provides leases that match workers’ schedules rather than year-long leases prominent in most rental housing. Projects like these are difficult to operate because they are often closed in the winter, but this is where ORFH steps in.
ORFH acquired their Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) certification about 10 years ago. As a CDFI, they have access to capital they can lend to partners as low-interest loans to support their pre-development work, including acquisition costs, environmental testing, etc. Miller explains that private debt “would be great to use, but [developers] can’t afford it.” CDFIs help overcome this financial obstacle by providing access to funds at a lower cost.
Additionally, ORFH champions rural affordable housing at state and national levels. At the state level, they advocate to make capital more available for affordable housing development. They also hope to make private debt more accessible in the future, as it is currently too expensive. At the national level, ORFH works with the Department of Agriculture and advocates to expand programs that would increase homeownership and preserve existing affordable housing in rural areas.
Rural affordable housing advocates in California are struggling with many of the same issues amidst the recent housing crisis in the state. According to Alicia Sebastian, associate director of the California Coalition for Rural Housing (CCRH), “it’s very clear there’s a housing issue” and that “on the crisis scale, we have one of the biggest.” Rural and Native American communities in particular have not received enough attention in the fight for more affordable housing.
CCRH, a NCRC member organization, is one of the oldest state affordable housing advocacy agencies in the country, and their focus is on developing affordable housing for native and rural communities. They research rural housing agencies and provide asset building support, technical assistance and general assistance with policy, planning and development. They also have a leadership development program that consists of paid fellowships for minority college students who get paired with an organization in the rural affordable housing industry. Many of these students end up staying in the affordable housing field and are offered full-time positions at the end of their program.
Capacity is a major challenge for those who want to build in rural and Native American areas. Especially on Native American lands with smaller tribes, there may be only one person dedicated to housing development, and they may lack the experience and resources to complete a project. The paperwork can be complicated, and it can be difficult to obtain funding. Sebastian and her team provide the support needed to help tribes acquire funding for new projects. She has worked with tribes on unique projects like securing funding for a community garden. CCRH also supports developers with manufactured housing and farmworker housing projects. Despite the struggles CCRH faces, Sebastian is hopeful for the future. Due to California’s housing crisis, Sebastian states that “homelessness is becoming more visible” and “rural communities are stepping forward” to advocate for more effective policies and an increase in funding for rural affordable housing projects.
Affordable housing is a complicated issue, and it is exacerbated in rural areas due to a lack of industry experience, scarce resources and increased distance from lawmakers and government services. Organizations like the CCRH and the ORFH are making strides to address these issues, but there is still work to do. As lawmakers and citizens continue to have conversations about ending homelessness and increasing access to affordable housing, we need to include our rural and Native American counterparts in the conversation.
Mythea Mazzola was a communications and development intern at NCRC.