EDITORIAL: Affordable housing key in homelessness crisis

Mar. 23—Homelessness is definitely on the rise in Niagara County, according to public and private social service providers who have informed this newspaper's current series of reports on the topic.

What we've gleaned from the local experts' accounts so far is, while the life circumstances vary widely from "unhoused" person to person, the root of homelessness in most cases is the lack of affordable decent housing.

Clean, safe and affordable rental units were hard to come by before the Covid pandemic, and since the end of the state moratorium on eviction, they're infinitely more difficult to secure. Rental property owners who got hosed by their tenants during the pandemic raised their rents, sometimes significantly, as soon as they were able, or they sold their property and left the rental housing business.

The uptick in homelessness that followed the housing shakeup is documented by the Niagara County Department of Social Services. Between October 2020 and September 2021, data shows, 730 individuals turned up at an emergency shelter somewhere in the county. A year later, the number was 851. The year after that, between October 2022 and September 2023, the total grew to 1,183.

That's almost 1,200 people around Niagara County, some singles and others part of a family unit, who did not have a permanent address for a time, more often than not due to their inability to find and/or maintain a residence within their financial means.

From the service providers informing our series, we also glean an understanding that homelessness can hit almost anybody under the right circumstances: job loss, or wages not keeping up with rising prices, catastrophic illness, domestic violence, divorce ... the list goes on. Homelessness cannot be written off simply as a consequence of the unhoused ones' bad habits or personal shortcomings.

Two of the service providers interviewed for the series, Niagara County social services commissioner Meghan Lutz and Salvation Army-Lockport service coordinator Leah Brown, are in agreement that the public and private sectors both have a role to play in solving the problem of homelessness. The creation of additional shelter "beds" is a short-term fix only. The long view is trained on the development of quality affordable housing, with incentives for developers to keep rents manageable and/or direct assistance to renters.

We note that when Gov. Kathy Hochul last year pitched a plan for expanding the housing stock across New York state, her reference to "onerous" local zoning restrictions on multi-family residences, followed up by the suggestion that addressing the housing crisis might mean the state overriding local review processes, was met with a deafening hue and cry. No surprise there! In our own front yard — in Lockport and, more recently, in the Town of Niagara — there was grumbling or worse in neighborhoods where development of low-income or supportive housing had been suggested.

Homelessness is a growing problem in Niagara County, and the core of the problem is low supply of affordable, decent housing. There are things individuals can do to advance short-term fixes — donate cash, merchandise, or, just as valuable, time and effort, to help out local shelters like Lockport CARES and Niagara Gospel Mission — but only mass action can produce a long-term fix. We the people must let our elected representatives at all levels know that we see homelessness as society's problem, we want it solved, and we'll do our part by being open to the possibility of new neighbors.