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Sarah Isom Center hosts discussion on affordable housing

The Sarah Isom Center at the University of Mississippi hosted a discussion panel entitled “Affordable Housing as a Feminist Issue” yesterday evening at the Burns Belfry museum.

The panel is the brainchild of Dr. Jaime Harker, Director of the Isom Center and professor of English. Harker says the idea to frame housing as a feminist issue stemmed from a panel on the Women’s March last year.

“We got this idea when we had a Women’s March panel, and when we posed a question about Riverside Apartments, there was kind of a lack of response,” she said. “We talked about it and said, we need to think about the Women’s March and marshall that energy that was so clear and put it towards an issue in our community as a feminist issue.”

The panel was moderated by Desiree Hensley, a law professor at the university and director of the law school’s housing clinic. Panelists included history professor Rebecca Marchiel, sociology professor James “JT” Thomas and Shirley Williams-Jenkins, director of Doors of Hope, an organization that helps families find affordable and sustainable housing.

“We want to focus on women and families, and how affordable housing affects that population in particular,” Hensley said. “Whether or not you are a feminist, I think everyone on this panel, with our own areas of expertise, will agree that this issue is one that has such a different effect on women, in particular women with children.”

The audience included members of the LOU community, as well as a couple of city and county elected officials. One of the issues brought forth in the discussion was the idea that housing impacts overall wellbeing, especially when it is insecure. The term housing insecurity refers to a person’s capacity to acquire and maintain adequate housing.

One point presented by Thomas, who approached the discussion from a sociological perspective, is that other factors besides a residential structure factor into the concept of housing insecurity.

“When we talk about affordable housing, there are other concepts outside of the dwelling that factor into this conversation,” Thomas said. “Somebody could have an affordable dwelling, and it could even be in good shape. But it’s not on the bus routes and it’s several miles away from the nearest place they could go get food. There are other types of things that help them maintain their quality of life.”

Thomas also said other outside factors like routine healthcare costs (which are significantly higher for women than men), caring for children and wage discrimination contribute to the idea that affordable housing issues weigh more heavily on women than men.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in Lafayette County, out of almost 2,000 single-parent households, 84 percent are headed by women. In terms of earnings, women who work full-time in Lafayette County make about 76 percent of what males earn, which is worse than the national average.

Affordable housing is an issue that has had much discussion in the LOU community, both for students and for families. The average rental rate in Lafayette County is $840, something Shirley Williams-Jenkins says she and her clients combat every day.

Doors of Hope, Williams-Jenkins’ organization, works with low-income families with minor children who are homeless or nearing homelessness. The organization helps place families in affordable housing, helps parents find jobs and teaches them money-saving techniques which are designed to help the families be successful in the long-term.

“We look at what’s going on with [the families], and if they’ll work our program with us, then we can work with them for several months out to help get them turned around and help with some financial assistance with rent, utilities and that sort of thing, so they can stay in their own place,” she said. “I believe they deserve a safe place that’s a secure place for them and their children.”

She also suggested a tax, similar to the tax for the baseball stadium in years past, that would go towards building subsidized housing for those who cannot afford rent at other properties in Oxford.

One of the presented solutions to the affordable housing problem, as it relates to women and in general, is the creation of a housing code enforcement office. Lee County has housing codes and an enforcement office, which works to make sure all rental properties are held to a livable standard, but Lafayette County has no such office. The state of Mississippi has no such code, either, aside from implied laws. According to Hensley, many of her clients deal with issues ranging from floorboards wearing down to the dirt, to infestations of rodents and fire hazards from electrical wiring. The catch is, she says, that the clients are paying anywhere from $500 to $700 to live in these conditions.

Elected officials present agreed with residents, saying a housing code enforcement office or something similar would be beneficial to citizens. However, District 1 supervisor Kevin Frye said no real change will happen overnight.  

“There’s not a magic bullet. We can’t just take a vote tomorrow and solve the housing problem,” he said. “For the community to discuss and contemplate and talk out loud about what the problems are and what potential solutions are, that’s how we get to a place that’s better than where we are today.”