Who is ALICE?

In previous blog posts we’ve talked about how families can qualify for our program, and we put a lot of emphasis on affordability in relation to a low-income family or individual. We’ve established that for a dwelling to be affordable it shouldn’t be costing anyone more than 30% of their monthly income, but how do we determine and define low-income?  

We do this in a couple of ways, because there are few different income limits and subsets. According to Housing and Urban Development, an individual or family is low-income if they are making 80% or less of the area’s average median income, which I will refer to as AMI. For example, if our average income is $71,900, low-income limits would start for a single person when they are making $40,250 per year. These numbers change based on the number of people in their family and the number of working adults.  

There are a few other subsets, including the one that we use for the families that enter our program. As money decreases, we approach very low and extremely low limits.  

We frequently work with and have conversations with other housing nonprofits in our area, including the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. They approach low-income starting at 80% of the AMI which is called the ALICE Population. ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed. The United Way prepares a report on this population of low-income individuals. According to their website, the ALICE Report “outlines the challenges of individuals and families who earn more than the official Federal Poverty Level, but less than the basic cost of living. Too many of our neighbors often struggle to afford necessities including housing, food, child care, health care, and transportation.” 

Next time you are out shopping, out with friends, or at an event, look around. Mostly likely, there is someone that is a hidden member of the ALICE population. This can be for many reasons, including high costs of living, such as paying more than 50% of their income on housing, or paying 7% of their monthly income on energy costs, such as we’ve discussed in previous blog posts.  

You may not know who is actually a part of this population, it could really be anyone. United Way also states, “Our neighbors who live below the ALICE threshold may be child care providers, home health aides, mechanics, retail workers, service providers, store clerks, office assistants, or other members in your community. ALICE can be in any stage of life and ALICE can be an individual or a family. Some households fall below the ALICE threshold due to an unforeseen life event such as a life-altering health diagnosis, job loss, or family crisis such as a death or divorce.” 

“ALICE is often a hidden population. Households below the ALICE threshold usually do not qualify for governmental aid or social service programs, so their struggles go unseen and unknown. The ALICE data highlights the challenges of people living below the ALICE threshold. United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County strives to make our community a place where individuals and families have the tools to move from crisis to survival to sustainability.” 

Having this data allows community organizations such as ours to continue advocating for affordable housing across all spectrums of low-income, to better illustrate the differences in assistance that one family might need compared to another.  

Families in our program that qualify for assistance are even lower than the ALICE population income limits, but still slightly higher than Very Low income, which is 50% of the AMI. Our families sit around 60% of the AMI, where a single person is making between 20,000 and 30,000 a year. We frequently get calls from these individuals because they have been turned away from other assistance programs for making too much or too little money.  

We’ve talked previously about the disparity between white and minority households when we talked about Homeownership Month and the staggering statistics behind it. According to the proclamation from the White House, “We also know that people of color continue to face discrimination in our housing market — when trying to secure mortgages, to have their homes appraised, and to live in neighborhoods where their families can thrive. In recent years, the homeownership gap between Black and white families reached its widest point since 1968, when banks could still legally discriminate against borrowers based on the color of their skin.”   

This is also covered under ALICE, United Way states that, “Poverty and racism have been inextricably connected since this country’s inception, yet official federal statistics have never fully portrayed the economic impact of that link. United For ALICE was founded on the need to more accurately measure and track financial hardship nationwide. For more than a decade, the research has been shedding light on the disparity of economic opportunity that exists in every community, in every state. The data show that while hardship is pervasive, the history of slavery and its ongoing legacy of systemic and institutional racism stigmatizes Black households uniquely. In every state, the research unequivocally documents the persistent and widening disparities in income and wealth between Black households and households of other races and ethnicities.” 

When we start to get into the meat of the report, more and more we see that despite increases in general wealth, this population is still severely underserved and financially strapped.  

According to the 2020 report, 10% of Rockingham County residents are living in poverty, and that number jumps to 23% in the City of Harrisonburg. When we allow for how many are in the ALICE population, those numbers increase to 26% in the county and 38% of residents in the city. When you consider the number of households in the city of Harrisonburg, that equates to just under 6400 households.  

The report continues with a graph that shows the households in Harrisonburg City by income over time, from 2010 to 2018, and while the poverty numbers slightly decreased in 2018, the ALICE population numbers have climbed. Between 2016 and 2018, the ALICE population increased by over 1000 households. These numbers don’t reflect the staggering amounts of people that lost income and jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we can expect to see that reflected on the next report.  

We continue to see the ALICE and poverty populations in our area grow, but they aren’t the only ones that need the assistance community organizations can provide. So who else needs our help?  

Section 8 and The Hidden Homeless

We’ve covered the ALICE population and where our organization fits in, but there are other subsets of low-income individuals and programs that are slightly more, and less, well known. One example would be Section 8 housing.  

When we attend events, section 8 is one of the types of housing that most people commonly know about. Section 8 is officially the Housing Choice Voucher Program through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). According to HUD’s website, “The housing choice voucher program is the federal government’s major program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market. Since housing assistance is provided on behalf of the family or individual, participants are able to find their own housing, including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments.” 

“The participant is free to choose any housing that meets the requirements of the program and is not limited to units located in subsidized housing projects.” 

“Housing choice vouchers are administered locally by public housing agencies (PHAs). The PHAs receive federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to administer the voucher program.” 

“A family that is issued a housing voucher is responsible for finding a suitable housing unit of the family’s choice where the owner agrees to rent under the program. This unit may include the family’s present residence. Rental units must meet minimum standards of health and safety, as determined by the PHA.” 

“A housing subsidy is paid to the landlord directly by the PHA on behalf of the participating family. The family then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program. Under certain circumstances, if authorized by the PHA, a family may use its voucher to purchase a modest home.” 

In our local area we have the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which was established in 1955, and they support Section 8 housing in various communities throughout the county and city. According to them, “Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority assists eligible low-income families in our area with their rent through housing vouchers distributed by the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). Currently, HRHA receives 883 vouchers. Our voucher program serves the City of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, including Bridgewater, Broadway, Dayton, Elkton, Fulks Run, Grottoes, Keezletown, McGaheysville, Mount Crawford, Penn Laird and Timberville.” 

While qualifications are up to the public housing agency being applied to, the general qualifications for a family to receive section 8 housing are the following: “Eligibility for a housing voucher is determined by the PHA based on the total annual gross income and family size and is limited to US citizens and specified categories of non-citizens who have eligible immigration status. In general, the family’s income may not exceed 50% of the median income for the county or metropolitan area in which the family chooses to live.” In our area, a single person making 50%, or very low income, would be making approximately $25,200.  

Now that we’ve covered section 8, let’s talk about a subset of the population that requires housing assistance but doesn’t necessarily show up in low-income or homeless statistics.  

There are many people that face circumstances that force them into homelessness. The public generally thinks of them as living in extreme poverty, when in fact they may have a job or other income and just can’t quite afford the cost of living in our area. However, they could be anyone that you know. These are called the Hidden Homeless, individuals that have become homeless but have found somewhere to stay on a relative’s or friends’ couch, on a parents’ boyfriends’ floor, and more unsafe and unstable situations.  

According to an article by the Washington Post, ““The situations we hear about are really unsafe — a small child sleeping on a couch, a child sleeping on the floor, Mom’s staying with a bad boyfriend,” said Cara Baldari, who works on family economics for First Focus on Children, a D.C.-based nonprofit group. 

“The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development released numbers last month trumpeting a 5 percent decrease in the number of homeless families with kids since 2018 and a 32 percent drop since 2010. The folks at First Focus say that’s baloney.” 

“They contend the number is actually 11 times what HUD says. And that’s not just coming from a bunch of big-hearted social-services softies. The vastly higher number comes from another federal agency — the Education Department, which counts homeless kids attending public schools.” 

In some cases, these families qualify for our program and similar programs, but that doesn’t address their current needs, and when they aren’t being counted accurately by the organizations in charge, we aren’t serving them the way we should be.  

These Hidden Homeless do whatever they can to stay off the streets, but in doing so they don’t always receive the assistance they need. This can lead to many unsafe situations. In that same article, they say, “Kids who aren’t in shelters are rarely on the streets. They’re tucked away on other people’s couches or floors, in a car or sleeping in a mother’s arms on an all-night bus or train.” 

“Moms might pool their cash to get a cheap motel room for a night so all the kids will be inside. “’We saw one room with 12 kids in it,’” one counselor told me.” 

While we advocate for homeownership, we deeply understand that housing needs for low-income individuals and families exist on a spectrum and are rarely black and white. We are fortunate to have so many nonprofits in our area that focus on the various parts of the spectrum, from the homeless assistance programs and shelters to the Housing Authority, to our homeownership program, to critical home repair.  

However, the affordable housing crisis is still very real, and when government agencies can’t agree on numbers, it makes it more difficult for organizations like ours to assist those that need it.  

To finish off, we want to include a final quote from the Washington Post article. 

“So why does this matter? 

It goes beyond the outrage of seeing a government claiming success when we’re actually failing American children. 

The real crisis is about money. The HUD numbers determine assistance, housing and programs. If the numbers are low, the need for affordable housing looks low. See how the crisis snowballs?” 


Adapted from Episode 5  of our Podcast “Let’s Build”