Op-Ed: Homes for Those Who Protected the Homeland
This op-ed was written by Sgt. James A. Jenkins with the help of the Welcome Home Westchester coalition. Sgt. Jenkins is a retired Department of Veterans Affairs Career EAP manager AFGE and a Counselor Emeritus NYS OASAS.
We’ll soon be celebrating another Veterans Day in America. Here in Westchester, every city, town, and village will find a way to honor all active-duty military personnel and those who were discharged honorably for service to America. It’s a wonderful tradition of gratitude that stretches as far back as 1636 when support for those who serve in the military was enacted by the Plymouth colonies. But in too many of those towns and villages, when the parades or the moments of silence end and the bunting comes down, the decisions made by local leaders still make it too hard to find affordable housing – including for our veterans.
Westchester County is an expensive place to live, but it doesn’t have to be this hard. As the Westchester County Housing Needs Assessment and the Welcome Home Westchester campaign have found, we’re not producing nearly enough housing to meet our demand. That affects working families of all backgrounds, seniors, millennials, those with disabilities, and particularly those who need a little extra help. It especially affects veterans, who often are in multiple categories at the same time.
We know what the worst-case scenario looks like. Because of my work in Veterans Affairs and with First Approach EA, I know that on a single night in January 2020, the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that there were 37,252 veterans experiencing homelessness. That was the first time in years that the number of homeless veterans had increased from the previous year, after years of progress by the Department of Veteran Affairs in addressing the problem. Of course, that was before COVID hit, and people like me are holding our breaths for next year’s numbers to see what the pandemic has done to our brothers and sisters who are veterans.
But to be clear, not all vets who struggle with housing security are sleeping in boxes or out on the streets. A good portion of us are hourly wage employees, working hard for ourselves, our families, and our communities, who just can’t seem to get ahead. As our wages remain the same but the cost of living rises every year, it seems as if we are not collectively trying to find a solution to the housing crisis.
Despite the DVA’s efforts around veteran homelessness, their efforts around increasing the supply of affordable housing options are much more limited. The DVA has a great home loan system. Their vetting process for applicants is superb. But they can’t conjure units out of thin air.
Every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results that it gets. Part of how you get to a gap of 11,703 units of housing just to meet present needs in Westchester County is by having a system whereby each city, town, and village have lengthy and complicated land use board processes to review site plan reviews, subdivisions, variances and special use permits. We see wide and uneven variation between how boards function in different communities, both because the municipal code requirements are different and because of the personalities and interests of the board members, including the chair. That means the home or the rental unit that a veteran in need might be able to access once they pass DVA vetting may take years to get it built – if it ever does – even though the present-day need is so great.
I don’t for a second think that the volunteers on this board are doing this on purpose. They may not realize the cost of delay for veterans struggling with housing security. It’s hard to stay focused on making your community as welcoming as possible when someone who wants things to stay exactly the same in your town is yelling at you during a public meeting. But the simple truth is that we have to find a way to build more housing — not just to benefit those who will live in these communities but those who live there now.
The best infrastructure investment my Mayor could be making is not in potholes but rather in housing. Want more school funding? The answer is housing. Want to support your downtown local businesses? The answer is also more housing.
We love our home communities – so much so that we were willing to sacrifice ourselves to protect them. We love living in Westchester County and want to continue to live here. But something has to be done about the housing affordability crisis. We’ve laid our lives on the line when it mattered. We kept the homeland safe. Now we’re asking for homes that our veterans can afford to buy or rent and call their own. We want to be your neighbors; will you let us be yours?
To become involved with changing the conversation on housing in Westchester County, or to learn more about the Welcome Home Westchester campaign, visit: www.welcomehomewestchester.org.