Briarcliff Sophomore Places Third in a Countywide Essay Competition

Sofia Choudhri

A man’s house is his castle, according to a famous quote, and having or lacking a home can play a role in influencing people’s future. In a brilliant essay, Briarcliff High School sophomore Sofia Choudhri explores the effect housing can have on our future.

Sofia won Third Place is this year’s Lifting Up Westchester Student Essay Contest, answering the question “What role does housing play in influencing our future?”

In addition to receiving a cash prize of $100 she will also be honored at this year’s Virtual Awards Ceremony, which will take place on Sunday, March 20.

Briarcliff High School Guidance Counselor Meredith Safer was quick to acknowledge Sofia’s recognition.

“This is such a big deal. I am very proud of you,” she told Sofia. “Enjoy this incredible recognition of your hard work and talent. You are collecting quite a treasure chest of writing Awards!”

Sofia was grateful to receive this honor and also to those who assisted her along the way.

“It has been such an honor to be recognized by an organization that has done so much good, and I love that they are incentivizing students to inform themselves on local issues,” Sofia said. “I think the best part of entering this contest was not the possibility of winning, but the process of learning and speaking to members of the community and writing the essay.”

Sofia went on to thank Karen Schatzel at the League of Women Voters and Ariana Calderon at the WRO for inviting her to a Fair Housing Webinar.

“It was truly shocking to see the numbers of people affected by housing insecurity, but so inspiring to see the coalition of organizations and individuals devoted to helping the cause,” she said.

Here is Sofia’s essay:

In all that has been uprooted during the pandemic, my family, friends, and I have relied on one of the only roots we have left: home. This pillar of ours is a privilege. Since March of 2020, Westchester County had the most eviction filings in New York outside the city’s boroughs, totaling almost 7500 filings. Now, with the eviction moratorium ended, renters with exorbitant debts are hanging on by a thread through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. This program can only help mitigate this debt and delay evictions until their files have been processed, but Westchester is still in need of urgent change to help individuals struggling to find and maintain a home.

Westchester is facing a housing crisis, and it demands a complex solution that addresses the uniqueness of each need and interest. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; the scope and nuance of the problem are too great. According to the Westchester Government website, 11,703 affordable housing units are needed. 1,800 individuals live in shelters every night, plagued with instability and poor access to healthcare, education, and jobs. Disparities in housing stem from restrictive zoning designed to keep out lower-income populations in the suburbs, resulting in economic segregation. To take on these problems, new affordable housing must be added to the market, which can be expensive and a massive undertaking. The burden of housing goes beyond just the cost of building. Infrastructural improvements are necessary for sustainable levels of industrial developments, but they are often overlooked.

Many factors must be examined to truly understand the scope of this problem. The pandemic has exacerbated the problems in housing. As seen with the federal eviction moratorium end in August, millions of Americans were still behind on their rent payments, and 3.7 million reported housing insecurity. Demographic factors also need to be considered, as minority populations have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Unemployment has taken a toll on women, especially low-income and older women, and resumebuilder.com found that 35% of women who lost their job have yet to return to work. Race is a necessary consideration as well. Pacific Islanders, Black, and Native Americans have the highest rates of homelessness (1.09, .45, and .52% respectively) compared to the national average, which is .18%. 

Yet homes are not just houses, and the impacts of unstable housing run deeper than we may expect. A study conducted by Housing Matters found that an increase in the mortgage denial rate by one standard deviation resulted in a 22% increase in crime. Housing is also mentally and physically detrimental, and it can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even suicide. According to a report by Shelter, people with mental health conditions are one and a half times more likely to live in rented housing than the general population. Homes of low-income families also tend to have more mold growth that leads to problems like asthma and other respiratory illnesses. They also are unable to heat their houses, leading to blood pressure problems. Housing impacts education as well, and Housing Matters found an association between poor housing and lower kindergarten readiness, and lower graduation rates.

These findings are stark and complicated, requiring massive amounts of collaboration and commitment, but it is not impossible. The community is moving in a positive direction, and the County has already shown up to this challenge by fulfilling its promises. 700 affordable housing units have been created since its commitment in 2009, and more are on the way. A network of the government and nonprofit organizations is developing as they come with programs and support to mitigate these problems. 

Westchester.gov has designed a plan to reconstruct the housing system. It starts with a proper tracking system to monitor housing developments with a focus on affordable housing units. The data will assist the government with assessing community needs and long-term planning. Then, new housing can be built to accommodate these needs. There is lots of land available, both underdeveloped land and vacant buildings, that can be “adaptively reused” to provide lower-cost land to build affordable units, taking advantage of existing structures to add affordable housing units without as many stark changes to the community and negative effects on the climate. In the meantime, eviction prevention programs must be expanded in tandem with nonprofits and local service providers. Programs like Rapid Re-housing, which provides short-term rental assistance, and the Westchester County Coordinated Entry Program, which prioritizes and aids homeless individuals, must also be utilized.

Nonprofit organizations like Lifting Up Westchester are crucial. Not only does LUW provide supportive housing units to over 200 individuals, but they also help these individuals in unstable conditions get back on their feet. They prioritize health by ensuring 75% of those they help see a primary care physician annually and 90% of eligible clients are enrolled in healthcare. They also help these individuals with trainings in both job-related and life skills, and help 70% of attendees find employment in the months following these trainings. LUW works to minimize long-term impacts on homeless youth with programs designed for all ages, providing 70 students in grades 4-8 with homework help and even more at the high school level. These programs have been incredibly successful. 99% of seniors participating in the last six years have graduated, and with the help of LUW’s college prep program, 86% have gone on to college. LUV also points to a large problem in the housing crisis: the lack of legal support. They support their clients with short and long-term case management, which is a basic right that many homeless individuals do not have. 

With the help of organizations like LUV and the government’s prioritization of this urgent issue, the housing crisis can be remedied. Yet this issue has been placed on the backburner for far too long despite it being a catalyst for other pressing issues like poor health, education, and unemployment, and despite it being a basic right of humanity. Everyone deserves a place they can call home.

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