Foreclosures pose challenge, cost to census count

Foreclosures will make it tougher and more expensive to get an accurate census count next year as families move in with relatives or are left homeless, the Census Bureau’s director said Tuesday.

Director Robert Groves said he expects some of the census questionnaires mailed out in 2010 will land at empty homes in areas hard hit by the housing crisis. That means census workers will need to make more door-to-door visits to verify whether anyone lives at these addresses, and that costs more money.

“One absolutely unambiguous impact of the foreclosures is there’s going to be more people knocking on doors. It’s going to be more expensive to do that,” Groves told reporters during a visit to Los Angeles.

Job losses have left more than 13 percent of American homeowners with a mortgage behind on their payments or in foreclosure, according to an August report by the Mortgage Bankers Association. The worst of the trouble has been concentrated in California, Nevada, Arizona and Florida.

Some economists expect a wave of foreclosed properties could hit the market next year after many lenders put a moratorium on foreclosures during this year to stem the crisis.

Groves said census workers will need to focus on reaching out to families that have doubled up with relatives until they can get back on their feet. He said many may believe their housing situations are only temporary, but they need to be counted wherever they are living next spring.

He also said census workers are paying special attention to counting the ranks of the newly homeless, such as previously upper-middle class families clobbered by the recession.

The bureau hopes that mailing replacement forms, using a shorter questionnaire and sending bilingual forms to predominantly Spanish-speaking areas will help address these challenges. Officials also have increased staffing to identify areas that are harder to count and drafted action plans for each census tract to tackle these issues.

But Groves said it isn’t clear whether that will be enough to achieve the 67 percent mail-back response rate recorded in 2000.

“I think it is a harder job for us this census,” Groves said.

The census will also cost more to run in 2010. The ten-year cost of the census has more than doubled to $14.7 billion from the last decennial period, Groves said.

Other challenges include a dearth of funding for census outreach from cities grappling with the recession and the need to persuade immigrants wary of government to fill out the forms. California, for example, will spend $2 million in 2010 on efforts to ensure people are counted, compared with $24.7 million in 2000.

Community advocates say the decline in outreach spending comes just as communities get even harder to count. And the effects of an undercount ? for example, reduced federal funding ? would linger long after the recession.

Many families that have doubled up in apartment homes or converted garages will be reluctant to confess how many people they have living in a home, even though census information is confidential, said Antonia Hernandez, president of the California Community Foundation. The Foundation will funnel $1.2 million to community groups in the Los Angeles area to help confront the lack of outreach funding and the challenge of carrying out a census in the recession.

“These are newly working poor who are unemployed, who are transient, and quite frankly, the last thing in their mind is filling out a form,” Hernandez said. “It is just not realistic for people not to understand we’re going through a very unstable situation.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.