A few years ago, I was driving with my cousin through North Portland, Or, not far from the St. John’s Bridge. The neighborhood is populated by several small businesses, some apartment buildings, businesses, a tavern or two and lots of big Victorian- style houses.
On this particular Saturday morning, my cousin and I noticed a group of about 20 young people ( in their 20’s ) who were walking together through the neighborhood, like a school of fish. My cousin, who was knowledgeable about the neighborhood, stated that the young people were probably out and about, perhaps going to brunch. My cousin also added that these people were probably also living together in one of big houses in this community.
I was shocked ! 20 people living together in a house ! The last time I saw anything like this was in the late 1960’s when communes were sprouting up in Portland in similar style houses. The fact that this was happening again in 2017 was saying something very significant regarding the state of housing.
There has become a crisis regarding the availability of affordable housing in our country. Depending upon where you live, apartments may run $ 500. through 1000. per month. In some urban areas, apartments can range up to $2000. Per month. Houses may be priced from $250,000 and run higher up to $500,000 or more. More and more young people are finding it harder to save a down payment in order to purchase a home. Those who are renting may find themselves needing roommates in order to afford rent.
This financial environment has created interesting consequences. Men and women are delaying marriage, and many are still living with their parents. Couples are also delaying having children and, of course, this is affecting the housing market, health care, schools, the education system, property tax and community revenue.
Obviously, middle class people are feeling the constrictions imposed by the increases seen in housing, but the question is how is this affecting the poor and the working poor ?
Professor Matthew Desmond, a Sociologist at Princeton University has written a well-researched book entitled: “ Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City “. Here he uses ethnography interviewing to track eight families in Milwaukee, WI as they struggle to remain in some form of housing.
Dr. Desmond notes:
“ Between 2009 and 2011, roughly a quarter of all moves undertaken by Milwaukee’s poorest renters were involuntary. Once you account for theses dislocations ( eviction, landlord foreclosure), low-income households move at a similar rate as everyone else. If you study eviction court records in other cities, you arrive at similar startling numbers. Jackson County, Missouri, which includes half of Kansas City, saw 19 formal evictions a day between 2009 and 2013. New York City courts saw almost 80 nonpayment evictions a day in 2012. That same year, 1 in 9 occupied rentals in Cleveland and 1 in 14 in Chicago, were summoned to eviction court. Instability is not inherent to poverty. Poor families move so much because they are forced to by the economic conditions.”
( P. 296 )
Eviction is fueled by the lack of livable wage jobs. Many poor people, who are working, are earning $ 7.00 plus an hour and are juggling 2-3 jobs in order to stay afloat. The lack of stable housing also produces “ material hardship”.
Here, families experience hunger or sickness because food or medical care is financially out of reach. “They may also go without heat, electricity or phone because they can’t afford these items. The year after eviction, families experience 20 percent higher levels of material hardship than similar families who were not evicted. They go without food. They endure illness and cold. Evicted families continue to have higher rates of material hardship at least two years after the event.”
( P. 297 )
Poor families who repeatedly are forced to move suffer not only material loss, but also employment , safety as well as their sense of identity and where they belong. Children suffer academically, and families are more vulnerable to possible negative consequences due to substance abuse and domestic violence.
Home traditionally has been conceived as the place where you can be yourself, where you can find sanctuary. People eat, sleep, laugh and share dreams in their homes. Families are generated in an environment, hopefully of love and commitment to health and wholeness.
Yet, for the chronic poor, there is no safety net nor zone. Losses compound and the effects of constant up- rootedness and vulnerability leave their mark on individuals and families.
“ One in two recently evicted mothers report multiple symptoms of clinical depression, double the rate of similar mothers who were not forced from their homes. Even after years pass, evicted mothers are less happy, energetic and optimistic than their peers. When several patients committed suicide in the days leading up to their eviction, a group of psychiatrists published a letter in Psychiatric Services, identifying eviction as a “ serious precursor to suicide. “.
“ The letter emphasized that none of the patients were facing homelessness, leading the psychiatrists to attribute the suicides to eviction itself. “ Eviction must be considered a traumatic rejection,” they wrote, ‘’ a denial of one’s basic human needs, and an exquisitely shameful experience. Suicides attributed to evictions and foreclosures doubled between 2005 and 2010, when housing costs soared. “
( P. 298 )
What can be said regarding the landlords, those who own and operate the apartment buildings or the trailer parks. Yes, they are running a business and making money. One owner of a trailer park in the Milwaukee, WI area was grossing $ 500,000 per year.
Regarding the tenants, instead of spending 30% of their income on housing, most of them were spending 70%. This lop-sided inversion of expenditures is guaranteeing that the chronic poor will forever remain in a trapped environment.
So, what can be done to correct this economic inequality that fosters such a moral and ethical quandary ?
Again, Dr. Desmond argues:
“ Today, the federally funded Housing Choice Voucher Program helps families secure decent housing units in the private rental market. Serving over 2.1 million households, this program has become the largest housing subsidy program for low-income families in the United States. An additional 1.2 million people live in public housing. Cities such as Philadelphia, Seattle and Oakland have reimagined public housing, often as low-rise, attractive buildings dispersed over several neighborhoods. By and large, both housing residents and voucher holders pay only 30 percent of their income on rent, with government funds covering the remaining costs.
( P. 302 )
Settegast Heights Village Houston, TX is sponsored as a ministry of the Houston Association of The United Church of Christ. Settegast Heights Village provides low-income HUD apartment complex housing for over 421 children and 381 adults.
Kiku Gardens Chula Vista, Ca is a HUD Apartment complex . HUD residents usually pay 30% of their gross income for rent. The rent amount, less approved HUD deductions such as medical and child care expenses, and other allowances, includes a utility allowance. HUD Residents also may choose to pay what is known as flat rent. The HACC works with applicants to determine which rent arrangement is best for them. Kiku Gardens is a senior low income housing apartment development subsidized by the federal governments HUD (Housing and Urban Development Division). https://www.publichousing.com/details/kiku_gardens
Both housing projects were sponsored by The United Church of Christ. The later also had community support from the Buddhist Temple in San Diego as well as the Chinese Holiness Church.
I know, I was there-in 1981, the church where I served, then Ocean View United Church of Christ San Diego, Ca, worked with other community partners including financial institutions in the Japanese-American community, to raise money to match the federal grants that made Kiku Gardens a reality.
This was not only a blessing for low-income people in South Bay San Diego, but it was also a blessing for the congregations that were involved sponsoring this kind of outreach and providing housing and shelter to people who desperately needed it.
How do you find home ? The idea and reality of home has to be something that provides safety, shelter and warmth against the elements. We can’t stand by and rationalize that tent cities under freeway overpasses or in parks is where poor people should live.
This notion is not just nor is it ethical.
We need to be able to provide for others in need as we would want services provided to us if we were in peril.
May we be motivated to work for shelter, affordable housing, for all now and always.
May it be so.