Saturday, July 22, 2017

Acceptable, Available, Affordable Housing

Note: An edited excerpt from this blog post (primarily the "Is there a right to housing?" section) was published by The Gazette on August 1, 2017 ("Health Care, Housing Rights?") and reproduced below.

And see, Addendum: "Why Do So Many Christians Believe Lack of Effort is Cause of Poverty, or Jesus Would Oppose Government Social Programs?"

And, for a little good news on this subject, Lee Hermiston, "Shelter House Gets $2.7 Million for 'Housing First' Project in Iowa City; Construction Could Begin in October," The Gazette, August 4, 2017, p. A1.

Excellent and data-loaded: Editorial, "Locked Out: All Counties in Creative Corridor Lack Affordable Homes," The Gazette, August 6, 2017, p. D1 (not yet available online; link will be added when available; excellent data for 7 Iowa counties: population, persons in poverty, percentage who earn less than 30% of median income, number of affordable units for that population, percentages spending more than 30% of income on housing, increase since 2007 in rent for two-bedroom unit compared with percentage increase in median household income, number in 2016 who were homeless and sought emergency services.)


Is there a right to housing?
Whom are we talking about?
What are their needs; what are the solutions?
Housing in context
What's "affordable"?

Housing policy is, as President Trump once said of healthcare policy, "an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that [it] could be so complicated." [Michael A. Memoli, "Trump: 'Nobody Knew that Healthcare Could be so Complicated,'" Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2017.]
[For details on polling results and trends regarding the number of Americans who support universal single-payer health care, see Kristen Bialik, "More Americans Say Government Should Ensure Health Care Coverage," Pew Research Center, January 13, 2017 (e.g.: "Currently, 60% of Americans say the government should be responsible for ensuring health care coverage for all Americans, compared with 38% who say this should not be the government’s responsibility.").]
Is there a "right" to housing?

At the outset of discussions of any social program is the threshold issue of "rights": to what extent do we have (legally) or feel (morally) an obligation to care for those beyond our own family, community or "tribes" (variously defined)? To what extent do others have a "right" to expect such care from us?

Obviously, if a majority of us believe, and act as if, others have no "rights," and we have no "obligations," that's pretty much a conversation stopper. So let's first try to figure out what we believe about "rights" in general, by considering some comments from others before returning to the matter of "rights" to housing.
"Right. That which is consonant with equity or the light of nature; that which is morally just or due."
-- Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Ed., vol. II, 1971), p. 669, Right, 3.

"Health care is not a right. Housing is not a right. A job is not a right. College is not a right."
-- Joe Walsh, May 4, 2017 (syndicated radio host; former member of Congress)

"Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." . . .
"Verily, I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
-- Jesus, Matthew 22:39, 25:40 (KJ)

"[W]e can see the TRUTH of the true religion of God woven like a GOLDEN THREAD throughout all faiths whose origin is from Him in the form of the GOLDEN RULE."
-- Bahai, Universal House of Justice (with quotes and citations from 16 major religions; emphasis supplied)

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
-- Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for . . . health and well-being . . ., including food, clothing, housing and medical care . . .."
-- United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, December 10, 1948
There remain differences among us as to whether our obligations to others should be fulfilled through governmental programs or non-governmental organizations' efforts. But as we see, virtually all the world's great religions, and nations (UN), are agreed that we do have at least some obligations to fellow members of our species. (Indeed, some would extend this to other animal (and even plant) species as well. Why? For answers see, Frans De Waal, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" (W.W. Norton, 2016), and Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees (Greystone Books, 2016).)

And yet, among Americans, Joe Walsh (above, "Housing is not a right") speaks for the majority.

This is somewhere between ironic and inexplicable, given that over 50% of Americans say "religion is very important in their lives" (the highest of any wealthy nation). How can we square "I've got mine, Jack," shouts of "Get a job," and denying healthcare to tens of millions of Americans, with the Golden Rule and caring for "the least of these"? How can we explain that "57% of Americans disagreed with the statement 'Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,' a higher percentage than in any of the European nations polled. . . . [Or that] 73% said hard work is very important for getting ahead in life compared to a European median of 35%. . . . [And that] nearly six-in-ten in the U.S. (58%) believe allowing everyone to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the state is [most] important [, whereas] majorities in all European nations polled in 2011 said guaranteeing that nobody is in need is more important." [Richard Wike, "5 ways Americans and Europeans are Different," Pew Research Center, April 19, 2016.]

In a nation in which a majority holds such beliefs, a nation willing to trust its democracy to a political process fueled (and therefore largely controlled) by the largest campaign donors, it can't be shocking that many elected officials share some donors' belief that "my right to a tax cut trumps (so to speak) your right to come in out of the cold."

Thankfully, there are also thousands of knowledgeable, caring individuals in Iowa and throughout our nation who are trying to do something about insuring every American has decent housing. This blog post is dedicated to them, and addresses the challenges they face.

Whom are we talking about?

Many of us are relatively well housed. Of America's 135 million dwelling units, about 60% (in Iowa and the nation) are single family, detached houses. Others live in condo units or rented apartments. When it comes to housing, these are among the most fortunate, notwithstanding their occasional difficulty paying mortgages, rent, taxes, and utility bills. Thus, with rare exception, housing is not much of an issue for those in the top 20% (annual income $111,000 or more).
["Stats for Stories: American Housing Month," Housing, U.S. Census Bureau, June 2017 ("The 2015 American Community Survey counts almost 135 million housing units in the U.S.: 61.4% are detached single-family homes and 6.3% are mobile homes.") "Most Americans Make It To The Top 20 Percent (At Least For A While)," Planet Money, National Public Radio, May 5, 2014.]
It's a little different story for the homeless -- those roughly 500,000 Americans with no place to call home on any given day. Some have shelter, others are on the streets, or otherwise unsheltered. Some are individuals, including children on their own; some are part of homeless families. They may be chronically homeless or only temporarily so. [Photo credit: unknown.]

Of course, some of those "sheltered" may be couch surfing, or otherwise living in overcrowded conditions shared with other families or friends.

Others may be in a shelter considered unhealthy or otherwise dangerous substandard housing. ("About six million homes in the United States are substandard by American Housing Survey (AHS) standards, a statistic that has seen little change over the last two decades." Dwellings considered substandard have "interior and exterior leaks, signs of pests, and other factors collected by local public health and code enforcement agencies." ["Substandard Housing," National Center for Healthy Housing.
And see, "What Is Substandard Housing?", ("Substandard housing . . . , often in severe disrepair, [is] housing that poses a risk to the health, safety or physical well-being of its occupants . . . associated with increased risk of disease, crime, social isolation and decreased mental health. . . . Some cases of substandard housing are not so visible. Outdated or dangerous electrical systems, rusting or loose pipes and gas leaks . . . might go unnoticed until an accident happens.")]
Housing can be unsafe for other reasons, such as spousal abuse, or neighborhoods with relatively high levels of violent crime.

The remnants of Americans' prejudice can make it more difficult for some to find housing -- those of a given race, religion, country of origin, new immigrants, or former convicts who've served their time and are trying to reenter society -- regardless of their ability to pay.

But some of those most at risk for becoming homeless are living in "poverty" (defined as an individual with $12,060 annual income or less; $24,600 for a family of four). [Kimberly Amadeo, "Federal Poverty Level: Definition, Guidelines, Chart,"The Balance, February 2, 2017.] Note that "poverty" can result not only from steady employment at a low wage, but also from unsteady, seasonal, or otherwise occasional income (regardless of hourly rate) that doesn't reach an annual total in excess of poverty levels.

The unemployed are an at risk group for housing. "The share of prime-age [American] men (ages 25-54) who are neither working nor looking for work has doubled since the 1970s. . . . [One] in six prime-age men in America are either unemployed or out of the workforce altogether -- about 10 million men" -- one of the highest rates in the world. [Derek Thompson, "The Missing Men," The Atlantic, June 27, 2017.]

Another category are those paying over 50 percent of their income for housing. "When more than 50 percent of a poor household’s income goes to paying rent, that household is experiencing what is known as severe housing cost burden. [These are] households . . . more likely to have an unexpected event -- such as loss of employment or unexpected medical costs -- result in . . . homelessness." [The State of Homelessness in America (2016), pp. 48-49,]
[For one of the best collections of data regarding the financial challenges confronting nearly all Americans regardless of income and net worth, presented in 24 pages of graphics and very readable text, see "On Track or Left Behind? Findings from the 2017 Prosperity Now Scorecard, July 2017 Prosperity, released July 25, 2017.]
What are their needs; what are the solutions?

Although "categories" are listed above, most of those with housing needs have stories that are somewhat unique -- as are the solutions, to the extent possible.

An abused spouse or children may not be lacking shelter; their problem is not a leaky roof, it's the violence to which they're subjected. They need an alternative shelter, or safe house -- along with some legal assistance -- until they can relocate (or the abuser is imprisoned). There may be other reasons why temporary, rather than permanent, housing is the solution.

For those with a "severe housing cost burden," or without the resources even if they used all their earnings for rent, there may be public housing, "affordable housing" required of landlords, or subsidies such as "Section 8." [Housing Act of 1937, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §1437f.]

Housing in context

As with medical specialists who are less aware of a patient's related conditions, so it is with housing. By contrast, some doctors actually make "house calls" -- not to see the patient, but to see the house, and how it might be contributing to the patient's condition.

For example, in addition to the occasional relationship between housing and healthcare, there is often a relationship between housing, educational level and unemployment.

There can be a relationship between housing, poverty and public transportation (or access to a reliable vehicle). If businesses would build housing close enough to their stores or factories that their employees could walk or bike to work -- with rent they could afford on the hourly wages they were paid -- it would solve both the housing challenge and eliminate employees' costs of commuting from the distances necessary to find affordable housing (as well as improving workers' health and the environment). Public buses or trains that run every 10 or 15 minutes (rather than half-hour or hour), and don't require two or three changes from home to work, would help.

Child care, on the job site or nearby, could sometimes make the difference.

Of course, social workers and others are aware of these interrelated needs and solutions -- as they are aware of not having the necessary resources to do what they know needs to be done. Just as there are IEP's (individual education plans) for K-12 students with disabilities, it would help when addressing individuals' "housing in context" challenges to create a plan for every individual who comes into the system that addresses housing, healthcare, nutrition, transportation, training, childcare and whatever other needs and services are relevant.

What's "affordable"?

There is much reference in discussions of housing to so-called "affordable housing," defined as housing that one can obtain for 30% or less of one's income.
"Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care. An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing. A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States." ["Affordable Housing," Department of Housing and Urban Development.]
"Affordability" is not a very precise concept at best, and is certainly subject to, among other things, almost unlimited potential multiple variables.

Income. Thirty percent of what? What do we count? What do we deduct? Is it what's left after taxes? Which taxes (i.e., federal and state income tax; FICA; sales tax)? What about essential fixed expenses?

Fixed expenses. The minimal, essential expenses for a family of four (or more) will be both different, and far exceed, those for a young, childless single person. Childcare expenses can be significant if there's no grandmother to volunteer. A family paying for grandparents' nursing home costs, or services for a person with a disability, or a mortgage, will have far less for food and other expenses than someone who does not.

Absolute dollars. No one can eat a percentage. Someone in the top 20%, earning $200,000 a year, has $140,000 left over after paying 30% ($60,000; $5,000 a month) for housing. Someone earning the minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) and lucky enough to work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year ($14,500 a year) has $10,150 ($846 a month) left over after paying 30% ($4,350, or $362.50 a month -- if such apartments even exist) for housing.


Like a bull in a china shop, or a pig in the parlor, there's nothing inherently wrong with capitalism -- so long as it's kept in its proper place. To protect competitors, employees and consumers some government regulation is often necessary, but "free private enterprise" and "marketplace competition" can produce greater incentives for innovation, productivity and efficiency by business, along with greater choice and lower prices for consumers.

But just as there are some sectors of the economy in which government ownership and operation may not be the optimum approach, there are also other sectors of the economy that seem inappropriate for capitalism.

There are some who seemingly want to privatize everything. But there appears to be at least a significant minority, if not majority, of Americans who recognize the advantages of public ownership and operation of K-12 schools; libraries; national, state, and local parks; and the Interstate Highway system.

Profit-maximizing businesses can have conflicts of interest when providing public goods. Experiments with private ownership of prisons, for example, show that there is an inherent conflict of interest between public policy goals of shorter sentences and alternatives to incarceration and the prison owners' goals of profit maximization: the more people convicted and incarcerated, and the longer their sentences, the greater their profits.

There are doctors and dentists who volunteer in free clinics and elsewhere to provide healthcare to those who otherwise would have to do without. But for the most part healthcare is a private, profit-maximizing industry. As those urging a form of universal, single-payer healthcare say -- a form of healthcare available to citizens in most industrialized countries -- there is a big difference between "health insurance" and "health care." The statistics on such measures as years of life expectancy, or rates of infant mortality, suggest that we are paying more while getting less and serving fewer than those countries. We joke about medical students who want their specialty to be "diseases of the rich," but the fact is that in a capitalist healthcare system everyone from medical professionals, to Big Pharma, to hospitals, to insurance company shareholders and executives would like to be paid more.

Admittedly, there is no more agreement regarding public housing than there is about healthcare. The UN may say, as quoted above, that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for . . . health and well-being" (including housing and healthcare), but there are still individuals who believe that even those without shoes should simply "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." [United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, December 10, 1948.]

Home builders and realtors will, when necessary, build, remodel, sell, or rent homes and condos to those scarcely able to pay. But when their income is calculated as a percentage of the price of their sold homes, or the square footage of those they've built, large, expensive homes for the wealthy are clearly to be preferred over those for the poor. Segregation in our communities is largely perpetuated by housing policies, which are often driven in part by what the upper 20 percent believe to be "the best schools."

A builder of a city center high rise full of condos, who can sell them for a half-million to a million dollars or more, has zero economic incentive to include units that college students, or minimum wage workers, could afford. Of course, a city government that is gifting the builder a portion of construction costs (say, a TIF that reduces the owner's property taxes) has a lot of leverage -- if it will use it -- to insist on some cheaper units. But that's little more than a tiny one-off contribution to the community's housing needs for the poor and working poor.

Which brings us to "data."


Schools don't just open their doors, let children wander in, and go to whatever room they please. Enrollment is limited by the numbers of classrooms, teachers, and desks. And there are precise records of each child, with information about parents or guardians, address, and perhaps special needs.

Successful businesses startups have business plans. The owners have at least some sense of traffic flow as well as revenue flow, the potential population from which they will draw, the competitors who will be offering the same or similar services.

It's not that those giving their lives to providing housing for the poor aren't aware of the value of comparable information about housing, or that they aren't making efforts to try to create it -- sometimes creative, impressive efforts. It's that they are simply not provided the resources they need to gather all the necessary data. They know, better than I, what they need. But here's how it looks from here.

Take Johnson County, Iowa, as an example. It's helpful to have another Habitat for Humanity house here, a shelter house there, a TIF requiring some below-market units in a condo project. But if we really want to get everyone housed, it's not enough to just "do something." We need some basic data about "supply" -- an inventory of what housing we have (whether occupied or not), such as, how many one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments there are, with their locations and rent.

The Census Bureau does a pretty good job of counting and reporting housing units. But apparently the landlords and developers are sometimes reluctant to reveal their rental rates and the number of vacancies.

Equally important, is information about "demand" -- especially regarding persons who can't afford any housing available in the county, and those who are suffering from "severe housing cost burden" (rent exceeding half of their income).

It is the demand side that is the most problematical. Ideally there would be enough social workers that every individual in the county in need of one or another form of assistance would be identified, regularly visited, and assisted in finding, or improving, their housing. Unfortunately, in today's political climate that's not likely to happen anytime soon.

However, gathering one county's housing supply and demand is not a "big data" project -- like the recent White House effort to create a database record of every person registered to vote in America, along with their personal data.

There are only 62,000 housing units in Johnson County, and 59 percent of them are owner-occupied -- presumably most of them by owners who are not in need of housing assistance. The remaining 40 percent would be a number that could fit in a single Excel spreadsheet on anyone's laptop computer.


Meanwhile, four things might help. (1) Think about a county's housing challenges as a whole, rather than one dwelling unit, and occupant, at a time. (2) Prioritize the need to gather as much detailed data as possible about the county's housing supply and demand. (3) Recognize that housing is but one of many interconnected challenges for those in need that can most effectively, and efficiently, be met by recognizing how they are connected. (4) Manage the undertaking with measurable goals, timelines, and public accountability in the form of management information reporting systems.

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Here is The Gazette's edited excerpt from this blog post (primarily the "Is there a right to housing?" section):

"Health Care, Housing Rights?"
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, Insight Guest Opinion, August 1, 2017, p. A5

There’s been discussion recently about housing (locally) and healthcare policy (nationally). Unlike government-funded programs used by all, these are programs for those most in need.

Developing public policy for social programs seems to be, as President Trump famously said, “an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that [it] could be so complicated.”

That’s not precisely accurate. We are blessed with thousands of knowledgeable, caring individuals who do know how complicated it is.

Do you and I have (legally) or feel (morally) obligations to care for those beyond our family or community? To what extent do others have a "right" to expect such care?

Former Congressman Joe Walsh unambiguously put in his answer: "Health care is not a right. Housing is not a right. A job is not a right. College is not a right."

If healthcare is a product and housing is a privilege; if a majority believe, and act as if, the needy have no "rights," and we have no "obligations," that pretty much ends the discussion.

Where to find insight?

Religion? Jesus said, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" and "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." The Bahai Universal House of Justice cites 16 major religions espousing the Golden Rule.

Founding documents? "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Virtually all the world's great religions, and nations, agree we have some obligations to fellow members of our species. And yet, Walsh speaks for many Americans.

That's somewhere between ironic and inexplicable, given more U.S. citizens say "religion is very important in their lives" than people elsewhere. How can we square denying healthcare with caring for "the least of these"?

Could it be our “representatives” have adopted their major donors’ belief that "my right to even bigger tax cuts trumps (so to speak) your right to come in out of the cold"?
Nicholas Johnson is a former FCC commissioner and law professor who maintains the blog, Contact:


Addendum: "Why Do So Many Christians Believe Lack of Effort is Cause of Poverty, or Jesus Would Oppose Government Social Programs?"

Since the publication of this column in the Gazette two categories of responses to my genuine puzzlement (how can our country be both the world's most religious, and so many believe that social programs are "not a right") have come to my attention. One is the disparity between the religious and non-religious regarding the cause of poverty (circumstances vs. lack of effort): Julie Zauzmer, "Christians Are more Than Twice as Likely to Blame a Person's Poverty on Lack of Effort," Washington Post, August 4, 2017 ("53 percent of white evangelical Protestants blamed lack of effort while 41 percent blamed circumstances, . . .. In contrast, . . . Americans who are atheist, agnostic or have no particular affiliation [31 percent blamed lack of effort while 65 percent] said difficult circumstances are more to blame when a person is poor . . ..")

The other came in the form of emails insisting I had misinterpreted Jesus' teachings. Advocating from a WWJD ("what would Jesus do") position, they seemed to be arguing that, (1) were Jesus around to state his case today, he would oppose, or at a minimum not encourage, government programs to help the poor. (2) All Jesus ever said was that individuals should care for "the least of these" -- something that many individuals and churches are doing.

I view this difference of interpretation as analogous to the "original intent" arguments around the "meaning" of the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution refers to an "army" and "navy" but makes no mention of an "air force." Yet no one I know of argues that the Air Force is unconstitutional. To the best of my memory the New Testament has little to say about governmental social programs for the needy -- the existence of such programs during Jesus' years, or even their proposal and rejection. If this was something beyond anyone's imagining at the time (even Jesus' imagining), one can't really fault him for a failure to advocate it.

Were Jesus around today he would probably be denied immigration status, and thus the issue would never arise. But if he was permitted to enter the U.S., it's not unreasonable to suspect -- given what he is credited with saying about caring for others, and the problems flowing from great wealth -- that he would adapt his role of activist to our culture, likely be a Bernie supporter, only be televised on Democracy Now!, and probably advocate for more (rather than less) taxpayer-funded programs for the poor.

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