Saturday, September 25, 2021

Solving Our Housing Disgrace

Housing has been in the news. Roughly 500,000 are homeless any given evening. "The number of poor, renter households experiencing a severe housing cost burden (i.e., those paying more than 50 percent of their income toward housing) totaled 6,902,060 in 2016." ["The State of Homelessness in America."] "The United States may be facing the most severe housing crisis in its history. . . . [An] estimated 30–40 million people in America could be at risk of eviction in the next several months." [Emily Benfer et al., "The COVID-19 Eviction Crisis," Aspen Institute, August 7, 2020.]

What are our values and goals regarding the provision of housing?

Our international housing value and goal is expressed in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including . . . housing. . ..”

Presumably, we can agree to a standard at least as high as what the Iowa Legislature provides for animals.

Iowa Code Section 717B.3 provides the penalties for “animal neglect.” “A person commits animal neglect when the person . . . fails to provide the animal with . . . ventilated shelter reasonably sufficient to provide adequate protection from the elements and weather conditions . . .. The shelter must protect the animal from wind, rain, snow, or sun and have adequate bedding to provide reasonable protection against cold and dampness.”

Can we at least start there for humans as well?

Having agreed on the goal, the next step is to explore the alternative means of reaching it.

Private ownership. Most housing is created and provided by developers, contractors, and landlords who “own” the housing and price it at “what the market will bear” – that is, maximizing profits up to the amount beyond which the increase in price so diminishes demand that overall income is reduced. This system works well for the owners – and is satisfactory for the buyers and renters with incomes of $75,000 and up, unless a “housing shortage” drives prices beyond what they would be in a more competitive market. But it tends to shut out the homeless and those working for the minimum wage, or otherwise in the bottom 20% of the population as measured by both income and wealth.

Private-government blend. TIFs, Section 8 and other programs are designed to incentivize owners with cash payments from taxpayers. This model is used throughout our economy, including housing. Its limitations are (1) often a disproportionate focus on and benefit for the middle class rather than the low income and poor, (2) the amorphous standard of “affordable housing” can include making a $400,000 condo available for $200,000, and (3) little to no limitation or regulation regarding how much profit (from taxpayers’ money) goes to owners.

Government housing. While government housing programs must play a role, they have had their problems as well.

Churches, other non-profits, and organizations. It is a wonderful, community-building thing that individuals are willing to come together to fund, organize, and provide additional housing for those most in need. Building a Habitat for Humanity dwelling does create a house that becomes someone’s home, an improved community spirit, and for those who build it a worthwhile sense of having done some good in this world for others. But it cannot, alone, make much of a dent in the 500,000 homeless sleeping on the streets, and the millions more low-income folks sleeping in their cars.

Keeping on keeping on. Of course, we need to continue to do what we can with what we have while endeavoring to bring more attention, commitment, and resources to housing for all.

But the bottom-line reality and shame that hangs over our nation’s housing failure will stay with us until over a majority of Americans, and their elected officials, set a top priority goal of creating and providing decent shelter to every American – and then pursue that goal with the determination and perseverance we applied to winning World War II, or putting a man on the moon.

Failing to provide shelter to animals is a violation of law called “animal neglect.” Can we not agree that failing to provide shelter for humans, “human neglect,” is as worthy of legal protection?

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