Rental Policies Attest to Anti-Poor Systems
In 2016, Princeton sociology professor Matthew Desmond published, and won the Pulitzer Prize for, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. By embedding himself in first a poor Black neighborhood, and then a poor white area in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This was before the elections, before everyone started looking to Wisconsin and other Midwestern states, looking at white grievance. The book was aimed at the underlying fault lines beneath the Great Recession.
Desmond uncovered housing challenges originated in an earlier era’s “redlining” areas to keep our nation’s Black population down. Substandard rental housing, he found, cost pretty much the same as middle class housing. Laws protected landlords; those facing eviction had little recourse but to duplicate past events with a worsening housing profile. Worse was the fact that the situation was replicated in white communities where residents felt they were better than those in Black neighborhoods based solely on racist attitudes.
“If the profits of urban landlords were modest, that would be one thing. But often they are not,” Desmond wrote in his book’s epilogue. “The annual income of the landlord of perhaps the worst trailer park in the fourth-poorest city in America is 30 times that of his tenants working full-time for minimum wage and 55 times the annual income of his tenants receiving welfare or SSI [Supplemental Security Income]. There are two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.”
And to think: this was observed and analyzed back in the good old days before our national problems were tripled by COVID-19, the current divisions over everything from masks to systemic racism, and an economic downturn that many believe will constitute a complete change in the way money works hereafter.
My wife, Fawn Potash, works with an agency that deals with meeting people’s needs, no matter their challenges. She’s part of a network of housing and hunger coalitions up and down the Hudson Valley and has found that calls regarding housing have risen from 30 percent of all inquiries three years ago to over 80 percent of her business now. Even worse, she has been pointing out each evening this year, is a concurrent and increasing number of people facing or in the midst of homelessness.
And to think, again, that this is while there’s still been a moratorium on evictions, and the last days of pumped-up unemployment payments have still been in effect.
Here in the Hudson Valley, much is being written about the influx of people moving up from New York City and its environs, driven to buy and rent by fears and worries exacerbated by COVID-19’s heavy hits on the metro area this past spring. There have been stories about small towns writing legislation to deal with growing rosters using Airbnb, as well as those rents’ rapid increases. Personally, I’ve been fielding calls from friends and family who’ve seen their careers upended by lockdowns, their city rents rendered unaffordable the further they’ve dived into their savings to survive.
But that’s all the tip of a much larger iceberg that now threatens, or promises, deep systemic changes in the ways we look at housing moving forward. Along with the ways in which we all face our nation’s and society’s needs, and whether we can and should expand our idea of inalienable rights beyond ideals of property ownership and profit, the freedom to spout opinions of all stripes, and gun ownership and use.
“Universal housing programs have been successfully implemented all over the developed world. In countries that have such programs, every single family with an income below a certain level who meets basic program requirements has a right to housing assistance,” Desmond found four years ago. “A universal voucher program would change the face of poverty in this country. Evictions would plummet and become rare occurrences. Homelessness would almost disappear. Families would immediately feel the income gains and be able to buy enough food, invest in themselves and their children through schooling or job training, and start modest savings. They would find stability and have a sense of ownership over their home and community.”
But is such a programmatic solution even debatable in a political world where even unemployment benefits are seen by many as a disincentive to work for others, for a system where profits are still more important than employment.
More importantly, can we solve a problem for the less fortunate among us when so much of our utopian dreaming is still based on theories involving ownership and middle classic idealism? Communal living is great when everyone shares goals, has money, and enjoys a certain homogeneity of purpose and maybe even past. It exists, in a way, on stoops and in projects. But it still gets eaten away by poverty and its challenges.
One class or community aiding another can seem to alleviate difficulties. But then aspects of colonialism arise. And inequality only grows and festers.
Projects or rehabs? Outside funding and workers or skills training and incentive funding? Mixed use, with a sprinkling of affordable and owner-occupied housing, or distinctly empowered communities?
It’s a quandary in need of new philosophies that will make whatever’s undertaken and honed feel fresh. Yet those philosophies are awaiting bad conditions to define themselves, or disappear. The only thing certain is that none of the solutions, beyond immediate results such as Desmond’s findings, are merely political. Unless one starts to address all our societal needs as rights we all have to respect. Our world is not one ever imagined by founders, or earlier doctrinaires.
This Hudson Valley, diverse in its reach from urban to rural, from Westchester north to Albany and Troy, as well as from Phoenicia and Ellenville east to Millbrook and Chatham, yet challenged by increasing gentrification and underlying myths regarding its real equality in terms of income, race, and opportunity, can still be a great test area for change. We’ve got history to play a future off of. We’re adept at experimentation, yet also ready to shift course if and when we fail at broadening our perspectives.
“Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering—by no American value is this situation justified,” reads the final paragraph of Evicted. “No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”
Which is as true when it comes to housing as it is with hunger, with education based on digital access and school district, with opportunity and political empowerment, with income and the ability to keep on breathing.
And most importantly, is more true now than when Matthew Desmond wrote his eye-woking book a mere four years back.
Change is needed. Change is how we can achieve it across every system.