The Human Aspect of Housing
When I was asked to speak at the 2020 New Housing Solutions event, I had no idea it would spark memories from almost 30 years ago. Memories of events in my life I have never shared with anyone, not even my closest friends. In the fall of 1992, my mother sat me down and explained that we would be moving. She had to make the challenging, yet immediate decision about where we would live. It was my senior year of high school.
For most of my childhood, I grew up in a single-family home in East St. Louis, Illinois. So, when my mother informed me we would be moving to the Orr Weathers public housing projects, I was baffled. I cried. I was embarrassed. I knew people who lived in the projects, but I never imagined I would be one of them. Public housing was for poor people, and we were not poor. My mother explained that she had tried to find safe, affordable housing for us, but on such short notice, this was our only option. While we only stayed in the Orr Weathers for about a year, it would have a lasting impact on my life and reshape my views on public housing.
Like so many other working families, my family struggled to find quality, affordable, safe housing. My mother could afford to pay rent, yet she lacked housing options due to crime, slumlords, and excessive fees. She would eventually leave East St. Louis, although it was not what she wanted. And, while living in the Orr Weathers was not what I wanted, the experience taught me several lessons about the importance of finding new solutions for the ongoing housing crisis.
Dirty Words. Affordable, Low-Income, and Public Housing have all become words no one wants to speak. As I recall, there was no excitement in my mother’s voice when she told me of our move to public housing. In the 1990s, the government and the community had associated doom and gloom with public housing. And it holds true today when we discuss terms like affordable and low-income housing. Residents of low-income, affordable, and public housing are not second-class citizens, less educated, or unscrupulous people; however, individuals and families who live in these dwellings have been labeled as such. These misconceptions often hinder residents from experiencing a better quality of life due to limited funding for development projects and NIMBY (not in my back yard) protests in communities fighting against this type of housing. Education is critical to create more housing opportunities. It may also be necessary to develop more inclusive terminology to move the conversation forward.
Policy Shifts and Funding. Housing policies do not often translate into actionable plans to benefit the individuals for which they were created. Policy design and implementation should include people who understand the needs and preferences of the community. It is almost impossible for outsiders to understand housing dilemmas and challenges faced by residents. The federal, state, and local governments must work together to establish programs and policies to expand affordable housing. Cities cannot address the housing crisis alone, as there are no shortcuts to tackling housing deficits. The federal government must change the laws to expand public housing and create tax incentives for policy inclusion of housing development. Tax credits and tax incentives on state and local levels must focus on creative ways to model capital stacks to make resources available to reduce the cost of development. Finally, cities should require developers to contribute fees to local, affordable housing funds to build more affordable housing units and create equity in development.
Helping People Thrive Post COVID-19. The COVID-19 economic fallout has disproportionately impacted low-income and working families. With massive job loss and reduced wages, housing is at the forefront of problems people are facing. Many people are unable to pay their mortgage or rent, adding stress to an already fragile housing market and increasing the likelihood of evictions once moratoriums are lifted. The federal government should employ an “Economically Distressed Initiative” to manage communities‘ emergency housing needs. The programs must include economic support strategies to help cities and counties address communities’ immediate, emerging, and long-term needs.