Sunday, January 14, 2018

The US Housing Famine

Housing infrastructure is critical to health.  The MacArthur Foundation pulled together housing research it had sponsored to help educators, health professional and those concerned with economic mobility understand how stable access to affordable housing helped people prosper.  The report notes:
Housing is a launching pad to successful lives. High-quality housing in strong neighborhoods positions residents to capitalize on the opportunities before them. And investing in communities reaps benefits beyond the particular neighborhood in lower social, health, and economic costs city and region-wide. 
Housing is a foundational piece of the infrastructure of the nation, along with our roads and rails, energy, clean water, and safe food systems.  Our infrastructure, in general, is in a sorry state, scoring a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers.  In its report card on America's infrastructure, ASCE said of our bridges, which got a C+ rating:
The U.S. has 614,387 bridges, almost four in 10 of which are 50 years or older.  56,007 -- 9/1% -- of the nation's bridges were structurally deficient in 2016, and on average there were 188 million trips across a structurally deficient bridge each day... The most recent estimate puts the nation's backlog of bridge rehabilitation needs as $123 billion.  
The newspapers are full of stories of our housing crisis and all its ramifications: homelessness among veterans, the long hunt for apartments, and the threat of eviction.  This paragraph, in a story about people in their "golden years" taking in roommates, caught my attention.   
For those who are still working age, it's getting harder to pay the rent: According to a StreetEast survey, rents in the city rose twice as fast as wages between 2010 and 2017.  The lowest rents (those up to $2,300) rose 4.9 percent annually since 2010, which means someone who paid $1,500 a month in 2010 likely paid nearly $600 more for the same place in 2017.  
According to the same article, seniors make up a larger proportion of the homeless population than they did before, a related part of the growing housing crisis.  The Boston Housing Report Card analyzes the situation in that city, and in 2017 noted the following parts: decrease in housing starts, decrease in affordable housing production, increasing proportion of people paying more than 30% of income for housing (52% of renters and 36% of home owners), and an increase in foreclosures.  These combine to make a very difficult housing situation for the poor, and tight -- if not quite as difficult -- situation for those with greater income.  This is the opposite of what the MacArthur Foundation is telling us we need to create for healthy population.  

Rodrick Wallace adopted the term "housing famine" in the 1990s in relationship to the crisis of homelessness that followed the implementation of planned shrinkage policies in the mid-1970s in New York City.  This graph, from Coalition for the Homeless, show the rising numbers of homeless people in the city following on the heels of the massive destruction of low-income housing by planned shrinkage.

The famous economist, Amartya Sen, asserted, "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy."  This leaves us to consider the options, among others: does his assertion only apply to food? is the US not in a housing famine? is the US not a functioning democracy?  I think these are important questions to answer.  In the meantime, the compilation of a national report card on housing for all should be an assignment given to some group -- how do we rate?  How can we begin to assert that housing is an essential part national infrastructure?

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