Can we solve it?
Due to circumstances related to prodigious wealth — or the contrast, incredible poverty — I’m not sure many folks are ready to comprehend this new crisis, which will continue to accelerate. A wave of financial ruin is preparing to engulf a large swath of Americans, which is very likely to then gradually affect our economy and individual communities. Millions of people are extensively behind on their rent and other bills. Furthermore, for some, their rent debt is approaching somewhere close to $30K. I suppose many folks may be asking: how will we even begin to deal with this? The arduous quandary for the U.S. might be something like this: how long before their financial struggle becomes our financial deterioration?
I read an article in Time magazine over the weekend, which helped put all this into perspective. The piece, written by Abby Vesoulis, fully encapsulates the struggle many are enduring in Seattle, Washington:
“Landlords and tenants across the country are navigating similar situations. As COVID-19 shuttered bars and restaurants and devastated the blue collar job market, millions of Americans watched their financial security vanish. While the unemployment rate has leveled off in recent months, more than a third of U.S. adults are still struggling to pay basic household expenses, according to a January Census Bureau survey, and 11% reported that their households didn’t get enough to eat the prior week. Nearly 12 million U.S. renters were expected to owe an average of almost $6,000 in late rent and utility payments per household by January, according to a December analysis by the economic research firm Moody’s Analytics.
So far, many of those tenants have gotten a reprieve. Several cities, like Seattle, and states, including Washington, have made it temporarily illegal for landlords to evict most tenants for nonpayment during the pandemic. In September 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strengthened these protections by issuing a federal ban on most evictions through January, which President Joe Biden extended through March 31. But these short-term fixes leave open the question of what happens when the eviction moratoriums expire in the coming months. Housing advocates predict both a tsunami of evictions and a significant rise in homelessness. “If we do not find a way to keep people in their homes, it’s going to be overload,” says Jeanice Hardy, regional director of family and related services for the YWCA serving Seattle and King and Snohomish counties. “There’s not enough shelters to go around.”
I think most people were cognizant of how abysmal our housing crisis was before the pandemic. Perhaps, at the time, it was something more of an annoyance. When you compound the current unemployment situation and the housing crisis, it now becomes apocalyptic. People who have pre-existing conditions and can’t work without risking their lives are forlorn. We have a scenario in which people are sequestered into a dark corner, accruing debt, and not knowing whether they will be forced out of their homes.
On social media, the looming eviction crisis is often rendered in Dickensian caricature: greedy fat-cat landlords pushing vulnerable tenants into the street amid the worst health crisis in a century, while activists demand that the government “cancel rent” entirely. The reality, as the case of Aldama and de Laat shows, is more complicated. More than 70% of properties with four or fewer rental units aren’t owned by fat cats at all, according to the National Association of Realtors, but rather people like de Laat: mom-and-pop landlords who often live nearby; manage the property themselves; and rely on the rental income to pay their own mortgages, health care bills and monthly expenses. Almost half the nearly 49 million rental units in the U.S. are owned by individuals, who tend to offer more affordable housing in their communities than the billion-dollar conglomerates that build high-rises with marble counters and rooftop pools.
These small landlords are shouldering a huge burden during the pandemic. For many, it’s increasingly untenable. De Laat, who has since found a good new job working in gene therapy for a pharmaceutical company, is on better financial footing now. She remains “morally opposed to putting people out if they can’t pay, especially under these circumstances,” she says, but notes that “every bit” of the extra income she’s making goes toward paying for Aldama’s housing. “It’s not sustainable,” she says. “But I also don’t see a means for them ever to be able to work on paying stuff back.”
Let’s think about this for a second: 49 million rental units in this country are owned by individuals. This seems like a consequential revelation, a consciousness that brings back a reference to the Great Depression. It’s easy to assume large companies own condominiums, apartment complexes, or houses; but, as Vesoulis points out, this is simply not the case. Let’s put ourselves in this scenario for a moment: rent hasn’t been paid to landlords; landlords have not paid their mortgages; landlords are not allowed to evict their tenants; mortgage companies, in many cases, allowed their borrowers forbearance; then what? Seems like a major problem for the economy.
There is a large portion of Vesoulis’ piece that hit me, profoundly. What about the human element of this problem? You have countless situations where people were fundamentally forced into this state of despair. She references the tenant at De Laat’s property:
OLLIE ALDAMA’S STORY may sound painfully familiar to millions of working-class Americans. After suffering a severe bout of necrotizing pancreatitis in 2014 that left him in a three-month coma, he struggled to get back on his feet, plagued by a rare condition that causes his bones to grow where they shouldn’t. His knees, basically fossilized, preclude him from taking a trade job, and his weakened immune system makes in-person roles particularly dangerous amid a pandemic. While he was once a phlebotomist, his health certifications have long since expired.
Before COVID-19, Aldama took home about $35,000 a year on average. Now he’s bringing in about a third of that, delivering takeout through DoorDash and Postmates. “I don’t really ever buy new things,” says Aldama, 40, noting that everything that he’s wearing, except his socks and underwear, is used. But no amount of thriftiness is enough to take him out of the red now, he adds, puffing on a half-dozen cigarettes over the course of an hour-long interview. “There’s never been a point in my adult life,” he says, “where I ever thought I would be a hair’s width away from living on the street.”
Does our government have any resources and/or options for millions who are in this spot? I think there are some, in various factions of the government, that are quick to blame people for their health issue: common phrases like, “they brought that on themselves,” or “they just need to figure it out.” Are these reasonable assertations? Wouldn’t it be more practical to provide options for communities, so that these communities can assist the disenfranchised?
In a piece by Jill Watts, also in Time, she makes a strong reference to how FDR’s New Deal seems to offer a guide for handling this current ordeal. She talks about how it’s very easy for Americans to presume housing is a privilege that is earned, not just a given.
Sure, I feel it’s incredibly important to be proud of the home you own and invested in, but WE must understand that providing housing to all in the community should be a goal for ameliorating our future. I’m sure people don’t want to travel around their communities and see countless homeless encampments and just declare: they did it to themselves; they are lazy. I don’t see that.
The relief provided by New Deal housing projects is as relevant today as it was in the 1930s. Government contracts rescued builders and industries. In turn, they provided jobs to skilled and unskilled laborers. Completed projects offered affordable homes and apartments to struggling Americans.
Roosevelt was deeply committed to public housing. He warned that a failure to provide housing assistance would imperil the nation. In his State of the Union address in 1937, Roosevelt linked public housing with the public good and the preservation of the American system of government. “There are far-reaching problems still with us for which democracy must find solutions if it is to consider itself successful,” Roosevelt observed. “For example, many millions of Americans still live in habitations which not only fail to provide the physical benefits of modern civilization but breed disease and impair the health of future generations.” FDR’s unheeded words strike a chilling note today.
Roosevelt and his New Deal team saw the benefits of public housing to be multifold. Not only would federally sponsored housing elevate public health, it could shape communities. New Deal housing would incorporate public spaces where children could play and be educated. Community and recreational centers would uplift neighborhoods by providing training and encouraging exercise. Ideally (although not always in practice), the architecture of housing projects would be aesthetically appealing, which was regarded as essential to the emotional well-being of residents.
I feel like we can get to where we build off Roosevelt’s foundation, a place where we can better our communities by allowing people to flourish. Pundits might argue against public housing because of raised taxes, which, as they argue, debilitates their financial gain. But does it? Long term, it appears to be more beneficial to root communities of substantial poverty, sickness, and desolation. And in return, we can build communities, where their residents are thriving by its triumphs. If the residents in these public housing developments are employed and raising their families in the realm of “American idealism,” we bolster our wealth as a nation. After all, when communities prosper, they enrich our nation.
Federal housing assistance became a missed opportunity. But now it has become an urgent necessity. If the projected economic impact of COVID-19 proves true, it will require bold and decisive action of the sort we have not seen since the Depression. As Robert Weaver once observed “You cannot have physical renewal without human renewal” — he understood the fortunes of the nation were intertwined with that of the individual. And in the minds of the New Dealers who pioneered public housing, the nation’s well-being depended on recognizing that all Americans merited fair, safe and decent housing.
As we come out of the pandemic, and our elected officials are struggling to understand how to assist those who have struggled so badly, I wonder if maybe we should get back to understanding Robert Weaver’s observation: you can’t have physical renewal without human renewal. If we are leaving Aldama out to suffer, how will this enrich our economic prosperity? Now, I’m not saying it’s feasible to just forgive all the money the landlords and renters owe; but, wouldn’t it be a nice start to support the development of affordable housing projects?
Biden has also suggested building new public-housing communities that don’t resemble the dilapidated projects of yesteryear. Low-income housing advocates envision 100-acre, mixed-income neighborhoods sprinkled with coffeehouses, doctors’ offices, public schools, community centers and library branches, all within walking distance.
Greenbridge, a housing community in unincorporated King County just south of Seattle’s city limits, is something of a model. It has 325 subsidized housing units scattered among hundreds of other affordable homes. Families from different socioeconomic groups share parks and more than five dozen public art installations. The subsidized residents are shielded in periods of economic duress: they pay up to 30% of their income toward rent, while public-housing authorities pick up the remainder. If a resident’s income declines because of a layoff or reduction in work hours, their monthly rental burden follows suit. The system is designed to boost residents out of poverty and to prevent their children from falling into the same trap. “We like to say that if we’re raising the next generation of public-housing applicants, we failed,” says Stephen Norman, the executive director of the King County housing authority, which developed the project.
It may be incongruous to assume the federal government is going to absolve people’s debt, so why not turn to this alternative? King County is an impressive example of the fundamental public housing initiatives to better the lives of many Americans. There are innumerable Americans who have lived in fear during the pandemic, wondering what happens if they lose their job. I think more Americans are conjecturing: what happens when the government won’t be there to offer subsidies and relief? It may be a courageous notion to declare the immediate development of public housing in today’s ever obstinate and often disconnected society. However, FDR was right during the New Deal, and he’s right now.
1. Vesoulis, Abby. “The crises around the corner.” Time. March 1st edition via Apple News. Accessed February 23, 2021.
2. Watts, Jill. “As Coronavirus Magnifies America’s Housing Crises, FDR’s New Deal Could Offer a Roadmap.” Time. April 24, 2020. https://time.com/5826392/coronavirus-housing-history/. Accessed February 23, 2021.