As Housing Secretary Ben Carson moves to make life more difficult for America’s struggling poor from his well-furnished, secure office in Washington, D.C., a national exhibit, "Evicted," has opened in the National Building Museum across town. The exhibit is a compelling look at the grim, painful and often lasting experience of being without a home, and serves to alert the public to the fact that eviction has become nothing short of a national health crisis.
Housing insecurity can undermine the stability of communities; eviction can affect everything from physical and mental health to performance on the job and in school. And, eviction can follow families for the rest of their lives. With negative rental histories that evictions leave in their wake, future landlords, including affordable housing properties and public housing authorities, can deny them housing.
Given the lack of affordable housing — the demand far exceeds the supply, and demand is growing — public housing is a last resort, and yet Carson is trying to put even that out of reach. The public’s landlord proposes to raise the rent on 4 million people by an average of 20 percent in order, he says, to push them to find work. But these people are working; they’re just not earning enough, and there are few affordable housing options for them. Indeed, poor and low-income people are often working two or three jobs to pay the rent.
For those unable to find work, consider this: At 3.8 percent, the unemployment rate is at its lowest since 2000. Carson isn’t offering jobs to residents, mind you, just empty rhetoric about "paths toward self-sufficiency" and "a way out of poverty." Meanwhile, wages haven’t kept pace with housing expenses, and the overall cost of living is rising.
Evicted – an exhibition at the National Building Museum
In short, Carson is spinning a web of lies based on false premises. The only truth is his contempt for the poor. He wants to allow housing authorities to impose work requirements, increase the percentage of income tenants are required to pay from 30 to 35 percent, raise the minimum rent from $50 to $150, and eliminate the current deductions for medical care and child care (currently families can deduct $480 per child). That’s the essence of Carson’s "Make Affordable Housing Work Act."
This move is being promoted as a way to save federal dollars even as the folks at the top of the nation’s economic pyramid are enjoying the fruits of their huge federal tax cuts. Consider too that federal policy has been more supportive of owners, not renters, for all too many years, regardless of political affiliation.
During the Reagan administration, for example, federal spending on housing assistance hemorrhaged by 50 percent. In Reagan’s view, homelessness was a personal failing; homeless people were homeless "by choice," Reagan said on Good Morning America in 1984. During the Clinton years, public housing support fared no better; the HUD budget declined.
When the subprime mortgage crisis hit in 2007, modern mass homelessness began with foreclosures–3,000,000 in 2009 and 2010–that increased demand for rental housing, a supply that didn’t keep up. (National Low Income Housing Coalition)
A stable place to call home is one of the best predictors of success, so one would think investing in that housing is wise public policy. Yet, each year more than 2.3 million Americans, most of them low-income renters, face eviction. While it used to be rare even in the poorest neighborhoods, forcible removal has become ordinary, with families facing eviction from the most squalid, barely habitable apartments.
The "Evicted" exhibit features families from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who appear in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City" (Crown, 2016) by Matthew Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, but that experience is hardly removed from New Jersey. The exhibit features five families from Morris County.
To emphasize the impact of poverty on housing, curators for "Evicted" inform visitors that they paid $586 for the particle board used in the exhibit, an amount that is about the same amount of money one of Desmond’s subjects in Milwaukee would make in a month.
So, how far would that sum go in New Jersey? The average gross income of the 20 families now residing in a Morris County nonprofit shelter run by Homeless Solutions, for example, is $1,286 a month, making it impossible for them to pay rent, child care and their other expenses, given that the cost of housing in the county averages around $1,600 a month.
New Jersey’s economy isn’t helping either. The rate of households considered "working poor," those who cannot meet everyday costs, has climbed to more than 40 percent, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective.
According to Homeless Solution’s executive director, Dan McGuire, "Choosing between a roof over your head and food in your mouth is a choice no parent ever wants to make."
New evidence of the high housing costs in New Jersey, moreover, surfaced last month in a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Among its findings is this one: The average cost of rent in this state — the seventh-highest in the nation — is $1,465. Residents need to earn $28.17 an hour to afford it, and yet, the current minimum wage in the state is $8.60 an hour, which is earned by 135,000 New Jerseyans. The governor has promised to raise that to $15, a good move but an insufficient one.
We need to do better on local, state and federal fronts, in public, private and nonprofit domains. First and foremost, Carson should abandon his regressive moves and the dismissive and disrespectful treatment of those needing housing. Investment in existing public housing is essential. The neglect by public authorities has been highlighted in The Star-Ledger: Newark’s housing authority has a lot to correct and the federal government needs to step up to see that public bodies that rely on federal funding do their job.
This huge and complex crisis requires additional strategies as well. Using capital markets differently — to solve social problems, for example — has been suggested by John Streur, the chief executive of Calvert Research and Management. He sees socially responsible investing as an avenue, according to the New York Times. And, we need more empathetic entrepreneurs such as tech mogul Marc Benioff, who is working on a plan to get every homeless family off the streets of San Francisco and into housing. He says $150 million will do it. He believes public companies have a responsibility to contribute to the public good:
"When I went to U.S.C., it was all about maximizing value for shareholders," he told the Times. "But we’re moving into a world about stakeholders. … Your employees are stakeholders, so are your customers, your partners, the communities that you’re in, the homeless that are nearby, your public schools. A company like ours can’t be successful in an unsuccessful economy or in an unsuccessful environment. … We have to take responsibility for all of those things."
Pay attention, Amazon. And quit flexing your muscles to avoid taking any responsibility for the homeless crisis in Seattle. You are the city’s largest employer and you are pricing lower-income workers out of housing. You fought against a progressive tax designed to tackle one of the nation’s highest homeless rates and got others to join you. Now, what do you propose to do? You and other corporations wanted tax relief and you got it; tax incentives, and you got those. Will you help to make space, adequate living space, possible for the poor? You are members of communities too.
Moves to create large-scale municipal housing, built and owned by the state, are the primary recommendation of the People’s Policy Project, a think tank created in 2017 that has studied the housing crisis. We need to see action by cities and states to ensure requirements for "just cause" for evictions and legal-defense assistance for tenants facing eviction. For example, a coalition of housing advocates — including New Community Corporation, Essex Newark Legal Services and Rutgers-Newark — is working on legislation to provide tenants access to legal representation. Municipal ordinances that require affordable units in new developments are essential strategies — Newark passed one recently– as are aggressive efforts to put rent-control initiatives on local ballots.
Employing zoning ordinances to allow for social and shared housing is a strategy that uses existing housing stock in creative ways. And, as noted, another way to make a dent can be "head taxes" on corporations to fund affordable housing for those they have displaced by their expansions.
Organizing efforts for rent regulation and social housing, taking shape across the country, de-emphasize private markets and promote noncommercial, community-controlled housing through cooperatives, mutual-housing associations and other non!market ownership models. Among others, Homes for All — launched in 2013 by the Right to the City Alliance, a network of progressive political organizations — is connecting tenant organizations across the country to press for their demands.
Generating sufficient housing by using market forces has simply proved to be inadequate to the need. Government needs to do more to fill the gap.
The importance of "Evicted" can’t be overstated. Putting a face on poverty, on the struggles of low-income, marginalized people to stay in their homes, to assist them in advocacy, and to join with others to increase affordable housing in our cities and towns — all these efforts are needed if we are to make any headway in mitigating the underlying causes of housing insecurity.
We need a galvanizing national movement to put the housing crisis at the top of our nation’s priorities, and we need to get started now. New Jersey is a good place to start.
Linda Stamato, a frequent contributor to The Star-Ledger, is a faculty fellow at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, a co-director of its Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution.