in We the People Series

A New America

America has not seen an argument for affordable housing, and infrastructure since the post-WWII 1950s.  At that time the incentive was in the service of veterans and a national defense strategy to spread out the population.  The approach today would be to build on American capacity for diversity and building America’s energy future. The civil rights movement provides the Constitutional bedrock for a fair and successful investment in housing. However, the fossil fuel industries political purchase of the “fracking states,” has federal government’s lawmakers legislatively groveling before the demands of this giant industry.

More than a half-century later, the House of Representatives has an opportunity to assist (if not force) a Senate debate on these issues (housing, energy, and infrastructure) as they continue to gain national significance as local priorities.  An opportunity to create a New America awaits. Each state delegation understands their constituent’s desire to keep or acquire affordable homes, clean water, and reliable sources of renewable energy. House and Senate members also gain public support when they seek common ground and reach out to strengthen the body of America as a whole. No matter where people are or how well they live in their districts, they are sensitive to bad news. They also know their character, and that of their community echoes in the least among them. It is time to close in on new policies that support investment in the future of energy, housing, and infrastructure.

When violent change hits a community, the question turns to first responder’s capacity, then speed, followed by when (or if) the full weight of federal support occurs. If the change is massive but slow, as if following the logic of a cancer cell, a long-term sense of resilience is essential. Leverage for needed change will be found in these fast and slow forms of damage. The “small fires” response to sudden catastrophes in the national context continues to produce quality emergency management skills. Service providers and communication systems reach deeply from federal to local levels. The service of a national post-trauma framework is building strength because it is vital, but first-response systems are quickly overwhelmed without front-end steps in mitigation that can pull its people out of trouble at a steady and reliable pace along with outright prevention.

There are a few people in the House and Senate that have a growing sense of urgency because they see more “small-fires” and the evidence of cancer in housing and infrastructure. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has found a shortage of 7.4 million affordable rental units for America’s 11.4 million extremely low-income families. (report here). The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a series of reports on America’s infrastructure needs. One of them is on the current “bait and switch” mirage plan.

False choices emerge during stress. One option is to go against your neighbor as a solution, and the other is to find ways that build a stronger, more perfect union among neighbors and nations. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s American Housing and Economic Mobility Act is a stronger union idea with two parts worth study; we will build 3.2 million affordable homes and provide $10 billion for a competitive infrastructure program. Senator Kamala Harris Rent Relief Act, (tax credit) identifies millions of households in need of help, and Senator Cory Booker wants more state and local governments to adopt inclusive zoning policies. Warren sees the big picture, Harris aims at families facing displacement because rents are moving well past wages (see Pew Research Study) and Booker wants 20% of the housing in market-rate development made affordable to moderate-income families. All work to avert a crisis with supply and demand side incentives and subsidies.

The increase in proposed House legislation on housing since 2016 is built on facts demanding a fair and equal investment in people, health, transportation, and education. (See Lincoln Institute analysis on inclusion (here) and dozens of other publications (here). Behind these initiatives prowls the lessons of the 2008 Recession. Fannie, Freddie, and the Federal Housing Administration guaranteed 90% of new home loans in the United States at a time when banking regulation and trading in mortgage securities blended to produce fraud and put at risk the loss of billions in taxpayer’s money. For a decade, 2008 to 2018, the Treasury has yet to figure out how to sustain Dodd-Frank (see weakened status here) in order to get more private capital into the market so taxpayer money is not as much on the line despite the caveat emptor hook.

One number above all other metrics suggests a housing affordability and infrastructure emergency is pending. It is around 40,000 people living in NYC shelters with a growing percentage of emotionally distressed and mentally ill people in the population. The number alone is less telling than realizing how and why it is staying and lasting at this number for decades. Homelessness has become a production function of cities. In NYC, an additional 35,000 people by official estimates are homeless as transient or invisible. There are no rules to stop these numbers from exponential growth.  Homelessness in the United States goes up slightly for a few years and declines. Rising rents and natural disasters contribute to the increase.

The lack of “job access through reverse commutes” to regional opportunities known as JARC was discontinued in 2016. Some funding programs remain, but the focus on balance is lost. Losing the battle for affordable access to jobs through pre-emption services also produces an unknown number of homeless entering suburban and rural areas. These communities have affordability concerns too and the presence of invisible homelessness is repealing laws that prohibit the co-habitation of unrelated individuals. The lack of a federal role in recognizing urban economic stress also involves sole dependence on cars for mobility and the affordability of suburban and rural housing.

The Housing and Transportation Affordability Index (H+T) looks closely at neighborhoods by combining the cost of housing with the cost of transportation. H+T analysis reveals an urgent need for innovative investments in transit-based housing and infrastructure. The Center for Neighborhood Technology’s index finds the annual cost for the use of one car ranges from $7,500 to over $10,000 based on vehicle type and miles traveled. The cost of public transit is also included. The cost to households per mile per capita will increase in sensitivity and alter development patterns. More than any other structural component of a region, the quality of transportation is central to the management and maintenance of all other structural services such as water, power, and energy. The nation needs better policy basis on the cost of providing infrastructure services by using per person and per mile metrics.

Improving the Government of the People 

We are the change we seek. When the 31-year-old Adem Bunkeddeko, son of refugees from Uganda decided to mount a primary challenge to Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, (NY D-9th CD), he discovered affordable housing had major traction as both a right and a federal responsibility. He got the attention of Brooklyn voters but fell just 1,852 votes (pdf) short of a primary win and a seat in Congress. His run for office highlighted the national demand for balance instead of power.  You see, there is no federal housing responsibility.

The political voice on “rights” 2018 mid-terms expanded when 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, toppled Joseph Crowley’s (NY D 14th CD) ten terms in office (2004). The world paid attention to that win. Not only did she seize the issue of housing as a right, but she also took firm hold of a broader mission — build a path to all human rights as a national representative with a seat in Congress. She proved Joe was not building that path and in 2020 it may not be Yvette Clarke or several others, Democrat or Republican if candidates such as Adem and Alexandria keep showing up with the simple desire to rebuild a government of the people. The “blue wave” was different this time. The sense of impending crisis stirs in the blood of ordinary people base on two events. First, the traditional political powers steadily abandoned labor’s demand for something more than a living wage. The second is the grave error of believing in and trusting an authoritarian leader’s promises.

In either blue or red districts, incumbents have a 98% retention rate. When challenged in a primary both Democrat, and Republican candidates speak to “rights,” one suggests you have inalienable “rights” and government will take them away, the other believes that government will help to get “rights” taken or never gained. Why is such a tragic choice given to the American people by its political leaders? It is a false choice, and it will remain so until the key indicators such the plight of catastrophic illness, starving wages and the threat of homelessness stops pushing a growing number of people into the “one event” threshold. That one event is when the cost of a car accident, a fire, or illness and hospitalization is a trauma that puts people sleeping rough in streets, cars, and tents. The question is easy. How big does a national catastrophe need to be? How many families facing this condition or the threat of it does the federal government need to act in service to localities in need? Is an emergency band-aid enough when the cause is cancer?

The Kindness of Strangers

From New York City to Seattle, the median price of a home is going up and over $1 million. They are not outliers, urban homelessness in America’s cities is recognized, if not well understood, but it is not spoken of in the heartland of America. The big cities have the skills to manage homelessness, but without a national focus, the ongoing production of unaffordable housing will continue to displace people from the city as rapidly as the market will bear. Today, 50% of American households are paying more than half their income for housing. The 2017 homeless number went up for the first time since 2010 to 554,000 people as an official accounting, but critics of the crisis put the number of homeless at 1.5 million, to include the invisible people. The increase comes from cities. However, the seven to ten percent of the homeless that have come to live in rural/suburban areas are less understood. Janet Fitchen describes the increase in families who are on the edge of homelessness and housing insecurity in rural America (See research study (here). Like the invisible 40,000 homeless in NYC, the nation is full of people who are “doubled up” with family or friends, live in vans and other transient accommodations. Homelessness is a quiet, sneaky cancer, but unlike a disease that presents too late to cure, Americans have access to a huge immune system of wealth, the solution will not come from the kindness of strangers or emergency responders. The call to the people is clear, “we are the change we seek” and if gets called progressive social democracy, so be it.

The House is a group of strangers blended by the U.S. Constitution into an institution designed to build the means for consensus on the rights of Americans. Concerns such as health, housing, and a living wage continue to grow. The financial mechanisms are important to determine, but less so than meeting goals that assure healthy, well housed, and economically resilient communities. The House’s reflection on constituent concerns also involves the business community as a key local and national player. Here is one example of how a view toward balanced interests outperforms narrow special interests. A company called Apartment List, is actively engaged in the nationalization of the rental housing market. Having acquired $50 million (2018) in Series C funding, this company is well on its way to a successful IPO. The affordability of rental housing and home acquisition affects the economy of every State. When it also threatens a national listings business model seeking 50% of the national market, they become strong advocates for a federal role across the aisle.

It is also in the business interest to see public efforts on the employment uptake side such as support systems that encourage business responsibility in this area. A model worthy of study in the UK called Business in the Community is designed to connect disadvantaged groups and businesses to help both entities gain and sustain employment. A summary of American initiatives largely at the state level with some federal funding is available for research and review at End

The incidence of housing distress using the homelessness as a single indicator in a national “base test” show how reductions in the cost of 1) affordable housing, 2) transportation, 3) child care, and 4) education, are causal factors that reduce the incidence of incarceration, mental health and substance abuse problems that contribute to homelessness (Burt & Anderson, 2005; Burt, Aron, & Lee, 1999; Taylor, 2001). Homelessness is reduced substantially if the first four are readily available for individuals or families in response to a distress event, but face it, those four things are good for everyone. If these elements are not available the next three become part of the problem. Incarceration, mental health, and substance abuse are far costlier and more difficult to resolve. From a policy point of view, the winning argument is clear. Assuring affordable housing and mobility through access to education, training, and transportation is financially sound, and good for every household all the time in every community. What is missing? Health, if doctors could prescribe a safe, healthy home for people, wow.  Hey, it’s not impossible (see this Article).

Economic rationalizations such as “cost/benefit analysis” ignore variables if they lack metrics and infringe on the two indispensable experiences of democracy; the use of individual rights and with the use of these rights, the potential to develop equity and the capacity to manage change. The people of Flint, MI were not engaged in a public process regarding changes in the source of their water supply. The decision was made to save money. When high concentrations of lead, known to cause brain damage, was discovered it revealed a lack of metrics for a variable that could have put a number on the rights violated and a value on lost potential. In this process, a value is not be assigned until after damage occurred and sadly this too is part of the cost/benefit fallacy. When the social framework for change is overrun by economic reasons the opportunity for continuous damage to people and whole communities increases. Lead in water, toxins in the air, land and sea and homelessness are economically rationalized as an individual or corporate failure when the actual cause is the erosion of basic moral understandings and a commitment to specific values and principles.

One of the specious economic arguments on housing in America is that we have plenty of affordable housing, but it is in the wrong place. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the National Alliance to End Homelessness and many others have set their moral compass on placed-based housing rights and opposes such hollow statistical abstractions. Nevertheless, a missing component appears to be a pre-emptive demand from the business community for federal solutions that can continuously produce affordable housing where needed and include support for affordable transportation to places of work. If that can be made to recur, the Senate might get its top-down act together on housing and infrastructure. The creative opportunity for renewable energy, affordability, and economic mobility is staring the American public in the face. The missing element appears to be a legion of people ready step into the future of democracy and the promise of the pursuits outlined in the laws framed and disseminated in the U.S. Constitution.

Follow-up Interview Sources

Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
Diane Yentel, President, National Low Income Housing Coalition
Nan Roman, President, National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Chris M.F. Figueredo, Executive Director, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center
John Kobs, CEO Apartment List

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