In the waning days of white-picket-fence America, the burgeoning tenant class is faring worse than ever before
Lurking beneath our current crisis lies a remembrance of the home as it once was for some: with a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. This Levittown promised land, typifying the American Dream, is a powerful myth. It retrieves freedom from the abstract and delivers it into the living room, giving generations an aspiration for their efforts. In the old world, only aristocrats owned land. The United States, by contrast, emblematized the proud property-owning democracy.
The foreclosure crisis kicked this version of the American Dream to the curb. After reaching a zenith of nearly 70% in 2004, homeownership rates have tumbled to just above 63% – roughly where they stood in 1965, when the statistic was first measured. For millennials, the pot, car and garage feel out of reach.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The suburb, built on cheap land taken from Native Americans, segregation of African Americans and reckless combustion of fossil fuels is white privilege full throttle.
But, in the waning days of white-picket-fence America, the burgeoning tenant class is faring worse than ever before. Rents are rising faster than wages and the math is catching up to us. Tenants who spend more than a third of their income on rent doubled from 24% in 1960 to 48% in 2015.
A recent survey by Apartment List found that nearly one in five renters were unable to pay their rent in full in at least one of the past three months. Mounting costs present millions of families with a cruel choice: put food on the table, pay the medical bills and dress the kids, and in doing so risk losing the roof over your head. An estimated 3.7 million Americans – roughly the population of Los Angeles – have been evicted, according to Apartment List.
Black renters – and specifically black women – are at greatest risk. Apartment List found that a staggering 12% of black households were threatened with eviction in the past year.
In his Pulitzer prize-winning book, Evicted, Matt Desmond found that women from black neighborhoods made up less than 10% of Milwaukee’s population but nearly a third of its evicted tenants. “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out,” Desmond writes.
As workers, artists and hustlers are priced out, homelessness soars in cities across the country. A 2017 survey counted 5,629 people living on the streets of the Bay Area’s Alameda County, up 39% from just two years before. About half stay on the sidewalks and empty lots of my hometown, Oakland. Their tent camps, under Bart tracks and freeway overpasses, sum up the human cost of the housing crisis.
With economic growth above 3%, professionals in strong coastal job markets have stayed afloat despite rising expenses, but the cyclical surge will inevitably slow, as it always does. With massive budget cuts and corporate tax breaks coming down the pike, we may not have reached the depth of this crisis.
The Trump administration has proposed cutting $6.2bn from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, representing 13% of the agency’s budget, thereby eliminating a major source of federal funding for Section 8 housing vouchers, homeless shelters, senior centers, daycares and building inspections, among other services.
If passed, massive tax breaks for the 1% will compound the situation, reducing government revenues by $1.5tn over the next decade (roughly the cost of the Iraq war to date) while curbing demand for the low income housing tax credit.
The tax credit is the country’s most extensive affordable housing program. It provides corporations with a dollar-for-dollar tax write-off when they invest in affordable housing. A lower corporate tax rate means businesses will have less need for the credits at the same time that struggling state and local governments will have less capital to build and preserve the homes their residents desperately need.
The administration’s callous agenda, which places econometric values over human ones, will sow even more suffering.
More than 11 million renting parents, students and workers already pay half or more of every dollar they earn to keep a roof over their heads. Moms and dads are working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Kids are shuttled from one unaffordable apartment to another. Children of the most unfortunate are going hungry. Every night, the down and out are seeking refuge under freeways and awnings in every city across the country. Without a home, everything else falls apart.
All the while, the exorbitantly wealthy buy an umpteenth getaway in the Hamptons, Malibu or Mar-a-Lago.
A land without home holds little promise. The twilight of the neighborly American Dream is upon us. In its place, we need a new and inclusive vision for a just home in our renter’s republic.
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