Meet the Rising New Housing Movement That Wants to Create Homes for All: From rent regulation to social housing, activists are pushing for serious solutions to the affordable-housing crisis. By Jimmy Tobias, MAY 24, 2018, also see JUNE 18-25, 2018, ISSUE
Crossing the Frederick Douglass–Susan B. Anthony Memorial Bridge on a brisk spring morning in Rochester, New York, the first thing one sees is a small tent city scattered about the banks of the Genesee River. It’s a sprawl of black tarps, folding chairs, and a charcoal grill, all set up on private land. The property’s owner, a cable company called Spectrum, has attempted for some time to tear it down, urging local officials to clear the encampment. In an effort to forestall the destruction of their fragile shelters, the homeless people who live there have hung a banner at the edge of a nearby highway that reads, simply, “Forgive us our trespasses.”
Meanwhile, across town on the east side sits the modest two-story home of Liz McGriff. A resolute black woman in her 50s, she bought the place before the 2008 financial collapse. But when Wall Street went under, McGriff lost her job and, with it, her ability to pay the mortgage. Soon after, the foreclosure notice arrived, sparking a decade-long battle with the police, the courts, and the bank, and turning her into an insecure tenant in her own home. At least, McGriff says, “I am still there.”
These places, these people, and so many others like them represent the face of today’s housing crisis—a crisis so pervasive and enduring that it has become this country’s status quo. In Rochester, a midsize postindustrial city on Lake Ontario’s southern shore, evidence of the crisis is everywhere. During the 2016–17 school year, the city school district reported that 8.8 percent of its students—roughly 2,500 children—were homeless at some point. Last year, some 3,510 eviction warrants were issued. More than 50 percent of tenants in the city are rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. And while Rochester stands out as the fifth-poorest city in the country, it is no anomaly.
The national numbers are scandalous. On any given night, more than half a million homeless men, women, and children sleep on the streets or in shelters. In 2016 alone, according to research by the scholar Matthew Desmond, roughly 900,000 households were subject to eviction judgments. The same year, more than 11 million households spent at least 50 percent of their income, and another 9.8 million spent more than 30 percent, on rent. Nearly half of the nation’s 43 million renting households, then, live with the crushing weight of excessive housing costs.
None of this happened overnight. As Bryce Covert explores in “Give Us Shelter,” the roots of the current crisis extend back to the Nixon era. But it has intensified in recent decades, growing and spreading as the federal government engaged in a slow-drip campaign against public and other deeply affordable housing programs, all while stoking a relentlessly market-driven system.
At the same time, this country has suffered from the relative absence of a powerful national movement capable of agitating for transformative solutions. While progressives have pushed forcefully for immigrants’ rights, universal health care, fossil-fuel abolition, and a living wage in recent years, they have given short shrift to human shelter. There is no equivalent of the Fight for $15 when it comes to housing—and prominent political leaders speak far too little of rising rents, eviction rates, and homelessness. During the last presidential election, the issue was almost entirely missing from the public debate.
But change, at last, seems imminent. Right now, from coast to costly coast, fed-up renters and their allies are creating some of the most compelling tenant-rights campaigns to emerge in a generation. In places like California, New York, Denver, Chicago, and beyond, residents and organizers are pushing for a slew of interventions like rent control and “just cause” eviction protections that will offer immediate relief to tenants. Such policies, they say, will alter the power balance between landlords and renters and offer tenants stronger tools to build their movement. In fighting for them, they hope to haul the housing crisis to the very top of the national political agenda.
This organizing, though, goes well beyond rent regulation—it aspires to the truly radical. Movement leaders and thinkers are strategizing for a future in which the private market is diminished and noncommercial, community-controlled housing plays a central role in American life. In this alternative reality, public housing is massively expanded and cooperatives, mutual-housing associations, and other nonmarket ownership models take root in cities large and small. Social housing, in all its varieties, thrives.
Such a future, of course, feels like a distant dream—but in places like Rochester, people are already reaching for it.
The revolt began last January, when residents at the horseshoe-shaped apartment complex in Rochester united to resist the slum conditions in which they were living. They began deliberately, strategically, knocking on neighbors’ doors and cultivating a sense of camaraderie. Before long, they had formed a tenants’ union and were filing official complaints with housing inspectors, speaking out at City Council meetings, and lobbying the local media to cover their struggle. By March 1, they had decided to take combative action: They stopped paying their landlord. They went on a rent strike.
“We knew that that was the best thing—to withhold that rent money, get ‘em where it really hurts,” says Mary Brown, a warm and stylish black woman in her 60s who serves as the union’s leader. She says the residents will withhold their rent until adequate repairs are made or the city exercises its legal authority of receivership and takes control of the property. “We just want to live well, and we should be able to live well,” Brown says. “Everybody should.”
The Rochester strike is a radical break from the recent past. Organizers there say it’s the first such strike in decades. And it didn’t happen in a vacuum; it is intimately tied to a national movement for renters’ rights that is sweeping the country like a summer storm.
Consider California, where a robust tenants’ movement has electrified local politics in recent years. In 2016, the Bay Area city of Richmond passed an ordinance that enacted into law both rent control and just-cause eviction protections. No longer can landlords in the city raise rents willy-nilly, or evict renters on a whim.
“It was enormous that rent control passed in Richmond in 2016, because that hadn’t happened for 30 years in California or anywhere, really,” said Aimee Inglis, the associate director of the California-based renters’ group Tenants Together, speaking to The Nation earlier this year. “People didn’t think it was possible.”
Now the possibilities are plentiful. In at least a half-dozen California cities and counties, including San Diego, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, and Pasadena, housing organizers are working to put rent-control initiatives on the local ballot this year. And across the state, a network of political organizations is advocating a ballot initiative that would repeal the state’s Costa-Hawkins Act, a law that prohibits rent control in buildings constructed after February 1995.
But the rent-control ferment isn’t confined to the far side of the Sierra Nevada. Organizing drives are also bubbling up in cities like Chicago, where a coalition called Lift the Ban is pushing to repeal Illinois’s longtime prohibition on rent control, as well as in Seattle, Minneapolis, Providence, Nashville, and other places where tenants sense the political ripeness of the moment.
Many of the new renters’ groups are affiliated with a national housing-justice campaign called Homes for All. Launched in 2013 by the Right to the City Alliance, a network of progressive political organizations, the campaign is assembling a federation of tenant activists across the country to press their demands at the local, state, and federal levels.
The housing agitation in Rochester offers a fitting example of the movement’s aims and methods. Last winter, organizers there launched a citywide tenants’ union that includes a half-dozen unions in private developments, including Mary Brown’s building, as well as a homeless union and a union of senior citizens in subsidized housing. The group grew out of militant anti-eviction organizing in the aftermath of the financial crisis, when Rochester activists regularly erected foreclosure blockades to prevent homeowners like Liz McGriff from being forced onto the street.
One of the union’s meeting places is a mural-covered Catholic Worker house known as St. Joe’s. During the day, organizers decamp from the house to recruit new tenants to their cause, knocking on doors and teaching renters about their rights. At night, the crew hits the streets to conduct outreach at Rochester’s homeless encampments.
Ryan David Acuff, a bearded white activist in big winter boots and a beanie, is a St. Joe’s Catholic Worker house resident and an organizer with the citywide tenants’ union. Armed with a sharp anti- capitalist analysis of the housing sector, Acuff can tick off details about local building codes, eviction statistics, and the legislation that the citywide tenants’ union is advocating in Albany.
“There are two major stages to this movement,” the 35-year-old says over coffee and eggs at a humble neighborhood cafe. “The first is building a mass movement and consolidating our forces around some of these really immediate anti-displacement needs, including the need for universal rent control and [just]-cause eviction protections.”
To that end, the citywide tenants’ union recently joined a new formation of New York community groups called the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance. Sensing an opportunity in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary fight, the alliance is pressing Governor Andrew Cuomo to take progressive action on housing issues. Among other things, they want Cuomo to establish just-cause eviction protections for all New York tenants—a cause his challenger, Cynthia Nixon, has already endorsed. They’re also gearing up to push for the expansion of New York City’s rent-regulation system to the entire state in 2019.
“Rent control is a major, major thing,” Acuff says between bites of breakfast. “Not only does it stop displacement, but it means housing is no longer completely governed by the market.” But, Acuff adds, even the rent-control fight “is sort of making preparations for a more transformative struggle. That’s the second stage of the movement: to move toward universal social housing.”
Indeed, nearly all of the activists and organizers interviewed for this story acknowledged that reforms like rent control and just-cause protections will not be enough to strike at the root of the housing crisis. To truly eradicate housing insecurity, to put an end to displacement, segregation, eviction, and homelessness—these goals demand radical solutions, the kind that don’t merely chip crumbs of affordability from the market-rate mega-developments sprouting up in our cities. These solutions have to be bold. They have to push back against a national housing policy that benefits monied homeowners while leaving most low-income renters to fend for themselves. Above all, they have to begin to promote models that exist outside the market.
Needless to say, that won’t be easy. But scratch the surface of US history, and you will find that this country is filled with ideals on which activists can build—and, in many places, already are.
Politicians of both parties have spent decades denigrating the egalitarian American institution that we call “public housing.” Relying on heavily racist tropes, they have portrayed it variously as a failed socialist experiment, a den of iniquity, and an ugly architectural blight—a place of squalor and violence that residents seek to escape as soon as possible.
Yet the actual story of public housing tells a far more nuanced tale—one of hopeful promise despite government defunding, and stubborn resilience despite serious structural flaws. “The United States has gone out of its way to undermine public housing,” says David Madden, a housing expert at the London School of Economics. “But at its core, public housing is a crucial lifeline for people structurally excluded from private-housing markets, as well as a living demonstration that alternative residential arrangements are possible.”
This vital role is evident in public housing’s enduring popularity—in spite of imperfections and popular misconceptions. In Washington, DC, the housing authority closed its waiting list, which contains 70,000 names, back in 2013. The New York City Housing Authority has a 1 percent vacancy rate and a waiting list of hundreds of thousands. Indeed, most of the roughly 3,000 housing authorities across the country have waiting lists.
That’s because many people appreciate their public-housing communities. They are places where residents spend 30 percent of their income on rent, making them consistently affordable. They often boast deep networks of mutual aid, where neighbors look after one another, have barbecues, and take care of the kids. And they aren’t necessarily stepping-stones to a “better” neighborhood or a house in the suburbs, because for many, they arehome. That’s why public-housing residents so often come to the defense of their buildings when bureaucrats attempt to destroy them.
This is precisely the story that has been playing out at Barry Farm, a neighborhood of beige row houses and sloping green lawns in Washington, not far from the Anacostia River. After years of neglect and insufficient funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and DC’s local housing authority, the latter now wants to follow the neoliberal recipe du jour by demolishing all 432 units of Barry Farm and replacing them with a mixed-income complex that will be controlled in part by a private developer. The new development will provide 100 fewer public-housing units on the site.
Already, the local authority has removed hundreds of tenants as it prepares for the demolition, but some refuse to leave. They want to remain in their community, with its extremely low rents and lawns perfectly suited for family picnics, and they fear that the new development will exclude some current residents, forcing them to scramble for shelter in the nation’s overpriced capital.
“For them to want to kick us out like we are trash and bring in people from other places—I have a problem with that,” says Paulette Matthews, a slim black woman standing on the walkway of her home. “It’s inhumane.”
And so Matthews, along with a small but vocal group of other tenants, formed the Barry Farm Tenant and Allies Association and brought a lawsuit to block the destruction of the property. In late April, the highest court in the city sided with the tenants, halting the proposed demolition and sending the plan back to the zoning commission for reconsideration.
It was a small but crucial victory, helping to temporarily stem the hemorrhage of publicly owned units. Even so, public-housing advocates are itching to break out of the reactive mode in which they’ve been able to do little else besides beat back the constant attempts to privatize places like Barry Farm. “We’ve been in a defensive posture so long that we’ve just let the capitalist tide roll over us,” says Tara Raghuveer, housing-campaign director at People’s Action, a grassroots coalition that includes many housing-justice groups. “People are hungry for something more. We need to reinvest in public housing.”
To that end, People’s Action helped create the #NoCuts Coalition, joining with more than 100 other community organizations from around the country last spring to resist the Trump administration’s proposed $7 billion in cuts to HUD’s budget. They lobbied on Capitol Hill, got arrested in front of a HUD office, and organized rallies across the country. Ultimately, they prevailed: Not a dime was slashed from the department’s budget this year.
But these activists want more. This spring, they put together a new policy platform that calls on Congress to invest $200 billion to rehabilitate the country’s more than 1 million existing public-housing units. At the same time, they’re calling for an immediate moratorium on the sale of public housing and public land to private interests. And they’re pressing for reparations, in the form of affordable loans and down-payment assistance grants, for black and brown communities that have been subject to decades of red-lining and other racist policies.
These aren’t small demands, but that’s the point. “We need to use what we already have, which is public housing, to beat back the totally insane right wing that wants to privatize everything,” Raghuveer says. “That feels like it needs to be the first order of business.”
Public housing, then, is a crucial base from which to fight for real and enduring affordable housing. It’s part of the solution, but it doesn’t stand alone. History points to other possibilities.
For a brief time in the early 20th century, the United States engaged in an experiment that had the potential to radically reshape the country’s housing sector. It started in 1933, when the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt established a Housing Division within the Public Works Administration (PWA), a New Deal agency that put people to work building dams, bridges, and other large-scale infrastructure.
The PWA’s Housing Division emerged out of the exigencies of the Great Depression, but its path was also influenced by a cohort of left-wing labor unions and progressive urbanists who called on the federal government to follow the European example and engage in the direct construction of noncommercial housing for a broad American constituency. Among the most forceful of these advocates was Catherine Bauer. In 1934, she published Modern Housing, which sought to introduce alternative nonmarket housing models to US readers. Soon after, Bauer became the executive secretary of the union-backed Labor Housing Conference.
As the historian Gail Radford has written, Bauer’s vision was rooted in the idea that housing should be insulated from the cold logic of the capitalist market. Or as Bauer herself once wrote: “The premises underlying the most successful and forward-pointing housing developments are not the premises of capitalism.” And during its brief existence, the PWA Housing Division came to embody much of this ethos. It built or financed 58 public or otherwise noncommercial housing developments, containing 25,000 units, around the country. As important, the division’s work wasn’t focused solely on alleviating poverty, nor were its units completely means-tested, as public housing is today. With the help of leading architects, it built stylish, quality housing open to poor, working-class, and struggling middle-class people. Its work included the Williamsburg Houses in Brooklyn, a complex of 20 four-story buildings designed by the modernist architect William Lescaze, as well as the Harlem River Houses, a 574-unit complex where residents enjoyed amenities like a community newspaper, a women’s club, and a nursery school.
These developments could not be bought or sold, nor could landlords raise the rents at will, so they remained consistently affordable. However, this made them a threat to the real-estate industry. David Walsh, a US senator at the time, complained that the PWA-constructed houses “in New York, Cleveland, and Boston and elsewhere are really in competition with private property.”
One of the Housing Division’s most grievous failures, it is essential to note, was its unwillingness to challenge racial segregation in American cities. In many cases, it even spread the sin by developing separate white-only and black-only developments. The legacy of this government-sanctioned segregation lives on in federal housing policy to the present day.
The PWA Housing Division was ultimately short-lived. It was abolished and replaced by the foundational but fundamentally flawed Housing Act of 1937. What emerged over the following decades was a two-tier approach to national housing policy. On the one hand, the federal government developed a public-housing program that was constrained by cost controls and served only the lowest- income people in the country, many of them politically marginalized people of color. On the other, it established massive incentive and insurance programs that fueled the commercial real-estate industry and bankrolled homeownership for middle-class (and mostly white) Americans. The universalist approach to noncommercial housing that Catherine Bauer imagined never materialized.
Now, however, Bauer’s vision is being resurrected, embraced by a growing corps of thinkers and activists under the rubric of “social housing.”
Last month, the People’s Policy Project (3P), a socialist-leaning think tank founded by the writer and lawyer Matt Bruenig, released a report, “Social Housing in the United States,” which argued that the country’s market-oriented approach to affordable-housing development is woefully inadequate. Programs like Section 8 vouchers, the low-income housing tax credit, and inclusionary zoning use a variety of incentives and subsidies to encourage private developers to build or maintain affordable housing across the nation. While these are important tools in the current political context, they are too small, too timid, and rely too heavily on private interests to truly meet the needs of desperate renters. They simply haven’t provided enough affordable housing.
In place of such market schemes, 3P offers the radical solution of mass social housing in the United States. Social housing, as a recent exhibit at New York City’s Center for Architecture describes it, is defined by “a mix of public projects led by city authorities, philanthropic schemes led by charities and collective schemes led by residents. Common to them all…is the idea that there are alternatives to a purely market-oriented system of housing provision.”
With this concept as context, the People’s Policy Project put forward its proposal: The American people should endeavor to develop 10 million units of “large-scale municipal housing, built and owned by the state,” over the next 10 years (the country currently faces a shortfall of an estimated 7 million so-called deeply affordable units). Such a program, the 3P researchers contend, could model itself on the social-housing developments that thrive across the Atlantic. They point to Sweden, where municipal governments built 1 million social-housing units over the course of a decade beginning in the 1960s. They point as well to Vienna, where three in five residents live in housing built, owned, or managed by the municipal government. This housing provides not just for the poor or working class, but “serves the middle class as well…and has thus avoided the stigma of being either vertical ghettos or housing of last resort,” as the urban-policy scholar Peter Dreier has written.
Social housing in the United States, the 3P report argues, should be based on universalist principles, with the aim of moving toward a housing model with no means-testing. Such developments “should be mixed-income, adequately served by public transport, and have easy access to amenities and shops.” They should be regulated in a manner that prohibits discrimination and provides for the disabled and other marginalized populations, and should be largely self-financing, with tenants paying rents on a sliding scale.
How could we fund such an ambitious program? The report notes that a simple repeal of the Republican tax plan could generate enough revenue to build 10 million houses, at an average cost of $150,000 to $220,000 per unit. But the true solution is a massive expansion of federal support for municipal housing. Among other proposals, the 3P report’s authors call on the federal government to institute a revenue-neutral low-interest loan program to fund urban housing authorities across the country. They also call for a suite of federal capital-grant programs, including one that would provide financing to municipal housing authorities equal in value to what the private sector receives under the low-income housing tax credit. And if federal funding fails to materialize in the near term, they call on municipalities to start building right away with financing from the bond market and other available capital sources. As for where to site these developments, the 3P authors believe that cities should turn first to unused public land.
A social-housing program of this sort would be different from traditional public housing in many respects, but one of the most essential ways is this: By developing homes for a broad range of Americans, such a program would quickly generate a powerful constituency capable of resisting the sort of political attacks that have plagued public housing for decades. It would also create an enormous number of jobs.
Plus there’s a precedent for it—many, in fact. “Americans are used to national parks, state parks, fire departments, police departments, public schools, public-utility companies, water utilities—they are used to public ownership of essential services, but somehow they don’t think of housing in the same way,” Dreier says. The challenge will be to change their minds.
To do that demands a movement—a movement capable of reshaping popular narratives and overcoming a gargantuan real-estate lobby that has spent untold sums to safeguard the speculative housing market. That movement will need to reach beyond the traditional borders of housing advocacy and include unions, environmentalists, racial-justice advocates, feminists, and, yes, politicians. It will require, as Catherine Bauer once wrote, an army of people “who need better houses to live in and workers who need work building those houses.”
Tara Raghuveer of People’s Action agrees—and believes the current political atmosphere is ripe. “We’re in an incredibly urgent moment that requires a movement response,” she says. “Housing is the biggest tent issue there is.” It’s an issue that should be at the top of the left’s political agenda and on the tip of every progressive politician’s tongue.
Back in Rochester, tenants and organizers are anxious to undertake this necessary work. In 2016, they helped found Rochester’s first community land trust, a legal tool with roots in the civil-rights movement that enables community-controlled landownership. In January 2018, the City Roots CLT, as it’s known, finalized a deal with the bank that foreclosed on Liz McGriff’s home. The CLT purchased and will hold in perpetuity the land under her residence, while she regained title to the structure. She now lives there as an owner, without fear. “I am happy. I sleep better at night. I am putting things back together,” says McGriff, now a leader with the citywide tenants’ union.
On Thurston Road, meanwhile, the residents continue their rent strike. They’re pushing the city to invoke its receivership authority and take temporary control of the building. If they succeed, they hope to raise money and use their leverage to purchase the property from the owner at a reduced price. They say they’d like to place the land under the control of the CLT and convert the building into an affordable cooperative managed by the tenants themselves. “The landlord could sell the building to us,” says Mary Brown, “and we’ll get our own property manager and have it renovated and fixed up the way we want it fixed up.”
For Ryan David Acuff, cooperatives, CLTs, and other community-controlled housing are the building blocks for a truly democratic social-housing system. “The way I define social housing,” Acuff says, “is permanent affordability and resident control.”
Yet even as the Rochester tenants inch toward that ideal, they must respond to the bitter emergencies that define this country’s housing system. In late April, Spectrum moved to evict the homeless encampment near the Freddie-Sue Bridge. Under police supervision, company employees arrived in hazmat suits to tear down tents and confiscate possessions, to erase the inconvenient evidence of our housing crisis. But the citywide tenants’ union and its allies mobilized. They arrived en masse, in militant style, and physically blocked the eviction. There was one arrest, but the police and hazmat men soon retreated. For now, the tent city doggedly endures. “Forgive us our trespasses,” its occupants insist.
When Rosalina Hernández and her husband moved into their studio apartment on Los Angeles Street in South Central LA 15 years ago, the place was just for the two of them and the baby they were expecting. Back then, it wasn’t too hard to find what they needed: an apartment they could afford with just a bit more space.
But as their family grew, they remained stuck in place. Eventually, six people—Rosalina, her husband, and their four children—were sharing the one main room, a small kitchen, and a bathroom. Today, the tidy living room is also the dining room and bedroom; the bathroom serves as a makeshift closet. “It is hard, because we’re six,” Rosalina says in Spanish, clasping her hands in her lap. “It’s too small for six.” When her oldest son, now a freshman in college, needed to concentrate on schoolwork, he’d lock himself in the bathroom until the early-morning hours.
Her children ask her why they can’t have their own rooms. Her second-oldest son has always had a particular dream: to have a house, a dog, and a tree. “I would have liked to,” Rosalina says haltingly, wiping away the tears. They’ve looked for a bigger place, but they just can’t afford it. “We have to choose between [paying more] rent [for] a bigger space, or giving [our children] food and shoes.” They currently pay $700 a month in rent, something that Rosalina and her husband can afford on his salary as a garment worker. A three-bedroom apartment in LA easily goes for more than triple that. Soon, though, the Hernándezes will have no choice: All of the residents in their building are being evicted. The owner has decided to sell it, and a developer plans to raze it and build a new complex in its place. Many families have already left, plywood nailed over their doors to mark their departure. The Hernándezes were able to get a year’s extension because their youngest daughter has a severe learning disability, but the grace period ends next May.
The uncertainty has taken its toll. Rosalina’s 4-year-old daughter asks her, “Mommy, am I still going to have my same friends? Mommy, am I going to have my same teacher?” If she could, Rosalina would keep her family in that same small apartment—at least it’s home. “Cuatros paredes tienen historia,” she says. Four walls have a history.
Among American cities, Los Angeles is second only to Las Vegas (and tied with Orlando, Florida) in having the severest shortage of affordable housing for its poorest renters, with just 17 homes for every 100 extremely low-income families. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is nearly $1,400 a month, making it one of the most unaffordable markets in the country. Over half of the renters in LA are paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent, above what’s considered affordable; for nearly a third of those residents, rent eats up more than half of their income. “It’s not a housing crisis,” says Larry Gross, executive director of the grassroots group Coalition for Economic Survival. “It’s a housing catastrophe.”
When rents are that high, those people lucky enough to find a place have to make other difficult choices. “They have to sacrifice health care, food, clothing for their children, education, transport—all the basic necessities,” says Dagan R. Bayliss, director of organizing at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, which is working with Rosalina and her family. Many families have two or even three people living in a single room to bring down costs. More than half of the most heavily crowded areas in the country, where the homes have more than one person per room, are located in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to US Census data spanning from 2008 to 2012.
But if LA is the extreme, it is also a harbinger of trends that are under way everywhere in a country in which rents are increasing while incomes stagnate. There is nowhere in the United States that a family like the Hernándezes can easily find an affordable and adequate place to live. Nationwide, there are just 35 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income families—those who either live in poverty or earn less than 30 percent of the median income in their area. It’s a problem in every major city and in every state. Nationally, nearly half of renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
It may feel as though the country has always failed to offer an affordable home to everyone who needs one. But in 1960, only about a quarter of renters spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing. In 1970, a 300,000-unit surplus of affordable rental homes meant that nearly every American could find a place to live. “When there was an adequate supply of housing for low-income people, we did not have widespread homelessness in this country,” says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. At the time, “the word ‘homelessness’ was relatively unknown,” says the Rev. David Bloom, a longtime advocate for the homeless, who adds that when he first used a word processor in the early 1980s, the spell-check didn’t even recognize the word. Today, there’s a deficit of more than 7.2 million rental homes inexpensive enough for the lowest-income people to afford, and nearly 554,000 Americans are homeless on any given night.
How did we get here? The mismatch between the number of people needing homes and the amount of affordable housing available isn’t unique to this moment in history, or even to the United States. Matthew G. Lasner, associate professor at Hunter College’s Urban Policy and Planning Department, describes housing shortages as a “product of industrial capitalism. The minute we see people flooding in from the countryside in search of work to cities, we see housing inequality emerging.” As their populations became urbanized, countries like Britain and Germany started to experiment with government subsidies for housing around the time of the First World War, ultimately developing programs that provided housing for many people, not just for the poorest. But despite the efforts of Progressive Era reformers, the idea failed to take root in the United States. “We were giving land away for free out west,” Lasner notes, but “the idea of the government actually helping the [urban] poor, at a time when one of the prevailing ideas about poverty was [that] it was a moral failure, was beyond the pale of political discourse.” Today’s crisis can be traced back to those early beliefs about poverty and private property. The federal government never developed a national plan to coordinate the construction of affordable housing where it was needed or required any city to construct it, and it never successfully challenged the notion that housing was a commodity, not a right.
The catastrophe of the Great Depression, which led to nearly 13 million unemployed and hundreds of homeless encampments across the country, shifted the political calculus in Washington. For a brief period of time, a different approach to housing—and a completely different way of thinking about poverty—seemed possible. From 1933 to 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt launched a range of employment programs, including the Public Works Administration, which he tasked with building model homes, among other major construction projects, thus addressing the twin crises of unemployment and unaffordable housing. PWA-built homes, which housed both the poor and the middle class, were often attractive, equipped with laundry facilities, meeting rooms, playgrounds, even libraries.
Yet the PWA wasn’t a comprehensive housing program, and it provided housing only for a small share of Americans. It also inaugurated the long history of racial segregation in public housing, as most of the PWA-built developments were either divided by race or open only to whites. But the PWA’s housing initiatives were significant enough that the real-estate industry, which realized it had a growing competitor, fought back. Members of the National Association of Real Estate Boards—today known as the National Association of Realtors—took to publishing columns in TheSaturday Evening Post railing against the New Deal housing program as communistic.
Meanwhile, social reformers and their allies in Congress, like Senator Robert Wagner, were pushing for a true federal housing program—one that “must not be confined to demonstration projects, or to the improvement of conditions in limited though well-selected areas,” Wagner declared in a speech in 1936. “It must encompass the basic housing need of the population as a whole.” Their solution was a bill that became the Housing Act of 1937, which, when first drafted, reflected an entirely new way of thinking about housing in the United States. It would have provided public housing for both the poor and the middle class, as well as give the federal government more power to determine where that housing would be built. But over years of debate—Wagner introduced housing bills in each of the three years leading up to 1937—the legislation’s most radical pieces were hollowed out. The National Association of Real Estate Boards proved to be a powerful enemy of high-quality, widely accessible public housing, and succeeded in profoundly weakening the bill. Ultimately, the 1937 law provided housing only for the poor and allowed communities to opt out of constructing any affordable housing at all. It included low cost ceilings, which meant that public housing couldn’t become too desirable, as well as eligibility criteria that prevented the middle class from qualifying for it. Southern Democrats ensured that the housing could be racially segregated. Perhaps most counterproductive, the legislation included a requirement forcing public-housing authorities to demolish one unit of substandard housing for every new one built, raising costs and keeping the supply capped. “If it had been the bill that housing experts had imagined,” Lasner says, “we would be facing a very different housing landscape today.”
The public housing built thereafter was in line with what we think of today: housing projects for the poorest, cheaply built and concentrated far from the communities that refused to accept them. Though public housing still supplies more than 2 million people with permanently affordable homes, it provides housing for only a fraction of the 40 million Americans in poverty, and it leaves the private housing market almost entirely intact.
The legacy of the 1937 law is clearly seen in Los Angeles today. There are just 14 public-housing facilities, with just over 6,500 units, in a city of about 4 million people, an estimated 21.5 percent of whom live in poverty. In the 1950s, the City Council sank a plan to build 10,000 units of public housing using $100 million from the federal government. Around the same time, California voters approved a referendum requiring city or county approval for public-housing site selection, hamstringing development. For its part, New York City runs 326 facilities—23 times as many as LA—though it has double the population and a lower poverty rate. “Even though we’ve had all these liberal mayors,” says Gary Blasi, a law professor emeritus at UCLA, “there’s still virtually no coordinated or strategic policy to increase the amount of affordable housing.”
Subsequent federal efforts fell prey to the same forces that undermined the 1937 bill. The Housing Act of 1949 aimed to provide “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family,” and resulted in the construction of nearly 324,000 units over ten years, but Congress failed to appropriate adequate funding. Southern Democrats, joined by some of their Northern counterparts, again prevented the law from prohibiting segregation.
Congress’s failure to allocate sufficient funds for public housing would, over the ensuing decades, lead to the long-term neglect of public-housing projects. As a result, many were demolished. Starting in 1972, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) doled out grants that cities used to tear down abandoned or dilapidated housing. The country has lost 250,000 public-housing units since the mid-1990s alone.
In 1973, citing “mounting evidence of basic defects in some of our housing programs,” the Nixon administration issued a moratorium on nearly all subsidized-housing programs. The symbolism was clear: During congressional hearings on the move, Senator William Proxmire declared, “The historic pledge of a decent home in a suitable environment for all Americans has been abandoned.” A year later, Congress authorized a new approach to housing the poor: the Section 8 program, which provides poor people with vouchers that they can spend on private housing. Yet obtaining housing with a voucher in the private market can be fraught with challenges; not only are there few affordable units, but in many parts of the country, it is legal for landlords to reject voucher-holders. If a voucher recipient can’t find a home within 60 or 90 days, she loses her subsidy. And as with public housing, Congress has never given Section 8 enough funds to meet the demand: Today, just one in four families who are eligible for federal rental assistance actually gets it. Meanwhile, moderate-income families who can’t afford housing don’t qualify.
And things only got worse. When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency, public housing became one of the biggest targets of his anti-government, pro-market worldview. With Reagan in the White House, HUD’s budget was cut by more than half, falling from $83.6 billion in 1976 to less than $40 billion by 1982; it has never recovered. Federal spending on housing assistance hemorrhaged by 50 percent during the same period. Homelessness, in his administration’s view, was a personal failing; homeless people were homeless “by choice,” Reagan said on Good Morning America in 1984.
Like Nixon, Reagan combined cuts to public housing with a housing program that expanded the role of the private sector. In his landmark 1986 tax package, he included a measure that is still the main source of federal funding for affordable housing today: the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC). Developers gain access to the credit by pledging to build affordable housing. But the housing they build usually doesn’t reach the poorest families, and it requires securing complicated funding sources, which prolongs construction time. Plus “developers would almost always prefer to build more [LIHTC] housing in low-income, segregated neighborhoods,” says Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law. “The land is cheaper there, and they don’t have to hold 100 community meetings to explain why they’re putting poor people in their precious community.”
Decades after Nixon and Reagan, these two market-based solutions—tax credits to get developers to build low-cost units, and vouchers that supposedly help poor people afford them—provide the dominant share of affordable housing. Leaders and lawmakers, including Democratic presidents, have by and large failed to challenge this status quo. Bill Clinton, who failed to increase HUD’s budget and even let it decline for most of his tenure, once declared, “Public housing has never been a right; it has always been a privilege.”
As the federal government disinvested, other cheap housing vanished too. From 1970 to the mid-1980s, 1 million single-room-occupancy (SRO) apartments—modest units that people could rent by the day or week—disappeared as cities cleared them out and developers tore the buildings down to build commercial properties or luxury housing. Multifamily housing was converted into co-ops and condominiums. Some of these homes hadn’t been decent places to live, but the former residents weren’t given a replacement. “A lot of times, when we improve things, we don’t improve them for the people who are living there,” says Nan Roman. “We improve them for someone else to live there.”
Between 1995 and 2016, Los Angeles lost more than 5,400 federally subsidized housing units, and the production of affordable housing has stagnated, too. Meanwhile, market-rate development boomed. “Luxury-market rate—that’s the only category in which we’ve come close to our production goals,” says Becky Dennison, executive director of Venice Community Housing. In 2015, over 80 percent of new apartments were luxury units.
Los Angeles’s Skid Row, 52 blocks where the city has corralled both its homeless services and homeless population, is the logical result when a housing market in a booming city is left to its own devices. Past the shiny skyscrapers of New Downtown and the hipster cafes of Little Tokyo, the sidewalks are filled with tents, shopping carts, folding chairs, pots, pans, and the other bits and pieces of people’s lives. The tents that line almost every inch of the sidewalk are makeshift homes, connected to one another with ropes, tarps, poles, and umbrellas. The air hums with quarrels and boom-box music and smells of bodies and trash. Skid Row has been described as a refugee camp for Americans—and in its appearance and purpose, that’s exactly what it is.
Jojo Smith lived in a tent on San Pedro Street for six years starting in 2006. He tried to get into a housing program but was always told that the waiting lists were full. For those six years, Smith was woken up in the early hours of the morning every day by the police and told to pack up his stuff and move along, only to have to set everything back up that evening. The wake-up calls are less regular today, but they still make people’s lives chaotic. There are few water fountains or public bathrooms, let alone showers or laundry facilities. The scant trash cans fill up quickly and are rarely emptied by the city. “It shows you that the city is not caring about people,” Smith says. “Homeless people are humans too.”
Most of those living in tents would prefer four solid walls. “They’re constantly saying that folks are resisting services. No, people are resisting shelters because of the simple fact that it’s not your own home,” Smith says. “They want housing.” Shelters come with a maze of rules and regulations to navigate, including bans on pets and couples living together. Some people with mental-health issues struggle to sleep in the crowded rooms.
At the last official count, there were nearly 60,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County on any given night in 2017, up 23 percent from the year before, although that’s likely still an undercount. About three-quarters of these people are unsheltered, living in tents or cars. Even as the city moves more people into housing, many others are getting pushed out of it and into homelessness. “Too many poor people and not enough housing means some people will get left out,” Blasi notes. Anything that makes a poor person less able to compete for housing—mental illness, a disability, or just being black and a victim of discrimination—makes them more likely to fall into homelessness.
LA’s laissez-faire approach to housing shows up in the factors driving its swelling homeless population. The city does little to prevent affordable housing from being demolished. Gross’s organization estimates that 23,550 units of affordable housing have been lost thanks to a law that allows landlords to evict tenants when they decide to demolish or sell their buildings—exactly the circumstances that the Hernández family now faces. LA also has few robust rent-control laws, which played a role in rents rising20 percent between 1990 and 2009, even as incomes dropped.
And decades of failing to construct new affordable units have resulted in a situation in which the demand for single-room apartments is so acute that there is virtually nothing available. Zoning restrictions and local opposition, which were given outsize political power in the 1940s and ’50s, make it virtually impossible to build more housing in the city. “There is really powerful NIMBYism,” Blasi says. “Anywhere middle-class people get a toehold, they’re pulling up the ladders as quick as they can.”
In the 1990s, the national crisis in affordable housing didn’t feel as acute because income growth was relatively strong, giving people more of a cushion to afford their rent. But when the subprime- mortgage crisis hit in 2007, America’s long-term refusal to deal with housing was once again laid bare. If modern mass homelessness began in the 1980s, the foreclosure and housing crises at the end of the 2000s represented a second wave that redoubled the problem. Nearly 3 million homes were foreclosed on in both 2009 and 2010; those homeowners sank back into the rental market, competing for cheap units with the low-income people who were already renting. Millennials delayed homeownership. The share of households renting in the country’s 50 largest cities climbed from 36 percent in 2006 to over 40 percent in 2014. Roughly 10 million more families rented in 2016 compared with the decade prior. The vacancy rate for rental units has fallen since the end of the recession and is lower today than it was in 1986. “The supply is just not keeping up,” says Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “That is leading, in many communities, to skyrocketing rents, [which are] felt most severely amongst the lowest-income people.” There’s been a 32 percent rise in the median asking rent since 2000, and the number of households that are rent-burdened, or forced to spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, increased 19 percent between 2001 and 2015.
The financial crisis meant that Ericka Newsome didn’t get a raise in January 2009, yet the rent on her studio apartment in her hometown of Pasadena, just northeast of downtown LA, went up. Newsome had been hired as a teller by a bank in 2005 and was promoted soon after. For the first time, she was living in her own place. But by March 2009, she was living in her car. Her boss eventually found out, and she lost her job in June over concerns that customers would see her sleeping in her vehicle.
“I didn’t know where to go or where to turn,” Newsome says. She couldn’t afford a new apartment without a job, and she couldn’t find a shelter with an available space. She lived briefly with a childhood friend in 2010, working during that time to earn her certification as a pharmacy technician. But she couldn’t find a job in the midst of the recession. She struggled with mental-health issues. Eventually, her friend asked her to leave, and she had to give up her car.
Newsome found her way to Skid Row in 2016. She still remembers her first night there: She tried to find a spot that felt safe where she could sleep for the night, but as a solitary woman, she attracted men’s attention. So she chose an isolated spot to set up camp. “The first night was scary,” she recalls. “I had to stay up all night for my safety.” Newsome spent her days sleeping or walking through the streets and riding the trains. An outreach team eventually helped her get into temporary housing and then an SRO, but both felt unsafe and unsanitary. Finally, she had a stroke of luck: Newsome was approved for a housing voucher, and an organization called Brilliant Corners connected her with a case manager who helped her look for an apartment. That help was needed: Although she found a number of apartments close to Pasadena that she really liked, landlords repeatedly told her that they wouldn’t accept her housing voucher. She also suspects that she was being discriminated against because she was black. “It was like, immediately I was getting labeled as a person who is not safe to live in their building or be part of their neighborhood,” she says.
Newsome looked for a place for nearly a year. Finally, with her case manager making calls on her behalf, she found an efficiency studio in Highland Park, close to Pasadena, in April of last year. When the landlord accepted her application, “it was such a happy moment for me,” she recalls, a broad smile transforming her face. “Since then, things became easier. I was able to focus on my mental health…because I had a safe place to go home to.” She began the pharmacy-technician recertification process and is also working toward becoming a personal trainer. “It’s like a second chance for me to change my life and get myself more independent, more financially stable, and actually have a good, strong career job,” she says. Eventually, she wants to leave the voucher program altogether. “I want to be able to say, ‘This is my place.’”
The housing crisis “is like a game of musical chairs,” says Nan Roman. “There’s just not enough chairs for the number of people.” And the private sector simply can’t solve this problem: Even if developers put up buildings without taking on any debt, the poorest tenants still can’t pay enough rent to cover a building’s expenses. However, most affordable developments do take on debt to finance construction, putting the eventual units even further out of poor people’s reach. Without a subsidy, the only housing that private developers can afford to build is for high-end customers. Income inequality only fuels the rush for developers to cater to the top of the market with luxury housing, while ignoring the middle and bottom. “There’s a market failure, and the government should be stepping in to ameliorate that,” Yentel says. But so far, the debate in Washington over housing is limited to helping veterans off the street or preserving the tax breaks enjoyed by wealthier homeowners.
If there is a silver lining to LA’s affordable-housing crisis, it’s that things have gotten so bad that the city’s residents are finally paying attention. Street homelessness appears in every community; it’s not just crammed into Skid Row. “We see huge amounts of activism that have sprung out of this crisis,” Gross says. In the absence of assistance from the federal government, the city is attempting to patch together solutions. In November 2016, three-quarters of city voters approved Proposition HHH, an increase in property taxes to raise $1.2 billion for 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing for the homeless over the next decade. But now comes the test of whether the city can actually get the units built. “The money’s there,” says Paul Beesemyer, a program director at the California Housing Partnership Corporation, but “the potential gantlet of community opposition is a tough thing.” Early last year, voters also approved Measure H, which raises the sales tax by a quarter of a cent and uses the money to fund homeless services.
“It’s a sea change for Southern California,” Beesemyer says. “We’re in a fundamentally more hopeful place than we have ever been.” But, he adds, “we’re in a deeper hole than we’ve ever been in.” Advocates warn that, while the money is welcome, it’s a trickle in a chasm of need. “There’s going to be this big influx of resources that hasn’t existed in 30 years,” Dennison says. “But without federal resources, none of it works.”