The U.S. Housing Market is Deeply Unfair: Here's How You Can Help

Friday, December 14, 2018
Emmeline Clein
The Nation

Fifty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the US housing market is anything but fair. In stark contrast to the racially and economically integrated neighborhoods envisioned by 1960s-era reformers, the United States housing market today is characterized by striking inequality: precipitously rising rents accompanied by high rates of eviction and homelessness in US cities, along with exploding luxury construction marketed to the wealthy.

In 99.6 percent of US counties, a full-time minimum-wage worker cannot afford the average one-bedroom. One in four renters spends over half of their income on housing, and 20 million people live in a state of housing poverty, unable to afford necessities like health care and food once they’ve paid their rent. We’ve all heard the statistic about how much more CEOs make than the average worker, but less remarked upon is the fact that the median homeowner is 46 times wealthier than the median renter.

Like income inequality, housing inequality has recently reached a peak not seen since the 1930s. In the near-century between the Great Depression and 2012, the median US home cost tripled when adjusted for inflation. Over half of the total value of US housing stock is comprised of the most expensive 20 percent of owner-occupied homes. Residential segregation is rising with households in the top fifth of US income distribution increasingly less likely to live near people in different economic circumstances.

Corporate real-estate development has historically worked with government-sanctioned segregation to ensure that white people disproportionately reaped the financial benefits of homeownership, from the Home Owners Loan Corporation’s redlining maps to the inflated prices brokers offered African Americans throughout the 20th century for substandard housing, to predatory lending practices ahead of the 2008 financial crisis, when black Americans were 50 percent more likely to receive subprime loans than white Americans. Today, gentrification is reshaping American cities, pushing out longtime black residents in favor of wealthier white newcomers.

In light of all this, the homeownership gap between black and white Americans is yawning, with 41 percent of black adults owning their homes compared to 71 percent of white Americans. Of the 100 cities with the largest populations of black residents, none have closed the homeownership gap, and only four boast gaps under 40 percent. Among renters, over half of black and Latinx renters spend over half their incomes on rent.

Eviction is such a ubiquitous struggle in many black communities that sociologist Matthew Desmond has compared the phenomenon’s effect on black women to that of mass incarceration on black men. His research found that one in five black women in Milwaukee had experienced eviction. Among all low-income renters, 9 percent expect to be evicted in the next two months.

United States housing policy has long worked to benefit the real-estate industry in ensuring homes are treated as profit vehicles instead of accessible necessities. Decades of work by grassroots activists along with journalists and researchers have brought the issue to the fore over the past few years, as rent strikes and tenants’ unions sprouted up across Americas cities. The housing-justice movement’s power is growing, and in recent years it has centered housing as an issue where the various vectors of American oppression collide. Housing activists recognize that formerly incarcerated people, LGBTQ individuals, people of color, and low-income workers all face obstacles rooted in their identities in the search for affordable housing, and are bringing these seemingly disparate groups together to demand housing as a human right. In response, politicians are finally proposing legislation that increases accessibility to affordable housing on the federal and local levels.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s Department of Housing and Urban Regulation is fighting back, slashing regulations and cozying up to real-estate developers. Under Ben Carson, HUD has released plans to stop using an assessment tool for enforcement of the Fair Housing Act and to prevent the implementation of a 2015 rule that would have calculated affordable rents based on local conditions.

Luckily, the housing-justice movement has been facing off against bullying real-estate executives and powerful politicians for centuries, and the moment is rife with potential for transformative justice. Read on to find out how you can support legislation, express your rejection of HUD’s efforts to further deregulate the housing market, contribute to grassroots organizing, and find organizations that will meaningfully spend your donations.

1. VOICE YOUR SUPPORT FOR AFFORDABLE HOUSING LEGISLATION.

From bills proposing federal spending on constructing affordable housing to city-level regulations protecting tenants from unfair evictions, there is housing legislation pending at every level of the government. Here are reforms which you can meaningfully implore your congressional representatives, statehouse members, and city-council legislators to support.

Federal: As Congress gears up to begin a new session, demand that your legislators support pending progressive housing bills that Senators and Representatives published near the end of the last session of Congress.

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) American Housing and Economic Mobility Act would be one of the first to recognize the intersectionality of housing justice by reinforceing protections against discriminatory real estate owners, actively promote desegregation, and proposes a total of half a trillion dollars of investment in creating over 3 million new units of affordable housing in the coming decade. Two other Senate bills also focused on affordability issues. Senator Kamala Harris’s (D-CA) Rent Relief Act would use a tax credit to help 20 million rent-burdened households pay their rent. Senator Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) Housing, Opportunity, Mobility and Equity (HOME) Act calls for cities to replace exclusionary zoning practices with inclusionary ones.

There were also bills in Congress addressing housing access for victims of natural disasters, which should be an even high priority in the new Congress. In our rapidly warming world, natural disasters are displacing people with increasing frequency, and low-income renters and homeowners are at the greatest risk for losing their homes.

Puerto Rico, where 43.5 percent of the population lived in poverty before Hurricane Maria, saw a loss of over 160,000 homes in that storm. Twenty thousand people are estimated to have experienced homelessness after Hurricane Michael. Yet, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Florence, FEMA responded sluggishly or not at all, declining over 60 percent of individual applications for assistance after Maria and leaving families in California and Florida to sleep in tent cities, shelters, and molding hallways. FEMA used the Transitional Shelter Assistance program to pay for survivors to stay in hotels temporarily instead of drawing on the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which was created after Hurricane Katrina, to provide rental assistance and case management over the long term as people who lost homes find new ones or rebuild. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL)’s Disaster Housing Assistance Act and Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) and Representative Adriano Espaillat (D-NY)’s Housing Victims of 5 Major Disasters Act both called for DHAP relief to low-income disaster survivors still struggling to find long term housing. Ask your representatives to support these survivors, and bring similar bills protecting low-income survivors of future disasters.

E-mail, call, and tweet at your senators and representatives asking them to support these bills and resolutions. You can also tell your congresspeople not to support HUD’s proposals to change the rules around enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, and not to accept Ben Carson’s proposed decreases to HUD’s budget in 2019.

Local: A raft of city and state-level ordinances providing homeless services and establishing Just Cause Eviction and Rent Control rules recently passed, creating models you can ask your local politicians to emulate in their legislation. Seattle and Philadelphia now have just cause eviction laws on the books, which limit landlords’ abilities to evict tenants simply to charge someone else a higher rent. Oakland passed Proposition Y expanding just cause eviction rules. Boston passed a stabilization law that demands that landlords tell the city before beginning eviction proceedings, with enough time for the city and its network of advocacy groups to provide tenants with legal assistance. Last year New York became the first US city to enshrine right to counsel in housing court in law, despite the fact that most countries, from Zambia to Azerbaijan, have long refused to leave defendants on their own in housing court.

Meanwhile, Austin’s citizens approved a bond to fund affordable-housing construction. Richmond, a city in the Bay Area, established rent-control laws ensuring rents are informed by cost of living. Los Angeles just passed a temporary rent freeze, and Chicago’s City Council asked the state to end Illinois’s rent-control ban. If your city or state is considering any similar regulations, tell your city council person and state representative to support them.

2. ORGANIZE.

If you are a renter yourself, find out if your neighborhood has a tenant union. If it does, join to get involved in actions like rent strikes, eviction protests, and calls for banks to divest from serial evictors. If your area is not already home to a tenant union, you can start your own using using the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Tenant Organizing Handbook, which includes instructions on everything from getting started to a week-by-week meeting schedule. If you live in California, check out Tenants Together, which organizes across the state, as does Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance in New York.

Homes for All is an advocacy network at the vanguard of the housing-justice moment. The organization pulls together stakeholders including low-income workers, the elderly, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and formerly incarcerated people to highlight how each group’s identity heightens their struggle to find an affordable home. Homes for All’s network crosses cities in what they have termed a “trans-local” campaign to publicize local housing crises, build renter’s assemblies and tenant unions, educate communities on the history of land struggles in the United States, promote ongoing efforts to reform city-level ordinances, and send delegates to the group’s annual national assembly.

In just five years of existence, Homes for All has built a network of 68 grassroots organizations across 24 states. Its multi-pronged suite of radical proposals includes ideas like building community land trusts to replace market-rate housing. Find your local chapter here to get involved with local strikes and protests, or start your own group.

With over half a million people homeless on any given night, one-fifth of whom are children, homeless shelters are often the last resort for people without access to an affordable roof over their heads. Still, 35 percent of homeless people do not find shelter. Use the Homeless Shelter Directory to find homeless shelters in your community, and look for volunteering opportunities from staffing kitchens to coordinating fundraisers.

3. DONATE.

You can always use your funds to support people who experience housing insecurity. Here are a few organizations helping people access legal aid in housing court, rebuild their homes after disasters, and amplify voices advocating for affordable housing.

National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel—Fund lawyers who defend clients pro bono in housing court. These lawyers support victims of eviction who could not otherwise legally fight for their home.

SBP—Built out of the St. Bernard Project which reconstructed flooded homes after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, SBP now rebuilds disaster victims’ homes across the country.

National Low Income Housing Coalition & Homes for All—While the housing-justice movement has been making big legislative strides, many of the most progressive proposals failed during the past midterms. These failures were largely the result of massive financial support by the real-estate industry to back efforts to resist the affordable-housing movement. In California alone, the National Association of Realtors spent over $750,000 to prevent a rent-control regulation and corporate goliaths Blackstone and Equity Residential spent over $70 million to block a proposition that would have allowed local governments across the state to institute rent controls. Supporting advocacy networks like NLIHC and Homes for All helps the housing-justice movement compete with the real-estate industry’s deep pockets.

FAIR USE NOTICE. Tenants Together is not the author of this article and the posting of this document does not imply any endorsement of the content by Tenants Together. This document may contain copyrighted material the use of which may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Tenants Together is making this article available on our website in an effort to advance the understanding of tenant rights issues in California. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Help build power for renters' rights:

Sign up for alerts