September 20, 2020

Covering the Housing Market at a Tipping Point

Housing insecurity is among the quietest costs to our country. We spend all this money trying to get people better health and educational outcomes. But it doesn’t take much of a logical leap to say that if people weren’t worried about having a steady home, their health and educational outcomes would be much better.

Housing is this patchwork of federal, state and local policy, and a combination of banking and developers. So when you have a housing crisis, it’s hard to figure out the right policy responses because nobody is really in control. If you push on one side of this proverbial balloon, another thing changes.

When it comes to the small players, the landlord story and the tenant story are really one and the same. This mom-and-pop segment of the business owns a lot of what’s called “naturally occurring affordable housing.” If you’re someone with a moderate income who can’t qualify for certain programs, then this is all you can find. If you’re an immigrant, it’s often the only housing you can get.

When tenants don’t pay rent, small landlords are out of business and larger corporate landlords will probably pick up that property. We have lost millions of these apartments over the past decade: A small number of them fell into disrepair or were demolished, but the rest were turned into owner-occupied housing or are not affordable anymore.

In the short term, we need to preserve the affordable housing we have. But in the long term, we need to build a lot more of it.

When you really start asking longer-term questions — “How do we make housing better?” — it feels as if the solutions are above partisan politics. But that’s more difficult because it rips open our hypocrisies and shows us who we are. It cuts to sociology: “Whom do I want living near me?” And gets to something at our core: People are extremely suspicious of change around them.

Housing should be an investment in people. It shouldn’t be an investment in structure. When we think of housing as a necessity, we think about shelter in the way we think about food, but when we think of it as an investment, we lose sight of its role in health care and in family security. We would do well to start asking ourselves more frequently, “What is the point of having a home?” To live in it.

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