Thursday, July 30, 2009

In Defense of Affordable Housing

This is a repost from a blog I did in March on the now-defunct ChicagoDads site. I am partly doing this in anticipation or celebration of a few events. One is the kick-off of Home Sweet Chicago, a joint venture of neighborhood watchdogs with the implicit goal of asking for more TIF funds in Chicago to be used for affordable housing for those who need them (an informative article from the Sun-Times about HSW and the regrettable practice of "affordable" housing is here). Another biggie is MAPA's big event in cooperation with a local After Schools Matter program (they had interviewed several members of the community and are releasing a book about it) at a local hot-spot on Monday night (interestingly enough, right in between my wife's birthday and our anniversary. I think three years is celebratory, eh?). The third reason, well, that may be the subject of an upcoming post soon.

Affordable housing is all the rage in Chicago recently. As in, some people get viscerally and physically angry about it. They feel that since they put a lot of money down for their property under the auspices that it is an “upcoming” neighborhood, setting aside new buildings for low-income families means that the undeserving get to steal a piece of the retail pie. Meanwhile, those who just invested much money into the fledgling area are swiftly losing their investment, or so some would have them believe.

First off, just a wee bit of education: Affordable housing is not giving away space to lazy, worthless, freeloading individuals or families. Everybody who applies for affordable housing needs to have steady income. They are already contributing members of society. Second, simply because they do not make as much money as some others does not mean that they should be pushed and shoved at the whim of those who can afford to buy and sell houses as if they were dealing in poker chips.

But then the opponents of affordable housing must further be asked: What of the people who have put down family and history and community and business in their area and have invested in it for decades? What if they have worked their tails off day-in and day-out just in order to get by, just to pay rent or mortgage and have barely enough money left over for essentials? What happens when they are forced out of their living arrangements because the area around them is moving in such a rate that they (or their landlords) cannot afford to keep up with, say, the new taxes on their property. So, owners are forced to sell their properties or jack up their rents. All of a sudden, a whole slew of people are looking for cheap apartments and yet has the type of infrastructure that is needed for their families.

So, what these hard-working families are left with is a volatile cocktail with any of the following options:

  • Live even closer to the edge of financial ruin by pulling money out of a safety-net (retirement savings, college savings, insurance, car, etc.)
  • Pull oldest children out of school so that they can earn extra money for family.
  • Move to an area where it is difficult or impossible to commute to current jobs or jobs within their skill set that would pay a decent wage.
  • Move to an area without social, societal, and scholastic infrastructure.
  • Declare bankruptcy and default on loans.
  • Become homeless. Which also may happen as a result of the items listed above over time.

I have shared in both the responsibility and the burden of having many of my students, friends and their families wrestle with these realities. What’s more, any of the above puts more burden on the community and society. A homeless family is primarily concerned about getting basic needs met now, for instance. Contributing to society is not a practical option by the way, Time magazine just ran an article on how 1 out of 50 children is now homeless . That includes a more than 20% jump of Chicago Public Schools students in the last three years that are deemed homeless - with total numbers well above the national average). Bankruptcy and financial ruin means less money. Kids being pulled out of college, high school and sometimes grade school may be necessary in the short-run, but is economically disastrous in the long-haul. Also, when families are cast out of their neighborhoods to other areas, existing school buildings lose students. As they lose students, they lose finances and function (this is happening at an incredible rate here in Logan Square). Soon, the schools have to close down. In the meantime, the new neighborhoods that the families are thrown into do not have the resources to school all of the new children. So, while the one school is being torn down, new schools - and social networks - are going to have to be built in entirely different areas. Not only does this not make financial sense, it doesn’t make ecological sense.

Save the planet, support affordable housing.

-originally posted in

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