Affordable Housing: Thinking Theologically
One of the more affecting books I have read recently is Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. In an astounding work of ethnography, Desmond chronicles the mundane injustices suffered daily by millions of people living on the knife-edge of poverty in America. Desmond summarizes how housing overwhelms the complicated calculus of being poor:
When I first met Arleen, she was living in a small apartment in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Her rent took 88 percent of her income. I watched Arleen try to raise two boys and confront impossible choices: Should I help pay for my sister’s funeral costs or pay the rent? Should I buy my children school clothes or pay the rent? I saw Arleen get evicted several times. She lost her possessions. Her children lost their schools and communities. Landlords wouldn’t rent to the family because of Arleen’s eviction record. People like Arleen forced me to see poverty in a whole new way. I used to think eviction and homelessness were the result of poverty. But I came to recognize that eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty in America. The lack of affordable housing is driving families to financial ruin and is one of the most important drivers of inequality in the nation today. (emphasis added)
As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resultant unemployment only threatens to exacerbate this problem, we are tasked as followers of Jesus with answering the question: what does loving my neighbor struggling with unaffordable housing look like? How do we seek the welfare of those in the city around us who need a stable, affordable place to live?
Home: Place of Rest
God has, from the beginning, displayed love to God’s people by providing a place to dwell. From Eden, to the Promised Land, through to the new earth of Revelation, God shows us that one of the ways in which we are blessed is by having a place to call home. In Isaiah 32:17, we hear God declare: “My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest."
Home is more than just a physical address, a place to sleep and eat. At its best, where we are housed has the potential to be a site of sacramental grace—a place where we can worship and gather with fellow believers (Acts 2:46), work with and provide for our families (1 Timothy 5:8), and live out the daily rhythms of a life of faith with those in our household. When we think about housing as a tool for the flourishing of God’s people, a place where God is present to us in the quotidian acts of washing dishes, feeding pets, and making coffee, we can begin to see the truly urgent nature of confronting a world where so many do not experience the place they live as an “undisturbed place of rest.” Affordable housing is part of a holistic vision of flourishing for all people, that all may live in “secure homes,” in a way that does not strip them of 88% of their monthly income, or force on them inhuman choices like buying food or paying rent.
There are many factors influencing the cost of housing today—population changes, construction costs, etc.—but a fundamental contradiction is at play. The worth of a home mutates sharply when viewed as either a place for a person or family to live, or as a vehicle for accumulating wealth. My apartment is worth a lot to my family—it’s a safe and relatively comfortable place to eat, sleep, learn, and play. But is its value to me the same as it is to my investor landlord? When we as individuals think about housing, we think about what we can afford to pay in order to provide adequate shelter for ourselves and our loved ones. When investors of capital think about housing, they are primarily concerned with how to extract wealth from the property by either charging higher rents for renters, or by loaning money to homebuyers at a more extractive cost. So there is inherent conflict in the ways in which private market housing is both conceptualized and utilized, with one group (home-users) simply seeking a place to live that costs a reasonable percentage of their income, and the other group (investors and banks) simply seeking to obtain a maximum return on another type of investment in their portfolios.
The resulting conflict has produced a panoply of predictable griefs. The sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008 caused a massive wave of foreclosures when predatory lenders targeted buyers and homeowners with an unsuitable mortgage product, often knowing they were likely to fail at repaying. Many of those same homes were then bought up by Wall Street investment firms to turn into rental properties. In the interest of keeping costs low, one investigation uncovered serious instances of neglect, refusals to make repairs, and mandates “that the company was going to do everything it could to (refuse to) return security deposits to tenants.” In both instances, the ones providing the housing or the capital to purchase the housing did not consider the fundamental nature of what housing means for us as human beings. They operated in complete disregard for God’s intention to place his people in “peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest.”
When we think about affordable, stable housing, let us be guided by this principle: that all people are better equipped to flourish when they are able to secure affordable housing, in a manner that meets their needs and ability to pay, not in a manner that satisfies an investor seeking more wealth. We treat primary education, safe streets, and clean water this way—as necessary goods that all people can reasonably expect from their community, cordoned off from profit-seeking interests. What if we saw housing in the same light?