The first crisis I can remember was the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis. Obviously, I didn’t have a clue what was going on— some of the finer points of real estate law still escape me today in spite of years of study— but I was totally cognizant that something was wrong, and suddenly lots of people in my family were having issues keeping a roof over their heads. My dad for several years lived in the attic of his boss’s office, maintaining the property and doing odd jobs for him to stay in place. My mom and I had to move back to my grandmothers, as they had to offload the now-borderline worthless condo we were living in, and my mother was having trouble finding a job and making ends meet for us. It was a strange time, and now I wonder if a lot of the stress and mental health issues me and my family were facing at that time were due to a monster I have come to know well: housing insecurity.
Housing insecurity hasn’t always been a thing like it is now. If you went back to 1920 and talked about housing insecurity, most people would probably want to talk to you about the unsafe living conditions in tenement buildings, not people sleeping on the streets and moving from city to city, looking for somewhere to finally put down roots. Homelessness existed, but it wasn’t at the top of anyone’s list of public policy concerns, and it really didn’t exist in its modern understanding in a world where you could still go press your luck at settling the vast expanses of the interior of America, and there were strong communities built up around neighborhoods and civic associations that could help to catch people who fell through the cracks.
The Great Depression that would come towards the end of that decade would be America’s first real foray into mass homelessness, with over two million homeless migrating through the US, setting up their “Hoovervilles” that were sometimes targeted by authorities, but generally tolerated. This housing crisis helped to spark the New Deal, which gave rise to many of the major federal agencies responsible for housing policy today, such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and in its last breath the Federal Housing Authority. These federal programs helped spark the construction of fifteen million homes, essentially satisfying a growing America’s thirst for a roof over their heads.
The modern homelessness crisis rose during the 1980s and 1990s, coinciding with the rise of the New Right and the New Democrats, whose neoliberal austerity policies tore apart the social safety net and put hundreds of thousands out on the streets. The defunding of the problematic housing projects, the deinstitutionalization of mental healthcare, gentrification through the destruction of protections for tenants and homeowners with the deregulation of the banking industry, the failure of policymakers to find ways to keep housing costs down and their complicity in keeping housing costs up, and the coexistent destruction of communities has left us with a homelessness crisis unmatched across the world in its cruelty, with the common occurrence of working people in big, supposedly thriving cities relegated to a life on the streets.
Homeless people often work, and have nothing to show for it. They are incredibly vulnerable to being exploited, by criminals, legitimate authorities, and organizations. Homelessness is highly correlated with all manners of societal ills, from drug addiction to falling into criminal activity. Homelessness and housing insecurity are often caused by mental illness, and, even if they aren’t in a specific instance, it is rare for anyone to spend any considerable amount of time homeless and escape un-traumatized by the experience. I, for one, despite being born to a relatively well-off family, have suffered lots of stress and mental health issues due to housing insecurity. And these were just the evils of homelessness in 2019, in a “booming” economy, where tax cuts were supposed to be showering money on all of us.
In 2020, we are facing many crises: a pandemic, concurrent economic collapse, a reckoning with racial injustice. But one crisis that won’t be named alongside those in most articles would be the crisis of housing insecurity born again, for the second time on such a massive scale in our young lives. That’s because we have come to assume that any crisis is inevitably a housing crisis. My family started talking about “selling the house before housing prices bottom out,” assuming the inevitable, and wanting to land from freefall in better-cushioned environs.
Every crisis seems to be a housing crisis in some way. The War on Terror became a housing crisis as soldiers came home from war, battered inside and out by an invisible enemy, and were allowed to slide through the cracks onto the streets. Hurricane Katrina was a housing crisis, as homes were destroyed, and the housing insurance market, as it is prone to do, fell to pieces, as it could not fulfill its promises without any homes to exploit. The Great Recession, quite obviously, was a housing crisis. And now, the COVID-19 pandemic is going to turn into a housing crisis. The nation’s housing systems are a house of cards: the only thing holding them up is a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions.
Why is it that the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, can’t even meet its citizens’ most basic needs? Are these problems intractable, the inevitable result of the afflictions of mortality and scarcity rendered upon us by the universe? Are the poor simply just meeting their end so that the fit may survive?
No. We can meet our basic needs, our society has simply chosen not to. Our government has, in fact, managed to meet these needs before, and could now, and rather easily. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates it would cost about $20 billion per year, about the same cost as the F-35 program. Jeff Bezos’s wealth alone could end homelessness in the United States for a decade. Instead of helping the poor, we have decided to cut taxes for the rich, juice the fake economy of the stock market and the financial sector with deregulation wave after deregulation wave, and starve the welfare of the people in order to pay for it.
It is at this point in time that I, again, am forced to come to terms with this housing market. The market is collapsing again, my family is worried about housing again, and I want to go out and assert my own independence and become an adult. I am willing to work hard to do it, to make the sacrifices necessary to make the society run that would enable me to live the life that I want to. But, with our society’s current structure, I am stuck at home, awaiting my fate under the cruel, invisible hand of the market, unimpeded, in fact, assisted, by our government.
I, for one, am sick of having my value as a human being, my very ability to meet my own basic needs and have the freedom to live my own life, impeded by some silly, man-made game. I don’t know what the answer is, but something’s got to give. I will live as my own person, make my own freedom, with the help of my family and friends. But this experience will leave me forever thinking about the people who can’t, and that will be a mark I will bear for the rest of my social existence, until I can help build a society that cares.