Reflections on Affordable Housing

During my time working for an Affordable Housing agency I got to hang out with many of the residents of our buildings, laugh with them, on one (maybe two?) occasion have cocktails with them, and hear their stories. What I began realizing was that many of them ended up in affordable housing just because of the things life threw at them.

Some had spouses who fell ill and they spent their life savings caring for them, leaving them without a place to live when their spouse passed. Some were single parents who got hurt at work, had to resign as a result, and could not economically survive on their social security checks. Some were immigrants who came here without much and needed a stable home in order to start a new life. Some lost their homes/earnings when the housing bubble burst in 2008.

No matter the circumstance these were folks, for one reason or another, found themselves in a place where they needed an affordable, stable roof over their heads. And as someone who also grew up in affordable housing I get that. Sometimes life happens — whether because of systemic injustice or bad decisions or pure randomness — and no matter how hard you work or push or fight you find yourself in a difficult position within an economic system that does not necessarily want you to succeed. But if I’ve learned anything about people, it’s that they/we are resilient.

So whenever I went into town meetings with wealthy property owners and heard them regurgitate these hateful caricatures of folks who live in affordable housing I was confused (and appalled). In their descriptions these wealthy property owners made it seem as if everyone in affordable housing was lazy, unwise, ignorant, dirty, violent, and/or a thief. And I don’t know how many times I asked, “Have you met these folks? Have you met me? Because these caricatures are just classist, racist, sexist, ableist, xenophobic distortions of reality.”

But before I even asked I already knew the answer — of course they haven’t met the people living in an affordable unit, because meeting them and being in relationship with them would require something of them. It would require they examine their own lives, their own wealth, and force them to ask themselves how they are implicated (positively or negatively) in the reality of another. And in some ways its less work to maintain a caricature of whole group of people than to sit and build relationship with them.

I’ve been thinking about these experiences a lot over the past few days. I’ve been thinking about the moment I realized I also grew up in affordable housing meaning that when folk spoke ill of people in affordable units they spoke about me and my family. I’ve been thinking about the stories of folks in affordable units, people from various walks of life who for personal and/or systemic reasons found themselves without a place to sleep. I’ve been thinking about the overwhelming distance between the characterization of the poor by the wealthy elites (or those performing as wealthy elites) and the actual living, breathing people who make up the lower class. I’ve been thinking about peoples’ hearts and souls when, with such vitriol, they openly/explicitly attack and police and displace other human beings. And I’ve been thinking about how those of us who at this moment have some level of privilege and stability — including myself — are complicit in those systems that attack and police and displace other human beings.

Policies, laws, economics, people and everything in between is/are complicated — I will never deny that. But at some level questions around housing, homelessness, education, immigration, and other social issues are fundamentally matters of relationship, of listening, of the heart and soul. Been thinking about that lately.