e-mail us


Housing not just a problem for the poor

This year’s presidential election points up the growing divide in America between rich and poor. The high-profile issues, though worthy, reflect concerns of middle-class and upper middle-class Americans: the future of Social Security, the high price of prescription drugs, tax breaks for college students.

Less affluent Americans, left behind on a treadmill of low-paying jobs, have lower expectations.

Most of us remain isolated from the plight of the working poor. If the interstate system were ripped up and returned to grass and we had to walk through town, things would change. We would see, then, the effects of the housing shortage for the working poor, as detailed in this week’s cover story. We would have a national health service and first class inner-city and rural schools, if not for the sake of our consciences, then at least for the sake of our own safety.

As it is, rushing by on highways, we are too removed to see the 15 to 20 percent of the nation’s rural and urban core housing stock that folks in our cover story say compare to Third World conditions.

The real solution, of course, is not to tear up the interstates, but to somehow poke through the layer of isolation that keeps us from the reality of the poor.

Missing from our politics is an understanding that we are all in this together. The idea of sharing the nation’s wealth with the least of our brothers and sisters -- making sure that everyone has access to decent housing, adequate health care and a sound education -- should not be an embarrassment or a point of controversy but an integral part of our politics.

It is in places like rural Mississippi, with its lack of good, affordable housing, and in the countless U.S. cities, where such conditions also exist, that the gap between rich and poor becomes so glaringly evident.

Those working on the front lines know the consequences of inadequate housing stock, a problem often exacerbated by the gentrification of the nation’s urban core. When working-class families are displaced by urban renovations, dire financial consequences can result.

On the East Coast, for example, Manhattan prices can’t be breached. Jersey City and Hoboken have become upscale. Newark -- Newark? -- is next. At whose expense? For the most part, it’s at the expense of the lower middle class, working class and working poor. And where do they go?

In close-in suburban Washington, private home prices have zoomed. Rentals are torn down; town homes go up the following month. An entire neighborhood’s per capita income is transformed in a period of months. Modestly priced rentals are gone. In many cases, several families crowd into a single dwelling.

Meanwhile, Andrew Cuomo’s Department of Housing and Urban Development is attempting a stopgap: raising rent subsidies.

“After paying rent, there’s too little left,” said Sharon Daley of Catholic Charities USA who knows the plight of the poor in an era of vanishing affordable housing. “We’ve got 9 million people a year coming into Catholic Charities agencies, affiliated parishes and other church agencies for emergency food,” she said.

Those taking advantage of such services don’t get much time before political platform committees. They don’t have any leverage in the process. So assurances that we are in the midst of the best times ever go unchallenged.

Night after night on television, as political campaigns speed on, we see older people on TV describing their problems into reporters’ microphones. And their problems are real. We don’t, however, see another problem that is just as real: the housing shortage for the working poor.

We drive past. Indeed, if some of us left our cars on the street for a while, there’s a good chance we’d find a family or two living in them when we returned.

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000