Lisa Yun Lee: Ignoring the need for affordable housing is no longer an option – Chicago Tribune

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In her 2020 book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” author Isabel Wilkerson has some astute observations about American life. Her conclusions can also be applied to housing access in this country — or the lack thereof.

“America is an old house,” Wilkerson writes. “The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction.”

Our nation is imperiled by a housing crisis that threatens the public’s well-being and our democracy. Policymakers may claim they didn’t create this emergency, but it is theirs — and ours — to bear. Housing intersects with public education, public safety and public health concerns in our nation, and the longer policymakers fail to make housing a focus, the more people will suffer and die. The good news is that we can solve this problem by becoming astute students of history and committing to housing as a public good, such as clean air and water or sidewalks and roads, rather than a commodity.

In January 2020, there were more than 580,000 U.S. residents experiencing homelessness, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reported. Among those who have a place to call home, almost half of renters and a fifth of homeowners spent more than 30% of their incomes on housing in 2019, a 2021 housing report from Harvard University reported. And that was before the pandemic. Now, Harvard’s 2022 housing report estimated that roughly 14% of all households — about 1 in 7 — spend more than half their income on shelter. Finding common solutions to address houselessness, building more public housing and affordable housing rather than addressing these issues separately, makes sense.

How did we get here? As the Harvard report explained, decades of underbuilding and a lack of investment in affordable housing have led to a severe shortage of homes and affordable rentals. Undersupply worsened during the pandemic as more millennials formed new households and construction failed to keep up with housing demand.

Although housing construction surged in 2021 and has continued at a brisk pace this year, it could take a decade of record-level homebuilding to significantly increase affordability and address the current need for housing. But even then, most homes being built are priced at the upper end of the market. What’s more, investors are buying up a record share of homes — especially moderately priced abodes — and flipping them for a significant profit.

Our country’s housing shortage creates an urgent need for investment in public housing and affordable homes. At the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago, we promote the belief that every person has the right to a home. We believe it is possible to shift our societal mindset toward fairness in housing and boost housing stock; it requires four steps.

First, we need to think beyond single-family properties and high-rise buildings. It’s time to expand our vision to include sustainable houses with smaller footprints, such as prefab homes, which are now often beautifully designed and sustainable.

Second, it is critically important for us to acknowledge that it’s often more profitable to build million-dollar condos than high-quality safe housing for working-class people and admit that profiteering and the public interest are not the same thing. We need to reinvest in public housing and ensure that the federal government serves as regulator. The government has largely outsourced housing development to the private sector. That needs to change — and fast.

Third, given the reality of climate change, we must fortify existing housing to withstand extreme weather while also increasing energy efficiency in all homes.

Finally — and I know this is going to be controversial — we need to reimagine how we generate wealth, health and safety beyond homeownership. Historically, families have built and passed down wealth by owning homes, but scores of Americans, most especially Black Americans, have not had fair access to real estate.

Racist housing policy ran deep in this country, and its effects are still felt. When the Federal Housing Administration was established in 1934, the government systematically discriminated against Black would-be homebuyers through tactics known as redlining. The FHA would not insure mortgages in Black neighborhoods, all while insuring those in white communities and providing subsidies for homebuilders to mass-produce “white-only” suburban subdivisions.

These ugly policies help account for present-day homeownership disparities and the vast racial wealth gap. The homeownership rate for Black Americans is about 43% compared with about 72% for white Americans, according to the National Association of Realtors. Meanwhile, the median Black household has a net worth of $17,600, while the median white household has a net worth of $171,000, according to a 2018 Center for American Progress report.

What if we stopped seeing housing as a commodity and began to view it truly as a public good? What if we quit using homeownership as a means of wealth generation and began underscoring housing as a human right?

If, as Wilkerson posits, America is an old house, it’s time to rebuild.

Lisa Yun Lee is a cultural activist and the executive director of the National Public Housing Museum. She is also an associate professor in art history and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, faculty member with the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project and a member of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

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October 17, 2022 at 05:37PM

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