Housing is a Human Right…That’s the Word on the Street


My name is Emma and I’m one of the Homesharing Counselors at St. Ambrose. This year I am participating in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, a national program that matches college-educated individuals with a non-profit for a year to learn about issues of social justice in the United States. Part of my goal working at St. Ambrose this year is to learn about housing equity. Someone once told me the difference between housing equality and equity by telling me a metaphor about people who need shoes. Equality means that everyone gets shoes, while equity means that everyone gets shoes that actually fit their feet. I was drawn to St. Ambrose because they not only work to help people find housing, but housing that really fits their needs.


As one way of broadening my understanding of housing equity, on November 23rd, I attended an event called “Sleep Out for Housing Justice.” The event, sponsored by Baltimore nonprofit Housing Our Neighbors, brings together people who are currently or formerly homeless with housing advocates and community members. Among the organizations represented there were St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, Health Care for the Homeless, Word on the Street, and students from Loyola and UM’s Social Work programs. Together, we shared a meal, participated in a public forum. Following the forum, those tough enough to brave the bone-chilling winds slept outside City Hall for the night, in solidarity with those who have no other place to sleep. The event was designed to bring awareness about homelessness and to generate discussion about how housing policy is supposed to be and the reality on the ground.

Housing Our Neighbors did an excellent job organizing this event. When we arrived at the park, everyone received a hot bowl of rice and chili, with a vegetarian option available for those who don’t eat meat. It can be hard to find vegetarian food or nutritious options when you’re living on the street, one man informed me. When you lose your housing, you lose the freedom to eat what you want, when you want, and even to practice your religion–which, for some religious affiliations like Buddhism, can mean a vegetarian diet.

Another freedom that you lose when you lack stable housing is the ability to go to the bathroom when and where you need to. If you’ve ever needed to use the restroom downtown and haven’t wanted to buy something to do so, you have some idea of how frustrating this can be: Baltimore City law prohibits public urination, yet lacks public bathrooms. Imagine now that you don’t have any money to purchase access to the restrooms and you’re sleeping outside. You face the choice of urinating in the street at night and facing a nearly $1,000 fine, which, unpaid, could lead to prison time….or holding it and risking a bladder infection, leading to hospitalization and costly medical fees. Is this fair treatment for people forced to live on the street?

We like to think that this kind of situation is someone else’s problem, and couldn’t happen to ourselves, personally. But homelessness–defined by health organizations as a lack of permanent housing–can happen to perfectly ‘normal’ people, and is often not the individual’s fault. Homelessness can be the result of sudden changes like illness, divorce, or the death of a family member, which cause mental distress and ultimately result in financial distress.

Now, homelessness is an epidemic that has not existed forever. When my mother was my age, back in the 1970s, you didn’t see twenty people sleeping out on the street on any given night. So what is its cause and what is its solution?

A member of Housing Our Neighbors pointed out that it is important to give people a hand-up, rather than a hand-out. Reflecting on this concept, I realized that St. Ambrose is one of the organizations working to give people a hand up. For those already facing foreclosure, our Foreclosure Prevention provides free one-on-one counseling about how to negotiate with mortgage lenders and budget a plan to stay up on mortgage payments. For those interested in sharing their home as a way to earn extra income, or in sharing someone else’s home as a low-cost housing option, our Homesharing program carefully screens individuals and matches them with one another based on personal preferences.

Monday morning, I returned to work at St. Ambrose with a greater understanding of the nature and importance of housing equity. True, some people, like me, choose to sleep outside sometimes for fun. Coming from a Pacific Northwest background, I enjoy camping with friends on occasion. But no one should have to sleep outside every night. When someone is ready to settle down with their family—or needs a place where they can live together with their kids—or simply needs shelter when the temperatures dip below freezing at night—we at St. Ambrose believe they should have that opportunity.

For the Baltimore Sun’s take on Sleep Out for Housing Justice, you can click on this link: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-11-24/news/bs-md-ci-housing-justice-20131123_1_public-housing-housing-justice-inner-harbor

While Unemployment Improves, Many Citizens Remain Unable to Meet Basic Needs

Source: New York Times

Commentators around the country have been touting last month’s uplifting unemployment statistics, which indicate, ever so subtly, that the nation’s job situation may be improving.  While many large businesses have remained profitable throughout the recession, it now appears that the private sector is willing to invest in new hiring, suggesting an increased demand for goods and services.

As the Obama administration enjoys temporary praise, a new study, highlighted a few days back in the New York Times, presents a gloomier picture.  The study demonstrates that the greater job creation we’re experiencing may be much less rosier that we think, because many of the country’s newly created jobs do not offer a living wage.

The study was commissioned by the non-profit, Wider Opportunities for Women, which authoritatively titled their report, “The Basic Economic Security Tables for the United States.”  In order to arrive at their disconcerting findings, the study’s researchers had to determine what constitutes a living wage.  Thus, the many tables presented by the study premise themselves on the following notion:

“Families, the media and policymakers often focus their attention on volatile, rising expenses, such as food and fuel. While such expenses are important in day-to-day life, they are small parts of families’ much larger economic security challenges. Expenses such as housing, transportation and child care receive less attention, but are much larger pieces of the economic security puzzle, and can be greatly influenced by policy.”

Here, the authors put forth a rather bold contention, as they turn on its head the paradigmatic metric utilized by economists to measure adequate wages, the Consumer Price Index, which considers some of the former, more “traditional” tables—food and fuel—to a much greater extent.   Perhaps equally innovative, the authors further posit that “Not all families require homeownership…[though] such savings can contribute to long-term and intergenerational economic security, however, when investments are careful and savers plan for the long term.” By deflating the value of homeownership while making sure to mention it’s virtues, the authors, in a sense, take a swipe at a bipartisan generation of policymakers that abetted the crisis.

Substantively speaking, I’d guess that to many, the study’s results are equally eye-opening.  The Times reports that “a single worker needs an income of $30,012 a year,” while a “a single worker with two young children needs an annual income of $57,756, or just over $27 an hour, to attain economic stability.”  My cursory research indicates that this figure exceeds the median family income in the Unites States.

The study’s econometrics are advances, no doubt, but they convey a truth that many other commentators—from the activist Barbara Ehrenreich to the former Labor Secretary Robert Reich—have articulated for far too long (and that policymakers have, in turn, stubbornly ignored): that wages have not kept up with inflation over the last several decades, forcing far too many Americans to borrow more than they can afford to.  So while pundits and the administration alike hail the new job data, make sure to consider the human aspect behind these statistics, which certainly may not be as peachy.

Talking With the Experts: A Conversation with David Marcello

Professor David Marcello

Welcome to the second portion of yesterday’s interview with New Orleans housing expert David Marcello. In the following conversation, Professor Marcello discusses strategies to curtail blight and encourage racially and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods:

Harsha Sekar: Like New Orleans, Baltimore faces tremendous problems with urban blight.  There’s a commonly held (yet perhaps unfounded) belief that Charm City contains “more row homes than people.”  True or not, it’s undeniable that blight is a huge problem in Baltimore, and any casual observer driving through one of the city’s more under-resourced neighborhoods could pick up on this in a heartbeat.  What strategies to curtail urban blight have you advocated?  What has worked in New Orleans, and what has failed?

David Marcello: I’ve relentlessly recommended for years that the city employ one of the most conventional weapons in the municipal arsenal: code enforcement. Code Enforcement has been a core function of cities since the 1901 Tenement House Act in New York City. We’ve created an exemplary administrative process in Louisiana for health, housing, and environmental code enforcement hearings that can lead in extreme circumstances to a sheriff’s sale, moving blighted property away from a negligent owner and into the hands of a new, more responsible owner. That transition in ownership takes place in a competitive public auction that shifts the property from one private owner to another without the necessity of intervening public ownership.

This last feature of the recommended “code enforcement” strategy stands in stark contrast to the outcome of an expropriation process, which was for many years the favored strategy of our local redevelopment agency, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, or NORA. I never thought NORA’s strategy of using expropriation as a blight remediation tool had much chance of success. In a city with tens of thousands of blighted properties, expropriation is simply too expensive and too time consuming to get the job done. Even worse, at the end of an expropriation proceeding, you’ve put the blighted property into the hands of a governmental entity that’s then confronted with the challenge of doing something with the property. Far better, I believe, is to use code enforcement as an incentive for people to fix up their own property or, failing that, using sheriff’s sales to move ownership from one private party directly to another, taking intermediate governmental ownership out of the equation.

HS: Both New Orleans and Baltimore are intensely segregated cities, and, as you know, segregated housing has led to segregated neighborhoods, schools, and other public institutions, with devastating consequences for underprivileged, often ethnic minority urban residents.  Do you propose or advocate any ideas to alleviate the crippling reality of residential segregation in New Orleans and other urban areas?

DM: New Orleans certainly has its share of segregated housing problems, but it’s worth noting that this was not historically the way things were in New Orleans, where humble shotgun housing existed in close proximity to grand mansions, providing a mix of income and racial diversity with which other cities were unfamiliar. In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of our humble housing “gentrified” into middle and upper income housing, and that’s certainly fostered greater income and racial segregation of the city’s residents. We should look for ways to diminish that effect by subsidizing rental and rehabilitation programs aimed at putting more of the city’s resource-limited residents into those types of existing housing units.

Our older neighborhoods reflect the diversity of housing structures that were built over many decades or even centuries. We need to restore within those older neighborhoods the income and racial diversity that characterized them in an earlier era. New Orleans had many healthy neighborhoods of mixed-income housing long before that concept took flight in the late 20th Century.

HS: It seems like the hottest new trend in urban planning nowadays are so-called “Mixed-Income Communities,” which, from my understanding, usually emerge as the result of public-private partnerships.  Policy-makers believe that intentionally designed mixed-income neighborhoods are the key to preventing gang violence, blight, and drug abuse, some of the most palpable problems that plagued the public housing projects constructed in the fifties and sixties. New Orleans, Baltimore, and most other major cities have developed such communities and are likely in the process of contracting for more.  How have these developments fared in mitigating the aforementioned problems?  What do you think about this potential new paradigm of urban housing?

DM: I think it’s too early to tell how well or poorly the post-Katrina mixed-income housing developments will fare. We’ll probably see mixed results, with some properties maintaining a balance of mixed incomes while some others acquire a disproportionate share of low-income residents. Still others may be challenged to survive financially, and we’re likely to confront the problem of what to do with a failed multiunit apartment complex.

I don’t feel quite the same level of enthusiasm that some people do for the model of Government as producer of a utopian “City on a Hill.” Here in Louisiana, we’ve seen how badly-managed government programs like The Road Home can first raise and then bitterly disappoint expectations. So when I hear references to “intentionally designed” neighborhoods, I tend to think, “Nice idea for new towns or beachside communities; maybe not so great for New Orleans?” At a charrette held two months after Katrina, I said, “I’d rather see people given some latitude to build back properties on their own initiative, even if it means that some of those properties turn out to be ugly, rather than inflict on this unique city some cookie-cutter pastel-colored vision of ‘our town’.” I still feel that way. What makes New Orleans New Orleans is the rich diversity of its neighborhoods. That’s true not only of its housing stock but also of the diverse cultures nurtured within those neighborhoods.

I would prefer to see Incentives built into the zoning ordinance and housing finance programs that empower individuals to make their own decisions about how to build back New Orleans. I trust this process of “accretion” more than I trust one agency’s single-minded vision of “intentionally redesigned” neighborhoods. We’ll keep our city’s cultural and architectural diversity intact by keeping our diverse residents fully engaged in the rebuilding process.

BNIA Study’s of Effect of Foreclosures on Baltimore Schoolchildren

Image Source: Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance

In the past week, the University of Baltimore’s Baltimore Neighborhoods Indicator Alliance (BNIA) released an analysis, possibly the first since the onset of the foreclosure crisis, that examines the effects of the foreclosures on children in Baltimore.  I first came across the study by way of Jamie Smith Hopkins’ excellent “Real Estate Wonk” blog, where Ms. Hopkins provides an enlightening commentary on the study and its implications.

University of Baltimore Professor Matthew Kachura conducted the study; he received ample funding from various arms of the Open Society Institute.  The study is premised on the notion that while the foreclosure crisis has prompted much examination of related matters, like the impact on property values and the housing market, little if any research exists on the foreclosure crisis’s impact on schoolchildren.  From there, Kachura’s study proceeds to dissect itself into two phases: phase one identifies the students affected by foreclosure and delineates a broad set of demographic characteristics, while the second phase, which is yet to be published, will look at the school performance of the affected students.  The published phase exhaustively utilizes hard data, including publically available foreclosure statistics and other metrics provided by the Baltimore Public Schools; the second phase will look at test scores.

While one cannot make assumptions about the negative impact that foreclosures will have on students’ performances just yet, Ms. Hopkins, on her blog, points out that a University of Baltimore press release has stated that affected students “may have to switch schools, move in with relatives, or leave the city altogether,” shedding light on the outcomes of the second phase of the study.

Kachura’s study proffers further evidence for the interrelationship between housing policies and systemic racism and poverty.  In a previous post, my colleague Will Flagle covered the recent Brandeis University study on the enormous impact that possessing equity in a home has had on intergenerational wealth over the past several decades, which, it turns out, has greatly contributed to inequality between African-Americans and White Americans nowadays.  Here, Kachura documents the disproportionate impact that foreclosures in Baltimore have had on minorities, conveyed in the graphs below:

Perhaps most insightful, Kachura’s data, coupled with that of the Brandeis study and others, gives us a clearer indication of the less salient, less tangible meaning of these foreclosures.  Minorities disproportionately are victims of foreclosure in part because, for systemic reasons, they have access to less capital and family wealth, in part because they are frequently targeted with predatory, non-prime loans, and in part because by and large they do not benefit from the sort of white privilege that would enable one to walk away from a million dollar mortgage and face hardly any repercussions.  As Barbara Eirenreich and others have pointed out, while the foreclosure crisis translates to a recession for some, in the African-American community it has meant a depression.  Kachura’s research suggests that because of foreclosures, minority children will face educational setbacks, and in turn lower college matriculation rates, access to decent jobs, affordable housing, and respect.  In short, the foreclosure crisis, as silly as it may sound, is reinforcing systemic racism, weakening the resources of minorities, and curtailing the rise of diverse neighborhoods and communities.

Housing and Inequality Still Intertwined

In a previous article, we discussed how housing discrimination decades ago contributed to the racial wealth gap that exists today. Recent research from Brandeis University’s Institute on Assists and Social Policy (IASP) shows that over the last quarter century, that wealth gap has increased fourfold. In 2007, the average white family had assets (minus home equity) valued at $100,000, while the average black family had assets worth $5,000, a disparity of 20:1 (see Figure 1). As the IASP points out, “the current gap is so large that it would pay tuition at a four-year public university for two children, purchase or make a solid down payment on a house, or provide a nest egg to draw upon in times of job loss or crisis.” And once again, housing dynamics are at the center of this increase in inequality: “Consumers of color face a gauntlet of barriers—in credit, housing and taxes—that dramatically reduce the chances of economic mobility,” writes the IASP. For example:

African-Americans and Hispanics were at least twice as likely to receive high-cost home mortgages as whites with similar incomes. These reckless high-cost loans unnecessarily impeded wealth building in minority communities and triggered the foreclosure crisis that is wiping out the largest source of wealth for minorities.

Source: Insititute on Assets and Social Policy

In a recent article, Harvard Sociologist Orlando Patterson also discusses how current housing dynamics perpetuate and exacerbate inequality. As Patterson points out, while blacks have attained a high degree of integration into our nation’s public sphere, in the private domain “the nation is as segregated today as it ever was, with hypersegregated and growing metropolitan areas.” Moreover, this racial division is not some benign curiosity. Because of the way that location conditions access to social networks and cultural capital, residential segregation plays an important role in curtailing life opportunities and perpetuating inequality. Patterson writes:

In modern America, like all other major industrial societies, economic success stems as much from network location and access to cultural capital as from formal schooling. Getting a job, as sociologist Mark Granovetter showed in his pathbreaking work, is as much a function of who you know as what you know, and this holds as much for working-class as for high-tech and managerial positions. Of equal importance, however, is the finding of the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: the transmission of cultural capital—the often tacit knowledge gained from family and friends that is reproduced in the extracurricular socialization of elite schools—is a critical factor in explaining economic inequality and other forms of social distinction. It is precisely such crucial networks and cultural capital that segregation excludes black Americans from.

As many commentators have long pointed out, place matters. Unfortunately, the geography of opportunity in our nation remains profoundly unequal.

Housing, White Privilege, and Wealth Inequality

As a social justice issue, housing seems simple and relatively bland: people need shelter, what else is there to talk about?

A lot, actually.

Housing issues are related to a complex web of social justice concerns. Two related concerns that are particularly relevant to housing are white privilege and wealth inequality. In fact,  understanding the history of discrimination in America—particularly housing discrimination—is indispensable to understanding contemporary economic inequality.  What’s the connection between housing,  white privilege, and wealth inequality? Here’s a statistic that might surprise you:

The Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration financed more than $120 billion worth of new housing between 1934 and 1962, but less than 2% of this real estate was available to nonwhite families—and most of that small amount was located in segregated communities.[1]

In other words, for almost three decades the U.S. government backed $120 billion worth of home loans and 98% (!) of those loans went to whites.

How did this institutionalized racism become possible?

Spurred on by massive mortgage foreclosures during the Great Depression, the federal government […] began underwriting mortgages in an effort to enable citizens to become homeowners. But the mortgage program was selectively administered by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and urban neighborhoods considered poor risks were redlined—an action that excluded virtually all the black neighborhoods and many neighborhoods with a considerable number of European immigrants. [2]

More important than this shocking history, however, is the relationship between home ownership, wealth, and opportunity—a relationship that links past discrimination to economic inequality today. To begin with, a home is one of the most important assets that a family can own. As Dalton Conley—associate professor in the Department of Sociology at New York University—explains in the PBS documentary Racethe Power of an Illusion, “The majority of Americans hold most of their wealth in the form of home equity.”[3] Therefore, because of the significance of housing as an asset, discrimination in housing directly contributed to inequality in wealth accumulation.

Wealth, in turn, is an important determinate of the opportunities that a family can provide for their children. As Larry Adelman has written, “a family’s net worth is not simply the finish line, it’s also the starting line for the next generation.”[4] A family can take out a second mortgage on their home, for instance, to finance their child’s college education or job search. Actions such as these can significantly affect a child’s life trajectory.  Indeed, because of the way that wealth creates opportunity, “Economists have shown that about 50-80% of our lifetime wealth accumulation is really attributable, in one way or another, to past generations,” writes Conley. Wealth, in other words, provides a mechanism that transfers opportunity, or the absence of opportunity, from one generation to the next. It is this intergenerational link between wealth and opportunity that explains why the effects of long past institutionalized racism—such as FHA housing discrimination—are still felt today.  [*]

How are the effects of historic discrimination still felt? Take the “wealth gap,” for example. Thomas Shapiro, in The Hidden Cost of Being African American, writes that “The net worth of typical white families is $81,000 compared to $8,000 for black families.”[6] That’s a 10:1 difference! This present day racial inequality in wealth, however, must be understood in light of the history of institutionalized racism and privilege. And housing discrimination is a fundamental part of that history. As previously mentioned, a home is often a family’s most important asset or source of wealth. Housing discrimination, therefore, created inequality in the accumulation of wealth. Moreover, wealth has two distinct characteristics: 1) it creates opportunity and 2) is it inheritable. The combination of these characteristics produced a dynamic whereby inequality in wealth—initially bolstered by discriminatory practices—was often passed down and maintained from one generation to the next. So long past discrimination in housing affected the wealth and opportunities of later generations. In short, past housing discrimination is an important factor in explaining economic inequality today. Conley writes:

Today, the average Black family has only one-eighth the net worth or assets of the average white family. That difference has seemingly grown since the 1960s, since the Civil Rights triumphs, and is not explained by other factors like education, earnings rates or savings rates. It is really the legacy of racial inequality from generations past. No other measure captures the legacy – the cumulative disadvantage of race for minorities or cumulative advantage of race for whites – than net worth or wealth.[7]

Thus, the reverberations of long past institutionalized racism are still felt today. As a primary example, housing discrimination creates inequality in wealth and opportunity that is often inherited by succeeding generations. Tracing back the linkages between present day inequalities in wealth and past housing discrimination demonstrates that—as a social justice issue—housing isn’t simple. Yet these linkages also show that, in spite of their complexity, contemporary housing issues remain as important as ever.

[1] George Lipsitz. 1998. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. Philadelphia:Temple University Press.

[2] William Julius Wilson. (2005 [1996]) “When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor,” in Mapping the Social Landscape: Readings in Sociology. ed. by Susan Ferguson. New York: McGraw Hill.

[3] Dalton Conley. 2003. Interviewed in Race the Power of an Illusion. PBS Transcript available at http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-03.htm.

[4] Larry Adelman. 2003. A Long History of Racial Preferences – For Whites . http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-02.htm.

[*] Note that wealth, not income, has been the touchstone for economic status throughout this discussion. This is no accident. For wealth, not income, is a much better indicator of opportunity: “Even when families of the same income are compared,” explains Adelman, “white families have more than twice the wealth of Black families. Much of that wealth difference can be attributed to the value of one’s home, and how much one inherited from parents.”

[6] Thomas M. Shapiro. 2004. The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality. New York: Oxford University Press.

[7] Dalton Conley. 2003. Interviewed in Race the Power of an Illusion. PBS Transcript available at http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-03.htm.