Above Photo: ‘By the time I was seven, I had already moved four times.’ Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images
The affordable housing crisis is becoming inescapable. We have now reached the point where a minimum-wage worker can only afford to live in about a dozen counties in the entire nation. Even those with college degrees and wages above minimum wage struggle. This problem doesn’t just impact countless poor Americans any more. Now it hits middle class families, too.
For many, it’s outrageous that this crisis is no longer is confined to the bottom of the income ladder. ‘What do you mean that someone earning $20 an hour in LA wouldn’t be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment?’ gasp those in the middle class.
When it was in the news that you’d have to earn $24 an hour in order to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle, where I live, I finally saw community members talking more seriously about housing density and rent controls. But for those of us who have been locked into a housing crisis for generations because of race, gender, class or disability, we are left wondering why so many are just now paying attention to an issue that has already destroyed countless lives.
By the time I was seven, I had already moved four times. My mom, a single mother of three, moved from apartment to apartment almost yearly. She couldn’t afford any of them on her minimum wage salary.
As money became tight, the phone would be the first to go, then the electricity. I remember showering at neighbor’s apartments, or borrowing a key to a vacant apartment from a generous maintenance worker. I remember getting the hazardous gas lamps out of the closet, by the age nine an expert at not spilling the fuel on the carpet while I set the lamps out and lit them in order to do my homework at night.
Eventually, even with no phone or electricity, there wouldn’t be enough money to make rent and eat, so we’d move again. A few times, if another affordable place couldn’t be found by the time next month’s rent was due, we’d sleep in our car for a few days.
If my mom couldn’t find an affordable place to live in the area, she’d have to look for another job somewhere more affordable, giving up any chance at promotion or pay raise. Every year a new school, new friends, new routine. Every time we had to move, whatever money my mother had managed to save went to rental deposits that often equaled more than two months of her pay.
As a single mother earning minimum wage, my mom was trapped in the cycle of unlivable wages and unaffordable rents that stymied any attempts she made stability for her family. Stable housing – both in prices and residential permanency – are one of the most important indicators of social and economic success in this country.
Studies have shown that housing instability and frequent moves dramatically increase a child’s likelihood of suffering from social, behavioral and educational issues and housing stability is one of the greatest indicators of childhood success.
Children who move two or more times due to eviction or being priced out are 13 to 15% less likely to graduate high school by age 20, and even less likely to attend or graduate from college – further trapping them in the low-wage jobs that led to the same housing insecurity that they grew up with.
Children who lack stable housing are more likely to be forced into environmentally hazardous living environments and are therefore more likely to suffer from asthma, lead poisoning, fatigue and headache from mold, dust, cockroaches, rodents and other environmental factors.
People of all ages who don’t have stable and affordable housing also have a harder time accessing healthy food, building a consistent relationship with a family doctor, or getting regular refills on needed prescription medications. Adults who lack stable housing are more likely to report lower levels of mental and physical health than those who are stably housed.
People of color, disabled people, and single mothers are more likely to work low- and minimum-wage jobs or be unemployed than the rest of the population, and because of this, many people in these groups have found themselves locked in generations of poverty.
The average black household in the US has one sixteenth of the net financial worth of the average white household. That is a disparity that creates a hole that is almost impossible to climb out of.
Newer generations of black Americans are highly likely to enter the workforce with less access to advanced education, no financial support from family, and far fewer employment contacts from community members and a lack of reliable transportation – making the chances that they too will find themselves in the same poverty of their parents incredibly high.
These outcomes look just as bleak for Native American families, Hispanic families, and disabled people. This is a cycle that keeps marginalized groups marginalized, while landowners who are rapidly increasing rents in order to take advantage of an ever-shrinking rental market profit off of our poverty.
And while it is now become so large of an issue that it is starting to affect a noticeable amount of the population that was once known as middle class, it has been a disaster for poor communities – especially poor communities of color – for the entirety of this nation’s history.
As the black child of a poor single mother, I have finally been able, in these last three years, to break the cycle of poverty and housing instability that has plagued my family.
I was one of the few black people in America who was able to secure a loan for a small home I could afford. I cling to my mortgage like my life depends on it, because in some ways it does.
My nine-year old son has been able to go to the same school for the last three years, and he is flourishing. But the scars of a life of instability remain in my life. There are the nine teeth I’ve had pulled as an adult due to the inability to see a dentist regularly as a child.
I’m just now regularly seeing the specialist for the chronic disease that I’ve never before been able to treat, I’ve gotten therapy for the chronic anxiety that my brother and I both suffer from – left over from a childhood of insecurity. And there is the retirement fund that I haven’t even started even though I’m almost 40. All of my savings had to go to rental deposits every time that my kids and I were priced out of our home.
My 16-year-old son still struggles in school, both academically and socially, from years of being unable to build a lasting connection to his school or community due to our almost yearly moves. But I think with a lot of work, we will eventually be OK.
My mom is still, in her 60s, struggling to afford her home and racking up debt to make ends meet. Ironically, my mom is now living in the same one-bedroom apartment that I first moved into when I left home at 18. The rent that I struggled to pay in 1999 on $8 an hour has now increased to an amount that she struggles to pay at $18 an hour.
Her rent goes up again in a few months and she doesn’t know what she’ll do then. She has no savings for a deposit on a new place. She’ll never own a home. She’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to retire. I’m trying to find a way to make room for her in my tiny home in the hopes that she won’t have to work into her 80s.
There is nothing that the latest reports on the housing crisis can tell my mother that she doesn’t already know. It is outrageous and unconscionable that affordable, stable housing should be so far out of reach for so many – it always has been.
We need to not only slow the rapid rise in rents, we need to actually reach back and help those left behind generations ago. We are long overdue for real living wages, comprehensive housing reform, and a reinvestment in social safety nets for the poor in this country – not because it is becoming a crisis, but because it has been a crisis for so very long.