Column, 530 words

America’s Housing Paradox

William A. Collins

My whole life’s
Been in a trough;
Since my apartment
Got sold off.

As the Bible pointedly reminds us, rains fall alike upon the just and the unjust. Nowhere is this axiom more pointed than in securing a place to live. Sure, maybe some of those luckless homeowners who fell victim to the Great Mortgage Scam were indeed trying to pull a fast one on their creditors–but most folks were simply plodding nobly through the American Dream. It didn’t matter. Honest or shady, Wall Street took them all down.

There are parallels for renters, too. People of all stripes live in public housing, which the Obama administration is now looking to sell off. This is nothing new. Administrations have for years been trying to unload housing projects, and many host cities have been thrilled to help.When these units are taken out of the market, they often get temporarily replaced for with life-saving federal Section 8 certificates, which the new scrooges in Congress naturally wish to slash.

Then as day follows night, homelessness follows cutbacks, hard on the heels of the local evicting sheriff. That badge is society’s new Grim Reaper. When no compassionate extended family emerges to harbor the evictees, it’s on to the homeless shelter or the abandoned barn or bus. Maybe the family car. This stew of destroyed families is liberally seasoned with equally devastated military veterans. Many of them have found that the realities of combat do not mesh well with the realities of everyday life back home.

If one could stand back far enough from the issue, say on Jupiter or Neptune, the irony of America’s housing dilemma would seem plain. Here we have a land with millions of empty housing units and millions of people needing a place to live. Why not, you know, move them in?

Sorry. That’s not how it works. Somebody has to pay. The banks own most of those empty units and they need their pound of flesh. But there is no money for that. There’s money to bail out the banks but not to bail out the homeless. Instead we shutter or tear these empty dwellings down.

Many of those vacated homes are still pretty nice, but no one makes any money if we simply give hard-up people a place to live. Bankers, brokers, lawyers, and builders need to earn a living too.

The banks seem to thrive no matter what. Laws are adjusted to support them and bailouts are awarded to see them through. Meanwhile construction workers and real estate salesmen can stay right down there in the dumps, along with workers of most other callings.

Although there’s never a good time for a recession, for the newly or not so newly homeless this one is remarkably inopportune. Not only is public housing being privatized, non-profit projects with subsidized low-interest mortgages are drying up. Dwellings everywhere are falling to the investment sharks.

Wouldn’t you know, all this gloom happens just as society has finally figured out the proper array of supportive services needed to heft the homeless back onto their feet and to keep them there. The Bible had that one right too: they will always be with us.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. http://otherwords.org