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Affordable Housing?

The Road to Resilience

Back in 1988, Joy Goldstein strong-armed me into working with her and a handful of others on the Community Council Affordable Housing Committee.  We went on to form Vashon Household (Joy’s name).  I put about twenty years into the effort, and despite some notable successes, such as Charter House, JG Commons, Roseballen, Eernisse Apts., and Mukai Commons, I’ve never felt that our efforts put a dent in the structural foundations of housing unaffordability.  All of these projects were heavily subsidized, with stringent and restrictive requirements.  The causes of housing unaffordability lie much deeper in the economy and the institutions of our country.

Although I got a degree in Urban Planning in the 60’s, I’m afraid I was never much help in cobbling together the actual projects that now house about 400 people on Vashon.  I had a marked distaste for the hoops that we had to jump through to make affordable housing happen.  I apologize to my many colleagues over the years for not carrying my share of that load.  I do feel, though, that I had some influence as an idealist, although I know I was a source of exasperation for many.  Given the mindset and level of resolve in our society, I doubt that using my approach alone would have yielded anything but frustration.

By attending to the symptoms instead of the causes, we face essentially the same problem today that we faced back in the 1980’s.  We still have done nothing for homelessness, other than trying to make those poor souls a bit more comfortable despite their plight.  Rental rates have far outstripped the ability of most to pay.  Those of us lower income folks who were not lucky enough to buy in in the 70’s have little choice but to leave.  Since the problem is much larger than Vashon, they are not receiving a great deal of relief anywhere else either.

Why is it so difficult for somebody to put some sort of roof over their head to keep the rain off?  Why do we drive them back out into the open when they try?  A large part is the tone deafness of our capitalist economy as well as our classist institutions that codify what is or is not suitable housing.

Like health, food, and so many other facets of our lives, housing is a commodity bought and sold on the market. If there were some degree of equity in the distribution of resources, this system might work.  As it is, though, some few of us can bid up the price and afford to buy the house we want, where most of us are then bid out of the market for the house we need.  There is nothing wrong with commoditization for products that we are not required to have in order to survive.  If we are already adequately housed and fed, more or better housing and food are free choices that should be priced on the market.  In this case, they are not necessities.  If, however, you have no housing or lack sufficient food, these are not items which you can freely choose to purchase or not.  They are needs.  Without an abundant supply of basic shelter, our attempts to artificially lower housing prices requires us to carefully screen applicants so as not to step on the toes of housing marketers.  We have no way of distinguishing utility housing as a necessity from market housing as a discretionary commodity.  There will be no solution to the affordable housing problem until our society shoulders the problem of extreme income inequality and recognizes that any being born on this planet has a right to basic shelter and other survival necessities.  

The second problem I want to discuss has to do with the institutions we have developed to define housing and access to it.  A tepee or a prairie sod house, economical and efficient housing systems as they are, would not pass code today nor would they be worthy of (or need!) a bank loan.  One is not allowed to construct a primitive shelter.  We now have thousands of houses across the country, probably a few on Vashon, that lie vacant and mouldering away, while there are thousands out on the streets that badly need that housing.  There are some very innovative non-profits that buy these houses for pennies on the dollar like the banks do, and then sell them at the same bargain prices to low income homebuyers.  Barring that, we have an irrational situation where we as a society deem that someone must remain out on the street if a shelter that could be accessed isn’t up to the standards of what our society or the market considers a viable shelter.  The illogic of this situation screams at us and yet we are unable to correct it.

Vashon Household, along with Voice of Vashon, is putting on a forum on affordable housing on Nov. 14, 6:30-8:30 pm, at the Penny Farcy Bldg.  Too often these meetings come and go with never a recognition of the 800# gorilla in the room.  We may not come up with any practical actions, but let’s at least recognize the institutional, societal cause and start a movement that may someday address this ridiculous situation.