By Roger Utnehmer
An Occasional Attempt to Restore
Civility to Our Civic Discourse
By Roger Utnehmer
President and CEO
Affordable Housing is a Basic Human Right
A small, four-year-old boy, swollen bruise on his left cheek, enters a McDonald’s in Milwaukee. He wanders from table to table looking for scraps of left-over food. A single mother with two kids watches her meager possessions piled on the curb, evicted by her landlord.
Children with no place to sleep dozing off at school, are often hungry, lethargic and truant.
One seventh grade boy is in his fifth school in one academic year, the victim of serial evictions and a couch-surfing lifestyle.
These and other tragic stories are depicted in the best-selling book, Evicted; Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. The author follows eight families through Milwaukee’s poor south side, embedded in a mostly-white trailer court and from a predominantly-black boarding house in the north-side ghetto.
The author makes a compelling case that stable housing is the foundation of democracy. He argues that you cannot have stable neighborhoods without stable homes, or stable communities without stable neighborhoods. The rising eviction rates cited in this book are destabilizing our communities and destroying civic engagement. People too poor to pay for food have no energy to make a neighborhood safer or a school more successful.
Without a home everything else falls apart. Eviction, according to Desmond, is a cause of poverty not a condition. Stories about abused women evicted because they called police to stop a brutal beating or a mother who lost an apartment because an ambulance called for an asthmatic child was considered a “police call” shed a needed insight into poverty. “The rent eats first,” Desmond quotes a source as saying.
Many of today’s urban poor are paying up to 70% and more of their monthly income to landlords who profit on off the misery of the poor.
The author argues that affordable, safe, stable housing must be considered a basic moral and human right. Solutions include housing vouchers that cap rent at 30% of income with the federal government paying the difference up to prevailing rental rates. He also supports providing legal representation to the poor facing eviction cases in court.
Here in Door County affordable housing is not as critical in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods, yet it is a problem. As Desmond makes clear, stable homes create stable communities.
Our communities can be made more stable by assisting efforts to provide clean, safe, affordable housing to more families. Habitat for Humanity is the organization doing this today with an impressive record of success. Habitat homes are on the tax rolls. They generate revenue to support local government. The sweat equity part of every home teaches hard work and contribution. The monthly mortgage payments mean families learn to budget and prioritize expenditures. The pride of ownership results in better neighborhoods, safer schools and more stable employment for parents who worry less about a place to live.
Many employers in Door County cite a labor shortage as their most critical issue. Those employers should be Habitat for Humanity’s most generous supporters and active volunteers. An adequate labor pool is only possible with affordable housing.
Habitat for Humanity is in the business of providing it.
Spend a few hours reading Evicted. Your heart will be touched, your mind expanded and your social conscience deepened. Even the most conservative of my friends may come to understand that homelessness costs our country much more than affordable housing. We have a moral imperative to declare safe, stable, affordable housing a human right we embrace for all.
That’s my opinion. I’d like to hear yours.