Op-Ed: What is missing from our talk about affordable housing

Op-Ed: What is missing from our talk about affordable housing
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Here in the Queen City, we have reached a general consensus concerning housing and affordability: We all agree that there is not nearly enough affordable housing, and we would all like for someone else to do something about it in someone else’s neighborhood.

This problem is not isolated to Charlotte. Other cities have reached a similar consensus. But the assumptions that ground our collective will about affordable housing remain unchallenged. We assume that affordable equals rising crime and decline in school performance. We take for granted that property values will decline if affordable is nearby. We accept without question that maximizing profit and revenue, especially in the short term, is the chief interest of developers and cities.

There is good reason to think that none of those assumptions are true. But, our imaginations remain captive to the story we have been told regarding the lives of the poor. We are told that those who cannot afford market-rate housing make bad decisions, or they don’t want to work. We are trained to believe that the dream is available to anyone willing to go and get it, and some people just don’t want it. It is far easier to leave that narrative unchallenged rather than to risk encounter with the real people who live in affordable housing, whose lives are as richly complex and textured as those of any other humans. And even if we risk encounter, we dare not risk proximity.

To put it another way, our primary belief about land use, especially land used for housing, is that the propertied class is at some level of risk if the poor get close. The risks are in respect to bank accounts, to personal safety, to ability to build wealth through real property, and to peace of mind, among other things. Those things may in fact be in danger, but only because of the normal risks commensurate to daily life in American society. These conditions are not brought about by the presence of people struggling with the grind of poverty.

Blaming all our social ills on the poor makes for a convenient scapegoat, but it only distracts us from the crumbling foundations of our entire economic structure, of which our numerous poor are a symptom, not a cause. Still, every time the construction of new affordable units is proposed, lots of angry voices will testify that while the project may be needed, it certainly will not fit in their backyards. The risk to family, to retirement, to peace of mind is just too great.

Indeed, building affordable housing is a risky thing. But we are missing the actual thing we are risking.

I think that an old story about Abe and Sally can help to illustrate this point. According to the ancestors, long ago Abe ran into some strangers who were passing through his neighborhood. Strangers can pose danger, of course. You never know which of your enemies might have sent them, and for what purpose. Bodily harm could follow, or the theft of your jewelry or your goats.

But rather than give in to fear, Abe did an interesting thing. He asked Sally to cook some biscuits and fry up some chicken. He begged the strangers to come for supper. He insisted that their presence would be a gift to his family. “Make the tea extra sweet, honey,” he told Sally.

Abe was no feminist, but he did understand something about stranger danger. The greatest risk in this encounter, he knew, was what he might miss if he sent these folks on down the road. If he turned them into an Other, some of those undesirables, ones to be walled off or re-placed into anywhere else, he might fool himself into thinking he was safe. But the illusion of safety would be no substitute for the gift that was to come. According to the ancestors, upon their departure the guests left for Abe and Sally exactly the gift they needed and wanted, just when they had given up hope of it.

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In Charlotte, as in many other cities, we are undertaking a period of urbanization. We are building our city. After decades of building unsustainable and uninspiring suburbs, we are frequently constructing more density, using human-powered transportation, opting for mass transit, incorporating mixed uses, and creating new public squares. We are building new spaces to be shared where we had long ago torn down some older spaces that were a bit like what we are building now.

But building our city raises questions, especially this one: Who is we? Who gets to be part of the building process? Who gets to occupy the space? Who gets to be in the developers’ boardrooms, the planning commission meetings, the vision plans? Who is afforded the opportunity to build the city they dream of?

Thus far, our decision is clear. We build for profit margins. We scale up. We design some folks right out of our city, often the children and grandchildren of the same folks we’ve been designing out of the city for as long as anyone can remember.

This is risky business, most importantly because real people suffer because of it. But it is also risky for those who remain, because we will never know the gifts we would have received, if we had made room.

We will never understand how our lives would have been enriched, if we had made room, by the people we sent down the road to the next undesirable place. We will not be able to recoup the social, physical, spiritual, and economic loss that comes from our failure to learn to love all of our neighbors. We will never make room for ourselves to be loved in return.

The way to mitigate this risk of significant and unrecoverable loss is with a more expansive “us,” one that looks for the gifts not yet discovered and from them develops the opportunity to build the city we long to live in.

Cover photo by Lesley-Ann Tommey

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