Why We Need Affordable Housing If We Want A Strong Economy

America has an affordable housing crisis. You might not know it from our national dialogue. We don't like to talk about poverty, and homelessness and lack of opportunity. It seems we would much rather talk about how to make more millionaires than how to make fewer poor children.

When we do talk about poverty, it often comes with judgements and stereotypes that are repugnant, yet difficult to confront; that affordable housing will diminish your property values (the data indicate it's not true), that poor people commit more crimes (also not true), that poor people are lazy (not even close), or that affordable housing is heavily subsidized (homes in wealthy neighborhoods receive far, far more subsidies).

Here is the state of things. Since 2000, income has either declined or stagnated for all but the very highest income households. The households with the lowest incomes experienced the greatest change, a change that was all downward. This happened at the same time as housing costs have risen precipitously. These facts are not in debate.

As a result, the number of households that are "Housing-Cost Burdened" (paying more than 30% of their income for housing) has ballooned, plunging more lower-income households into homeless, and causing middle-income households to slip down to lower-income status. For the lowest wage earners, their housing cost over 80% of their income in 2014.

Can you imagine? That means that if you're working hard—full time—at minimum wage, earning $15,000 per year, your housing costs you $12,000. The actual data show that the lowest twenty-five percent of wage earners in America have just $423 per month to spend on everything else, food, transportation, health care, child care, etc., and that paltry sum has been going down. Compare that to the upper twenty-five percent who have nearly $9,000 a month to spend, and that number has been going up. 

This is the reason we need more affordable housing to have a strong economy. A significant portion of Americans are putting nearly all their money into housing, leaving no more money to feed the rest of our economy, let alone to feed themselves. The rich cannot go it alone. They still eat just three meals a day. They still take one body to the doctor. They simply cannot purchase as many goods and/or services as the bottom seventy-five percent of the economy. This is "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" economics. Too many low-wage earners means a bad economy. And that's what we're seeing. We cannot fix the problem by creating more millionaires. 

Of course, this discussion ignores the question of morality, the morality of letting millions of our fellow Americans—including children and seniors—endure squalor and deprivation and the fear that accompanies them both. Because we don't want to talk about those things. We're only discussing economic self interest here. However, if you believe that we need to do the right thing, because we are a moral people, because we care, then this is one of those beautiful instances where we can do the right thing and benefit our economy and therefore ourselves at the same time.

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