Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz, photo illustration by Kitron Neuschatz

America’s Housing Crisis Is Breaking Young People

Thảo Lê stayed in San Jose with an abusive partner for a while because, as they put it, “I knew I just had to sacrifice some things to have a place to stay.”

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Oct 25 2018, 5:53pm

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz, photo illustration by Kitron Neuschatz

This story appears in VICE Magazine's Power and Privilege Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.

IT’S ALL ABOUT WHO HAS POWER

Leviticus, a 19-year-old who goes by Levi, was born and grew up in a single-parent household on the west side of Buffalo, New York. When he was eight, bed bugs infested the family’s rental. He remembers their belongings crawling with bugs—and recognizing it wasn’t their fault. The bugs eventually went away, and Levi forgot about it.

But as similar experiences stacked up, it became harder to forget them. “The furnace would be broken or we’d have rats coming through the walls or roaches everywhere. It was affordable housing... but not affordable in a good way, you know? We were renting from slumlords,” Levi recounts. He started talking to other kids at school and on his block—all were nonwhite, most from Black and Latinx families, many immigrants and refugees. “They’d be like, ‘What’s up, Levi?’ and I’d tell them what was going on at home, and they’d be like ‘Yeah, I’m having the same issue.’”

Levi’s family is Black and from Panama. His grandmother came to America in the 1970s to escape the discrimination they faced back home. She cried on her first night in Buffalo—it was cold and lonely. But discrimination existed in America, too. In fact, it was worse. They faced a double jeopardy as Black people and Spanish speakers.

Recently, because rents have risen in Buffalo’s West Side, Levi’s sister had to move with her son to a more dangerous neighborhood, across town and away from her family. Then there’s Levi’s uncle, fresh from serving in the Marines, who tried to buy a home. The bank wouldn’t give him a loan, but it gave one to his wife, a white woman with a lower credit score.

What was once personal for Levi is now political. His family’s and neighbors’ tribulations no longer seem isolated. As a grassroots leader with a community organization in Buffalo, he sees a system that allows some people to rent out bed bug–infested apartments to others who are desperate for affordability. The same system displaces people like his sister and enables the kind of discrimination in lending that his uncle faced.

The people in Levi’s community are victims of a scheme called racial capitalism, a system wherein their land and economy have been hijacked by private interests that directly oppose theirs. The scheme’s perpetrators—developers, landlords, and the real estate lobby—and its enablers—politicians and decision makers—turn a profit by keeping vulnerable communities down and, when it’s convenient, moving them out. People in power determine how and where everyone else gets to live.

“I am angry and sad at the same time,” Levi says. “It’s clear powerful people created these conditions and benefit from them. It’s all about who has power and who doesn’t.”

THE OPPOSITE OF INEVITABLE

America’s housing crisis has reached emergency levels. A person working full-time, paid minimum wage, cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment in any county in the country. In all but six states, even if minimum wage were $15, people would still have to work well over 40 hours a week to afford rent. Nearly half of all American renters spend over 30 percent of their income on housing. More than 12 million spend at least half their income on rent. Millions of Americans experience homelessness on any given night, including a growing share of children and young adults. Under these conditions, many of us—especially poor folks and people of color—live one emergency away from an eviction.

Meanwhile, after decades of disinvestment, only one in five households that qualify for federal housing assistance receives it, leaving more of the nation’s poor to rent from private landlords than ever before. The private rental market is inconsistently regulated and, in most markets, the demand for affordable housing far outpaces its supply.

"A person working full-time, paid minimum wage, cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment in any county in the country. In all but six states, even if minimum wage were $15, people would still have to work well over 40 hours a week to afford rent."

People under 35 have contributed to the housing crisis as we now know it, but they’re also set up to suffer from it. In the decade since the financial crash, renters under 35 have been responsible for some of the largest shares of growing demand in the rental market, and young people remain renters for longer than in previous generations. Some continue renting because city life is now in vogue. But many others rent because they’re grappling with stagnant wages, high healthcare costs, and fewer options to build wealth. Long after we’ve forgotten the names of the bank executives who caused the financial crash, the people forced to take out loans for school, in part because of collapsed housing prices, live with $1.52 trillion in student debt.

Housing is a fundamental human need. Yet, in America, housing is treated as a commodity. With housing commodified, the perpetrators of racial capitalism have the perfect scenario to extract value from poor people and people of color while further dispossessing them of power. Safe, accessible housing remains a luxury for the privileged few—by design.

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A vacant house that's located on the east side of Buffalo, New York. Photo by Bernice Radle

Christian Diaz is an organizer in Logan Square, the North Side Chicago neighborhood where he grew up. His parents bought their house for $150,000 in the 90s. Diaz first understood inequality when his family began working for the Chicago Sun-Times. They would roll and deliver papers door to door in Lincoln Park, a wealthy neighborhood a few miles away. “I noticed the manicured streets and how much bigger the houses were and how the people were all white,” Diaz told me. “I started to think, ‘What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my family? What’s wrong with my community?’ For a long time I carried a sense of shame.”

Now, 20 years later, parts of Diaz’s formerly working-class neighborhood look and feel like Lincoln Park. If Diaz was once shocked by the differences between his neighborhood and the rich one where he delivered papers, at least he found comfort in the physical distance between the two worlds. Not anymore. As Logan Square gentrifies, Diaz and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), where he works, confront rapid development and a new class of young, increasingly white neighbors. Meanwhile, in the past decade, more than 20,000 Latinx people have been forced out.

Developers pay to play in places like Logan Square. Just last year, LSNA supported a proposal to “downzone” a part of the neighborhood’s central corridor, which would force all new development through a review process before approval. When their grassroots leaders went to testify at City Hall, they were told the measure was tabled. They weren’t allowed to testify in support—but people like Mark Fishman, a developer who owns more than 80 properties in Logan Square, were granted time to testify against the proposal. Fishman is a regular campaign contributor who gave at least $75,000 to Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, during his 2011 mayoral race and has since received over a million dollars in city financing for his developments. LSNA’s favored proposal ultimately failed.

“It’s bullshit to think that neighborhoods change naturally, that what happened here is inevitable,” Diaz says. “It’s the opposite of inevitable. What Logan Square is becoming is what City Hall decided Logan Square should be.”

GETTING STUCK LIKE EVERYONE ELSE

In an ever-changing global economy, and a country too focused on the president’s salacious scandals (including his dealings in real estate) to have a real conversation about rent, young people’s futures hinge on housing: what they will spend on it and the decisions they will or won’t get to make as a result.

Thảo Lê lives in Santa Cruz, California, where they organize community members on housing issues, such as an upcoming ballot measure to repeal the statewide ban on rent control. They grew up in Fremont, in the East Bay. Lê’s parents, Vietnamese refugees, comfortably owned a home and paid it off in full before Lê was in junior high. Even so, Lê ran away from home when they started community college. “To me, home is a place where you can be yourself and feel safe in doing that. It sounds simple, but it’s not something everyone has,” Lê told me. “Even though I wasn’t facing the burden of renting, I had constant conflicts with my family over my identity. I had to leave.”

"In an ever-changing global economy, and a country too focused on the president’s salacious scandals (including his dealings in real estate) to have a real conversation about rent, young people’s futures hinge on housing: what they will spend on it and the decisions they will or won’t get to make as a result."

Since then, Lê has been a renter. Lê stayed in San Jose with an abusive partner for a while because, as they put it, “I knew I just had to sacrifice some things to have a place to stay.” Now Lê lives in an overcrowded house. Several of their friends in Santa Cruz have been evicted and forced to live in cars or out of tents as the University of California Santa Cruz consistently over-enrolls and rents soar. “It’s hard to exist when you feel like you’re constantly fighting to keep a roof over your head.”

Like Lê, Levi feels nervous about his future. Amid dysfunction, cooking had been Levi’s solace at home. He couldn’t wait to graduate high school and pursue a degree in culinary arts. But during his senior year of high school, Levi realized he couldn’t go. His mom and sister were struggling and needed him to contribute to the rent. A few years later, Levi still hasn’t made it to culinary school. “I feel very scared I’ll get stuck here like everyone else,” Levi told me. He doesn’t mean he’s scared of being stuck in Buffalo; he’s scared that he may never be in a position to pursue his dreams. “Buffalo is where I was born, this is where I live. Imma fight for my city. This is where I’ll die too... It’s just that you gotta be in a good situation to make it in Buffalo these days. Lots of people I know are just giving up.”

Being powerless when it comes to one’s housing means being stuck: stuck with abusers, stuck without options for the future. In today’s housing market, choice is a privilege, and too few have the privilege to choose to stay or to go. Renters are dehumanized, reduced to line items in the balance sheets of landlords who retain absolute, suffocating power over them, controlling where they’ll rest their heads on a given night. This power imbalance won’t be solved in the private market. But there is another way.

A VISION FOR A HOMES GUARANTEE

When I asked Levi, Diaz, and Lê about their visions for a better, more just world, they offered straightforward ideas: In the richest country in history, we can and must guarantee that everyone has a home. Policy makers should build housing for people, not for profit. The federal government must invest in existing public housing, expand it to serve more people, and issue a moratorium on the sale of public housing to private managers. Every community should ensure that all its members live in proximity to schools, jobs, and grocery stores. Government should make available public funds to weatherize housing, protecting it against impending climate disasters. Communities should control their land and housing.

“It’s really not a mystery. We know what works because we did it for white people,” Diaz remarks, referring to the construction of public housing, federally guaranteed mortgages, the GI Bill, and many more policies that helped secure white wealth in the 20th century. “This is not radical. We just don’t have the political will right now.”

The way we get there? Organizing. Levi, Diaz, Lê, and I are all organizers. Organizing is about creating the conditions to change what’s possible, confronting and subverting the dominant narratives about race and class, and forcing that political will which doesn’t currently exist. It’s about understanding who profits from the status quo, knowing who has power to force change, and designing strategic campaigns that win. Organizing is fundamentally democratic, grounded by the people most impacted by injustice to lead the way toward solutions.

“It’s really not a mystery. We know what works because we did it for white people,” Diaz remarks, referring to the construction of public housing, federally guaranteed mortgages, the GI Bill, and many more policies that helped secure white wealth in the 20th century. “This is not radical. We just don’t have the political will right now.”

Diaz and Lê agree that there is a role for privileged people—but not at the center of the fight for housing justice. Lê insists: “Nobody needs you to feel guilty about how you grew up. That’s not going to move you in any direction in particular. Listen to people who don’t have your privilege, make sure they’re safe, and take direct action so you’re on the front lines. Weaponize your privilege.

One critical next step for all of us—whether we are directly affected by housing injustice or not—is to make housing an election issue in 2020. Housing is the largest expense for every American family, across race and class lines. And yet, housing hasn’t been on the national political agenda in at least 40 years, perhaps because it seems to lack the urgency of other hot-button political issues. But it would be wrong to see housing as disconnected from climate change, healthcare, and mass incarceration, or as anything short of a national emergency.

Housing drives our choices and opportunities. Rent payments loom when someone loses a job, a person has an accident or health emergency, or a parent simply has to put food on the table. The big scheme of America’s housing crisis means certain people profit from this perpetual, existential insecurity. It’s time to dismantle that scheme.

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