Our Nation’s Housing Crisis:
A Rude Awakening from the American Dream
In 2006, when Terry Carter and Jill Shook first wrote this chapter, a third of the nation was struggling with housing affordability. This revised version describes how today more than half of US renters pay rents over a third of their income (more than 1/3rd is considered unaffordable by US standards) and one in four renters spend more than half their income on housing. In 2012 28% of homeowners were underwater (where their home was worth less than what they owed). Additionally, the poverty rate in 2012 was higher than it has ever been since the Census Bureau has been publishing poverty figures. Homelessness among female veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan has grown tenfold.
Other statistics from the 2006 version of Making Housing Happen remain steady:
- There is an affordable housing shortage in every state.
- Rush hour travel time tripled since 1980.
- Affordable homes are distant from jobs.
- By some estimates, the homeless population tripled during the 1980s and now stands at an estimated 3.5 million annually; nearly 40 percent are children.
- Record home ownership rate, but rising delinquencies, defaults, foreclosures.
- As a rule of thumb, affordable housing equals 30 percent of income; in 1900, housing cost 20 percent of a typical income, while by 1998, it had risen to 40 percent. .
- Nearly one third of the workforce earned less than $10.00 an hour in 2003.
- 60+ percent of those earning minimum wage are heads of household or a spouse.
- 42 percent of homeless are employed but can’t afford housing.
- 3.4 percent of the nation’s total income goes to the poorest 20 percent of households.
These facts set the stage for describing today’s “double whammy”— decreasing earning power coupled with soaring housing cost. The question, “How did we get here?” is posed. The answer begins 100 years ago when our country’s first housing policy was influenced by the Settlement House Movement. They lead the way in improving disease-breeding tenements. Better homes resulted, yet due to the initiation of our county’s first building codes, construction costs increased. The 1920s brought zoning laws—again a good thing, yet all too often resulted in segregated neighborhoods which brought about housing inequities—then eventual redlining. The chapter continues to show how policy decision over the last 100 years affected the stock of quality housing affordable to all income ranges.
The history of policies that have deeply affected housing patterns and affordability unfolds in this chapter as the glue to help the reader understand the housing crisis; its magnitude, complexity, and repercussions of policies that in some cases have compounded the crisis. For example, the government learned early on that the infamous public housing “projects” were not a good model and placed a moratorium on this model in the 1970s. Recognizing they were not the best landlords of public housing, and have since torn down many public housing projects, the shadow of ugly rat infested crime ridden projects still color many people’s thinking about affordable housing. These notions have contributed to keeping affordable housing off the political radar, while homelessness dramatically increases across our landscape. The chapter ends with a challenge to today’s church by revisiting the historical Evangelical social movements in the 1800s. And this book provides hope that we can do something about it, not only by building affordable housing, but by influencing good policy. After 100 years of housing experimentation, the US has learned much about what does work, and also what doesn’t work (such as the mortgage meltdown created by Wall Street). But it takes political will to make housing happen. The church is uniquely equipped to do this, and is, as you will read in this book.
To determine what wages should be to live within what we should be spending on housing, go to the Housing Wage Calculator: