Late last week, a friend shared with me an article from the Seattle Weekly, “A Letter to the Investor Buying Our Apartment Building.” Sadly, this emotionally charged piece is a common story, although it is a story rarely told. Our lopsided economic “recovery,” – a recovery for only the very few – has a human toll. Some have paid by being forced to move, many have paid by downsizing and rewriting their hopes and dreams, and some, as was the case for William (Bill) McHalffey, pay with their lives. Opportunities for even the most modest forms of dignity when a person falls on tough times are drying up, while life for the educated, tech-savvy, and asset and income wealthy continues to improve. In a place like Seattle and much of the rest of the country, there is a disappearing middle class. Population growth is occurring mostly among the affluent and the poor, setting the stage for future instability and conflict.
Seattle is not alone in having a housing crisis, but perhaps what is most shocking about this form of inequity is the level of disagreement over the sense of urgency, who should take responsibility, and even some denial as to whether a problem exists at all. For a city that prides itself on social justice, one would think that the abundance of cranes on the horizon is a sign that at least some of the dwellings going up are affordably priced. While some are, most are not, and Seattle Mayor, Ed Murray’s demand that 20,000 of the needed 50,000 dwellings to be built over the next decade be priced affordably is a bold statement. Government and the non-profit sector cannot build 20,000 affordable homes on their own. By putting forth this number, Mayor Murray is saying that for-profit builders, developers, and investors are part of the solution, too. They have to be. The need is just that great.
The empirical evidence in the Seattle Weekly letter demonstrates what housing advocates have been saying for years – every resource is stretched to the breaking point, and when an investor purchases a building for profit, someone like Bill runs out of options. When there is nowhere else to go but the street, and the street means almost certain suffering and death, what do you do?
But I’m not here to talk just about people like Bill. I’m here to talk about everyone because in many ways the biggest tragedy of our anemic recovery is that too many of us are seeking ways to take ourselves out of the equation and put the blame on someone else. This makes sense because taking responsibility for a problem so seemingly insurmountable is tough. It is human nature to try to find someone else to provide the solution. However, the belief that larger government and non-profit organizations can solve this crisis is flawed, as is the belief that deficit reduction will lead to more growth or that tax cuts for the wealthy will trickle down. Poverty reduction is a growth industry, yet we are treating it as something to be relegated to philanthropy and charity. I believe that the answer lies in a balanced approach, where businesses recognize the value of investing in all people and communities, and government serves as a responsible backstop and policy framework that encourages the scaling of socially, economically, and environmentally mindful ventures. The role of the people in this is to act as conscientious consumers, humane and respectful citizens, and neighborhood stewards.
Having lived in places with higher levels of inequality than the US, I can assure you that an increasingly inequitable America will be an insecure place to be even for those fortunate to have access to resources. Inequality leads to the erosion of a tax base, political turmoil, and social unrest. Highly inequitable places have gates around single family homes, even in quiet residential neighborhoods, and violent crimes occur with regularity. Sadly, those gates have already started going up in many of our communities.
The US is at a pivotal point, and we all need to choose between a policy of austere Social Darwin capitalism or a more humane form of social capitalism with a responsive and agile safety net. A wonderful survey of research from The Atlantic, “Welfare Makes America More Entrepreneurial,” challenges conventional wisdom on both sides of the political aisle, making a strong case that a resurgence of entrepreneurship is vital for a truly diverse economic recovery. Policies of austerity often result in curbing the ability for people to take calculated risks. When the American Dream becomes simply putting food on the table and keeping enough of an emergency fund to weather bad times, we all lose. It despairs me to think what potential opportunities for innovation have been thrown under the bus because their future inventor is too busy focusing on just getting by. A safety net benefits everyone.
Which brings me back to investors, builders, and developers. In planning for more equitable communities, we must not demonize people and institutions focused on making profits. To do so would be a zero sum game. If anything, we should invite them, and everyone else, to the table. Equitable communities involve all of us, and the challenges are substantial. We will likely need to rethink zoning, property ownership, financial tools, investment, construction, and even the very nature of what it means to have a home. Our current paradigm is broken and needs an overhaul. We can either work together on this or be torn apart by it.
My hope and dream as it always has been on this blog is to start from the most basic. Let’s talk with each other, not at each other.