Our Eyes Were Opened


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Hidden Voices (Part 5 in a series)

If we were watching live theater now, we’d see a crowd behind a scrim mumbling softly and then getting louder and louder. In the wings, we would hear the sound of buildings coming down and new construction going up. We’d hear the crash of metal against metal and the constant beep-beep-beep of vehicles backing up to deliver their materials to the construction sites.

The voices behind the scrim are the voices of people whose homes are being taken away. The communities where they have lived for decades are now prime real estate for people who had no use for their neighborhoods previously. The old neighborhoods, often segregation neighborhoods, were seen as blights in our community. Some of us knew not to go into “those areas.” Now, however, those same neighborhoods are hot commodities. Now people with resources want to live near the inner city. Former segregation neighborhoods are being gentrified and houses are being flipped.

People who have been long-time residents in some of the neighborhoods are being pushed out because the home they have rented for years has just been sold to a developer who most likely with tear down the home and replace it with high end properties. Whereas the long-time residents paid less than $500 a month for a place which may have had some construction and plumbing issues, the new buildings on the sites start with rents of $1000, $1250, $2500. When your home is taken from you, where do you go? You lose your neighborhood contacts and you cannot find rent at the same level as your long-time home. Or you cannot sign a long-term lease because you have a criminal record or poor credit or mental illness or spotty income, and so you cannot find a landlord who will rent to you. Even if you own your home, you may be forced out of the neighborhood because the property values have gone up so high that you can no longer afford your property taxes. Or you were offered $50,000 cash which sounds like a lot of money if you’ve struggled your entire life. But then you discover that your home is torn down and a house worth $500,000 is now in its place. You hung in when your neighborhood was a place that people with resources did not want. And now when they do, you do not reap any of its rewards in any kind of just way.

People who have had little, who have learned to live with their heads kept low, who have had promises made and broken by people in power learn that their voices are hidden. They are invisible, unseen, until someone wants what they have.

The people whose voices are hidden and are about to lose their homes do not even realize that for decades people with resources have been living in subsidized housing. The bigger the mortgage, the larger the tax deduction. Buying a home is a huge government subsidy that people with resources enjoy. In 2015, the federal government spent $71 billion on the mortgage interest deduction with households earning more than $100,000 receiving almost 90 percent of those benefits. However, 60 percent of people who use the deduction say they have never used any government program. But let someone who is financially challenged ask for a housing subsidy and all kinds of negative comments float up. They’re lazy, they’re just out for what they can get, I worked for mine, why can’t they work for theirs?

Matthew Desmond, Pulitzer prize winning author of Evicted and who was here this past spring writes, “a 15-story public housing tower and a mortgaged suburban home are both government-subsidized, but only one looks (and feels) that way.”

We are 2500 housing units short for people who can pay no more than $500 a month.  Whose voices are hidden?

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What’s the Definition of Affordable?

Affordable is a nondescript word. However, it gets used a lot, especially now in Greenville while the City works with their consultant and other groups planning to build more “affordable housing.”

When people with resources apply the word affordable to housing, their definition of affordable may be more perception than reality. They may picture high rise buildings that are dilapidated, crime-ridden, dirty, and trashy … where “those people” live. The idea of “affordable housing” being built in or near their homes becomes threatening, indeed. NIMBY (not in my backyard) becomes virulent. That’s one understanding of affordable.

To people on the other end of the economic spectrum, affordable means having a home that their meager income allows without the landlord or mortgage company pounding on their door every week.  Homes that are safe, well-maintained, lovely…and affordable… would certainly be nice but are not readily available in many cases.  Affordable in this scenario allows for not only rent to be paid but also food, medical care, clothing for work, and childcare.

When people who are housing advocates or housing developers talk about affordable housing, even then the definition is murky. Is the definition of affordable based on the area medium income (AMI) which is about $66,000 in our area? If so, affordable housing defined as a percentage of the AMI can require household incomes of $52,800 (80% AMI) to $99,000 (150% AMI).

Basing the formula for affordability on the poverty guidelines is a different story. In 2017, the federal poverty guideline for a family of four is $24,600. So affordable based on 50% of the poverty guideline for a family of four is income of no more than $12,300 while 200% of the poverty guideline allows an income up to  $49,200.

There is quite a discrepancy between $12,300 (50% poverty guideline) and $99,000 (150% AMI).  Both the AMI and the federal poverty guideline are used in different situations as THE definition of affordable.

Another definition for affordable is rent costing $500 or less a month. That becomes extremely hard for the grandmother who is living on her Supplemental Security Income of $770 a month.

Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) guideline is that no more than 30% of a household’s income should be used on housing (including utilities). Since studio apartments in some of the new housing complexes in and around downtown Greenville have rents ranging from $800 to $1400, the HUD recommendation is income of $32,000-$56,000. Can a four-person moderate income household afford this studio unit?  One-bedroom units are renting from $1000-$1800 a month with utilities not included (annual income of $40,000 -$72,000.)

Low and moderate income people may not define these units as affordable.

Our burgeoning tourist and convention economy means that visitors spent $1.145 billion in Greenville County in 2015 and the accommodations revenue increased by 65% in the City of Greenville in 2015. This is significant and important when we think about housing for low and moderate income people. Do employees in the hospitality industry who clean the hotels, bus the tables, wash the dishes, and clerk in the retail shops earn enough to afford the new units being built in the urban area?  Are they able to live near their work place?  If they choose to live in housing that low and moderate income people can pay a reasonable price for, are they close to their work in the hotels and restaurants?  Where do the people live who clean up after the wonderful street festivals? Where can they find a home that they can pay for?  And then can they get to work?

‘Work force housing” is another term used occasionally to mean affordable. These homes may cost less than the open market can bear so work force housing indeed addresses the needs of some low and moderate income people.  People who are often eligible for work force housing include teachers, fire fighters, police officers, and health care workers.  Some communities have built neighborhoods or apartment units specifically for these vital workers so that the town can have quality teachers, fire fighters, police officers, and health care workers. The downside of this definition for affordable is that it rightly expects the people who live in these homes to have a steady income, few credit issues, no criminal record, non-evident mental illness, and/or a steady income.

The good news is that our community is primed to address the issue of affordable housing. Let’s just make sure that everyone is using the same definition of affordable.


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A Matter of Scale

Sometimes when we become aware of the overwhelming needs of certain people in our communities, we become frozen. There is no way we can fix everything so people can meet their basic human needs. We think, “Who am I to think I can provide decent housing, get the minimum wage raised to a living wage, secure a decent public transportation system, change the educational system so it is sensitive to the needs of all children and has the resources to address those needs, not to mention how to provide adequate and affordable health care to everyone? “  And because the needs seem soooo big, we may end up doing nothing. We feel deluged by the scale of changes needed.

That’s when Edmund Burke’s words become profound: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”

None of us can tackle everything but we can add our own efforts. At some point, all our little efforts will add up to something monumental!