I just started reading the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, and, as often happens when I start thinking about a new topic, it becomes ubiquitous. In this case, articles about housing appeared everywhere: in the newspaper, in studies released by think tanks and institutes and in my inbox. Evicted focuses on the lack of affordable housing in Milwaukee, Wis. The tough stories told in Desmond’s narrative make one thing clear: the poorer you are, the harder it is to find a good place to live. For extremely low-income families, defined as those earning less than 30 percent of their area’s median income, the search for suitable housing is often a semi-annual event, initiated when sheriff’s deputies dump their possessions on the sidewalk following an eviction notice. Even with federal housing assistance, only “28 of every 100 extremely low-income renter households in the United States were able to find decent, affordable homes in 2013,” according to a study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Most families struggling with housing have at least one wage earner, but with the minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour, finding a home is still tough. A recent study by the National Income Housing Coalition calculated that a minimum-wage worker in Louisiana must work 69 hours a week to pay for a one-bedroom apartment at the market rate. While daunting, this figure pales next to the 98 hours a week it takes a similar worker in New York. Fourteen states, including Massachusetts, Hawaii and Maryland, have addressed this problem by raising wages or providing increased housing support for low-wage workers. Others have required builders to set aside portions of new development for low-income housing. But in cash-strapped Louisiana, that’s not likely to happen — at least not in the near future.
Many low-income workers dream of owning their own home, like other richer Americans. Yet researchers estimate that the poor can only “afford” houses in the $50,000 to $60,000 range, a good bit less than the $284,000 home (2,450 square feet) that is today’s average price for a single-family dwelling. Developers prefer large and expensive houses because maxing out on size and scale increases profits. City fathers and zoning authorities usually support them as well, envisioning prosperous suburbs and stable tax bases.
Meanwhile, the smaller units that the poor might be able to afford, which include duplexes, triplexes, townhouses, garden apartments and bungalow courts, are not being built. These smaller and less expensive options are the “missing middle” of housing in America. Once these modest homes were everywhere across America, but in the decades after World War II, they were supplanted by single-family dwellings. Today, nearly two-thirds of the nation’s housing stock is made up of single-family dwellings, with another 13 percent in large apartment buildings. Alternatives to the expensive high-rise or single-family dwelling comprise only about 19 percent of total housing stock, shutting the working poor out of the market, according to Amanda Hurley’s nextcity.org January story, “Will U.S. Cities Design Their Way Out of the Affordable Housing Crisis?” Legislation encouraging a mix of building types and denser living to consolidate services has met with resistance and, in some cases, legal action from builders. One such case, California Business Industry v. San Jose, just made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In California, the plaintiffs argued that requiring builders to set aside 15 percent of new units for affordable housing violated their property rights. This case, which was not heard by the Supreme Court, nevertheless laid bare the complicated political circumstances surrounding affordable housing. Caught between developers worried about profit margins, home owners anxious to “protect” their neighborhood, political gridlock, partisan rancor and shrinking state revenues, the prospects of relief for low-income renters are dismal.
In Lafayette, few good housing opportunities exist for the poor and near poor. The “Just South” Index released by the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola ranked Louisiana “dead last” in social justice, a broad measure that includes average income and what households spend on housing. In Louisiana, the percentage of poor households spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing was a staggering 90.6 percent. Locally, the new developments multiplying at a dizzying rate in Broussard and Youngsville are nearly all large single-family homes, prohibitively expensive to lowerwage workers. Curiously, the most noteworthy local housing development with a mix of single-family and multi-family options in recent years, River Ranch, is conspicuous for its unaffordability. Unable to compete in a housing market aimed primarily at two-income white collar workers, the working poor are forced to find whatever housing they can on the North and East side of Lafayette, where the housing stock is old, frequently not up-to-code and expensive regardless.
There are no easy solutions to the housing problem for low-income residents of Lafayette and elsewhere. Organizations such as Habitat for Humanity do what they can to build houses and public support for broader solutions. Federal programs continue to help, although the Great Recession and recent cuts have diminished the money available. Doorways, a citizen and organization alliance initially sponsored by the League of Women Voters, has recently formed to coordinate the movement to “address housing issues” in Lafayette’s urban core. But, as Matthew Desmond so devastatingly documented in Evicted, the housing problem is dense, intractable and deeply woven into the lives of a great many people.
Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at [email protected].