Arleen lost her 2 boys suddenly and by force. She had fallen behind on her rent and couldn’t pay the electricity bill. No electricity means no food in the refrigerator, no clock to get to school on time, no lights for evening homework. And for Arleen, no more kids. Child welfare determined that her sons would be better off with someone else.
Kamala lost her baby to fire. Down on her luck, Kamala was renting a cheap flat from a former teacher of hers, who had a lucrative sideline as a slumlord. When her house caught on fire, the angry fire so quickly consumed the substandard housing that it took Kamala’s baby. In a matter of a couple of hours, Kamala became both homeless and childless. Her landlord didn’t even have to return the month’s rent.
Another man lost his home and his own life at the same time. When the sheriff showed up to evict him, he asked for a moment to gather his things, and then shot himself.
These people are victims of a terrible economic violence that surges through America. Their stories are told in a new book by Matthew Desmond, titled, simply, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. The review by Jason DeParle in the New York Review of Books alone provides a wealth of context about poverty in America. Unlike the violent crime that economic violence largely replaces, this economic violence makes victims in both rural and urban areas, but scrupulously avoids the well-off.
You’ve heard of victimless crimes, but eviction victims suffer from perpetrator-less crimes. No one is responsible for the fact that they don’t have enough money to pay the rent. Or maybe they are, themselves, both victim and perpetrator, but surely no one else is—surely there are no villains here, just the impersonal workings of the market.
Evictions are a problem nationwide, and have become particularly acute where housing costs are high. In San Francisco, eviction rates rose 13% per year from 2010 to 2014 before finally leveling off last year. And although there are several causes of eviction in any one case, the overall rate of evictions is driven by the impersonal market—specifically by high rents.
Housing costs in the US have become so high that there is not one single state in which the minimum wage—state or federal—is adequate to afford housing. In fact, in most states, even double the federal minimum wage is not enough. The much ballyhooed increases in the minimum wage in New York and California will bring the minimum wage in those states up to just under half what a single parent would have to earn to afford housing.
As a result, the average renter now pays 30% of his or her income in rent, which is the maximum economists consider to be affordable. Poor households spend over 50% of their income in rent—sometimes as high as 90%. Many non-poor households in coastal cities are paying more: in Los Angeles, the average renter is like poor households elsewhere, paying 49% of income in rent, causing tremendous hardship. Many of those dedicating a smaller fraction of their income to rent do so only by dint of long commutes, long work hours, overcrowded living, substandard housing, or even homelessness. But these problems are no one’s fault, they are just the impersonal working of the market. Wages are low, rents are high, people suffer or get kicked out.
To make the impersonal market a bit more humane, there are federal and state programs to subsidize housing and many more local initiatives to foster affordable housing. The fact that federal spending on housing vouchers has fallen precipitously while the need has risen frighteningly is in no way a symptom of callousness on the part of our politicians, any more than is the fact that the federal government spends $80 billion dollars a year subsidizing homeowners through the mortgage interest deduction, of which over half goes to households earning more than $125,000 a year. Or that this amount dwarfs the $30 billion the federal government spends on low-income housing assistance. No one is to blame for this either. It is just the impersonal workings of politics as usual.
The market has driven up rents because the supply of homes is less than demand. More accurately, housing demand has risen faster than housing supply in the US overall, but especially in big coastal cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle or New York.
A recent report by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office identifies poor housing growth as the major cause of high housing costs in California. For 3 decades California’s coastal urban areas have built half or less of the estimated housing units needed. It’s no surprise then that when you have half the housing growth needed every year for 30 years, there’ll be a shortage, and the market requires that shortages are met with high prices. Rents are so high because housing is short. It isn’t anyone’s fault that housing is so scarce, it’s just the impersonal working of the market.
But why is housing so short? Are we running out of land? No, we are running out of patience. Neighbors are impatient with any congestion or traffic delay that adds more than 2 minutes to the time it takes to drive around the city. Residents are impatient with any newcomers who might use the curbside parking spot in front of their house, and citizens are impatient with politicians who have failed to deliver on their promises of peace and quiet for all in the Great White Spot.
And so new housing is opposed, sued, delayed and cancelled, and while the demand continues to grow, supply stagnates. And rents go up and people can’t pay and they lose their homes. Few die, but many suffer. And it’s all through the impersonal working of the market.