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We Need a New Deal for Housing

When I came of age in Flint, Michigan, homeownership was a crucial part of the American dream.

Often one income was sufficient to buy into this dream — union GM jobs paid enough to buy a home and to support a family. Some of my friends’ parents were even able to buy a second home, often a “cottage up north” in Michigan, where workers enjoyed weekends off.

Those days are long gone.

Where workers with high school educations once had a path to a first — and even a second — home, an advanced degree hasn’t done the same for me. I’m a college professor, yet the fear of being homeless haunts me.

In 2013, I tried to buy a small home for under $100,000, but my student loan debt and low adjunct wages made it impossible.

I’ve spent my adult life working hard at multiple jobs, raising my son singlehandedly, and working toward an education I’d been led to believe would eventually pay off. So at almost 53 — rent-burdened and insecure — this failure to buy a home of my own was devastating.

But I’m not alone. Globally, the U.S. now ranks just 42nd in homeownership.

Every day, I hear housing nightmare stories across the country. Folks like me who can’t buy a home because of student debt. Working people who are homeless because they can’t afford high rents and/or property taxes. Women in abusive situations who can’t afford to live on their own.

The traditional financial advice is not to spend more than 30 percent of your income on housing. This is a pipe dream. Recent research has shown that it’s impossible to afford a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States while working even full-time at minimum wage.

Yet while many people are unhoused, a small number of wealthy people own multiple homes — including luxury houses and condos that just sit empty. And in many jurisdictions, housing laws benefit greedy landlords and house flippers, rather than ordinary people trying to find a roof.

In the words of Elena Herrada, a Detroit activist and educator who noted this trend in her hometown: “Now ten families live in one house and one person owns ten houses.”

The good news is that housing is finally being addressed as the national crisis it is.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, has noted with concern how the federal government has helped big investors outbid ordinary families trying to buy homes. “Over the last 10 years,” she notes, “the Federal Housing Administration has helped massive private equity firms like Blackstone buy up over 200,000 single-family homes with the purpose of renting them. This has caused rents (and evictions) to increase in markets like Atlanta, Nashville, and elsewhere.”

Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have teamed up to address both the climate crisis and the housing crisis. They envision transforming public housing into pleasant, safe, and environmentally sound spaces — and dramatically expanding it.

This “Green New Deal for housing,” the New York Times reports, involves “fundamental changes in how the housing market functions” — including new national rent control protections and taxes on house flippers and land speculators who drive up housing costs for everyone else.

As anyone from Flint and Detroit could tell you, the American dream of owning a home is no longer possible for many of us. However, now a growing number of policymakers understand this is a policy shame — not a personal one.

I doubt I’ll ever own a home in my lifetime. But it’s my hope that younger generations will be able to find a place to call their own.

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