realistic goal

In the Housing Act of 1949, Congress established a national goal of “Providing a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.” However, this has never been a realistic goal. Throughout American history, millions of poor households – particularly recent immigrants from abroad – have lived in overcrowded and often deteriorated slums because they could not afford “decent” dwelling units, as defined by prevailing middle-class quality standards. Congress has never provided the financial means of achieving that goal for all poor American families who cannot afford to achieve it on their own, since doing so would be very expensive to middle-class taxpayers. This is just as true today as it was in the late 19th Century or the early 20th Century. We depend upon overcrowding to shelter millions of our low-wage workers and their families, whose efforts are vital to the operation of our economy. We will not permit anyone to build units small and simple enough to house them without crowding because nearby homeowners think such units would devalue their own homes, which are their major assets. In order to protect their interests, we condemn the poorest households to live in overcrowded and often deteriorated dwellings. Recent influxes of many poor immigrants from Latin America, combined with soaring housing prices – especially in California – have greatly expanded our reliance upon such slum housing. Yet resistance to building even “decent” multi-family housing for low-income households is intensifying everywhere, thanks to NIMBYism and increased dominance of local policies by parochial homeowners. Let’s face it: maintaining slums is an unspoken but crucial part of American housing policy likely to expand even more in importance in the near future. It is the price we compel our poorest households to pay to allow middle- and upper-income homeowners to gain significant increases in wealth from rising home values.