Crises Hidden in Plain Sight: Homelessness and Housing Affordability

Homeless, War on the Poor
Photo credit: A McLin / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Originally published at WhoWhatWhy.org: Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump made huge promises to rebuild America’s infrastructure, while Hillary Clinton promised to preserve the middle class. Yet neither of them addressed the nation’s homelessness and housing affordability crisis, which has been getting worse since the 1970s and has only accelerated in the years since the Great Recession of 2008.

The complete absence of this issue from the 2016 campaign underlines how our multi-billion dollar electoral extravaganza remains wholly disconnected from the actual conditions that tens of millions of Americans find themselves in.No wonder voter turnout hit a 20-year low in 2016. For all of the hype, the American political conversation has focused on everything but the plight of one-third of the nation — the segment of the population that either never made it into the middle class, or fell out.Historically, both Democrats and Republicans embraced home ownership as the panacea that would put every family on the path to wealth accumulation and stability. But in the aftermath of the the Wall Street-enabled housing crash, which cost American families up to $20 trillion dollars in lost household wealth, neither party dared to float a plan B. Meanwhile, the banks got bailed out while local governments in the top 25 hardest-hit communities were left with 2.5 million vacant housing units, according to a 2014 report from HUD.For the several million Americans who lost their homes to foreclosure the consequences will be generational. But for the likes of Goldman Sachs and Moody’s Corp, all it took to get free and cleared for their role in precipitating the collapse of the American real estate market was their ability to write the Obama administration a check for $5 billion in the case of the Wall Street bank and $864 million in the case of the rating agency.Back in 2014 in an obscure speech at the Vatican, Stephen Bannon, Trump’s top campaign strategist and now the president’s senior counselor, told the Human Dignity Institute, a Catholic linked NGO, that the fact that “not one criminal charge” had ever been brought against any “bank executive associated with the 2008 crisis” was part of “the fuel of this populist revolt that we’re seeing as the tea party.” Bannon, a former employee of Goldman Sachs, told the audience that the financial crisis was “driven by the greed of the investment banks.”

No doubt, the anger of that part of the electorate that was caught up in the post 2008 downward migration, driven by an unprecedented loss in household wealth, had everything to do with Trump’s ability to flip more than 200 counties in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Those same counties were the very ones that did not bounce back from the meltdown but had voted twice for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. It was this same resentment over the actual decline of the middle class in these places that was a key part of Senator Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) energetic but unsuccessful campaign.

“Somebody decided someone had to take a loss on the massive fraud behind the mortgage backed securities and it was decided in Washington it would be the homeowners because the banks and the mortgage servicers owned the White House, the Treasury, the state houses, Congress and the courts.” — Laura Walsh

Yet, since President Trump’s victory, it has been hard to decipher just what remedy the new administration has to right the injustice that Bannon had flagged in his 2014 Vatican speech. Trump has tapped several top Goldman Sachs veterans for key government posts, including Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary. Back in 2011, 100 demonstrators marched on his $26 million dollar Bel Air mansion to protest his OneWest Bank’s foreclosure practices. Those practices got him in hot water with both state and federal regulators, resulting in a consent decree with the Office of Thrift Supervision.

The appointment of Dr. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon with absolutely no housing policy background, as the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), along with the GOP’s long-standing hostility to funding the agency, has housing advocates fearing an already failing safety net could completely unravel.

At Carson’s confirmation hearing earlier this month, the former presidential hopeful recounted his own childhood experience of being brought up in poverty in Detroit and feeling “housing insecurity” first hand when he had “nowhere to live” after his parents divorced, forcing him and his mother to double up with relatives in Boston.

He described his own frustration in his role as a pediatrician working to heal children in East Baltimore only to see them return to unsafe housing conditions that included exposure to lead, known to cause severe brain damage.

Ranking Senate Banking Committee member Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told the HUD nominee that, based on the most recent data, 11.5 million American households were spending more than half their income on rent. Carson conceded that “was unacceptable” and committed to go on a national listening tour as well as to make an effort to seek out the advice of veteran career HUD officials.

Carson won the support of all the Republicans on the committee as well as the votes of Democrats Brown and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA). His nomination now heads to the full Senate where his confirmation is expected.

Occupy Homes

IRVINGTON, NJ – In 2015 Vietnam era veteran Clifton Beckley, enlisted the help of fellow veterans and community activists working with NJ Community United, a labor supported anti-foreclosure advocacy group, to resist foreclosure by HSBC. Thanks to several high profile actions, including protests at local bank branches and a strong turnout of veterans in foreclosure court proceedings, Beckley and the bank reached a deal that kept him and his family in their home. Photo credit: With permission from Robert Hennelly

But while Carson is getting his bearings, the housing crisis continues to take a toll on the most vulnerable.   A 2016 press release from the US Department of Education advised the nation’s public schools that, based on their latest available data, at least 1.3 million school-age children in the US were homeless. The Washington Post had reported in 2015 that the number of homeless children was close to double the number of kids without a fixed address in the 2006/07 school year.

“Research shows that these students experience significant academic, social, and socio-emotional challenges, and that being homeless is associated with lower school achievement and increased risk of dropping out of school,” a US Department of Education advisory warned. The federal advisory was part of an expansion of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Yet this troubling trend was ignored during the 2016 campaign. Read The Rest at WhoWhatWhy.org.

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