I wrote Underwater: a home of her own as a way to digest my experience of being a first-time homeowner during the housing crisis. Or, perhaps I should say a housing crisis; one of many in an endless chain of housing insecurity. Amidst the pandemic we had a housing crisis of 2022, and 14 years ago commenced the housing crisis 2008, which dragged on for years. The housing crisis that began in 2008 when the housing market crashed left deep scars in the economy and communities around the country. In fact, I’m not even sure that the 2008 housing crisis ever really stopped.
Housing crisis upon housing crisis.
At a health center on Skid Row where I have worked as a teaching artist, I was chatting with a woman experiencing homelessness about her story. She said she traces her current homelessness back to the economic crash of 2008. That was when she lost her job due to corporate downsizing. At the same time, she had to leave an abusive boyfriend. The confluence of the two crises set off a chain of events that led to her ending up on the streets.
“I’ve never recovered since then,” she confided.
I don’t think our country has recovered, either. It seems to me that we have in fact been in one long, protracted housing crisis. We have become conditioned to a constant din of housing insecurity created by severe income inequality, lack of affordable housing, and gentrification. Predatory lending practices and economic policy disproportionately impact lower income folks, and the inequalities people face grow even sharper. All of this puts such a high premium on housing that we are continually living in one larger housing bubble.
The only solution is more housing and more access to housing for those in need.
I think that many of us can agree that the only solution to homelessness is more housing and better channels of access to affordable housing. More housing is also the best solution to the larger housing crisis. The only way to prevent extreme housing price inflation, which drives displacement and gentrification, is for there to be enough houses.
I would never deign to pretend that I understand housing insecurity on the level experienced by people living on Skid Row. But I do remember the chronic stress of not having the vital matter of one’s shelter be settled and secure. Living under the threat that you will be displaced and that you don’t belong where you are grates on your soul. It undermines your confidence, and it can even make you question your right to be on the earth. The stress of that dehumanization is why so many people experiencing homelessness find themselves stuck in cycles of addiction. None of this is hard to understand. In fact, it’s hard for me to understand how anyone could doubt it or think enforcing sobriety first is the answer. Housing is not only the answer, it is a human right.
Housing is a human right.
After my own personal housing crisis wound down, I dressed my wounds for a few years. I did my best to wind down the hyper vigilant stress response. A luxury many people on the streets don’t have, I’m well aware.
But of course, the issue of the housing crisis persists, everywhere. I am reminded of it every time I drive past the tent cities that line more and more of L.A.’s iconic streets, or when I hear about a normal-sized “starter” house selling for an insane price. Every time I hear about subprime loans being rebranded as “nonprime,” I think of the housing crisis. Or when I read a story about mobile home companies using predatory lending practices to terrorize their tenants. Even the Wild West of the bitcoin market — and especially, the greedy lust of its champions — I think of the Wall Street bros who helped tank the U.S. economy in 2008.
Writing the book did help me process my personal ordeal. I was glad to hear that it seemed to provide a spirit of hope and fortitude for persistence through difficult times. Even if I can pay all my bills, I still feel the rattle of economic insecurity. It is a collective, not a personal, anxiety. And I imagine that even without housing insecurity affecting an individual deeply and personally, I bet no one ever really feels 100% safe from the threat of homelessness. That’s why we dehumanize and compartmentalize it when we see people living on the street.
“That would never be me,” we insist.
But it could be anybody.
The fickleness of our economic conditions means it could, really, be anybody. The decreasing likelihood that people of modest means can ever secure the investment of a house, and begin to build wealth, means the same threat seems to lurk before us all. I say this not to raise unnecessary stress and fear, but just the right amount, so that more of us will be propelled to do something.
Above, I said we start with housing. And, on a practical level, that is true. But before we can ever enact humane policies, we have to start with remembering that every person on the street is a human being. The only thing that sits between us and them is our luck of the capitalist draw. Each person’s story relays one aspect of the larger crisis, and my story only reflects my way out of my personal housing crisis. But there is one thing about which I am sure:
We don’t get out of the housing crisis by ourselves, but altogether.
To get involved with creating solutions:
Alliance for Housing Justice (U.S. – Nationwide)
Housing Justice National Platform (U.S. – Nationwide)
Urban Voices Project (Los Angeles)
Everyone In (Los Angeles)
Housing is Key (Los Angeles)
Hacienda CDC (Portland)
Neighborhood Partnerships (Portland)
These are just a few orgs that I know of doing good work. Feel free to comment with more resources!