In the most recent season of Shameless, the long-running Showtime series about the dysfunctional, poverty-stricken Gallagher family in Chicago, a new story line develops. Unlike the drug- and crime-filled narratives of past seasons, this one hits closer to home for the average viewer: gentrification.
It starts quietly. New neighbors arrive. They seem different from the old ones, and they’re starting a community garden on the block. Soon enough, speculators are knocking on the Gallaghers’ door. Eventually, the family is forced to move when the bank forecloses and their home is sold at auction to a young family looking for an affordable neighborhood. All seven Gallaghers separate to find places to sleep—crashing on a neighbor’s couch, knocking on a boyfriend’s door, doubling up in a college dorm.
The show’s writers have joined a concert of op-eds, sitcoms, novels, songs, and gallery exhibits attempting to capture this quiet national crisis. From Matthew Desmond’s best-selling book Evicted, which chronicles the lives of multiple families losing their homes in Milwaukee, to Macklemore rapping about his “White Privilege,” housing (or the lack thereof) is on everyone’s mind. A frightening reality, on a slow boil for the past decade, is bubbling at the surface: We have an affordable-housing shortage from sea to sea.
Last summer, the Urban Institute issued a report on housing affordability across the United States. The central finding is shocking: There is no county in the United States that has enough affordable housing to meet the needs of its poor renters—not one.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordability as housing costs that consume less than a third of a family’s total household income. The Urban Institute report suggests this standard is far out of reach for most poor renters in the country. Nationwide, only 28 affordable units are available for every 100 “extremely low-income renters,” which the report identifies as households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income, or AMI. The number of affordable homes available ranges from seven for every 100 poor households in Osceola County, Florida, to 76 for every 100 in Worcester County, Maryland. These data indicate that a notable number of low-income families nationally don’t have access to shelter.
City councils, mayors, and state governments are locked in charged debates about how to confront the crisis. Nowhere is this more pressing than in New York City, where Bill de Blasio catapulted out of a crowded field of mayoral candidates in 2013 and won election on the strength of a central promise: more affordable housing. He has vowed to build 200,000 affordable units. His plan for doing so turns on what’s called “inclusionary zoning.”