For an up-close view of the affordable housing crisis—which predated the mortgage-driven financial crisis of 2008 but has deepened since then into a full-blown national emergency—one place to be was the Jesse Owens Memorial Complex in the Red Bird neighborhood of Dallas. There, in the early morning hours of a typically scorching day this past July, thousands of impoverished Texans lined up for a chance to get on a waiting list for federal housing assistance, the first time in five years that the county government had accepted applications. Back in May another 21,000 people had applied for a shot at 5,000 spots on the Dallas Housing Authority’s waiting list—still better odds than in nearby Plano, where 8,000 people applied for only 100 available housing vouchers.
Similar gatherings, with similar casinolike odds, have occurred around the country with a sort of stealthy frequency. In Oakland, California, which opened its waiting list in January, officials expected as many as 100,000 people to apply for 10,000 vouchers. In Atlanta, sixty-two people were injured in 2010 at an East Point shopping center where 30,000 lined up after the local housing authority opened its waiting list for the first time in eight years. Even small communities like Aiken, South Carolina, saw hundreds queuing up in October for a chance at housing aid about as likely as seeing three cherries in a row on a Vegas slot machine.
Another way you can find tangible evidence of the housing affordability crunch is by visiting one of New York City’s exploding number of homeless shelters, where a record 41,000 homeless people bed down each night, including more than 17,000 children. The New York Times recently told the story of one of those children, fourth-grader N-Dia Layne, who travels two and a half hours each day between her Upper Manhattan shelter and her school in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood. In Cleveland, the number of homeless families and kids grew so rapidly this past summer that for the first time shelters were forced to eliminate daytime meals, housing-search assistance and other services in order to move workers to the overnight shifts, according to Brian Davis of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.
You’ll find another, even less-noticed symptom of the housing crisis scattered in the rising number of foreclosed homes that have been “occupied”—in defiance of banks and legal authorities—by former owners and other displaced people. From Rochester, New York, to Minneapolis to Miami and back to Oakland, more and more people have come to the logical conclusion that one solution to the housing crisis is to settle down in vacant homes seized by banks. Some of these occupations, like those organized by groups like Take Back the Land, are part of an organized resistance to banks and mortgage lenders. Community groups recently joined with Occupy Wall Street protesters to help a homeless family in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood move into a foreclosed home that has sat vacant for three years. Some other “occupations”—as in the case of a woman in Fort Bend County, Texas, facing criminal charges—involve people at the end of their rope merely trying to keep a roof over their head. Indeed, in Las Vegas, which has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, some 300 families are evicted each day by the constable’s office, many of them people who have been hanging on to seized homes.
The one place you won’t hear any discussion, much less acknowledgment, of the nation’s spiraling housing affordability crisis is around Washington, DC, by its political class and its media enablers. There the conference rooms and cable news studios echo with talk of deficit reduction via sharp budget cuts, with special relish for so-called discretionary programs like housing assistance. Indeed, in the midst of rising homelessness, rampant joblessness and the lingering foreclosure crisis, Congress recently slashed the federal housing agency’s budget by $3.8 billion.