Crossing the Frederick Douglass–Susan B. Anthony Memorial Bridge on a brisk spring morning in Rochester, New York, the first thing one sees is a small tent city scattered about the banks of the Genesee River. It’s a sprawl of black tarps, folding chairs, and a charcoal grill, all set up on private land. The property’s owner, a cable company called Spectrum, has attempted for some time to tear it down, urging local officials to clear the encampment. In an effort to forestall the destruction of their fragile shelters, the homeless people who live there have hung a banner at the edge of a nearby highway that reads, simply, “Forgive us our trespasses.”
Continuing on toward the city’s southwest side, one finds a 48-unit building on Thurston Road. It’s a horseshoe-shaped structure of crimson brick; its facade is pleasing and clean. Inside, however, the mostly low-income tenants of color are subjected to bursting pipes, peeling paint, broken windows, and skittering mice—and the absentee landlord doesn’t seem to care much about correcting the problems. “See?” says resident Marianne Caleo, a chatty white woman who relies on Section 8 housing subsidies, as she points to a caved-in bathroom ceiling, its rubble sprinkled about like a noxious spice. “They haven’t done anything!”
Meanwhile, across town on the east side sits the modest two-story home of Liz McGriff. A resolute black woman in her 50s, she bought the place before the 2008 financial collapse. But when Wall Street went under, McGriff lost her job and, with it, her ability to pay the mortgage. Soon after, the foreclosure notice arrived, sparking a decade-long battle with the police, the courts, and the bank, and turning her into an insecure tenant in her own home. At least, McGriff says, “I am still there.”
These places, these people, and so many others like them represent the face of today’s housing crisis—a crisis so pervasive and enduring that it has become this country’s status quo. In Rochester, a midsize postindustrial city on Lake Ontario’s southern shore, evidence of the crisis is everywhere. During the 2016–17 school year, the city school district reported that 8.8 percent of its students—roughly 2,500 children—were homeless at some point. Last year, some 3,510 eviction warrants were issued. More than 50 percent of tenants in the city are rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. And while Rochester stands out as the fifth-poorest city in the country, it is no anomaly.
The national numbers are scandalous. On any given night, more than half a million homeless men, women, and children sleep on the streets or in shelters. In 2016 alone, according to research by the scholar Matthew Desmond, roughly 900,000 households were subject to eviction judgments. The same year, more than 11 million households spent at least 50 percent of their income, and another 9.8 million spent more than 30 percent, on rent. Nearly half of the nation’s 43 million renting households, then, live with the crushing weight of excessive housing costs.