Independence Day And The Housing Crisis
Independence Day! It conjures those images of barbecues and fireworks and patriotic celebration of the American Dream, which seemed so familiar until recent decades when we as a country became more divided about what patriotism actually is. To me, the notion of independence has always had more personal and nuanced connotations associated with personal freedom. And this 4th of July, my thoughts turn to how that longing for personal freedom expresses itself in the desire for a home.
The wish for a place to call home lies at the root of all aspects of the real estate business, here in New York and everywhere else. Whether building or buying or selling or renting, the goal of our business is to create shelter, and not just shelter, but home. As an industry and as a country, it often seems we aren’t doing so well at this. Isn’t it the government’s responsibility to create the sort of housing we need, by working with developers in public/private partnerships, which have demonstrated their success in situation after situation?
The greater issue, countrywide, which cuts into the sense of shared vision which made July 4th symbolic of what our country can be, remains income inequality. The last time we experienced a Gilded Age in this country, a century ago, it led to the birth of the union movement and codification of workers’ rights intended to banish exploitation of the poor by the rich. And yet here we are again.
As technology and automation render more and more blue-collar and manufacturing jobs obsolete, how do we reconceive our economy to offer the burgeoning U.S. population (not to mention the many immigrants who long to come here where, relatively speaking, the streets are still paved with gold.) How do we put an end to the shame of the tent cities of homeless which have grown up in Los Angeles, or the burgeoning population of homeless men, women, and children who populate the streets and shelters of New York or San Francisco? Homelessness is no-one’s American dream. How does such a wealthy country reconcile itself to a system in which children grow up in shelters or on the streets? And how will those children, for whom a home was not part of their youthful experience, grow up to have faith in our American dream?
Through tax benefits, we incentivize home ownership in this country, and throughout the 20th century, that aspiration formed a core desire for Americans. Today, for a variety of reasons, we see that desire fading. Millennials feel less certain about the future as well as the long-term economic value of home ownership. We are at a moment in which the desire to own amongst younger people is at a lull while increasing numbers of our disenfranchised neighbors have nowhere to call home at all.
What is meant by life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the early decades of the 21st century? Are you free if you long for a home but have no way to obtain one? How about the pursuit of happiness if your only preoccupation is getting your kids out of the shelter? Our strength as a country has always been our melting pot, that we are a nation of hardworking immigrants. But that strength comes at a cost: many lack the strong bonds of community which they may have left behind in search of the opportunity which exists here. Community support can insulate against falling through the cracks of our systems and ending up with nothing. So this July 4th, let’s think about how we can help stem the tide of homelessness in our urban areas. That would let freedom ring for all of us.