By NEIL COSGROVE
If participants in the Pittsburgh Housing Summit were certain of anything by the Summit’s conclusion on November 10th, it was that America’s market-based approach to providing its citizens with shelter would never meet the goal set by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights that everyone deserved housing “adequate for the health and well-being” of individuals and their families.
“An entirely privatized system like we have does not meet the basic human right of housing,” sociologist Gianpaolo Baiocchi asserted. “We have to make demands that are unreasonable, because the reasonable is not working.” Jackie Smith, one of the summit’s organizers, kept reminding participants throughout the day that demands that seem unreasonable to those profiting from the current housing market are entirely reasonable to those who are being victimized by it.
The evidence detailing that victimization is overwhelming. According to Baiocchi, 20 million households in the US are spending more than half their income on housing. Pittsburgh has a shortage of more than 17,000 affordable housing units, with affordability generally defined as carrying rents or mortgages of no more than 30% of the household’s income. An analysis by Public Source shows how increases in Pittsburgh’s median monthly rents easily outstripped the inflation rate over a recent 14-year period, while “the incomes of renters, a population that typically earns less than homeowners, have not risen at all.” The human toll is staggering. While the legion of homeless populating the streets in coastal cities such as San Francisco and New York are the most visible portraits of misery, the impact on lowincome citizens of our region can be more subtly devastating. Maps presented by Anne Wright of the CMU CREATE Lab illustrated how whole neighborhoods with high rates of corporate and large investor housing ownership also contain the highest rates of evictions and Section 8 federal housing vouchers and, consequently, higher rates of families making frequent moves, with the stress and uncertainty those moves produce in both adults and children. Lowincome families are being forced out of Pittsburgh and into inner-ring suburbs with lower cost housing, and sometimes into more distant locations that feature long trips on public transit to get to much needed work.
Landlords do what a market system expects them to do, which is to seek profit through increased rents and, too often, neglect of maintenance. Renters do what a market system expects them to do, which is to work a job. The result is not adequate housing for all, but ever-increasing rents, sometimes substandard housing, stagnant incomes, displacement, and cascading hardships, culminating at times in the loss of any shelter whatsoever.
During an era of steadily worsening housing conditions for low-income and working class Americans, local, state, and federal governments have been AWOL far too often. Laws allow human relations commissions to punish landlords who discriminate against protected classes, but landlords who gouge tenants wallowing in substandard housing can escape legal action if they are inflicting their greed and neglect on everybody. Paul O’Hanlon, Chair of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Task Force, complained that the Allegheny County Health Department’s main tool for going after landlords of substandard housing is “rent withholding,” in which the County holds the paid rent “while people continue to live in horrendous conditions, the landlord makes a few repairs and then gets all his rent back, and the tenants receive nothing for their trouble.”
Budgets for federal housing support are currently shrinking. Wright pointed out that only 30% of applicants for Section 8 rent vouchers are successful, and a tenant complained that the minimum monthly rent required of low-income tenants has risen during the Trump administration from $25 to $150.
Given the abject failure of the “market model” to supply adequate housing for an ever-growing segment of the citizenry, one obvious need is for public officials who both recognize the scope of that failure and the need for a vigorous governmental response. Participants called for greatly expanded voucher systems, rent-controls, and free legal representation for those threatened with eviction. The Furthering Fair Housing Task Force is recommending “robust mandatory inclusionary zoning,” through which developers are required to include a percentage of affordable housing as part of their development.
But, as City Council member Deb Gross pointed out, 45 units here and another 40 units there will barely dent the need for over 17,000 units. Community Land Trusts must obtain and make available a significant amount of Pittsburgh’s existing housing stock. The Urban Redevelopment Authority must become more responsive to the need for affordable housing as a vital part of regional economic growth. Baiocchi called for non-market alternatives such as “limited equity cooperatives,” in which a building is partially collectively owned and partially individually owned, for “mutual aid cooperatives” featuring “sweat equity” and for “tenant syndicates.”
In the meantime, for those activists who wish to get more deeply involved, the Pittsburgh Regional Tenant Union is seeking new members and the Landless People’s Alliance is planning for what is hoped to be a massive Housing March on April 21, 2019. The Alliance is also looking for March Planning Committee members.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.