Housing Affordability: An American Crisis

Housing Affordability: An American Crisis by George Hough with an image of a large home with a red roof.

by George Hough, WashCo Dems Communications Committee Member

Regarding the deep impact of ignored social ills, the Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime” (1). In our society, the scarcity of affordable housing is high on the list of social maladies that is fomenting deep discontent among everyday working people. The American Dream of home ownership, for many, is over. Squeezed out of the single-family housing market, the disenfranchised resign themselves to being renters for life. And as renters, they feel progressively diminished by their ever-declining purchasing power. Rental dollars secure incrementally less square footage over time. This affordability gap between what housing seekers want, and what they can afford, compresses ever more renters into an insufficient supply of available apartments.  For some, despite working hard, the bottom drops out. Consequently, the homeless population continues to grow.

A major consequence of the housing crisis is that we are witnessing a secondary erosion in consumer confidence at both the local as well as at the national level. Many young people, including my own 30-year-old daughter, lament that they cannot afford to live in the community in which they were raised. For some older workers, retirement is likewise an illusion. After a lifetime of work many of our seniors continue to end up empty-handed and spend their final years in poverty. This erosion of confidence in their economic future is evident not only among those who struggle financially. Even many of the financially well-off, as well, believe they are losing ground. They, too, are not where they think they ought to be with their retirement savings and investments. The perception of economic pain is real and cuts deep across the socioeconomic spectrum. Is it any wonder, then, that so many people have lost faith in traditional free-market principles? One often hears off handed remarks, such as “the system is rigged” or “working people can’t catch a break.”

Ironically, many MAGA Republicans, who have long championed a “hands off” policy regarding government intervention in the marketplace, now embrace a more cynical economic model. While posturing as free-market advocates, they are also willing to abrogate democratic traditions, and the rule of law, which undergird and make workable the free market. In this new-fangled Republican mixed model, the economic market would retain a patina of free-market principles, while also imposing “command-directed” and  authoritarian “strong man” solutions dictated by Donald Trump. This top-down political and economic model is, in its general authoritarian contours, comparable to Stalinist Russia’s “command economy”.  History demonstrated that this model was unsustainable and eventually collapsed because of its own internal contractions.

Yet, how many otherwise intelligent and rational people have you heard speak to the misguided fantasy that “Trump will fix it when he gets in office.” And in voting for Trump, they imagine they will get a truly towering economic genius, a grand “fixer” who can get things done in ways that only Trump can deliver. Trump will know better than the uncertainties and inefficiencies of the market. Then, under Trump, the interest rates will go down, the trade deficit will be reversed, and the American Dream of home ownership will be restored. This is magical thinking at its best and will not happen.  Recall, as well, that Donald trump is an admirer of several current totalitarian leaders: chiefly Putin, Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping.  He has already announced that he will be a dictator if elected. Neither Trump, nor any other authoritarian “dear leader,” can deliver all the goods encompassed in the economic fantasies they may propagate. An analysis of these respective economies verifies this point.

Lack of housing affordability is not simply a Democrat versus Republican issue. It is deeper than that. It is an American issue. And Americans of all political persuasions are suffering with this problem. As Democrats, we are all working hard to make sure President Biden remains in office in November. In his second term, it would be wise for the Biden administration to elevate affordable housing to the top of its priority action list. The Republicans are not going to tackle this problem, whether on their own or in a bipartisan fashion. Housing is a problem that we Democrats will have to address on our own. Housing solutions that work will require our best and sustained efforts, and a willingness to address a myriad of other complex economic factors. The last thing we need, and a proffered solution that is least likely to work, would be an authoritarian Donald Trump dictating from on high to the markets, as well as to the courts and to our policy makers what he wants. And what would Donald Trump want?  As with any dictator, Donald Trump would want to create market structures that line the pockets of Donald Trump. Aristotle may have had it right. The consequences of our generalized discontent and sense of social helplessness regarding affordable housing will continue to worsen until we solve this basic human need.

(1). Aristotle, Benjamin, Jowett, H.W., Carless, David. Aristotle’s Politics. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1920.