Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A housing spin I'm sad to be happy about

It was kind of good lately to see HUD presenting the housing maldistribution problem in terms of "worst case housing needs"* -- which were, sadly, very nasty in 2009, hitting more than 6 percent of the population, up nearly 42% since 2001. "Good", I mean, to see housing precarity discussed in terms of difficulty hanging on to housing, as a way to help bourgeois bystanders see the problem without distraction by that ugly hot button called "homelessness."

Obviously people who lack housing are in more urgent need than people who are still paying the rent some way or other -- but the word "homelessness" invokes such a clump of blame-the victim prejudices that half the time it can't be discussed in normal tones of voice.

A housing pinch that hurts people who are housed can be shown to the public as a housing problem. By contrast, when a housing pinch has already caused people to be homeless, it tends to get interpreted as an attitude problem, a budgeting problem, a coddling problem, a drinking problem... and on down the alphabet to a yobbery problem or a zymurgy problem -- anything but a shortage of tickets to sleep legally indoors.

Even Obama's HUD introduces the subject of homelessness with a page captioned, "Who Are The Homeless?" As though "the homeless," unique among sub-populations, had to be understood in the context of personal characteristics. I mean, they don't post pages asking "Who Are The FHA Borrowers?" or "Who Are The Section 8 Landlords?" or "Who Are These Clowns We Hire to Manage Our Foreclosed Properties Anyway?"

Weird. "Worst case housing needs" are an economic fact but "homelessness" is a personal characteristic, mainly viewed as a personal failing.

Doesn't make sense but there it is.

* HUD defines “worst case needs” as "very low-income renters with incomes below 50 percent of the Area Median Income who do not receive government housing assistance and who either paid more than one-half of their income for rent or lived in severely inadequate conditions, or who faced both of these challenges." Still not really a "worst case" compared with sleeping on the sidewalk, but if you think of the seven million people involved, and the sheer volume of preventable anxiety conniptions and bug bites and flu bugs they probably get, well, HUD knows, that's bad enough.

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