Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Dark Side of Home Ownership

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.

When I ran for City Council in 2010, one of the issues I was concerned about was the lack of affordable housing in Fullerton. Fullerton’s Master Plan called for a certain number of affordable housing units, and yet there were actually way less than that number in existence.

Why, I wondered, were there so few affordable housing units? Similarly, why were there so few homeless shelter facilities or health clinics for low-income residents? Why did the city government, time after time, approve policies that excluded the neediest residents of my community? I honestly did not understand, I was outraged, and I wanted to know why.

Over the course of the campaign, I began to get glimpses of the truth. I remember one mailer that went out attacking Doug Chaffee, a candidate who supported affordable housing. Rather than praising Chaffee for his inclusive ideas, the mailer attacked Chaffee, saying, “Doug Chaffee wants to build affordable housing in YOUR neighborhood,” and claimed that affordable housing would drive down property values. I began to understand the dark logic behind mailer’s claims.

Low-income housing and homeless shelters did, in fact, drive down property values. People who had invested large portions of their income in their houses did not want to see their investments decrease. From the point of view of the homeowner, it makes sense to oppose affordable housing and homeless shelters. Or, if such projects are approved, to keep them far away, separate, segregated from affluent neighborhoods.

It turns out that this reality, the self-interest of property owners, explains the current lack of affordable housing and homeless shelters in Fullerton, and the current economic and ethnic segregation.

William F. Gayk, professor of Public Policy and Administration at Cal State Long Beach, delves deeply into the mindset behind this social reality: “One’s house conveys social meaning, as does one’s car, jewelery, and clothing. Consumption of these commodities by themselves is evidence of the way that one has achieved success in life as well as the degree of one’s success…Thus, a house conveys information about the owners’ social standing in a community, the type of people they associate with, and their style of life…a house is a symbol of status” (282).

Because of the enormous social and economic importance of homeownership in a place like Orange County, “demands are placed on government to implement exclusionary housing policies, relocate the homeless, down-size housing projects or disapproved development plans, and ensure that ‘undesirable facilities’ such as jails, airports, and low-cost housing projects are not located within or near one’s neighborhood” (Gayk 293).

Gayk lists more “threats” to property values: noise, group homes, halfway houses, mental hospitals, roads and highways.

A great irony of all this is the fact that some of the elderly residents of Fullerton who oppose government-subsidized housing were themselves the recipients of government housing subsidies following World War II.

So what is the solution to this problem? I have no idea. But I think the first step is understanding why our community is the way it is. Fullerton housing policies can largely be explained by a simple phrase: “Good old-fashioned American self-interest.” Once people begin to understand this historical and social reality, maybe people can evaluate if this mindset fits with their actual values. Recent census data confirms that many Fullerton residents would define themselves as “Christian.” A good question then is: Does economic self-interest and housing discrimination fit with the values of Jesus Christ?

Another factor also gives me some hope. Looking to the future, Gayk predicts, “Their [property owners] grip on the local political agenda may weaken as their numbers decline and as growing numbers of racial and ethnic minorities settle in Orange County. The agenda may then move beyond some of the narrowly defined politics that revolve around homeownership and the community” (296).

Perhaps one positive outcome of our current recession and the decline of the housing market may be that former homeowners may become more mindful of and compassionate toward formerly excluded “undesirables” like minorities, the homeless, and the poor.

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