Moving to a new state is much more than a one weekend long event. It takes some time before the process of moving truly feels “done” and you are officially “in” your new place. It’s more than just new coworkers or a new work space: it’s the DMV, new car inspection requirements, new doctors, new neighborhoods, new politicians, a new gym, and a new daily routine that from beginning to end is completely foreign. Throughout this process you find yourself in frequent conversations with total strangers, and in my case, having come to Vermont because of a new job, these conversations always include the question: “what do you do for work?” This dynamic has given me a wonderful opportunity to promote the mission of VAHC whether it’s “work time” or not!
Like so many other causes, if you work in affordable housing, in a way it’s always “work time” because it’s an issue that impacts everyone, all the time. It has been interesting to hear the reaction from folks when I tell them about my new role at VAHC. Typically their responses are more or less the same: “that’s important work!” What people mean by that response are often different.
Some folks assume that my role, and the role of the organization, is to find housing for folks who are experiencing homelessness. While a part of our work includes advocating for housing that is affordable to people with very low incomes and ending homelessness, our scope is broader than that. Some are thinking (in part like most people), “I pay too much for my living situation, it would be nice if someone could find a way to change things so I could save some money.” I think that many people don’t realize that the scope of the issue of affordable housing truly does impact everyone.
In moving to Vermont, I discovered a remarkable challenge myself in finding any housing at all – never mind affordable housing. Like the many potential Vermonters referenced by Anne Wallace Allen in her recent piece in Seven Days, I was concerned that I may have to pass up on my new employment opportunity if I couldn’t find a place. I was extremely fortunate to find a vacancy at all. The incredibly low vacancy rate (4.3%) is a statewide issue, but is particularly low in Chittenden County (1.9%). We are however, not alone. In her book Brave New Home, Diana Lind speaks about this issue at the national level. She writes in the introduction:
“Not surprisingly, the lack of housing choices and the prevalence of exclusionary housing regulations-such as minimum lot sizes and required off-street parking for each household- have made housing grow more expensive, decade after decade. Wages have not kept up with housing costs. In 1988, the typical sale price of a single-family home was 3.2 times the median household income. By 2017, the ratio was 4.2. That same year, nearly thirty-eight million American households were “cost burdened”, paying more than 30 percent of their income on rents and mortgages.”
The issue of affordable housing is in fact a societal problem, and when we begin to consider the corollary issues that accompany these struggles we begin to see the enormity of its impact. Consider the mental health consequences of living each day “cost burdened.” Perhaps you don’t need to imagine it, because it’s all together too real already. Consider the ripple effect that comes next. How the anxiety does related to these struggles impact an individual’s productivity at work, attentiveness to relationships, or other decision making that may have far reaching consequence? How does a person who is facing housing instability successfully conquer addictions? How do these anxieties exacerbate other problems that we already fight so hard to conquer, like domestic violence, and other forms of abuse and neglect? The issue of affordable housing impacts us not only directly, but also via the world around us.
Just as this issue impacts all of us, we can all – in different ways – be a part of the solution.
In her Introduction, Lind goes on to point out how the notion of owning your own home, on your own land, has become the hallmark of living the “American Dream,” and along with that, a sign of success and status. She references a highly problematic quote from Walt Whitman, who plainly said, “A man is not a whole and complete man unless he owns a house and the ground it stands on.” In many ways this sentiment has become a subconscious belief that underlines the financial planning and financial anxiety of countless Americans.
From the earliest days in our nation’s history, various forms of what we could now call communal or rental living were the norm. Over time, the notion of “home” shifted from simply being about shelter to something more existential: it meant something about finding a sense of being settled, fulfilled, content, and secure. Surely then, we concluded, an increase in the status of my shelter must mean that I have achieved those deeper existential pursuits: as Whitman put it – I become a “complete” person. It seems so obvious how flawed this line of thinking is: and yet at some level, so many have unknowingly embraced it; while many of us can attest to the truth that fulfillment, contentment, satisfaction, and security can be found just as easily in a rental apartment, a shared living environment or any other housing if it is freely chosen, affordable, and safe.
If each and every one of us made an effort to intentionally be a part of changing the “Walt-Whitman dynamic” in our understanding of the American Dream, we would have taken a wonderful step together toward understanding and working to change the problem of affordable housing in our nation. Is changing a stigma going to be the solution to the affordable housing problems in America, and in Vermont specifically? No, of course not: but it’s a step. It’s a step we can all take today.
When people ask me what I do for work, I tell them I am the director of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition. When they ask what my organization does, I tell them my summary of our mission: we try to build awareness about affordable housing, and to unite Vermonters in the effort through advocacy, education, and awareness. Won’t you help me in my work?