Not-so-free Real Estate; How Can Ordinary Americans Easily and Effectively Advocate for Meaningful Changes that Address America’s Housing Crisis?

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By Nick Sandford



My Personal Interest

I became interested in the topic of housing from living my whole life in Oakland, which has one of the largest rates of homelessness in the country and is undergoing gentrification that has severely hurt several prominent communities in the city. I have witnessed as both friends and others are forced out of their homes because of increasing prices, or are hit hard financially while attempting to live in their own neighborhood. I have also been met with local media stories covering the pandemic’s effect on the financial stability of American families and what it means for the tight living conditions that many of the nation’s must live in both nationally and locally. That is why I set about educating myself and hopefully others about the issues that are being faced by millions of Americans and about how one can contribute to the fight for good living conditions. 

Historical Background

The American Industrial Revolution of the late 19th-century came with massive economic changes in the United States, which created a housing culture driven largely by profit margin as opposed to quality living for workers and their families, culminating in the notorious slums and tenement housing within American cities (Laslo and MacLaury). This can be explained through a simple understanding of capitalism; a new wave of capital financing infrastructure projects to reconstruct the economy in the North and South meant more natural resources in the US could be reached, which created new business opportunities to exploit those resources and create products, which increase consumption of those commodities, which ultimately meant more demand. The cities which were home to America’s new rail infrastructure meant factories and mills clustered around that transportation, which meant more workers were needed. This rush of migration to cities to fill these jobs led to rushed housing in the form of shanty towns and tenements that had a product of millions of people being crammed into polluted, unsanitary, and badly constructed housing (Laslo and Hoffman). These issues however did trigger advocacy and non-profit funds that did reshape how the American was treated both in the workplace and in their neighborhood; moral environmentalism theory of the 1800s stressed that without good living conditions and something to live for, a worker will not want to work as hard or with as much tenacity as if they did; private practices within religious and educational institutions provided health and support services for their communities; and pressure from unions and workers created greater homeowner and tenant rights (Griscom, Hoffman, and the NYT Editorial). This shows that progress can be made with popular support and advocacy.

Jacob Riis, 1900

American Tenement, 1900

Living situations like those pictured above were common within American Cities.

The Status Quo and a Solution

While shanty towns within American cities are largely an image of the past, many of the housing issues that plagued America’s working-class today have simply mutated; A large number of Americans live on the streets without a roof over their heads, which has only be amplified by the pandemic; housing inequality between black and white has skyrocketed; an increasing amount of Americans live with what is considered severe housing problems: lack of complete kitchen facilities, lack of plumbing facilities, the presence of lead, asbestos, and mold, overcrowding, or severely cost-burdened occupants, which have again been exasperated by the pandemic; the list goes on (AHR, Schuetz, and Fessler). But how can citizens make micro and macro-level impacts on this expansive issue? The most simple way for an ordinary citizen can push for change is by contributing to our democratic system; do research about your local, state, and national candidates in elections about their views on housing, and what their plans are to address them; if you feel strongly that they can make a difference, volunteer, donate, and raise awareness, which, is what I intend to do in the future as an American. This micro-level action is not only a good way to raise awareness for housing issues but further pave the way for more extensive macro-level solutions such as the elimination of residential and commercial zoning so that more affordable housing can be legally constructed, increased investment in infrastructure in urban areas to make the quality of life better, and developing government assistance programs for those who have been forced to live on the streets or in worse conditions (Symbium, Ivory and Colton). Last year I had the amazing opportunity to work on the campaign of a man running for a position on city council with promises to reform the zoning system and brought progressive solutions to homelessness; from this experience, I have learned to trust in th viability of local democracy in making a a difference, while also seeing there are things that can be done to address housing issues. Take zoning for example; cities ‘zone out’ certain areas in an urban project for commercial areas, residentials, services, and other key parts of a city; that zoning also fits a certain code, for example, only small residentials can be built in a given area. The scenario that often results is even when there is a high demand for housing in a certain area, there is no area that is zoned for that much needed residential space, and the buildings can only be a certain way. Eliminating zoning means that lots can be used more effectively and efficiently to provide housing services to those in need of them, which is why I have committed to researching and supporting local candidates in my district who support the elimination or at least the reformation of urban zoning. 

Sarah Ravani, 2019

Homeless Encampment, Oakland, 2019

Homeless Encampments like the one pictured above in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland are common throughout my hometown. Note that this was captured before the pandemic had even begun.

Thank you very much for taking the time to check out my Catalyst Project! I put a lot of work into this assignment, however, I can always do better, and I want to see your thoughts. If you could leave a quick comment with any constructive feedback you might have about my project, please do so. And if you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment section as well, and I will do my best to get back to you with an answer. If you are interested in learning more about America’s housing crisis, I invite you to check out the 2 essays I put together both explaining the historical context to the issue, and also the status quo with viable solutions to the issue at hand, since the summary does not nearly do enough justice to this expansive issue. The comment section can also be used to ask questions or comment about those essays if you would like to. Thank you again for your time, and have a good rest of your day!


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