Red Flags for Sale: America’s Housing Crisis
To those hailing from the developing world, the US of A is perceived as a beacon of freedom, progress, and endless opportunity. That was certainly the outlook my parents had when they brought me and my brother to the states in 1993. Pre-refugees from what would become a war ravaged and genocide inflicted nation of Kosovo — it was the instinct for survival that pushed my family to remove themselves from our motherland and cross the Atlantic in search of peace and prosperity.
Flash-forward 30 years and countless trials and errors in achieving the American Dream, I would say my small Albanian family has managed to garner itself a slice of America’s middle class. This success as an ethnic minority of course did not come over night and was due to my parents’ tireless work ethic and a bustling 90s/early 2000s American economy which gave my parents the economic opportunities to establish a safety net to fund my education and grant me an array of opportunities in any career of my choosing. It also gave my father the opportunity to begin a career in the real estate/property management business--which was something I took a keen interest in during my teen years as it gave me my first real look into what housing was in America.
My father’s role as a landlord introduced me to the concept of renting a home. “Renting” where you lived always seemed like a strange concept to me (coming from a country that was traditionally about generational inheritance of land/houses) and knowing that one can rent a variety of things—cars, scooters, videos—the renting of one’s home that granted them the human right to shelter just never seemed to make sense. I learned eventually through years of working in the family business, going through being a renter during college, then eventually working as a housing caseworker for Congressman Joe Courtney—that the rental market wasn’t there as a choice—but as a financial necessity. Of course, there are those who choose to rent because they do not want to be tied down into one place or some other specific scenario, but my guess is most rent out of necessity because access to affordable housing through owning your home, apartment, or condo is financially limited and difficult.
From a historical perspective-- owning a home always seemed like a milestone of achieving success in America. Growing up, the picture that was painted was that if you worked hard, went to college, and saved for a fair amount of time, you would be a homeowner by at least the time you were in your 30s—more or less. In 2022, I would say this for a large chunk of the country would not be the case. In Connecticut alone-- 64% of low-income Connecticut households spend more than half of their income on RENT alone. How can these families ever save enough to put together a down payment for a home? With nationwide numbers being in that range for the most part—I truly believe the prospect of saving enough money to OWN an affordable home in this country has hit a new low. Whether it was the 2008 crash that showed the utter disregard for working families by so many financial institutions or the ongoing pandemic that demonstrated how flimsy and unstable the “resurging” economy and housing market were, today’s red flags of our nation’s housing infrastructure couldn’t be more blatant.
While working as a housing caseworker during the COVID-19 pandemic—I witnessed the plight of so many renters facing eviction. Had it not been for the government mandated national and statewide eviction moratoria, I cannot fathom the number of families who would have needed to enter a shelter to avoid being out on the street. Hundreds of constituents called my office monthly because they could not find an affordable or stable housing situation.
How can a nation with GDP greater than the GPDs of the entire continents of Africa and South America combined have such limited access to affordable housing for millions of Americans? Is the new economy, wage stagnation, and inflation the culprit? Is it the delay in federal resources to boost the housing supply? Or is this just another collateral effect of market forces in a new technological age with the past scars of a major financial crisis and new global pandemic?
As the great grandson of a mountain farmer in Montenegro with his ancestral land being his only bastion of wealth—my family has done well in the realm of homeownership for immigrants arriving here only 3 decades ago. Yet there are Americans whose ancestors have lived in new England for centuries and at this point are forced to rent. This lack of access to affordable homeownership and its ties to income inequality and the wealth gap have finally received the attention of some lawmakers in Washington with the proposal in the ‘Build Back Better bill’ (BBB) to invest over 150 billion into affordable housing. However, I don’t believe this is a “throw money at it “or “build it and they will come” problem. Frankly, there need to be dramatic changes to how housing is programmed in this country—whether it be national or statewide changes to zoning laws, a past due opening of towns to housing beyond the single-detached house, or a form of universal basic income — something innovative must be done.
My experiences up to this point in the housing development realm have mostly been along the periphery. However, I have seen waiting lists of more than 50 people seeking tiny studios, the phone calls from those facing next day evictions, and people working paycheck to paycheck to simply be able to sit in their living room. Why is this the American reality for so many? If business continues as usual, I could see a nation of renters by 2050 with homeownership being a privilege of the upper class and wealthy. We need new and aggressive policy options that will shake the current way of doing things. From what I’ve seen in the private sector and working in the federal government, the housing crisis is already here. As a new member of the Partnership for Strong Communities team in Hartford, I look forward to working with the stellar researchers at PSC in communicating unique and nuanced policy strategies to tackle this terrifying housing crunch. This country can do better and revamp the road to prosperity for so many. As a nation we must not forget that housing is a human right and not a luxury.
Egzon Balidemaj is Communications and Marketing Manager at Partnership for Strong Communities. He previously served as a Housing Caseworker and Communications Assistant to Representative Joe Courtney.