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The Easy Way Out

Dr. Mark Mussman

The solution to ending homelessness and the housing crisis isn't going to be easy. Proposed quick-fixes by our local governments are likely to increase income inequality and reduce the availability of affordable housing in our city. Simply changing the zoning laws does nothing but incentivize market-rate and luxury housing. Relying on one-time loans from the federal government (like the Section 108 Loan Pool) borrows against our future, and if not directed correctly, could result in massive displacement. Taking the easy way out is often seen as politically expedient, but it often results in worse conditions for people who are experiencing homelessness and those on the edge of homelessness.

Paying less than 30% of your income towards your housing, including utilities, means that you have affordable housing. Unfortunately, Cincinnati City Council Members continue to call for housing "at all income levels" which completely ignores the housing crisis we are experiencing. Calls for "housing for all" is the "All Lives Matter" of the housing crisis. All Lives Matter became a refrain in contrast to Black Lives Matter, which calls for the unequivocally support of Black people in all aspects of life, including legal, political, educational, healthcare and beyond. Black Lives Matter was created at a flashpoint, when lives of Black Americans were (and still are) undervalued, and police brutality continued without reproach. Calls for Black lives to matter are needed simply because of the insurmountable injustice that Black people face in America. When "All Lives Matter" came on the scene, it was to signify that the focus should not be on those who are suffering, but rather that we should "come together" to value all people. Coming together to value all people might be great in church, but when police enjoy qualified immunity and every known metric of happiness and success in America is depressed for Black citizens, the need is greatest to support Black Americans, not to lift everyone else up.

This reminds me of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, passed in 1870, which only applied to non-white citizens. It only applied to non-white citizens because it said that non-white citizens should enjoy the same rights as white citizens. At the time, immediately after American chattel slavery, questions of rights were on the forefront for recently emancipated citizens. This law made it so that everyone born on American soil (with the likely exception of Native Americans) would now be considered American citizens. It also explicitly said that non-white citizens would be able to sue, be represented in court, and they would now be able inherit, purchase, lease, and hold land. However, with this legislation came a 100-year backlash - Jim Crow. Jim Crow was a period in American history (many argue continues today) where segregation was the law of the land. Segregation was upheld by courts through the 1960's, and although we still see high rates of racial segregation today, the courts are not likely to penalize someone for selling their home to someone of another race, but home appraisals are brutally lower when images of Black familes are on the walls.

The true brutality of American life isn't the laws themselves, but rather the inequitable application of the laws. Redlining, for example, which was born out of the Great Depression and the New Deal, was exclusive of non-white Americans - over 98% of over 120 billion went exclusively to white families to enjoy generational wealth. While the program itself was brutal in many ways, the requirement that families receiving these loans include deed restrictions barring Black people from ever living on the property is truly barbaric, and would likely still be in place today had not the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forced the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Homelessness is brutal. The effects last lifetimes. But to add insult to injury, homelessness is criminalized. People who are experiencing homelessness are revictimized through police harassment, refusals of service by emergency services, and a revolving door at medical facilities. The brutality in homelessness is both the lived experience of scarcity, and the two-fold excommunication from society. Whether someone is experiencing homelessness or not, laws should be upheld to protect the rights all citizens deserve, including a right to free speech, a right to travel, protections against unlawful searches and seizures, and protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Seeing how local officials have said that the proper place for people experiencing homelessness is in jail, it becomes hard to trust the system's "fair application" of the law.

Cincinnati is in too deep. We can't just take crumbs and think that it will be enough to make up for over 100 years of deep-seated anti-Black racism. White supremacy ideology must be addressed. This is a time for a call to all sectors of the city to come together to address white supremacy. But saying we "need housing at all levels" is in fact the exact opposite of working towards solving the problem. Trickle-down housing is a myth. What's not a myth is the dire need for affordable housing in Cincinnati. The 2017 LISC study showed that any household making up to $58,000 per year is either paying more than 30% of their income towards housing, or competing with thousands of other households for an affordable unit. In Hamilton County, most Black families pay more than 30% of their income towards housing, with a full 25% paying more than 50% of their incomes towards housing. This is simply unsustainable and should be addressed.

With international and other investors eyeing Cincinnati for the "eviction-friendliness" and long-term affordable housing providers seeing their costs rise, without subsidy affordable housing will continue to decrease rapidly. Currently, most city housing subsidies go to luxury housing. If we continue this model, which values certain types of people over others, we will not have learned anything from the past 8 years of the former city administration - that favoring out-of-city suburban white residents will only result in worse outcomes and massive displacement for Black residents - then we surely only have ourselves to blame for voting in the current administration. The current city council and mayor have made grand gestures towards the Black community in just the last couple months, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of creating and sustaining affordable housing, they are choosing market-driven, business models that are palatable to the heavy-hitters at the Cincinnati Business Committee, rather than their own constituents. When the city focuses on drawing in new residents to lift the earnings tax, rather than focusing on our actual neighbors today, we are losing the stability and social fabric that the city once had.

It is a mistake to think that several small actions will reverse the rapid loss of affordable housing in Cincinnati. While it might help in next year's election cycle, it will not aid the people who are suffering the most, especially people who are experiencing homelessness today. There's an old saying about shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, which essentially means that we can move around all the parts, but if we don't change the system that created a market-driven housing crisis, we will continue to sink. And in Cincinnati, that means losing more than 1000 Black residents each year. This means more than 150 people dying from homelessness each year.

It would be beneficial for people who are interested in housing to look at the documents that the Trump White House put out on homelessness in 2019 and question if their own worldview aligns with the assertions made within. Do you believe that people choose homelessness? Do you think that only people who work deserve safe housing? Do you think that homelessness increases because police aren't brutal enough? These are serious questions that anyone in power should consider before believing that the system, as is, will not continue to brutalize those at the bottom while rewarding those who already have enough.

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