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Affordable housing conversations require a shared set of facts

By James M. Thomas

Last month, as part of its programming for Women’s History Month, the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies sponsored a panel discussion at the Burns-Belfry Museum and Multicultural Center entitled “Affordable Housing as a Feminist Issue.” The panelists included Professor Rebecca Marchiel (History), Professor Desiree Hensley (Law), Shirley Williams-Jenkins from Doors of Hope, and myself. Both the large turnout and ensuing discussion were encouraging. This event and others like it make clear our community’s commitment to resolving our affordable housing crisis.

Three weeks after our panel discussion, The EAGLE printed a guest column by Lee Habeeb (“A Housing Crisis Discussion Without Much Sense”). Like many of his other columns, Habeeb employed a straw man: misrepresenting the panel discussion and its panelists in order to make his own position appear reasonable. According to Habeeb the panel discussion lacked ‘sense;’ and he saw it as his duty to provide the ‘facts’ despite not having come to the panel discussion himself.

I see this problem often among students in my classrooms. Like Habeeb, these students rarely show up to class or do the readings. When it’s time to show what they have learned, these students are unable to draw upon the common set of facts the rest of the class shares. In the most disingenuous cases, they attempt to make up their own facts. In a classroom setting, this is easily corrected. But in a community conversation that requires everyone to have a shared sense of the actual conditions we face, it is debilitating.

Oxford is home to a wide range of political opinions and differences. Habeeb is a self-professed conservative. I am a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Neither of these things is unwelcome in a policy debate on affordable housing. But genuine debate cannot start without an agreed upon set of facts about the issue at hand. So what are the facts?

First, housing insecurity, as Habeeb claims, is not a new meme. Housing insecurity refers to the limited or uncertain availability, access to, or inability to acquire safe, stable, adequate  and affordable housing. Housing insecurity is neither new, nor is it unique to Oxford. Since 1970, the American housing market has been characterized by drastic increases in rents, decreases in new households receiving federal assistance, and more low-income workers having to dedicate a large percentage of their income to housing costs. Meanwhile, income inequality has increased, and incomes among the working class have stagnated or shrunk.

According to Habeeb, his mother and father scraped by on teachers’ salaries and extra, part-time work. In 1970, the average annual salary of a public school teacher was approximately $8,600. But when adjusted for inflation, that’s the equivalent of more than $56,000 in 2018. Yet the typical elementary and middle school teacher in 2017 made just over $53,000 per year; roughly $3,000 less than they did in 1970, when adjusted for inflation. While there are more than three and a half times the number of women than men teaching at the elementary and middle school levels, women’s annual salaries (approximately $51,000) are just 86 percent of men’s (approximately $59,000).

Habeeb and his parents benefitted from a period in American history in which healthcare, education, housing, and other basic needs were significantly less expensive than they are today. Out-of-pocket health care expenditures in 1970 were $590 per capita in 2016 dollars; in 2016 they were nearly $1,100 per capita. One year of college tuition at a public four-year institution in 1987-1988 was just $3,190 in current dollars. Today, it’s almost $10,000 per year. Adjusted for inflation, the typical home value in 1970 was $111,000. Today, it’s $210,000.

These trends make Habeeb’s suggestion that working families seek housing outside of Oxford both absurd and unnecessarily cruel. There is not a single county in the United States in which a minimum-wage worker can afford a modest two-bedroom home. There are only 12 counties in the entire country in which a minimum-wage worker can afford even a one-bedroom unit. More than one-third of all American households spend more than 30 percent of their incomes toward housing, including nearly half of all renters.

Finally, the research is clear that housing insecurity manifests as a ‘bundle’ that extends into other socio-economic contexts. Children who experience housing insecurity have more symptoms of psychological distress than their counterparts.

Children who constantly change schools due to housing insecurity struggle academically, and these struggles compound into adulthood. Meanwhile, poor children in affordable housing do better on tests than poor children in unaffordable housing.

Habeeb incorrectly claims that the single biggest cause of housing insecurity and poverty are single-parent households headed by women; and that marriage is the cure.

Yet the share of poor people in single-mother families has sharply declined since 1990. Today only about one-third of all poor people live in single-mother families. What Habeeb calls the “single biggest cause of poverty” doesn’t even explain the circumstances of the majority of poor people.

Oxford’s lack of affordable housing is a matter for serious and ongoing discussion throughout our community. It requires deep engagement and honest reflection among us all. While everyone ought to take part, there can be no room for an alternative set of ‘facts.’ Those who come to the table unwilling to agree upon the readily available social-scientific evidence do a serious disservice to Oxford’s working families who have real struggles that require solutions.

James M. Thomas (JT) is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi. His research and teaching interests include race, racism, and inequality; housing insecurity; and political theory with a focus on Empire.