An Open Letter to Governor Quinn
There comes a point when faced with human misery in all its forms – lack of food, lack of shelter, poor health, ignorance, isolation, violence, hate – that one is tempted to bundle it all into one Abstraction of Hopelessness and walk away from it. We are tempted to declare it is not our problem or that the substantial responsibility for addressing it lies with the sufferer.
And so it goes that the grandfather making due within a fixed budget, the young woman starting out her professional life with a mountain of student debt, the divorced mother juggling child pick-up schedules with two part-time jobs and English language classes, or the man with a mental illness depending on frail parents, internalize that expectation by doing the best they can and seeking no favors. They navigate traffic or long train rides; live next door to neighbors they never have time to visit; skimp on meals; and collapse at night in near catatonic exhaustion while depending on self-motivated children to do their homework.
We live these lives or know others who do. And what of it? Aren’t these people simply exercising their freedom? Do we too suffer when they suffer?
Even if we reject an ethic of mutual responsibility on an ideological basis, we have an innate will to compassion. Michael Ignatieff says in The Needs of Strangers that there is a “human capacity to feel needs for others.” Few people today exercise that capacity for the stranger. Nonetheless, we feel it.
Whether we sympathize with the Tea Party or with Occupy Wall Street, we are converging on the need for solidarity with others. This manifests itself in the torrent of personal stories people post on sites like We Are the 99 Percent. We want to be seen and heard.
It is within this context that I reflect on housing. The state of Illinois has required all its towns to provide affordable housing for the last eight years. But with few exceptions, municipalities have done nothing. Moreover since this law was written, hundreds of thousands of homeowners lost their homes to foreclosure, victims of predatory lenders, “exotic” loan products, and unemployment. An estimated 40% of renters have had the rug pulled out from under them as well, living in foreclosed buildings. Although the mortgage crisis is global in scope, it is fueled by our society’s treatment of housing as a commodity. In this atomized reality, a home is not where we raise families, or building blocks of a community, but an asset that can be turned into cash.
Far from allowing us to “feel needs for others,” under our system of housing as an investment the sight of a low-income worker in uniform or a lonely retiree provokes a feeling of “there goes my property values.”
In 2004, thanks to the hard work of advocates, Illinois enacted an Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act, which is supposed to “encourage” municipalities to “meet the needs of their community” and “assure the health, safety, and welfare of all citizens of the State” by having at least 10% of their housing stock be “affordable.” To be “affordable,” the housing must be means within the means of households between 60% and 80% of the median income of the metropolitan area, which in the Chicago area is between $40,000 and $60,000 a year.
But it is a compromised law that favors municipal housing “plans” over their implementation. It passively relies on the initiative of housing developers to propose a condo or rental development with at least 20% of its units as affordable – something not likely to happen in lucrative towns. In mature suburbs, where extensive new multi-family construction at any price is unlikely, this Act has little reach. It leaves the door open for Home Rule communities to opt out. And while its enforcement mechanism is a Housing Appeals Board that could potentially overturn a local zoning decision in favor of developers who can prove that the denial of their project was due to the affordable component, the seven-member Board must include three members from “non-exempt” communities – that is, those with little affordable housing.
But the spirit of the law remains: building inclusive communities.
Governor Quinn, thank you for appointing me to the Appeals Board. It is an honor to be the member designated as “affordable housing advocate.” Naturally, one would hope that all seven members of this Board would be affordable housing advocates.
I look forward to working with this Board and with the State to move beyond a role of “reaction.” If we “feel the need of others,” let’s make this law turn plans into units. Let’s solicit the creative voices of our municipalities like the Winnetka Plan Commission, which came up with a variety of tools to foster affordable housing within its borders, not all of which involved new construction, and give them the support they need to diversify their housing stock.
Just as our nation struck down racial segregation in schools and housing, so we need to strike down economic exclusivity in our towns.
In a society, we do have claims on one another for the basic necessities of survival. Otherwise, we find ourselves navigating a storm, alone. Reflecting on King Lear’s debasement, Michael Ignatieff, in The Needs of Strangers, quotes Shakespeare: “’Basest beggars’ can always be found to be ‘in the poorest thing superfluous.’”
Governor Quinn, we count on your example. As Lear cried out, in warning to all future leaders:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.