Housing a community

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For clarity’s sake, we like to boil challenging issues down to their essence. In response to the lack of affordable housing in our community, we may insist, “Housing is a human right.” We are making a moral argument, and implying that those who disagree with us are denying other members of the community their basic rights. Or we may assert, “Affordable housing is essential to local economic development.” In that case, we are making an economic argument, and implying that those who oppose affordable housing are damaging our collective prosperity.

Both statements make valuable points, but neither fully captures the value of affordable housing. I encourage us to resist the urge to boil discussions of affordable housing down to a single factor. Instead, we should grapple with the challenge underlying the issue: how we define our community, and our responsibilities to others within our community. Who belongs here? Who is included, who is tolerated, and who is excluded? Who, if anyone, deserves our assistance?

In nearly four years of working with the Johnson County Affordable Housing Coalition, I have seen individuals, organizations, and governments respond generously and effectively to the shortage of affordable housing. Some have been doing excellent work in the field for decades; others have decided more recently to prioritize the construction and preservation of housing that is affordable to lower-income people.

My sense is that these individuals, organizations and governments choose to define our community broadly, to include: families arriving from other cities and other countries to create a better life for themselves and their children; Iowans working low-wage jobs in the manufacturing, restaurant and service sectors; people with disabilities both in and out of the workforce; elderly residents on limited incomes. They understand that many of us, no matter how hard we try to be economically independent, are vulnerable to economic distress, and may struggle to afford a place to live.

It probably is not a coincidence that I, and several others with whom I work closely in the Affordable Housing Coalition, lost a parent when we were young. As children we learned a difficult lesson: that sudden accidents and chronic illnesses can threaten a family’s foundations. We carry that memory with us. We believe equally in an individual’s responsibility to make the best of their circumstances, and in the community’s responsibility to assist those who are vulnerable. Both are essential.

This is enlightened altruism. Defining community broadly, and believing in the importance of individual as well as community responsibility, is a deeply American approach to social and economic progress. Successful communities within the United States attract people from other countries, and other parts of our own country. They preserve what is valuable from their past, while absorbing new energy and ideas. Affordable housing protects the vulnerable, welcomes the newcomer, and allows working people to focus on working and parenting, not struggling to pay the rent or mortgage. For our communities, creating a balanced mix of housing through private markets and public-sector mechanisms is morally and economically the right thing to do.

• Sally Scott is executive director of the Johnson County Affordable Housing Coalition. More information: www.jcaffordablehomes.org

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