The Housing Game: Investment vs. Human Rights 

All of my bedrooms and homes growing up had term limits: four years. Every four years, my family moved. The consistent cut-off period was, at least to my knowledge, purely coincidental, but as it became a pattern, I became accustomed to it as an adult. There's something about hitting the three-nearing-four-year mark in a single residence that, to this day, makes me itch for a change of scenery.

As a child, I enjoyed moving. It was exciting to start over in a new space. As with a KonMari Method, I would evaluate what objects I wanted to bring with me to my next home. I liked to plan out what my new room would look like. I still enjoy moving as an adult, but it's not without its drawbacks. I still evaluate and reflect on my possessions, but more so for the purpose of fitting everything in my car and avoiding U-Haul expenses. As a 7-year-old, I definitely did not consider the stress, time, and costs tied to moving from one place to the next. I was much less aware of the reasons for our moving, reasons that are more real to me now.

click to enlarge The Nine Apartments, Memphis, Tennessee - CALVIN L. LEAKE | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • Calvin L. Leake | Dreamstime.com
  • The Nine Apartments, Memphis, Tennessee

These realities didn't escape my parents. They were aware of the rising costs of living because they could see it right in front of them. Rent increases. Someone gets sick, and health-care costs increase. As is the reality of most working families, housing takes up a significant amount of a household's income. To remain housed, to have a roof over your head, rent or mortgage payments must be made above all else. We are all one accident, one crisis away from missing a payment that will price us out of our homes.

I recently went to the inaugural Memphis Housing Summit, and I was captivated by how one presenter challenged us to rethink housing insecurity as a spectrum. Prentiss Dantzler, a professor of urban studies, showed a line with homelessness on one end and homeownership on the other. In between there was a range of housing situations, including emergency shelters, transitional housing, public housing, and rental housing.

I'm simplifying it a bit, but just visualize a large spectrum where each of us fall somewhere along the line. We're all in this housing spectrum, and we are all affected by housing insecurity to some degree. Much of this is due to the cost of living, which keeps rising and rising. So even if you happen to live years without any additional expenses such as medical bills, education expenses, or even having kids (because children are very expensive) — if you do not have any of that, if your income is not increasing to match the rising cost of living, you will not be able to afford to live in your home. And unless you have a family or network to fall back on, you will be moving or be without housing.

How is it that so many people in our city and country currently do not have housing and so many are on the verge of being without it? There are many reasons. One I find to be significant is that we don't have living-wage jobs to keep up with the cost of living. This affects all working people from those working in the food service industry to educators to health-care workers and many more.

Zooming out a bit, the commodification of housing and land has also largely overshadowed the fundamental function of housing. The result is that we often see investment in housing only when it is deemed profitable. If we approached housing as a human rights issue, as it is recognized under international human rights law, then we would see a change in how we respond to housing. We may prioritize creating more affordable and accessible housing for everyone, rather than investing in multiple projects that rent apartments for $1,000 a month.

Shifting to a human rights frame, we also flip the narrative around housing. As Leilani Farha, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing, has said, "If governments were doing more and really understood that this is a human rights issue of the highest order and an urgent matter, I think we'd be in a different place today."

Farha points to the role of the government in not sufficiently implementing policies (for example, living-wage policy and tenant protection laws) that address housing insecurity and homelessness. When we look at it from that angle, we begin to see the structural exclusion of people from accessing safe and healthy housing.

Aylen Mercado is a brown, queer, Latinx chingona and Memphian exploring race and ethnicity in the changing U.S. South.

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