it’s not about “affordable housing”

I have a small but important piece of advice for journalists: stop using the phrase “affordable housing”. This occurs to me often in general, but occurred to me in particular while reading Amanda Haggard’s otherwise fine summary of the Ft. Negley tent city situation. The problem is the use of the phrase “affordable housing” – repeatedly, from the title to the body of the piece.

Why is it a problem? Because “affordable housing” doesn’t really mean anything, and for a journalist to use it means accepting the narrative being set by wily politicians using it as a weasel phrase. When politicians/administrators furrow their brow and and say we need a solution to “affordable housing”, it means about as much as a fart in the wind. So, unfortunately, Haggard’s piece, written through the lens of “affordable housing” misses the opportunity to identify the actual problem(s) and uncover potential solutions, and instead shines the spotlight on the oh-so-very-concerned politicians who aren’t actually doing anything.

There are many types of housing. What kind are we talking about? Affordable for whom?

  • Emergency shelter? (it’s 5F outside and I have nowhere to go)
  • Transitional housing? (I’m homeless and waiting for the maze of myriad bureaucracies to work me through the system to get Section 8 and I have nowhere to stay)
  • Treatment facilities? (I’m a homeless drug/alcohol addict and I need help)
  • Bathrooms/showers? (I need to shower and take a dump)
  • etc …

The list goes on. The people camping at Ft Negley are a group of people who have chosen to camp together (often because the few emergency/transitional housing we do have is abysmal if not outright abusive, but that’s another story), likely for equally diverse reasons, some or all of which would be solved by the above. But they are all different situations, and “affordable housing” means nothing to any of them. It means nothing, and is often interpreted as meaning everything from emergency shelter to a shortage of cheap housing for the politically active voting middle class. So, when it comes time for our political elite to claim they’ve addressed the “affordable housing” problem, which do you think they are going to focus on? Spoiler: not homeless people. There are no people camping at Ft Negley who are homeless because there aren’t enough apartments in the Gulch. Solving that problem won’t eliminate homelessness. You’ll never eliminate homelessness, and to think you can requires the sort of psychotic delusion that only a politician can muster. What we can do is identify the causes of homelessness and build infrastructure to ameliorate the symptoms and provide a path out.

So please: stop accepting that bogus narrative and start digging into the specifics. Connelly and Howsnashville have done a great job in helping people navigate the process of getting Section 8, but that is only one small piece of the puzzle. Show us the rest.