Vermont, like much of our country, has a serious problem with affordable housing. This has recently been in the news in our state because with the end of COVID-related unemployment and federal supplemental checks, the gap between Vermont’s low wages (ability to pay) and the actual rental costs is among the worst in the nation. Not only are the rents a serious strain on many workers’ finances (often way more than 30% of their income), but there is very little low-rent housing available — because it just doesn’t exist.
The bishops of my church and numerous popes have taken a public position that affordable housing is a human right. The United Nations also holds this position. I assume many other Christian denominations hold this position. We should never forget that housing, affordable and available within a reasonable distance from work, is the cornerstone of any society — even at the most primitive, pre-Industrial Age levels. By the way, “primitive” agrarian and hunter gatherer societies housed everyone (sometimes communally). But this human right is now too often being ignored.
When people are over-stressed simply to obtain basic housing, many other problems start showing up. Being rent- or mortgage-poor causes major stress on a family — in fact, it can even prevent a family from being formed. If people cannot afford two- or three-bedroom housing, people are less willing to start a family. This is a serious issue for more and more young Americans. Then, if they have a family but cannot afford to keep a roof over the family’s heads, marriages often break up, children are often put at risk, substances often start being abused (to deal with the psychological stress and pain), etc., etc.
Why is there so little truly affordable housing in our country? The basic answer is quite simple: because there’s no money in it, or rather, there’s no big bucks profit in it; there’s just a modest return on investment. We Americans live in a culture that still thinks market-based and profit-motive economic activity can solve every problem. But that’s not so. It cannot, on its own, solve our health care problems or our affordable housing problems. Both are getting worse, not better, and both are crucial for a healthy society.
Yes, our governments (local, state and federal) have to step up to the plate. But they on their own can’t do enough — they don’t have the monetary assets or the manpower assets. Ireland has recently asked the Catholic Church to go into partnership with state agencies to help create needed housing (as reported by CNA, Aug. 30). I believe churches all across America should be called upon to make unused or underused buildings and land available for affordable housing. Those churches with larger endowments should be encouraged to put a portion of those endowments into investments in affordable housing. Remember, most nonprofits’ endowments get only a 4-7% annual distribution return from their invested funds. It is not hard to get a significantly better return than that from owning rental housing, especially when the property owner is mortgage-free on the rental building(s) — and that income from affordable housing should be tax-free for the institutions.
Colleges should be encouraged, or required, to do the same with a portion of their endowments. It is often said, with a sense of humor, that Harvard University is a $40 billion hedge fund (Harvard’s actual endowment size), which has a small college run on the side as a hobby. A fair number of our country’s foremost universities have massive endowments.
All nonprofits with large endowments should be putting some of their endowment funds to use in making affordable housing available — and not only for the small number of people who happen to be working for those organizations, but for the public at large. It won’t cost the institutions money. It just means some of their investment assets will be in bricks-and-mortar investments rather than in stocks-and-bonds investments.
Our religious and educational institutions have an obligation to serve our communities in every way that they can. The current modus operandi of handing over a trillion-plus dollars of their collective endowments’ money to Wall Street is too simple an answer, too easy, and too selfish. Of course, Wall Street loves it. But billions of dollars of those assets could be doing double duty: they could help with our affordable housing crisis and they could still deliver a modest return on investment to the endowments’ owners.
And manpower assets? What about our army? Of course, our army cannot be used to “police” citizens of the U.S. within our borders. Fine. However, we have an Army Corps of Engineers and they have thousands of potential enlisted personnel who can help build, repair and upgrade housing. Expand the army’s activities into this area. And our navy has the Seabees. We have massive work to be done repairing, protecting and strengthening housing near our coastlines — and by no means are all of these buildings million-dollar mansions or condos. Private enterprise will do a lot of it, but not the parts of it that will return the least amount of profit — that’s the part with the affordable housing.
Where do we find the motivation to do all this? Where do we find the motivation to put some of our financial and human assets to work to aid the lowest third of our socio-economic population? Without making recourse to the Christian religion, I don’t know how we can motivate enough of our voters to get behind this. However, Christians have a sacred duty to assist each other for the common good and especially to assist those less fortunate. The founder of the Christian religion died on a cross in order to deliver this instruction in the most forceful way possible.
Almost three-quarters of Americans are Christians. That is a huge voting block. They, we, just need to be reminded forcefully about doing the right thing. Sometimes we need not only to be reminded, but we need to be cajoled and pushed a bit as well.
We have a housing problem. Government alone can’t fix the problem. But we as a country have plenty enough financial and human resources to solve it. We just have to remember what the rabbi Jesus taught us, as recorded in Matthew 19:19: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.