House is costly,
So is rent;
Next step down
Is to a tent.

Our country has plenty of housing. It’s just in the wrong place. There are lots of houses in Detroit, East St. Louis and rural spots where jobs have left. Cheap. But who wants to settle there?

Conversely, housing costs a fortune and is in short supply where the economy is strong. With today’s steady downward pressure on wages, many folks can no longer afford to buy anywhere. Many can’t even afford to rent. Worse, any personal trauma can often trigger homelessness.

Our government, unfortunately, has other priorities. In Washington a “housing crisis” doesn’t mean a shortage of affordable places to live. Heaven forbid. Instead it means a shortage of mortgage business for Wall Street and a shortage of sales for homebuilders. Or it may just mean a weaker economy, which would embarrass whatever administration is in office.

Congress has responded to corporate and personal housing woes with a foolish homebuyer’s tax credit. As many predicted, this became a bonanza for folks who were planning to buy a home anyway, and for banks who needed a spurt in profitable lending. It also enticed some people into home ownership who won’t be able to sustain it. Plus it was expensive to taxpayers.

And it avoided the main problem. Fueled by steady productivity advances and job exports, our nation simply doesn’t offer as much decent employment as it used to. Income is sparser overall. Many Americans are struggling to hang onto their houses and apartments. A lost job, divorce, or illness can push them over the edge into the street. It happens every day.

The last time our nation was this short of affordable housing we went out and built some. A lot. Right after World War II. Europe did it too. Over time, people started earning more money and conservatives gained political control. Government housing was sold off or torn down. Today we only build tiny amounts of it, and the budget for replacement units and for Section 8 housing certificates commonly gets siphoned off instead to Kabul.

That’s OK for many folks, who don’t want any new buildings for the poor in their neighborhood and aren’t keen on having such residents scattered around invisibly through Section 8.

Thus even as our familiar social structure decays and as hardship mounts from the disjointed economy, Congress gets political support from average folks back home not to do anything about housing. The citizens who bother to vote (especially seniors) already have a place to live, thank you.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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