Poverty flanks high-tech wealth where the Tenderloin District meets Market in San Francisco. (Courtesy photo)

Poverty flanks high-tech wealth where the Tenderloin District meets Market in San Francisco. (Courtesy photo)

Eye on the State: Our housing crisis is a moral crisis

What makes local community sustainable and meaningful? This is a question that is too often ignored in discussions of the affordable housing crisis in California. It is a larger question of values that underlies debates about housing markets and policies. Before we can decide where and what kind of housing to build, we have to ask ourselves, “What kind of community do we wish to be?”

A community consists of a body of people who are committed to the common good of the place in which they live. Understanding the requirements of cultural and environmental health specific to a particular place requires the practice of attention and care. Such knowledge is only possible among people who have lived there and are determined to continue doing so. It requires familiarity with one’s neighbors and regard for their well-being as intrinsic to one’s own. It requires people who are not simply consumers but also citizens, who are vigilant in the defense of the common wealth. People committed to a place are an indispensable form of social capital.

One of the consequences of the affordable housing crisis is the erosion of this vital social capital. The income inequality driving housing development displaces long-time residents, without regard for their civic contributions. Development priorities cater to high-end housing while ignoring the racial, economic and cultural diversity that enriches our common life, dividing our communities rather than uniting them. Current policies force many people to live far from their workplaces, increasing economic pressures such that few people have neither the time or energy to act as engaged citizens.

Keeping people continually preoccupied about their economic security, anxious and isolated, undermines the relationships to neighbors and neighborhood that make for viable local communities. As a pastor in San Francisco for the past 15 years, I have witnessed the flight of young families, working-class people and people of color from a city they can no longer afford to call home. Congregations, local businesses and arts organizations struggle to keep their doors open. Racial and class tensions are increasing, as are tenant evictions. We are in danger of turning The City of St. Francis into a playground for the wealthy, while civic life atrophies for all of us.

The affordable housing crisis is a moral crisis. Housing cannot be reduced to a commodity or investment, when the shelter and security it provides is a basic necessity of life. Access to affordable housing is a human right. As we consider proposed solutions to this crisis, we must do so guided by the following core principles:

1. Does the proposed solution focus the state’s limited resources on meeting the most-pressing housing needs, i.e. people who don’t have a home or low- and moderate-income families paying an astronomical portion of their income for housing?

2. Does it support creation of jobs paying family-supporting wages?

3. Does it require all communities to take responsibility for making their housing accessible to people at various income levels, especially local workers?

4. Does it protect the state’s natural beauty and support its climate change goals?

5. Does it allow existing residents to remain in their community?

In short, policy proposals addressing the affordable housing crisis must be evaluated in terms of a triple bottom line: social, ecological and economic consequences. I would add a fourth bottom line: cultural consequences. How does a proposed housing policy affect the cultural diversity and richness of the community? Does it preserve the knowledge of what makes for community health acquired over time by people committed to the place? Does it include the expertise of long-time residents in the planning process? Does it enhance the variety of ways in which civic minded residents find meaning in their life together?

Engaging such questions is morally demanding. It disrupts the hyperindividualism and financial greed that privileges private profit over the common good, plundering the common wealth that is our collective inheritance for the enrichment of a few. It requires that all important virtue in public life: courage. As the active conversation inside the hallowed walls of the state capitol aims to “solve” our housing needs, may we have the courage to muster the political will to develop truly just and sustainable solutions to the affordable housing crisis.

The Rev. John Kirkley is rector of St. James Episcopal Church and a clergy leader with Faith in Action Bay Area. Eye on The State is a monthly report from San Franciscans for Community Planning and will follow by-right development bills and other proposed housing bills over the next six months making their way through the 2017 state legislative session.

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