Sadly this article is as relevant today as it was when I wrote it in 2002.
We don’t need your stinking closets or,
high density housing is an insult to our dignity.
by Philip Scott Wikel
[A response to David Rolland’s “Diversified Housing” editorial in the “Ventura County Reporter,” Thursday, May 2, 2002].
There is a much larger issue at stake and we need to look at it with both the eyes of the visionary and those of the accountant. “Diversified housing” means, in large part, making sure to provide housing for folks on the lower end of the economic spectrum. The lower end, or better, the bottom end is where the problem begins to take shape. It is not my argument that these folks need housing but that the housing they are forced to accept is below any American who might still be capable of dreaming.*
The lower end has bottomed out after several generations of welfare. And welfare is at the heart of the deterioration of the American view of acceptable housing. The standard by which that which is acceptable has dropped to an intolerable low. Welfare has woven itself into the American quilt in many ways. Two of the larger groups within the world of welfare recipients include those who choose not to support themselves and those who would like to but feel its futility when they see that welfare can pay more than the average job for which they are skilled.
The term welfare is loosely defined here and has many forms. It is used as a blanket term for any form of governmental hand-out ie. HUD housing, food stamps. Before welfare, being poor was considered the greatest social ill in our country. And now, while fewer people might be suffering from the physical aspects of poverty, there is something that I believe should be of greater concern to us all, the effect of deprivation on the human psyche. The current generation is the first to look toward the bottom for its models. So-called “white trash” has been glorified as a form of entertainment. Young people have taken a “if you can’t beat them join them attitude” because they feel that the mountain they’ve come to climb is something that would have made even Sir Thomas Mallory hesitate.
What does the denial of a sense of accomplishment do to the minds of people who are poor or on welfare. I believe it has created a collective inferiority complex and thereby an unhealthy neurosis that invariably either lashes out or self-destructs. Gang violence and rioting (such as in LA ten years ago) are two very apparent examples of this lashing out and, before we jump to conclusions about race and get derailed from the topic at hand, we should remember that most every ethnic group in this country has at some time in our history been a party to gang violence. And suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse are just symptoms of the larger problem. (Have you ever been short of cash? Doesn’t feel good. How about being short of cash for days, weeks, even years.)
And while this alone is quite disheartening, this collective complex has a deeper stigma attached to it that reaches all the way down to our roots. Our values have been compromised. While bending to include heretofore unacceptable levels of decadence for those who will sink lower and lower, and while honorable and bleeding, though sadly misdirected hearts, will chase after them, dragging the entire scale further down as they go, and social workers will run around sticking their fingers in holes in the dike, this problem can only be repaired with a concerted effort on the part of the whole and with a redefinition of what, as a culture, we find acceptable. We’ve come now to a point where the issues have been blurred and greyed to be almost indiscernible, so I’ll attempt to clarify.
We live in a market-driven economy, a capitalist society fueled by shiny trinkets, packaged and sold to us by Madison Ave (Watch television for 30 minutes and ask yourself if you didn’t see something you thought you might want or need in one of those commercials). Some of this stuff adds enjoyment and diversion to our lives. But now imagine you are someone without the means to purchase these things because your primary concern is maintaining a roof over your children’s heads and keeping food on the table. You work at least 40 hours per week, if not 50 or 60, but because your income seems to fall just a bit short of covering your expenses with each paycheck (rent alone is eating up an average of 50 percent of the average income)**, you never feel like you’re doing enough or providing enough or sometimes, even living at all.*** If you put this next to all of the unseen or intangible commodities we’re losing ie. kindness, sharing, trust, friendship and even love, commodities of the heart, you might say we may as well already be dead.
As you read on, bear the next couple of thoughts in mind:
Nearly 200 years ago Henry David Thoreau warned us to be wary of “spending too much life.” He further stated that he would rather sit on a pumpkin than on a chair for which he was making payments.
Some say: “if money’s a problem, then get a second job.” Sounds simple, a quick fix. However, with mom already working and the kids in daycare, when is it that the family is going to get to practice these “family values” so many continue to talk about but haven’t the time to practice. The question of how to keep a roof over our heads and this feeling that we need to keep up with Madison Avenue pre-occupies us so that the family has disintegrated into a loose grouping of strangers on divergent paths, struggling for their own individual survival; children with almost no interaction with their parents or any sort of reference point from which to view their world, and parents, so frazzled by trying to make ends meet, that they’re not at leisure to enjoy the families they’ve created or to offer their children something of themselves. It’s not just dad on the treadmill anymore, the whole family is right behind him, if not in front.
It’s no one’s fault and, at the same time, we’re not victims. It’s just that, as a people, as a tribe, and as a society we must relearn that we’re all a part of a greater whole, a very powerful collective spirit, a spirit that burns brightest and most beautiful with proper feeding and, of equal importance, diligent temperance; not tolerance, temperance. Temperance does things with intelligence, tolerance allows things to happen and turns a blind and pompous eye to it.
The mission is to serve the greater good, and this is where many of you will begin to squirm and question: “Well who decides what the greater good is?”
Here’s a starting point for the debate with one caveat. Do not go spinning into nothingness and forget the original mission.
I believe that no one’s rent or mortgage should equal more than one-fourth of their net income and one person should have at least 750 square feet of living space (Each additional person should be allotted an additional 250 square feet of space so that a family of four might have at least 1500 square feet of living space). With that calculated how might we adjust the average wage to close the gap. Business owners will balk at this but I contend that, if you can’t afford to pay someone a decent wage then you have no business doing business or you need to do something about the monopolistic, China-driven companies who are taking away your ability to function. This isn’t a quick fix. Native Americans believed in planning for the seventh generation from now. Meaningful goals are worth the wait and this will take some time. But time is a commodity that the powers that be have a great deal of, and often squander. So let’s stop arguing over subtle nuances, (patting ourselves on the back all the while for our skill at debating meaningless subjectivity), misleading statistics, or poorly written ordinances and codes. Think “Greater Good,” and you’ll be able to feel your way through.
* “High California rent pushes working poor into cheap motels” CNN.com, 2001
** “California Housing Project,” Dept. of Housing and Community Development, 2001
*** “Housing takes bigger bite out of American Paychecks” – Kenneth Leventhal of Ernst & Young, 1999