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In Sight But Out of Mind
The way press coverage of the housing crisis is done, including the relative lack of it, is an insidious and terribly destructive example of social engineering.
Over last weekend we had a visitor from the east coast. Like most visitors from other parts of the country or the world, she was mainly struck by the sight of impoverished people living squalid lives on the sidewalks wherever we went in the city. As soon as we left the city to visit a state park a bit more than an hour's drive away, as we drove past the beautiful rolling hills, forests and fields of the Willamette River valley on i-5, our guest seemed both relieved and perplexed.
"There's so much space," she said at one point, looking out the window. "Why are there so many people living on the sidewalks?"
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It's normal to interpret the world through lenses such as one's own economic reality, and the reality we see around us in the physical environment in which we live, perhaps work, drive kids to and from school, and whatever else.
But I always have the distinct impression that my reality is somehow radically different from the reality the corporate press and the politicians live in. I find it very challenging to reconcile the tremendous difference between the understanding of how things work and how things could be improved, from Portland to the US more broadly to the many other countries about which I hear constant commentary -- as is my tendency, as an active consumer of news, or what passes for it.
The way all the stories are separated from each other, each in its own little box, can be just as nefarious as which stories are covered, and which aren't. Keeping each story separate helps prevent either the journalists or those they're talking to from complicating the matter with inconvenient realities. It helps the self-interested corporate owners of our "free press" avoid covering issues they'd rather ignore, without actually censoring anyone, head-on -- it's a sort of sideways censorship, but even more effective than the more overt variety.
Half of the population in the US rents their home. Most of the other half pays a mortgage to a bank, and is at risk of losing their home if they lose their jobs and fall behind on the payments. A minority of those who don't rent their home actually own it outright. To say this is a nation of homeowners would be inaccurate. This is a nation of renters and debtors, overwhelmingly. And it's a nation of renters and debtors who are increasingly finding their cost of housing, whether they rent or "own," to have gone in recent years from expensive to completely unaffordable.
I awoke the other morning in the bedroom I share with my wife and our two youngest children. Our teenage daughter has the other bedroom. My wife and I believe in co-sleeping with young kids -- which is completely normal in Japan, where she's from, and also very common in the more hippie corners of America, where I'm from. But if we didn't share such beliefs, who knows where we'd put the kids. Hopefully we'll figure that out by the time either of them starts talking about having their own room.
Reiko was away for the day, so I was tasked with taking the little ones to their respective schools. A lot of people move to Portland to take advantage of the public schools here, but our experience with them has been very mixed. Lots of good people trying to do good work, but stuck with archaic structures and woefully insufficient funding and staffing.
And there is no public preschool anyway -- this is America. So we take our seven-year-old to a private Waldorf school in north Portland, and we take our four-year-old to a preschool near Beaverton, on the other end of town. When we're both home, we do this in two separate private cars that we own. This is America, there's no other practical way to get from our little apartment to either of these locations efficiently.
Driving from one end of the city to the other, southeast to northeast, then northeast to southwest, my children and I see the same sights every day. I have no idea how they make sense of it. It's too much for me to make sense of, and I've been living in this country for 56 years.
Starting about a block from our apartment complex, on average about every fifty feet or so we see the walking dead, the mentally deranged, physically ill men and women covered in dirt, wearing clothes that sometimes stink so strongly of urine that the tent encampments in which people are forced to try to live can be identified first by smell before you spot them visually.
As we view the dystopia in every direction along the drive, we listen to a CD of Japanese children's songs, which my little daughter chirps along to. My son wants to hear Daft Punk (his favorite band), but daddy still can't figure out how to reconnect his phone to the car's bluetooth, sorry, kid. (More Daft Punk next time mama's driving.)
I've got an earbud in one ear, listening to Al-Jazeera as we begin our journey. I'll switch to the car radio, and NPR, after I've dropped off both of the kids, and gone shopping at a supermarket. We've got money on our food stamps card again, so helpful with compensating for the skyrocketing rent, not to mention the skyrocketing price of food.
They're talking about the earthquake in Morocco, which sounded horrendous, people had no time to get out of their homes before they just collapsed like quicksand on top of them, across the Atlas Mountains. Marrakesh fared much better, they're saying, but everybody is sleeping on the sidewalks, afraid to go inside their homes, in case they might be damaged, or in case there are more earthquakes, as they tend to come in a series like that.
As they're describing people sleeping on the sidewalks, setting up makeshift tents for each other, cooking together, crying together, it seems so incongruous to be looking around me, driving down Martin Luther King Boulevard, seeing exactly the same sorts of scenes they seem to be describing on Newshour. There they are, making shelters for each other, looking after each other, feeding each other, while thousands and thousands of cars, buses, and trucks of every description drive past them. Unlike in Marrakesh, though, these cars are not coming from less damaged or wealthier neighborhoods and stopping to give away food, blankets, and medicine to people in need. They're just driving past. Some of them are listening to Japanese children's music as they go.
We haven't had an earthquake here in Portland, Oregon (though we're waiting for a very big one and we're completely unprepared for it). No fires, lately, or floods. These thousands of people in tents, or lying in doorways and abandoned storefronts, are not refugees from anywhere but here. The vast majority of them were living somewhere in this area before they had to move out, unable to pay the rent and/or unable to find the kind of care they may need for their mental illnesses or addictions.
These American reporters on the ground in Marrakesh are from cities like Los Angeles, where tens of thousands of people live in tents and more than a thousand of them die on the streets every year. Aren't they also thinking about the permanent refugee camp they're surrounded by when they commute into Culver City every day? I'm sure they are, but they know they're not being paid by NPR to fly to Morocco and make such observations.
We cut away from this national broadcast to bring you your local news. Ah yes, yet another story on the deterioration of downtown Portland.
Lately the laser focus on all such stories in local media has been connected to the supposed damage done by the statewide referendum we passed in Oregon in 2020 that decriminalized all drugs. Local Portland political leaders are desperately trying everything they can think of to recriminalize drugs, at least when it comes to the homeless population. If they can't be arrested for camping next to the highways, and they can't be arrested for smoking crack in their tents, what can we arrest them for? This would seem to represent the furthest reaches of political vision available from our alleged leaders these days, especially since the most progressive women on the city council were purged through the usual means of political corruption that we call "speech" in this country.
One story after another is on the latest effort to recriminalize hard drugs for the most marginalized of the marginalized, those with nowhere to call a home, somehow never manages to discuss the notion of solving these problems by housing everyone. Discussions about housing people are generally relegated to human-interest stories focusing on some nonprofit that managed to buy a building in order to give temporary housing to abused trans youth of color, who are somewhere on the autism spectrum. Occasionally we'll also be featured to a story about the drastically rising cost of housing generally, but this story and the story about homeless people overdosing on the streets shall be kept separate from each other, lest anyone reach any abundantly obvious conclusions -- like that the idea of even talking about the problem of people shooting up on the sidewalks without putting that into the context of the housing crisis is totally bizarre, and unreal.
These stenographers for the owning class, whether hesitantly or not, just keep repeating the local headline of the year, in one form or another, incessantly: they promised if we decriminalized drugs, this would make things better, but it's only getting worse. The faulty logic employed in these stories is the kind of faulty logic a sharp elementary school student could easily expose as such. To think that drugs and drug reform exist in a bubble that is somehow unaffected by the fact that housing just got 20% more unaffordable over the course of the past year, when the housing crisis is itself at the very root of the ongoing crisis of unhoused and increasingly unhinged people dying on our sidewalks every day, getting through life, such as it is, with whatever drugs make that possible.
The next piece of news we're featured to is about the potentially imminent strike of auto workers across North America. There's the usual effort at presenting "both sides." The company has to retool in order to be competitive in the electric car market. The workers need a massive pay increase just to keep up with the increase in the cost of living since the last time they got a cost-of-living increase, prior to 2008. There has been, an expert tells us, an "uncoupling" of any connection between corporate profits and how much workers get paid.
One might think it might be worth noting that the main reason the cost of living has risen so much is because of the unregulated housing market, dominated as it is by investment banks and oligarchs. But apparently not. Anyway, wealthy Americans can't be oligarchs, and regulation is for communists. One might think that the fact that the average auto worker used to easily be able to afford to buy a house, whereas today that is far from the case, might be a central theme in a story about this upcoming strike. But no, that's a separate, unrelated story, and when it runs, it will focus on the difficulty certain racially or sexually marginalized elements of the working class have in finding affordable housing, not that the vast majority of the entire working class can't find it. And the term "working class" will not be used, they'll find a way around that one, too. We're all middle class now, until we move onto the sidewalk.
But wait, there's hope. Sometime on the trip between dropping off the second kid and heading home to take advantage of having the corner of the living room that I call my studio/office to myself to do some recording, there's a happy-ending kind of story about Cambridge, Massachusetts' experiment with a very limited form of Universal Basic Income. It actually has very little to do with Universal Basic Income, but that's what they're doing a story about, so they found an example that's vaguely in the ballpark.
Cambridge has been giving away federal pandemic money to 2,000 of its poorest residents in the form of monthly checks of $500 each. The host interviewed a woman who lives in an apartment with her two kids, and works at a nonprofit, making $65,000 a year, as the woman explains. The interviewee is suitably happy about being a recipient of the monthly $500 checks, which, she notes, will run out after 18 months.
She answers the requisite questions about what she does with the extra money, and she explains that given that her rent is $5,000 a month for a three-bedroom apartment in this most expensive of American cities, she has very little left over for other expenses like food or clothing for her and her kids. As I do the math, they're left with less than $500 a month for anything other than rent, not counting that extra $500 a month from the municipality. And making as much as she makes, she said she doesn't qualify for food stamps, because the food stamp agency doesn't take into account how much you're paying for rent, and what's left over afterwards.
What I heard was a woman drowning in financial misery, but what the host heard was someone who's financial reality had been at least temporarily stabilized by Universal Basic Income.
Nowhere in this discussion of UBI did I hear mention of the idea of tying any such program with the cost of housing, specifically. "Cost of living" is so vague, and skirts the issue they're trying not to talk about head-on -- that the most basic thing for all of us is increasingly impossible for most of us to afford. The one most valuable thing that a significant percentage of the population might at least aspire to someday own -- a home -- is not even worth thinking about as a realistic prospect to even consider seriously for at least half of the country at this point.
After picking up both of the kids at their respective schools, we hear news of the Biblically catastrophic, mass-casualty floods in Libya which they're blaming on climate change. There is mention of the fact that Libya has been a failed state for the past twelve years, but no mention of this being the direct result of NATO's invasion in 2011, when the government that built those dams in the 1970's was violently overthrown.
Driving past the tent encampments, past the makeshift plywood houses by the side of the highway that look like color versions of Depression-era photos, past a guy who kept on acting like he was about to leap into traffic, I suppose to get some attention and feel slightly less invisible for a few seconds, past a ghost bike and a DIY memorial for a young man living in a tent in my neighborhood who was inexplicably shot to death in the middle of the night by someone who never got caught, I arrive with the kids at one of their favorite city parks.
The playground at this park was cool before, but now it has a rubbery surface that the kids love to bounce around on. I often sit and play the mandola somewhere on the edge of the playground while the kids run around and do their thing. I apparently look suspicious, and the only people who usually dare approach me are little kids. Yesterday, though, one of the other dads had been drinking beer, and was ready to initiate conversation with a couple other parents, including me.
He had bought a house in Portland over ten years ago, and put a lot of work into it. He was happy in this city, but then it all started going to hell. He was aware that part of the problem was the rising cost of housing, and that although his own home had appreciated in value dramatically, this had happened everywhere else he might want to relocate to, so he felt stuck in Portland, though he was sick of all the crime. He had had a lot of stuff stolen, he explained. (I have, too, but I didn't bother mentioning this. He had a story to tell, and I was listening.)
The other day, he told me, someone was rummaging through his garbage. He didn't like that, and he told the guy to get lost. The guy didn't appear to be listening, so he went into his house and came back out with a gun. At that point the guy going through his garbage left.
"If he had come at me, I would have shot him," the other dad said proudly.
Walking around many neighborhoods in Portland these days, I get the impression a lot of people feel the way this other dad does. I've noticed the rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter lawn signs have largely been replaced by the Stars and Stripes. From a media-driven protest movement to a media-driven patriotic backlash. All the while with the backdrop of an ever-worsening housing crisis that goes mostly unmentioned except with the occasional announcement that the emergency continues to exist, with no serious solutions even being discussed in the state legislatures or in the Congress, and no end in sight but the cliff's edge.
With no coherent explanation for what we're all seeing around us being provided where most of us are looking for information or "news," while millions of poor and indigent Americans will blame themselves for their failings in life, millions of those still hanging on to their nominally "middle class" realities are also apt to blame the homeless for ruining the neighborhood, and feel compelled to "stand their ground" against these dirty people invading their property.
One of the other knock-on effects of the chronic lack of press coverage of the depth of the housing crisis is that so many people will blame themselves for their problems with meeting their basic needs, rather than massive landlords fixing prices. They'll blame their own lack of a sufficient work ethic, rather than the fact that the scarce resource of land and housing is treated in this country as nothing more than an investment market, where the cost of housing has nothing to do with earnings of those needing housing, but about what's most profitable for those investing in this market -- a market which does not tend to include much in the way of affordable housing, at least for people making less than six figures, since it's not so profitable to build.
Another of the impacts of all this in the realm of "social media" -- perhaps also affected by secret algorithms, or even plain old censorship, who the hell knows -- is that essays like this one will be read, shared, and discussed by very, very few people, while the next one I write about whatever song is at the top of the charts, or about electoral politics, might stand to be widely disseminated. Though maybe not as much as the next selfie I post from an airport -- the algorithms like those the best. Anything but the elephant in the living room. Unfortunately, ignoring the problem won't make it go away.
This Week with David Rovics is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.