If the purpose of a market is to distribute scarce resources, then clearly something has gone wrong with the housing market. As of 2018, vacant houses outnumbered homeless people in the United States at a ratio of 31 to one. The cause of homelessness is not a lack of supply, and obviously the problem is not rooted in a lack of demand for housing. Something as vital as shelter should not be treated only as a commodity.
Even for the many Americans who do have access to housing, they often find that this is their most burdensome expense. In 2018, the average 30-year-old American had spent 45 percent of their lifetime income on rent. This goes into the pockets of landlords whose contributions to society include … well, I’ll have to get back to you on that. For reference, the Department of Housing and Urban Development considers households that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing to be cost burdened, and those that spend more than 50 percent to be severely cost burdened.
The alternative of home ownership isn’t really available to many working class people, who can’t afford down payments. Meanwhile, those who are able to buy a home still end up paying an average of 15.8 percent of their income on mortgage payments and are left vulnerable to the boom and bust cycle of the housing market. During the 2008 financial crisis, over a million households lost their homes when the housing bubble burst. The current system of housing ultimately exists for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.
There are ways policy can address these problems, most obviously building more public housing. Public housing has a bad reputation in the United States as a result of mismanagement and a severe lack of funding, but this doesn’t mean that public housing should be dismissed. For example, in Vienna, Austria, over 60 percent of the population live in beautiful, modernist-style public housing that seems worlds away from the hostile, neglected projects one associates with American public housing. Another example can be found in the Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore, where 80 percent of the population live in public housing that makes optimal use of the limited land available, while providing access to green open spaces. These cities give us real-life models for public housing to learn from here in the United States.
Public housing, if designed, built and maintained correctly, can both help fight homelessness and make our cities more livable. But in order to achieve this, we need urban planners who prioritize housing justice. To the students here at UNC who intend to go into urban planning: you have so much potential to do good in this world, and I implore you to do what you can to transform housing from a commodity to a human right.