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Substandard Housing: The Choice No American Should Have to Make


I heard a story recently about a man who lived in a crooked apartment. The floor was sloped, so that if you placed a bottle at one end of the room, it would roll downhill until it hit the other wall. The apartment was rent-controlled, and the man who lived in it was terrified that rent control would go away because if it did, he was convinced the landlord would fix the floor so he could raise the rent. The man liked the fact that his apartment was crooked because it was the only reason he could afford to live there.

It’s all about tradeoffs. We can’t all get what we want. So we make sacrifices. For some of us, maybe that means we can’t have the big house with the backyard. For others, it’s a flat floor.

For Lamar, it was clearing maggots out of a kitchen. Lamar and his two sons were looking for an apartment on the North Side of Milwaukee when the sociologist Matthew Desmond caught up with them for his new book Evicted. When Lamar finally found a two-bedroom place he thought he could afford, it had “maggots sprouting from unwashed dishes in the kitchen.” He took it. “I’m blessed,” he said.

It may surprise you that flat floors and maggots in kitchens are tradeoffs facing Americans seeking affordable housing today. Aren’t there building codes, you ask? The answer is yes. A few generations ago, we decided to draw the line at certain basic requirements every home should have. But a complete answer goes beyond that and gets a bit complicated.


The first building codes date back to ancient times, when a contractor could be put to death for building a house that collapsed on its owner. More recent regulations evolved out of citywide disasters like the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. These precautions protected residents from dangers they had little expertise to prevent on their own.

The regulations that are supposed to protect people like Lamar, however, weren’t adopted until the mid-twentieth century when Congress made it a national priority to eliminate substandard housing in the major cities. And in the years following this focus, the extent of substandard housing decreased dramatically. The number of homes lacking heat and indoor plumbing has fallen sharply. The incidence of lead in the home has similarly declined in significant ways.  So we have seen progress, especially in rural areas.

But here is where we come back to tradeoffs, because there were costs.  Many of the so-called “urban renewal” efforts that drove a part of the change involved slum clearance and neighborhood “reclamation” efforts that resulted in widespread displacement of poor families from their homes by force. Within these communities, urban renewal came to be known as “Negro removal.” For many residents, the experience was so traumatic that their resentment continues to this day.

Further, in spite of the progress we have seen, the past is not entirely past. Just ask Arleen and her sons Jori and Jafaris. When they first entered Desmond’s story, they were living in a homeless shelter. Then they found a house. The original coat of paint had almost completely disappeared from the exterior, and a new coat covered less than half the house before the painter, apparently, gave up.

“There was often no water in the house,” Desmond writes, “and Jori had to bucket out what was in the toilet. But Arleen loved that it was spacious and set apart from other houses. ‘It was quiet,’ she remembered. ‘And five-twenty-five for a whole house, two bedrooms upstairs and two bedrooms downstairs. It was my favorite place.’”

The usual response to substandard housing is to get the people out of the poor living conditions. Nobody should be living in a place with maggots or toilets that don’t work.  Indeed, this is what happened to Arleen after only a few weeks of living in her “favorite place.” The city designated her house “unfit for human habitation” and made her vacate it.

The problem is that eviction works in this case only if there is another unit above the minimum standard that is affordable to the family forced to move. And the narrative from Evicted shows that there often isn’t one.  In these cases, all eviction does is move a low-income family from one substandard home to another.

Sadly, I fear this problem is only going to get worse.  The housing stock is aging. In most large cities, rents are becoming increasingly unaffordable. Many cities are restricting construction of housing that could meet the needs of a growing population. As demand outstrips supply, it’s inevitable that more and more families will fall into this vicious cycle, unable to afford anything other than substandard housing.

If we accept this premise, we are left in a tough predicament. Because enforcing building codes improves the quality of rental housing, it will have a negative implication for affordability.  Every homebuyer knows that quality and price are inextricably linked, and this is true in the rental market as well.

The implication is that we can’t think about building code enforcement without also thinking about and addressing affordability.  For too long, public policy has treated them as separate problems. And it has left people like Lamar and Arleen to fend for themselves and select from the worst that our housing has to offer.

Housing policy must embrace this mandate—to banish substandard housing without banishing the long-suffering residents trapped in its sinking clutches.  Because there are certain tradeoffs no one should have to make. It shouldn’t be too controversial to say that everyone deserves a home with running water, no maggots, and a flat floor. A quality home should not be out of anyone’s price range.

Tags: Blog  Public Safety  Health 

This article is written by Dr. Raphael Bostic. He is the Judith and John Bedrosian Chair in Governance and the Public Enterprise at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

Photo Credits:

Kitchen courtesy of Buck Ennis


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