East Harlem - While the New York City Housing Authority is the largest public housing authority in the United States, East Harlem is home to the highest or second highest concentration of public housing in the United States.
of us who don’t live in trailer parks or inner cities might think
low-income families typically benefit from public housing or some other
kind of government assistance. But the opposite is true. Three-quarters
of families who qualify for housing assistance don’t get it because
there simply isn’t enough to go around. This arrangement would be
unthinkable with other social services that cover basic needs. What if
food stamps only covered one in four families?
stands alone among wealthy democracies in the depth and expanse of its
poverty. Ask most politicians what we should do about this, and they
will answer by calling for more and better jobs. Paul Ryan, the
Republican speaker of the House, thinks we need to do more to
“incentivize work.” Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic
presidential nomination, thinks we should raise the minimum wage. But
jobs are only part of the solution because poverty is not just a product
of joblessness and low wages. It is also a product of exploitation.
our history, wage gains won by workers through organized protest were
quickly absorbed by rising rents. As industrial capitalists tried to put
down the strikes, landlords cheered workers on. It is no different
today. When incomes rise, the housing market takes its cut, which is why
a two-bedroom apartment in the oil boomtown Williston, N.D., was going
last year for $2,800 a month and why entire capital-rich cities like San
Francisco are becoming unaffordable to the middle class. If rents rise
alongside incomes, what progress is made?
is no accident, an unintended consequence from which no one benefits.
Larraine’s rent money went to Tobin (also a pseudonym). A
second-generation landlord, Tobin was 71, unsmiling and fit. His tenants
waited tables at diners or worked as nursing assistants. Some received
disability like Larraine or other forms of welfare, sometimes
supplementing their checks by collecting aluminum cans.
one of the poorest trailer parks in the city had its challenges, like
dealing with mental illness, addiction and domestic violence. Every so
often, tenants wrecked their trailer the night before being evicted.
Tobin had a way of dealing with that. He’d pay one of his tenants $20 to
clean up the mess, then offer prospective new families the “Handyman
Special,” a free mobile home as long as they paid “lot rent.” Lot rent
was the same amount as rent, except the new “owners” would be
responsible for maintenance. A family could move their trailer
elsewhere, but in reality no one could afford to. When families fell
behind in lot rent and were evicted, they inevitably left their trailer
behind. Tobin would reclaim it as “abandoned property” and give it to
bought the mobile home park, 131 trailers parked on asphalt, for $2.1
million in 1995, paying off the mortgage nine years later. After
reviewing Tobin’s books and expenses (property taxes, utility bills,
missed payments), I estimated that he netted roughly $447,000 a year.
Some of Tobin’s tenants called him “greedy,” but others called him
“fair” and “a good man,” especially those he had spared from
homelessness when they fell on hard times. He bailed tenants out of
jail, lent money for funerals and let some missed payments slide. In a
year, he also made 30 times what his tenants getting minimum wage
like Tobin aren’t making money in trailer parks or ghettos in spite of
their poverty but because of it. Depressed property values offer lower
mortgage payments and tax bills. In poor areas of the cities, rents are
lower, too — but not by much. In 2010, the average monthly rent in
Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods was only $50 less than the citywide
renting to poor families can charge slightly reduced rents but, owing
to far lower expenses, still command handsome profits. As a landlord
with 114 inner-city units once told me, speaking of an affluent suburb
near Milwaukee: “In Brookfield, I lost money. But if you do low-income,
you get a steady monthly income.”
families are stuck. Because they are already at the bottom of the
market, they can’t get cheaper housing unless they uproot their lives,
quit their jobs and leave the city. Those with eviction records are
pushed into substandard private housing in high-crime neighborhoods
because many landlords and public housing authorities turn them away.
When poor families finally find a new place to rent, they often start
off owing their landlord because they simply can’t pay the first and
last month’s rent and a security deposit.