Talking About US & Question #2

My colleague, Beth Rust, the housing specialist in Sudbury, shared a presentation she is giving about the need for affordable housing at an upcoming community gathering.  It is posted below, with her permission.

Oh, I could tell you stories. There’s the abused mother with two children needing to make it on her own now, the sports coach who proudly exclaimed to everyone at the parent meeting when she saw me “when I won the housing lottery, it was as grand as MegaMillions!”, the single mother who still tears up when she sees me, the local fireman whose daughter is now 4th generation Sudbury resident, waving to me as he drives the engine around town. And so many more. They write me notes, they tell me their stories ‐ about their jobs, their loved ones, their illness and special needs. Often the family is in what we call ‘changed circumstances’ – a sudden or chronic illness, a separation from the money‐ earning partner, a job loss, or it could be the families who have saved for their dream and finally get approved for a mortgage and buy a home. There are immigrants now citizens, substance addicts now sober, renters now owners, women now mothers, husbands now single dads. Many are one‐wage income households with children working in the services fields: X‐ray technicians, paralegals, teachers, hair stylists, nurses, religious educators, and restaurant workers. There are mothers moving to be near their adult children, there are graduate students, and the list goes on.

I can say from personal experience that when we wonder who THEY are, this THEY who will live in our housing, THEY are US. Maybe invisible and yet unknown, but clearly US. I know a family who does not support ‘affordable housing’ but I meet a woman living in section 8 housing at her holiday party. Does she know? Is she making an ‘exception’? When we internalize and rationalize it, we put our own label on it, and finally it stops being WE and THEM and is just plain US. We call it help for our mother, our cousin, our friend, our teacher, someone we know and care about.

I am so fortunate to work directly with these families that are moving into the housing we create.And I say ‘we’ because we all play a big role. There is one key element to affordable housing – It always costs more to build than any rent or mortgage or sales proceeds will ever cover, and it always needs public subsidy. And this is where we come in: we are the public. It might not feel that you have any voice in a topic that is so specific, a topic that perhaps you don’t even think too much about, but of course you have a role.

Our voting is one important way we participate. We vote for politicians who lead change. For example, Barney Frank, Newton’s US House Representative, is a champion for housing issues. We vote for legislation at the state level. In fact, this November there are three questions on the ballot: whether to repeal a sales tax on alcohol, whether to reduce the state sales tax, and whether to repeal or protect the affordable housing law in Massachusetts, also known as Chapter 40B, or the anti‐snob zoning law. [I’ll be available if you want to hear more about Question #2 on the affordable housing law and how it has enabled 58,000 homes to be built in Massachusetts creating jobs, creating homes and changing lives.]

I see my position as Community Housing Specialist in Sudbury like a bridge. I can clearly see the direct connection between the housing units created through public process and the people who will live there. I am their advocate at the table long before they are aware of their future home. This bridge is built by people, made of money and its span crosses time. It takes caring public staff, volunteer boards and committees, and those who serve for the greater good to help these projects through. And it takes TIME. There are always years between when a housing project has conceptual plans and when the moving vans arrive in the driveway, making it both easier and more difficult at the same time. Without the residents at the table, it is easier to focus on the issues of bricks, mortar and cars, to think first of IT and THEM; it is harder to imagine the people who will be housed as US, as people we want to welcome in our community, as someone we know and care about. As one vocal resident recently said at a public meeting to a housing developer, “You are an unwelcome invasion to our town. Nobody wants you here”. Who was the YOU? The housing developer or the future residents?

For me, it is about the people. Now, don’t get me wrong, issues concerning health and safety, protection of our water and wetlands, and buildings that are in character with the architectural styles of the community are all critical elements, and believe me, they are all considered very strongly for each and every project, bringing needed and welcome revisions to preliminary plans. But in the end, having multi‐unit housing and attached condominiums does not offend me. I treasure having more than detached single family homes and I encourage the socio‐economic diversity it brings to our community. I like that my daughter’s soccer coach can live here in Sudbury. I think it is important that our first responders can respond FIRST since they live close‐by. I think our community is enriched by having the people who work here, be able to live here. I am not afraid that their few children will tip the scale of economic demise. It is part of building our sustainable community that does not require importing service workers and exporting professionals. It strengthens more than detracts. For me, the social value is worth more than the increased physical density it brings.

So in the end, I know there is no clear divide between the THEM and the US. That this judging is just our mind’s primary tool of separation. But still, I hear people talking about THEM. I hear people talking about IT, pretending not to be talking about THEM. I hear very few talking about US.

So, that’s the question. Not “do you support affordable housing” that’s too easy, but “what are you willing to do to make affordable housing about US?”