On Housing and Advocacy

Something really troubling is happening. In big cities and small towns, nearly every apartment property is rushing to build bigger, better units. A good thing, right? Well yes, except that both the quality and quanity of “affordable” housing is shrinking to near nonexistence. Where then are the workaday folks, like myself, supposed to reside?

A couple of things have me pondering this a lot this week. I will talk about them both in some detail, as they are related but different issues.

First, I’m reading an interesting memoir? sort of book called The Stranger in My Recliner, by Doreen McGettigan. In this story, McGettigan’s husband arrives at their home with an 80-year-old woman named Sophie who has apparently been residing on the streets for some time. Sophie has no teeth, is not clean, and seems to have a battery of other issues to go along with this.

McGettigan’s initial hope is to take her in for a few weeks, until some other form of housing or at least someone in Sophie’s family can be located. However, this search turns into a two-year odyssey, the end of which I still don’t know as my reading is in progress.

I think that every community has a “Sophie”. I’ve met someone like this, or at least who freely acknowledged that she might well end up in that position soon enough. This individual was in her early sixties, and just barely hanging on in a low-rent apartment with meager payments from her children for helping with babysitting. As with Sophie, this person alleges that her family might react the same way.

“If I fel through the cracks someday, I don’t really know if they would even care,” she told me. That is sad, and this sort of thing makes me feel fortunate for my own folks, who wouldn’t let that happen to me. Well that assuming that my pride didn’t get in the way of admitting that I was having significant financial or other difficulties, which is probably another issue entirely.

Anyway, I like also that McGettigan really writes a hard-hitting assessment of herself and how she worked with Sophie, confronting the fact that she wasn’t always a saint towards this woman. She often wondered why Sophie had gotten herself into such a position and why she seemed reluctant to do much about it. I think these thoughts are just realistic.

The person I knew was one of the most caring individuals I ever met, and I was never overtly mean to her. But sometimes, when she got to talking, and talking, and talking talking talking, I would just have to zone out! If she happened to see me in what I guess was her favorite hangout, the Starbucks on the corner of Chapel Hill’s (North Carolina) Franklin Street, well I could pretty much forget the reading I had planned to do.

Even so, she helped me and nearly anyone else she encountered on the streets to connect to a service whose intention it is to assist people in avoiding homelessness, a mission that McGettigan correctly points out is very low on the radar of government and even many of the organizations that should be doing such work. These folks are excellent at what they do too. I was never actually homeless or anywhere close to it really, but their student advocates, and one young woman in particular, worked with me to learn interview skills, how to navigate to what I had hoped would be a volunteer opportunity’s site (sadly had to give that up because my nonexistent income post grad school 1 failure meant I had to return home,) and tapped me into a number of other significant networks.

And if you’re on the lower end of the income scale, you quickly discover how important constant advocacy is. Property managers or others in the business of running apartment complexes assume that most of us don’t have much of a voice or are unwilling to really use it, as has just happened to me.

Well ok, I’ll concede that some of this was due to the fact that I hadn’t exactly put in a two-month notice as my lease was due to expire in June, so I suppose they were within their right to assume I was planning to move. So, they had put in a notice of their own that they would begin renovating this unit in the middle of July, and I was to be out by the 4th of that month.

My primary reason for delaying on the notice is uncertainty about what my situation will be by the middle of June. I had hoped therefore that they would put me onto some sort of month-to-month plan. Before capitulating to the renovation outcome though, I was coaxed into going to the office to notify them of my needed flexibility and to request a stay until the 31st of August, or at least until the end of July. And surprise, not only did I get that stay, but also I will be allowed to renew my lease later if that proves necessary.

I’m sure once they do renovate this spot that the price will climb dramatically, again emblematic of the issues that low-income persons will have to deal with. The prospect of relocation concerned me, because most of the apartments that were within range were either in really bad parts of town, or probably crumbling due to neglect. I’m not even sure there is a national or local policy to ensure that everything doesn’t just soar out of reach of all but the upper middle class or higher. Nor do I know what to do about it, other than to put it on people’s radar. I think the best thing we can all do, as I am finally, fortunately starting to learn, is to speak up! Remember that we as tenants have rights too, and sometimes just pointing things out to people or explaining the depth of our issue can affect positive change.

RELATED: #BADD2014: Housing For All

8 Responses to On Housing and Advocacy

  1. Congratulations on the outcome, and kudos for using your negotiation skills to try to get what you need!

    This post really hits home. My adult daughter is looking for housing in San Francisco, one of the highest-cost cities in America, due to high tech taking over. She is there taking a computer course, then hopes to find employment. But in the meantime… For shared housing, you can easily expect to pay $1200 to $2000 a month in the city. Studio apartments go for close to $2000. But the worst thing is that the demand far outstrips supply. You can look at a place, decide you want it, but that doesn’t mean you get it as two dozen other people want it, too!

    • Oh wow, those prices are crazy. I don’t know what can really be done about that, but I sure hope someone has ideas. And I do hope your daughter manages to find something at least remotely reasonable. Thanks as always.

  2. John, I am so glad you are enjoying reading Doreen’s book–that makes my heart happy that you bought it because you read about it on my blog. Thank you! The housing situation is definitely daunting and you are right–there is much that needs to be done to make it more affordable for everyone who needs good accommodations. I hope your situation turns out favorable –good luck!

  3. Hey there John. Ok… So I’ve never commented on your blog though I’ve been reading for like well forever. πŸ™‚ Anyway, I felt compelled to comment for a few reasons. First, this really struck home for me. I confess right or wrong, that I’ve been one of those who wondered for a split second how someone ended up like, well, Sophie, or the countless others in our communities even the woman you mentioned. I no longer wonder. I had very good work for the longest time though it was contract and for reasons that don’t need to be gone into here it went away; through no fault of mine. So… I have a masters degree, and am getting interviews even second and third ones for everything I’m applying for, but none resulting in a final hiring offer. So I’m trying to live off of benefits. My roommate is moving in with her boyfriend, and not only can I not keep this place by myself because it’s too spendy, I can’t find affordable housing here in Sacramento. You see, the answer that lots have decided is a good one to the crazy rent prices in the bay area (Eileen mentioned in her comment,) is to move here because it used to be cheaper; plus if you work for a tech giant or startup in SFO we’re a roughly two hour commute so it’s doable… Sacramento hasn’t been building; so there’s little to nothing to rent. Demand has skyrocketed and in literally two months time rent that was $600 and $700 for one bedrooms is now up over $900,and in some places studios are going for $2,600; with six month wait lists already. On craigslist my ad for a roommate is competing with the ones who can afford to rend out a room for $400 a month but I cannot do this. They have to split it evenly. I am saying this, not because I’m after pity, but because I no longer wonder how someone ends up in that situation. I am facing the very real possibility that if my employment situation doesn’t turn around and experience a miracle by the end of June, I’m going to have to put everything in storage and I’ll be that person couch surfing or I’ll be forced to do the unthinkable: which is to move back to NC and stay with my parents until I can find a job out here. That brings me to the other reason for posting this… My parents would do anything to help me if they could, but they’re both now retired living on very fixed incomes. So while they can give me a place to stay, never assume that your family can help you out financially. Mine cannot and wish like hell that they could. Finally, Eileen, I wish your daughter the best of luck in finding both employment in San Francisco and a job! We’re an awesome place to be, but things are kinda crazy off the chain out here right now! πŸ˜€

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