What is our responsibility to ensuring there is high quality affordable housing in our communities?

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By Reverend Julie FlowersFlowers, Julie

When Harborlight Community Partners approached me about writing a piece as a guest blogger for their site, I was honored. As a minister at First Baptist Church in Beverly, the church that helped to form HCP and to give the fledgling organization its start, I have long been a believer in and strong admirer of the organization, its mission, and its work. The importance of working hard to provide affordable housing with dignity for people in our wider community cannot, in my opinion, be overstated; and Andrew DeFranza and his team at HCP have been pursuing this goal bravely and tenaciously. We are lucky to have them working in Essex County because the work of providing affordable housing is about more than just creating domiciles.   It is, quite literally, about building up communities. It is about making communities stronger by inviting people in, making it possible for them to put down roots, feel safe, and not just find housing but to build a home. It is about welcoming families and elders and young people. It is about leveling the playing field so that it is no longer the wealthy who can afford to make our corner of Massachusetts home, but instead ensuring that all types of people can settle here, feel safe here, shop here, eat here, go to school here, live here. Affordable housing work is about building communities up, from top to bottom, in every way imaginable.

I believe, with all my heart, that everyone deserves a home. I believe that each one of us shares a part of the responsibility to make that dream of every person having a safe place to call home a reality. When we look at our communities, when we consider housing costs of market value apartments or of homes listed for sale on the market, it is incumbent upon us to notice and to name the reality that the cost of living in our little corner of the country is scandalously high.

When we talk about making communities accessible and affordable, when we talk about welcoming all sorts of people into our communities by providing affordable housing, there is a danger of falling into an us/them dichotomy. There are those of us who can afford to pay market value for rent or who can afford the outrageous money down to purchase a home, and then there are the others,  those who cannot afford these things. This kind of thinking puts us in a dangerous place, because it relies upon a false sense of security, on the one hand, that we would never find ourselves in a position where we could not afford the things we needed, and, on the erroneous assumption that the others  are unlike us. The truth is, they are us; and we are them. We are, all of us, human beings, sharing this earthly journey, striving to do the best that we can with the time that we are given. Money is not doled out in accordance with goodness or righteousness. That is not how it works. So it is important that those who have not fall into the falsity of thought that says we are entitled to much while others are not. What we see, too often, is an increasing stratification of those who have and those who have not that divides communities and drains them of the richness and diversity that they could otherwise have.

The cost of living here is expensive. Perhaps some of the most damning evidence against our ability, as a nation, to maintain a cost of living and market value on housing that are attainable for the majority, lies in the fact that, as of a year ago, a full 30.3 percent of millennials were living back at home with their parents. Or the fact that one-in-five young adults in our country are living in poverty.   Or that the national median income for millennials is $33,833, despite the fact that the number of young adults holding college degrees is at a record high in our country.[1] It used to be, the story went, that if you went to college and you worked hard and got a degree, you could make it. You could graduate and go out on your own and get a job and buy a house ¦and the rest would fall into place. That is no longer the story for many young people in our country. The cost of living, coupled with crippling student debt repayment and low income levels, make it impossible for ever-increasing numbers of young adults to live into that story. When it costs more per month to rent a market value apartment than they make in a month, what option do they have but to move home, if they are lucky enough to have parents who can continue to support them? For those without such a safety net, things are even more difficult.

If these young people, however, cannot grow and graduate and enter into the workforce and build homes and put down roots in our communities, it is all of us who suffer. It is the community that suffers. We lose something of the richness and the complexity and the diversity that we would otherwise have had. We lose the unique perspectives that these young people bring as they step into adulthood. We lose the next generation of families moving into our neighborhoods. We lose.

So, what is our responsibility to our neighbors when it comes to ensuring there is high quality affordable housing in our communities? For me, the answer is not only about our responsibility to our neighbors although it certainly is that it is also about our mutual responsibility to and for one another and for our very communities. Creating and supporting housing that is affordable and welcoming new and different people into our communities is imperative, both from a social justice perspective and from a practical standpoint. It just makes sense. If we want strong social connections and strong communities; if we want schools filled with vibrant schoolchildren; if we want to see young people stepping out and following their own path; if we want intergenerational connections that offer strength to all of us, it makes sense. And, more than that, it is, I believe, what we are called to do.

In one of my very favorite passages of scripture, from the book of the prophet Micah, the question is raised: What does the Lord require of you?  and the answer comes, To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.    Whether you profess a life of faith or not, I think those words can resonate I believe they are our shared calling along this earthly journey. We are called to do justice. We are called to love kindness. And we are called to walk humbly on the journey.

Our communities cannot wait. Young people cannot wait. Elders cannot wait. Families cannot wait. We all, the human family, cannot wait. I believe Harborlight Community Partners’ work achieves all three of the things the prophet Micah cites. The work that they do of building up community is vital.   When we support them in their efforts, when we cheer them on, when we donate to their work, when we stand with them, when we stand up for the cause of affordable housing in our communities, we are doing it, too.

Won’t you join us?

[1] http://www.campusreform.org/?ID=6302.   Last checked 03.31.16.

About our guest blog author:

Rev. Julie Flowers is a member of the ministerial staff of the First Baptist Church  in Beverly.  She graduated in 2001 from Wellesley College; she holds a BA in English and Spanish. She received her M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School in 2007, where she was a finalist for the prestigious Billings Preaching Prize. Julie has also served as chaplain intern at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton. She is a member of the Beverly Rotary Club, through which she is able to meet with many other community members and to be engaged in active and lively community service, like that practiced and valued by the church. In her free time she enjoys skiing and sailing (depending on the season!), reading, going to local Farmer’s Markets, and spending time with her son, Emmett, and their dog, Madeline.