“Love Don’t Pay the Rent” signs in their yards and local retailers to hang them in their windows. Some people love the signs, and others pretty vehemently dislike them. Mostly, people have been asking what the signs mean. And some have objected to the grammar. Connections is thrilled, because all of these opinions are leading to much needed discussion about housing, poverty, and our society’s ambivalence regarding the poor.
The phrase “Love Don’t Pay the Rent” resonated with us. Evanston is remarkable in its active care for citizens—through the many non-profits that community members generously support and through the sheer number of conversations about inclusiveness and equity. At the same time, many people are paying more than 30% of their incomes on rent—42.8% of the population, according to the City of Evanston. And too many of those people (almost 30%) are making less than 50% of the area’s average income. When Connections has funding for subsidies, we help these people with housing costs. Otherwise, the math just does not work for them--they do not have enough money to afford the housing that’s available and still have enough left over to take care of their kids, pay their utilities, or cover emergencies. Our community cares about them and tries to support them. But that support, with rare exceptions, does not pay their rent.
In order to address the issue of poverty, Evanston needs to figure out how to provide low-cost housing for many more people than it does now. Such housing could take the form of any of the following, and will probably require all of them and more:
- Development of new low-cost units
- Provision of more subsidies to help people pay the rent in existing market-rate units
- Philanthropic housing provided by organizations or landlords of means who provide reduced rate units to people in need
- Incentives to landlords to reduce rents for people with low incomes
More difficult than figuring out how, however, is creating the will to take these actions. Providing housing for people living in poverty means recognizing their poorness and agreeing to help anyway. It means accepting that someone born into poverty may have no bootstraps with which to pull him- or herself up. This type of acceptance is not a natural thing for most of us in middle class or wealthy America. In his Preface to the play Major Barbara from 1905, George Bernard Shaw said, "…the greatest of our evils, and the worst of our crimes is poverty, and…our first duty, to which every other consideration should be sacrificed, is not to be poor.” We expect, as a society, that people can work their way out of poverty. But most people generally cannot. So many of Connections’ clients have jobs and work hard to move ahead. Yet, as one of our case managers put it recently, “I don’t see rags to riches stories. Usually, people are moving from being homeless to just being poor.”
In addition to recognizing the intractability of poverty, we need to overcome our stereotypes of those who are poor. While we all agree that poverty is bad, the stigma associated with poverty is, I believe, largely unrecognized. Despite all of our good intentions, we, as a society, still treat people in poverty as the “other.” The phrase “white trash” and its connotations sum up what many people think of the poor, whether they are black, white, Hispanic, Asian, none of the above, or some combination.
What we have seen at Connections, and what our non-profit partners have seen as well, is that the poor are as varied in their characteristics as the population as a whole. And like the general population, most poor people are doing their very best—with work, with family, with community. Because of this, taking the steps to help those in poverty through housing they can afford will have a great pay-off and will cost less than doing nothing. People who are very poor make greater use of the emergency room, are hospitalized more, are involved with the criminal justice system, and make greater use of social services than those who are not. We pay for these services every day.
More important is the opportunity cost associated with poverty and unstable housing. Without a home to rely on, people cannot work well, they cannot place the focus they want on their children, they cannot thrive as members of the community. With a home, they can overcome their barriers to employment, to education, to community involvement. The benefits of helping those in need is well worth the cost.
On a last note, I’d like to talk briefly about grammar. Education is very important in Evanston, and our “Love Don’t Pay the Rent” signs play to this concern. While any English teacher worth his or her salt would take points off for a paper that included the sentence, linguistically, the grammar is completely logical, predictable, and functional. Socially, the grammar is fully integrated into the dialect used by the landlord portrayed in Evicted, and it expresses the personality and culture of that speaker.
Our intent in using the quotation was not to look down upon that personality or culture. Rather, it was to amplify both. We feel that the signs are particularly expressive when they are posted in front of houses on some of the most gloriously beautiful and prosperous streets in Evanston. What Connections hopes is that the “Love Don’t Pay the Rent” signs show that we, as a community, may be taking the first step to separating the condition of poverty from the value of the people who are suffering from it. Both the statement and its syntax have seemed very right to us at Connections.
This post was featured as a guest essay in the Evanston Roundtable on 10/05/2016.