A House divided

Having written 157 blogs for Inside Housing over the past four years you might have noticed that I’ve been silent since mid-August. This is because, for the past seven weeks I have been travelling across North America. I started in Vancouver on the 4th September, travelled by car, boat and train down the west coast to San Francisco, and then, between the 19th September and the 20th October I drove with a friend from San Francisco to Manhattan, via New OrleIMG_0454ans. I’ve been through 19 states and dozens of cities. Along the way, we managed to sit in on a murder trial in Texas, to stand on the rostrum where Martin Luther King made his last speech on the night before his assassination, and experience a near-fatal car crash south of Memphis. It was my sixth visit to the USA.

My conclusions? The USA is a vast, wonderful, awful country. It has some of the best roads, museums and national parks in the world. All of tIMG_0442he Americans we met were exceptionally courteous and friendly, (although, for some reason, when they drive on the pavement (the road) and walk on the sidewalk (the pavement) they can suddenly become discourteous and unfriendly.) Yet the USA is also a very unequal society and its systems for housing and town planning often appear shoddy and half-baked. Every large and medium-sized city we passed through was surrounded by mile after mile of ugly unwalkable, sprawl – shopping malls, business malls, petrol garages, motels – without any sense that this development had been planned. Land is plentiful. Without a motor vehicle it would be almost impossible to survive across much of the US. Every city we passed through had many (often very young) beggars carrying a piece of cardboard with a variation of the “hungry and homeless” message.

In a recent speech, the influential chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, decried the increasing level of inequality in American society. This is what she said:

“The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concerns me. … It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

She pointed out that, in 1989, the wealthiest five per cent owned fifty-four per cent of all wealth, but by 2013 this had increased to sixty-three per cent. Shockingly, the net worth of the poorest fifty percent of Americans is just under £7,000 – that means their total assets minus their total liabilities. The preamble to the US constitution talks of promoting the “general welfare” of the people” but the liberties enshrined in the constitution mean that you are as free to get rich as to get poor, and US citizens appear to have little sympathy for those who fail to live out the American dream.

I intend to blog about some US housing and planning issues over the next few weeks, but to begin with I was struck by these two items about the scale of homelessness in the USA. Firstly, a story about the thousands of people who are living in tunnels beneath Las Vegas, New York, Kansas City and other American cities. Secondly, the growth of tent cities in communities across the USA.

On average, Americans are more comfortably housed than most of the rest of the world, but the fact that one of the richest countries on earth is unable to provide homes for some its poorest and most vulnerable citizens is troublesome. It confirms in my own mind the need to embrace the European social democratic model rather than the US free market model, which we seem to have been intent on pursuing since about 1981. American public housing accounts for only 2 percent of their total stock, compared to about 17 percent in England. For me, it reinforces the absolute imperative of protecting and growing our valuable stock of social housing, which is why I am proud to be involved in the SHOUT campaign.

More to follow.

(First published at Inside Housing 29th October 2014)

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