The Airtight Cage of Poverty

Department: 

“We are tired of smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society,” said Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963). To address this crisis, Dr. King (along with Quaker activist Bayard Rustin) launched the Poor People’s Campaign, focusing on economic justice, especially around jobs and housing. In February 1968, King announced the Campaign’s specific demands: $30 billion for anti-poverty programs, full employment, guaranteed income, and the annual construction of 500,000 affordable residences.

Fifty years later, the disparity of wealth between the poor and the affluent has increased to an unprecedented level, and a major driver of poverty is the skyrocketing cost of housing. According to the Bloomberg Report, since 1978, the cost of housing has gone up 380% while the pay of typical workers has risen only 10%, and the pay of minimum-wage workers fell by 5.5 %. Dr. King was right when he compared poverty to a cage in which the poor are trapped. For many low-income people, there are few options other than homelessness, overpriced and overcrowded housing, or incarceration.

I have been involved with housing justice ever since I married Jill Shook, whom I met at the Palm Sunday Peace Parade in Pasadena in 2011. Jill has been passionately involved in affordable housing advocacy for over two decades and has written a book called Making Housing Happen: Faith-based Affordable Housing Models, which was reviewed by Diane Randall in the January 2014 issue of Friends Journal. Jill earned an MA in biblical studies from Denver Seminary and a doctorate in Transformational Leadership for the Global City at Bakke Graduate University. Here is a brief interview I conducted with Jill recently, concerning her work for affordable housing:

Anthony Manousos: How did you get involved in housing justice work?

Jill Shook: My concern began after I started a church-based tutoring program for low-income students in Pasadena called STARS. The homes of the students in the STARS program were being sold from under them. After years of mentoring and tutoring these students, we grew to love them and wanted to remain in relationship. I learned about a faith-based affordable housing complex in their neighborhood called Agape Court that had openings; so with my recommendations, several families moved in. Agape Court, like most affordable housing, provides amenities like computer labs and afterschool programs and fosters a strong sense of community that helps young people to succeed academically. Today, all of the children who moved to Agape Court are attending college. This comprehensive approach to housing is ending generational poverty. Parents are spending only a third of their income on housing, so they have time for their kids, unlike so many other parents who work three or four jobs to make ends meet. They don’t have to live in overcrowded conditions where children find their place on the street.

Another motivation was my decision to move into a low-income, high-crime African American neighborhood, seeking to participate in addressing issues with the neighborhood, not as an outsider. But as I improved my home and as our property values increased, rents around us have also increased, pushing out the very neighbors I came to befriend. This unintended consequence has driven me to find ways to retain both a mixed income and racially diverse community.

AM: What is the spiritual and Biblical basis for your housing justice work?

JS: In all the theological texts I read in seminary and my doctoral work, not one discussed land from a theological framework. Yet from Genesis to Revelation, a major theme in the Bible is land – how it’s to be cared for and distributed in a just and fair way. The first sins resulted in a marred land, the first argument between Abraham and Lot was about land, the first five books of the Old Testament were about preparing to go into the Promised Land, Joshua was about dividing the land among twelve tribes, Leviticus has detailed laws about land use (Chapter 25) – which describes Sabbath economics that culminate in Jubilee, where land would be redistributed every fifty years to break the cycle of speculation. Deuteronomy is a summary of Moses’ sermons in the first five books, reiterating the importance of these laws if they are to keep their land and stay secure in it. All of the prophets scream down from heaven to kings to care for the poor and widows, warning that if they don’t, they would lose their land.

“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Enough, you princes of Israel! Stop your violence and oppression and do what is just and right. Quit robbing and cheating my people out of their land. Stop expelling them from their homes, says the Sovereign Lord.” 

Ezekiel 45:9-10

The book of Lamentations is all about Israel’s grieving the loss of their land. And in Luke 4, Jesus opens the scroll of Isaiah and states his mission to declare good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release from captives, and the Year of the Lord’s favor, which scholars all agree is Jubilee. The early church understood this, sold their land, held all things in common, and perfectly fulfilled the intention of the Sabbath laws that “there be no poor among them.” Today we don’t have to wait until the fiftieth year to practice Jubilee; we can practice it every day by taking land off the speculative market and making it available to low-income people.

AM: Can you share a few personal stories about your housing justice work?

JS: In 2000, I joined Affordable Housing Action, which was part of the American Friends Service Committee. In 2001, we passed an Inclusionary Housing Ordinance in Pasadena, requiring that 15% of all new housing in the city be set aside as affordable, which has created 527 new affordable units to date, embedded in high-end apartment complexes throughout the city. This was one of the many ways I began to learn about how to create mixed-income communities. Over the years, we’ve had some losses, but many more wins, including starting our city’s Housing Department, strengthening our Tenant Protection Ordinance, and more.

But the main story I want to share is how we stopped the city from passing an ordinance to make it illegal to be homeless. We arranged for fifteen excellent, well-prepared speakers to go before the City Council, detailing research on how such an ordinances would be un-constitutional and extremely expensive when you compare the cost of putting a homeless person in jail versus providing a home. As we stood up to speak, we began to see a shifting attitude in Councilman Kennedy, who proposed the ordinance in hopes that all homeless in the Old Pasadena shopping area would be expelled. Like me, Kennedy is an “external processor.” That is, he thinks out loud. As each speaker took their three-minute turn to speak, Kennedy expressed to the full Council Chamber, “I feel that my mind is changing on this issue.” So we kept praying. Finally, Kennedy openly confessed, “I think I’m on the wrong side of this issue,” and we all clapped. With powerful presentations by many speakers, including pastors preaching the good news, The City Council meeting began to feel like church. In the end it, was decided unanimously not to criminalize homelessness. For many of us, this felt like a deeply spiritual moment.

AM: So what are some the key issues that you are working on right now?

JS: Two important issues we’re working on right now have been facilitated by changes in state laws. It is now easier for municipalities to have inclusionary housing and also ADU’s (accessory dwelling units, or “granny flats”). As I mentioned, Pasadena has an excellent inclusionary zoning ordinance, but it can be even better by increasing the percentage of units set aside to be affordable from 15% to 20-25%. The California law on ADUs allows single-family homeowners to take a portion of their home and build a unit within its footprint, convert their garage or any existing building on their property into a unit. You can even have a trailer on your property. But for a detached unit built from the ground up, our city is still making it prohibitive. This is why we’re mobilizing, so that tiny homes can be built in people’s back yards.

I’ve been waiting 14 years for the Council to finally agendize ADUs. This is finally taking place, thanks to this new state law. Our ADU subcommittee has done excellent research dispelling fears and myths, showing how these units will not create traffic or crime, but instead will be one tool to help alleviate our housing crisis. There are numerous good approaches to allowing back houses. For example, Portland, Oregon, is giving away 300 back houses to families willing to have homeless persons live in them for a period of seven years. Other programs encourage low-cost loans to build ADUs in exchange for renting to Section 8 renters. ADUs can help seniors with limited income to age in place by having a caregiver in a second unit or they can downsize, moving into the second unit and renting out the full home for extra income. Our neighbor converted her garage so her mother could live there affordably, and her daughter and husband live in the main house. We have a back house where a formerly homeless man lives. He is a handyman and a real asset to our home. We hope that others will do what we have done. You can learn more about ADUs on my blog (see https://makinghousinghappen.net/2017/11/22/nov-22-2017-letter-to-pasadena-city-council-to-support-granny-flats/).

As my brief interview with Jill reveals, there are many steps that Friends can take to help end the captivity of the poor. The first step towards housing justice is to educate ourselves about this issue (which can be very complex) and learn how to be effective advocates. Many Quaker meetings and organizations have already begun this work. Claremont Meeting in California has developed a remarkable program called Claremont Homeless Advocacy Program (CHAP), which opens the Quaker Meetinghouse 365 nights a year to eleven or so homeless people and also helps those guests connect with local support-service agencies. (See http://chapclaremont.org.) Two Evangelical Friends in Long Beach, California – Fred and Mardella Newkirk – have been doing amazing work with gang members for over forty years – helping mediate community conflicts, offering help to people addicted to drugs, and supporting the formerly incarcerated. (See http://www.efcsouthwest.org/fred-mardella-newkirk/.) Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) is working not only to end mass incarceration, but also to change laws that prohibit recently incarcerated people from access to public benefits – like public housing, welfare supports (TANF), and food stamps (SNAP). As Friends, we can make a difference both by advocating for changes in laws like these and also by providing direct support to people in our communities who need it.

Another way to make a difference is to host a Housing Justice Institute in your community. For the last few years, Jill has led one-day workshop in which she helps people of faith (mainly Christian) understand the biblical basis of housing justice, as well as how to advocate for policies that will help end homelessness and create affordable housing. If you would like to host one of these workshops in your city, contact Jill at jill@makinghousinghappen.com.

Finally, do what you can to support the new Poor People’s Campaign! Jill and I are thrilled that our local Palm Sunday Peace Parade, where we first met, has endorsed this campaign which was revived by Rev. Will Barber of North Carolina. Our parade will partner with this national movement to bring together people of all races and ethnicities in our city, lifting up the biblical injunction to end poverty. Our local planning team has chosen this passage for our theme: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, and release to the captives” (Matthew 18:4). We believe that Jesus came to redeem and transform not only individuals, but also systems and structures within cities and nations; and ultimately, to create a world free from war, poverty, and prisons. ~~~

Anthony Manousos is a Quaker peace and justice activist, author, and blogger (laquaker.blogspot.com). He is active with FCNL, has a PhD. in literature, and is a certified spiritual director.

Jill Shook has served as a campus minister, has coordinated international work in sustainable development, and founded an after-school program. She now advocates for affordable housing.

Anthony and Jill both attend Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, CA (IMYM), where Anthony is a member.