Maybe “hope” isn’t the right word, especially in an era when only about half of the voting public actually votes.
But while the beginning of this election cycle has been entertaining, it hasn’t exactly been hopeful for affordable housing advocates. And that’s nothing new. The issue of affordable housing—or even just housing in general—rarely makes an appearance on the campaign trail.
So, I was surprised when a collection of candidates took part in the New Hampshire Housing Summit in mid-October, sponsored by the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing Families and the Bipartisan Policy Center.
When asked why affordable housing is rarely part of presidential politics, none other than Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.)—steeped in a long, drawn-out battle with affordable housing advocates in his own state—offered this:
“I think the reason that you don’t have a lot of discussion about it is because it’s not the sexiest issue in the world to talk about, and it kind of depresses people.”
Of course, that description just about covers every problem known to the universe. When did we start describing problems based on sex appeal, anyway? Can you imagine FDR saying the same thing about the Depression?
Problem is, he’s right: poverty is depressing, and affordable housing isn’t considered sexy. Yet, politics has little to do with solving problems—it’s more about the appearance of solving only those problems deemed sexy by the constituency.
So my question is, who’s the offending party here?
Is it a disingenuous politician who tried to take all of his state’s affordable housing trust fund money to balance his budget (until the New Jersey Supreme Court had to ban him from accessing it)? Or is it the reflection of a disingenuous electorate?
It’s hard enough getting an affordable housing deal off the ground—you have to battle at every turn.
But the real battle isn’t against the haters—we know where they stand. Christie once said “You want income equality? That is mediocrity. Everybody can have an equal, mediocre salary." He also once said “I don't think we have this overwhelming need for affordable housing in the state either."
So, we know where he stands, even as he pays the issue lip service in an attempt to win votes. The haters are not the real problem.
The real fight is much more subtle and enduring.
As a society, we believe in the rags-to-riches American story—but only if you make it to the top. We believe in charity as a religious ideal but we don’t believe in hand-outs. We believe in immigration but look down on immigrants. We believe in helping the least fortunate in the abstracts, but not in my backyard.
So the real fight isn’t against the haters. It isn’t against one or 10 or 538 politicians. The real battle is against those who think they’re neutral.
The real fight is against the cynicism embedded deep in the hearts and minds of our neighbors and relatives and friends, an arc of brutal self-interest that started with the caveman and finds purchase in modern indifference.