Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, Singing the “Bourgeois Blues”

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On my way home from the doctor’s office, I regularly pass the New York apartment building where I grew up. I would invariably stop, stare, and feel an overwhelming desire to visit the place I hadn’t seen in perhaps 60 years. The street door hadn’t changed a bit.

A few months ago, on a whim, I looked for the buzzer to apartment 6D, pressed it, and a woman’s voice answered. I promptly said, “Hi, I’m Tom Engelhardt. I grew up in the apartment you now live in and was wondering whether you’d let me see it again.” To my amazement — yes, this is New York City! — she promptly buzzed me in and I found myself riding to the 6th floor on the barely updated gate elevator I used as a kid. Ours was, I must tell you, a remarkable apartment. Even to get to it, you had to step out of the elevator, walk down a short corridor out onto a covered but open catwalk (where you can still see the roofs of New York around you), and then down another corridor.

So many years later, I did just that and, when the present resident of 6D let me in, felt overwhelmed with memories as I saw the staircase to the second floor where my old bedroom was, the living room with the remarkable skylight under which my mother drew her caricatures, and even the little porch beyond it. And yes, it sounds, I know, like quite a place, which it was (and remains). Today, fully renovated, it’s undoubtedly a wildly expensive coop or condo, but, in 1946, when my parents got that duplex apartment, just after my father left the Air Force in the wake of World War II, it was rent-controlled and cheap as hell. (Lucky for them as, in the 1950s when I was a kid, they were eternally short on cash.) But no surprise then either. After all, at the time, all of New York was rent-controlled and veterans stood a reasonable chance of getting a fine apartment they could actually afford.

As in much of the country now, rent control in New York is largely a thing of the past as rents here have all too literally gone through the roof, with even studio apartments soaring toward $4,000 a month. As Bloomberg News reports, there’s never been a worse time to rent in the big city. More than three bedrooms will cost you an average of $9,592 per month. And yes, that’s to rent, not buy! Imagine that! Once upon a time, that apartment of mine was something like $190 per month! And with that in mind, let TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon fill you in on rent madness in twenty-first-century America. Tom

Don’t Try to Find a Home in Washington, D.C.
Or Pretty Much Anywhere Else If You’re a Renter

In 1937, the American folklorist Alan Lomax invited Louisiana folksinger Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Lead Belly) to record some of his songs for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Lead Belly and his wife Martha searched in vain for a place to spend a few nights nearby. But they were Black and no hotel would give them shelter, nor would any Black landlord let them in, because they were accompanied by Lomax, who was white. A white friend of Lomax’s finally agreed to put them up, although his landlord screamed abuse at him and threatened to call the police.

In response to this encounter with D.C.’s Jim Crow laws, Lead Belly wrote a song, “The Bourgeois Blues,” recounting his and Martha’s humiliation and warning Blacks to avoid the capital if they were looking for a place to live. The chorus goes,

“Lord, in a bourgeois town
It’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around”

And one verse adds,

“I want to tell all the colored people to listen to me
Don’t ever try to get a home in Washington, D.C.
‘Cause it’s a bourgeois town”

Such affronts, Lead Belly sang, occurred in the “home of the brave, land of the free,” where he didn’t want “to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie.”

There are music scholars who believe that Lead Belly didn’t really understand what “bourgeois” meant. They claim Lomax, later accused of being a Communist “fellow traveler,” provided him with that addition to his vocabulary and he simply understood it as a synonym for “racist.” Personally, I think that, in a few deft verses, Lead Belly managed to show how racism and class stratification merged to make it all but impossible to find a home in Washington, as in so many other places in America.

Still a Bourgeois Town

In the late 1970s, after a period of unemployment, my mother got a job for a year in Washington. We’d lived there while I was growing up, but she hadn’t been back for almost a decade. She was a white middle-class professional and it was still hell finding an affordable place to rent. (She’d been without a job for more than a year.) It would be some time before credit ratings would be formalized, thanks to the financial corporation FICO, producing a model of a standardized credit score for anyone. But her prospective landlords had other ways of checking on her creditworthiness. That she was a divorced woman with no rental history and no recent jobs didn’t make things easy.

Still, she had her sense of humor. One day during that search, she mailed me an old 45 rpm recording of Lead Belly’s “Bourgeois Blues.” It seemed to perfectly catch her frustrated efforts to escape a friend’s guest room before she wore out her welcome.

I was reminded of that record recently when I read about the travails of Maxwell Alejandro Frost, a new Democratic congressman from Orlando, Florida. Born in 1996, he’s the youngest member of the House of Representatives. He quit his full-time job to campaign for Congress, supporting himself by driving an Uber. When he tried to find a home in Washington, his application for a studio apartment was rejected because of a bad credit score. As Frost tweeted:

“Just applied to an apartment in DC where I told the guy that my credit was really bad. He said I’d be fine. Got denied, lost the apartment, and the application fee.

This ain’t meant for people who don’t already have money.”

Nor, as Lead Belly might have added, for people like Frost who are Black.

Washington, D.C., it seems, remains a “bourgeois” town.

The True Costs of Renting

Suppose you want to rent a place to live. What will you need to have put aside just to move in? This depends not only on the monthly rent, but on other fees and upfront payments in the place where you plan to live. And, of course, your credit score.

Application fee: One part of Frost’s story caught my attention: he had to forfeit his “application fee” for an apartment he didn’t get. If, like me, you haven’t rented a house or apartment in a while you might not even know about such fees. They’re meant to cover the cost of a background check on the applicant. You might expect them to be rolled into the rent, but in a seller’s (or renter’s) market, there’s no risk to landlords in making them extra.

Frost’s fee was $50 for one application. (These fees tend to top out around $75.) Not so bad, right? Until you grasp that many potential renters find themselves filing multiple applications — 10 isn’t unheard of — simply to find one place to rent, so you’re potentially talking about hundreds of dollars in fees. California, my own state, is among the few that regulate application fees. The maximum rises to match inflation. In December 2022, that max was $59.67. Some states set a lower maximum, and some don’t regulate the fees at all.

Move-in fees: If you haven’t rented in a while, this one may take you by surprise. Unlike a security deposit, move-in fees are nonrefundable. They’re supposed to cover the costs of preparing a place for a new tenant — everything from installing new locks to replacing appliances and painting. Once subsumed in the monthly rent, today these costs are often passed on directly to renters. Nationally, they average between 30% and 50% of a month’s rent.

In June 2022, the median rent for an apartment in the United States crossed the $2,000 threshold for the first time, which means the median move-in fee now ranges from $600 to $1,000.

First and last months’ rent: This upfront cost should be familiar to anyone who’s ever rented. Landlords almost always require two months’ rent upfront and hold on to the last month’s rent to ensure that a tenant can’t skip out without paying. Because landlords can invest the money they’re holding (and tenants can’t invest what they’ve forked over to landlords), in recent years, most states have required landlords to pay interest on the tenant’s funds.

Security deposit: Unlike the move-in fee, a security deposit — often a month’s rent — is refundable if tenants leave a place in good condition. Its ostensible purpose: to reimburse the landlord for future cleaning and repair costs that exceed normal wear-and-tear. (But wait! Isn’t that what the non-refundable move-in fee should do?)

Other fees: If you’re renting a condo, you may have to cover the owner’s monthly Home Owner Association fees. In some cases, you’ll also pay for a utility’s hookup like gas or electricity.

So, how much will you have to pay to set foot in that apartment? Well, if you’re like Nuala Bishari, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who recently tried to rent a house in nearby Oakland, California, you’ll need to set aside almost $10,000. If you’re not sure how you could possibly put that kind of money together, the credit score company Experian has some advice for you:

First, “calculate your odds.” Find out how many other people are applying for the unit you’re interested in and, if the competition is stiff, “consider looking elsewhere.” (As if you haven’t done that already!)

Then tighten your belt. “Reducing extraneous expenses,” it observes, “is an easy way to save.” Stop going out to eat, for instance, and look for free family activities. If that’s not enough, it’s time to “get serious about cost cutting.” Their brilliant suggestions include:

  • “Cut back on utility use. [Wait! I thought I was supposed to cook more at home. Never mind. I’ll just sit here in the dark.]
  • Carpool to work instead of driving. [I take the bus, but maybe I should start walking.]
  • Switch to a budget grocery store and look for coupons and sales. [Right! No more Whole Paycheck for me!]
  • Join a buy-nothing group.”

Such “advice” to people desperate to find housing would be amusing if it weren’t so desperately insulting.

Rent Is Unaffordable for More Than Half the Country

Suppose you’ve managed to get together your up-front costs. What can you expect to pay each month? The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development considers housing affordable when rent takes no more than 30% of an individual’s or family’s monthly income. Human Rights Watch (!) reported in December 2022 that the Census Bureau’s 2021 Annual Community Survey revealed a little over half of all renters are spending more than 30% of their income that way — and in many cases, significantly more.

It tells you something that Human Rights Watch is concerned about housing costs in this country. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) put its data in perspective through what it calls a  “Housing Wage”: the hourly rate you’d need to make working 40 hours a week to afford to rent a place in a specific area. For many Americans, housing, they report, is simply “out of reach.”

“In 2022, a full-time worker needs to earn an hourly wage of $25.82 on average to afford a modest, two-bedroom rental home in the U.S. This Housing Wage for a two-bedroom home is $18.57 higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. In 11 states and the District of Columbia, the two-bedroom Housing Wage is more than $25.00 per hour. A full-time worker needs to earn an hourly wage of $21.25 on average in order to afford a modest one-bedroom rental home in the U.S.”

Unfortunately, many people don’t earn $21.25 an hour, which is why they hold two or three jobs, or add Uber or Door Dash shifts to their other work. It’s hardest for minimum wage workers. As the NLIHC observes, “In no state can a person working full-time at the prevailing federal, state, or county minimum wage afford a two-bedroom apartment at the [fair market rate].” Furthermore, “in only 274 counties out of more than 3,000 nationwide can a full-time worker earning the minimum wage afford a one-bedroom rental home at the [fair market rate].”

For people living at or below the poverty line, the situation is even direr, which is why so many end up unhoused, whether by couch-surfing among friends and family or pitching a tent on the street.

In the coming months, the situation is only expected to worsen now that pandemic-era eviction moratoriums and the $46.5 billion federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program are expiring. According to the Pew Research Center, those programs prevented more than a million people from being evicted.

It Wasn’t Always This Way

People have always experienced poverty, but in the United States, the poor have not always gone without housing. Yes, they lived in tenements or, if they were men down on their luck, in single-room occupancy hotels. And yes, the conditions were often horrible, but at least they spent their nights indoors.

Indeed, the routine presence of significant populations of the urban unhoused on this country’s city streets goes back only about four decades. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1982, there was a community of about 400 people living in or near People’s Park in Berkeley. Known as the Berkeley Beggars, they were considered a complete oddity, a hangover of burnt-out hippies from the 1960s.

During President Ronald Reagan’s administration, however, a number of factors combined to create a semi-permanent class of the unhoused in this country: high interest rates implemented by the Federal Reserve’s inflation fight drove up the cost of mortgages; a corruption scandal destroyed many savings and loan institutions from which middle-income people had long secured home mortgages; labor unions came under sustained attack, even by the federal government; and real wages (adjusted for inflation) plateaued.

Declaring that government was the problem, not the solution, Reagan began a four-decade-long Republican quest to dismantle the New Deal social-safety net implemented under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and supplemented under President Lyndon Johnson. Reagan savaged poverty-reduction programs like Food Stamps and Medicaid, while throwing more than 300,000 people with disabilities off Social Security. Democrat Bill Clinton followed up, joining with Republicans to weaken Aid to Families with Dependent Children (“welfare”).

A decade earlier, scandal-ridden state asylums for the mentally ill began to be shut down all over the country. In the late 1960s, Reagan had led that effort in California when he was governor. While hundreds of thousands were freed from a form of incarceration, they also instantly lost their housing. (On a personal note, this is why, in 1990, my mother found herself living in unsupervised subsidized housing for a population of frail elderly and recently de-institutionalized people with mental illnesses. This wasn’t a good combination.)

By the turn of the century, a permanent cohort of people without housing had come to seem a natural part of American life.

And It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This Forever

There is no single solution to the growing problem of unaffordable housing, but with political will and organizing action at the local, state, and federal levels it could be dealt with. In addition to the obvious — building more housing — here are a few modest suggestions:

At the state and local level:

  • Raise minimum wages to reflect the prevailing cost of living.
  • Remove zoning restrictions on the construction of multifamily buildings.
  • Pass rent-control ordinances, so rents rise no faster than the consumer price index.
  • Pass limits on up-front rental and move-in fees.
  • Pass legislation to prevent no-cause evictions.
  • Pass legislation, as California has already done, to allow renters to report their on-time rent payments to credit bureaus, allowing them to boost their credit scores without borrowing money.

At the federal level:

  • Raise the federal minimum wage, which, even in this era of inflation, has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009.
  • Increase funding for SNAP, the present food-stamp program (whose pandemic-era increases have just expired).
  • Increase federal funding for public housing.
  • Provide universal healthcare, ideally in the form of Medicare for all.
  • Increase “Section 8” housing subsidies for low-income renters.
  • Raise taxes on the wealthy to fund such changes.
  • Finally, shift part — say one-third — of the bloated “defense” budget (up $80 billion from last year to $858 billion in 2023) to programs that actually contribute to national security — the daily financial security of the people who live in this nation.

Then maybe the next time we send new people to Congress, all of them will be able to find a home in Washington, D.C.

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