Going for Broke: Change of Address
How we live is indelibly intertwined with the care and empathy we give to each other. What if we put care into helping Americans find homes and build dwellings, into keeping their bodies and minds sound, and finding meaningful and well-paid work? In this three part series, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and “To The Best Of Our Knowledge” bring you real life stories about economic struggle in our time, as well as ideas for solutions.
In the first of three episodes of “Going For Broke” all about the care economy, we’re thinking about housing. Many of us would consider it a basic human right. But in America, it can be hard to come by.
– It’s “To The Best Of Our Knowledge”, I’m Anne Strainchamps. If you know where you’re gonna sleep tonight, if it’s a place you’ve lived for a while, where you feel safe and secure, imagine what your life would be like if that was not the case and if it never had been.
– When I was a child, there were quite a few times when I would leave school at the end of the day and start walking for a while and then realize I was going in the wrong direction. Or I would walk out of school and just stand there, frozen, unsure where to go, because we moved so many times that, sometimes I could not remember where I lived.
– This is Bobbi Dempsey. Between elementary school and high school graduation, Bobbi’s family moved more than 70 times, which is kind of hard to wrap your head around.
– Standing in front of the school, even as an adult, it’s a little impersonal and intimidating. And I imagine my five year old self standing here, nervous, alone, not sure exactly where I was supposed to go, and too shy and nervous to ask anyone for help. I’m walking away from the school now and I’m going to try and retrace the steps I would’ve taken as a child to get to one of the houses I lived in. There are several intersections and quite a bit of traffic, and I can only imagine walking this route alone. Not sure if you’re even going in the right direction or going to the right place.
– This is the first episode of “Going For Broke”, a three part series about economic struggle in our time. We’re collaborating with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, bringing you real life stories, and some ideas for solutions. And I’m delighted to introduce our host for the series, broadcast and public radio journalist, Ray Suarez. Welcome Ray.
– Great to be with you, Anne. You know, in the poem, “Death of the Hired Man”, Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in, something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” And I always took that to mean, “Yes, the world can be a tough place, but everybody should have a place that’s home.” What if we admitted or even embraced that we can’t do it all alone? Caring for each other is definitely about what we think of as caregiving, childcare, and elder care. But what about the role of care in the economy, or housing, or even architecture? Those all fit into a broader movement towards something called care architecture and spatial justice. I found it’s not a hard sell in the abstract, but it gets really difficult really fast when you start spelling out what obligation would look like, could look like. What if we put care into helping Americans find homes, and into how we build dwellings, into keeping their bodies and mind sound, and how they find meaningful and well paid work. How we live is indelibly intertwined with the care and empathy we give each other. And Bobbi Dempsey is a good example of someone who has experienced this firsthand, and now, she tells other people about it as a journalist, exposing an often hidden world of constant insecurity that isn’t quite homelessness. She specializes in writing about issues that have affected her and her family as a working class woman. And I asked her, what many of you might be wondering right now, why did she have to move more than 70 times as a child?
– Well, I grew up very poor, and my father was abusive. He was in and out of jail and had addiction problems. So, once my mother left him, it was my mother and my three siblings and I, so, my family lived on public assistance from the time I was born till the time I graduated high school. So we were very poor. So usually, we moved because we couldn’t afford to pay rent. Sometimes, we also moved for our own safety because we were trying to stay away from my father who had violated several restraining orders.
– Did the experience change over time as you got older? Was there a realization that this was not how everybody else lived?
– It didn’t take that long for me to realize that that was a bit unusual, especially once I got in school, and you start to compare notes with other kids, and realize that they have usually been in the same school since kindergarten, and you have been in a dozen or two dozen at that point. So, that’s when you start to develop cover stories and you don’t, you realize that you don’t want to tell people how many times you’ve moved, which is part of the reason that our paper trail is so unreliable, because often, we wouldn’t notify the school that we had moved because we would have to change schools, first of all, sometimes, and I think there was also the sense, at least on my mother’s part, that people would start asking questions, or that school officials would start thinking that maybe the household was unstable and start looking into it.
– And she didn’t wanna lose you or your siblings.
– Wow. Well, parents work hard to insulate their children from their troubles. But still, moving that much must have been hard, even for a little kid. Can you remember what was hard about moving so many times?
– It was hard for a lot of reasons, but one of the worst parts was that you never developed friendships. You never had a group of friends, which is hard enough when you’re poor and have an unstable household, you can’t invite friends over. But, when you’re moving around so much, you don’t develop any kind of connections or friend groups, You have very little support system in that sense.
– So you are experiencing the sort of need to adapt quickly, and then loss, over and over again, aren’t you?
– Exactly. It’s a ongoing cycle, like you said, of trying to adapt to a new situation and then at the same time bracing yourself for the inevitable relocation.
– Once you were of an age where you could understand it fully, you were becoming more mature, maybe launched out into the world, did you have a chance to really talk over the nitty gritty of it with your mother?
– I have talked to my mother about it over the years, and it’s kind of a painful subject because she, I think, she passed away in February, but I think she always felt very guilty that she couldn’t provide more stability and that she couldn’t give us the, the Walton’s type of environment and family life that she would’ve liked to provide. And unfortunately, it was just, you know, the circumstances were out of her control. She did try her best, and I think gave us the best in those trying circumstances that she could. But, especially at that time years ago, there were not a lot of support systems or safety net programs that were available to her to help provide more stability and more housing security.
– Are there issues in this whole realm that are kind of invisible to most people? Practical matters of being unstably housed that really are things you have to deal with day to day to day.
– When you don’t have stable housing, you also don’t have a lot of things that many people take for granted, such as appliances, or a refrigerator, a washer. So, then you would go to school with clothes that hadn’t been washed, or you struggled to be able to take a shower before school. Or even just having your school books and homework where you could access it, or where you could do homework every night was often a challenge because sometimes you didn’t know where you were going to be after school or the next day. So it was constant panic, trying to keep track of the essentials that you needed for school.
– How does the way you grew up change how you live now, who you are now? How does the past reach from way back there and still tap you on the shoulder?
– Having a background like mine affects you in so many different ways. In some big ways, and some surprising small ways. One of the big ways is that I’ve been determined to go in the opposite direction and be very stable. So I haven’t moved in 28 years, I’ve lived in the same house, but in small ways, some of which are kind of amusing, but things like security questions online, when it will ask, “What was your first grade elementary school?” or, “What was the name of the street where you grew up?” And I always joke that no one will ever be able to guess my security questions because I can’t even answer those questions. I have a made up answer that I use for those because I can’t remember any of those answers. So, and then, you know, in a major way, again, it always gives you that sense of fear that the bottom will fall out unexpectedly, or that something will happen that will take away your stable and secure housing and place to live that you have now.
– So do you go in heavy on the nesting stuff? If I came to your house, would I find hand knit afghans all over the place because you are just so intent on making this place a secure, safe, stable, long-term home?
– I do think I might go overboard on the nesting and the collecting of things. My siblings and I don’t have anything from when we were children. We don’t have any mementos or family heirlooms, or any belongings that we had when we were children. So I, perhaps as a result, save everything. So I have every one of my children’s report cards, and art projects, and anything else that they ever made in their lifetime. So I think it does have a boomerang effect where you kind of go in the completely opposite direction, and maybe a little overboard in that sense.
– Appropriately overboard. When you’ve gotta move 70 times and you can’t have things because moving involves, you know, so much taking of stuff from place to place, I mean, I think that’s the most natural thing in the world, what you just described.
– In your journalism, you’ve tried to get your readers to understand some of the building blocks of the struggling life, important stuff, but it’s invisible to a lot of people. Do you feel like you are talking to them across a chasm, taking them on a guided tour of an America they didn’t even know exists? Is there a lot they just can’t understand?
– I think there are a lot of things that the average reader or listener cannot understand unless they’ve experienced it. And some people I think are very reluctant to accept that that’s a reality. There’s a lot of objections and people trying to dispute the reality of your story and question it because they, I think, just can’t believe that that is a reality for a lot of people in this country today.
– So part of the reaction you get is that, “Oh, it didn’t really happen” or, “It doesn’t happen like that,”?
– It’s kind of almost become a game at this point. But, for websites or publications that I write for that allow comments, it’s like clockwork. You can predict that within the first five or 10 comments, there will be somebody who will say, “Even poor people can afford a toothbrush, so there’s no reason you can’t have good teeth,” or, “Even a poor person can, you know, stay clean, so there’s no reason that you should have problems with hygiene or washing your clothes.” Unfortunately, it’s kind of sad that, at this point, it still happens pretty frequently that you can almost count on it.
– Bobbi Dempsey, thanks a lot. A pleasure talking to you.
– Oh, it was great talking to you too.
– That was Bobbi Dempsey, talking with us from rural Pennsylvania about the accumulating trauma of growing up constantly on the move from home to home. She’s not alone. Our country is in a housing crisis, with eviction rates rising while affordability sinks, even for middle class families. It’s going to take some real innovation and work to change a broken system.
– When we build cities, we build environments which we then live in, and the kinds of people we end up being depend very much on the kind of environment we create. People should have the right to make the city, they should be part of the neighborhood initiative, not something that is planned from above.
– We’ll hear from someone who thinks big about these problems. Economic geographer, David Harvey, after the break. This is “Going For Broke”, a three-part special with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and “To The Best Of Our Knowledge” from Wisconsin Public Radio NPRX. David Harvey’s work over the years has looked at the economy in radical ways, linking how we earn and spend with say, geography. Among his fresh frameworks is something called spatial justice. Steve Paulson asked Harvey what he means by that.
– So are you ready to go here?
– Yep, yep.
– Okay. Your work over the years has championed a different way of looking at the economy, and connecting it to geography and also housing. So if we focus on how people live in cities and suburbs, how could we create a more equitable system of housing that’s not primarily driven by profit, one that actually takes care of its people?
– Well, I, you know, there’s just an incredibly simple answer to it. We’re expert at creating housing for people who have annual incomes over a hundred thousand, maybe 150,000. But when you have half of the population of New York City earning only about $40,000 a year, and you ask what kind of housing can you get within that income range? The answer is you cannot do it through the market. The only way you can do it is through a very strong public housing. And of course you can’t mention that, you can’t do that because it’s ruled out for ideological reasons. So you do funny little things like section eight, you know, section whatever, blah, blah, blah. You tinker with it, instead of confronting it straight on and saying, “All right, we have to go entirely to non-market production of housing.”
– And how do you do that? What kind of non-market housing are you talking about?
– I was raised in Britain after World War II, and there was a massive social housing construction, and there were complaints about its qualities and so on, was a great deal of variation of that. But in many cities, 50 or 60% of the housing stock was actually run by the municipality, public housing. And then Margaret Thatcher decided to privatize it. All the affluent got well served and the poor people in the end are made homeless.
– So you said that housing became much more expensive, really around the world, starting in maybe the 1980s. What happened then?
– Okay, I’ll give you a macro answer, which is that there was a lot of surplus capital, which was being produced in the 1970s and 1980s, and no clear way in which that capital could be invested. So instead of investing in production, that is, making automobiles and things like that, people started to invest in housing. So increasingly, you got speculative activity entering into housing markets. You get gentrification speeding up in many cities, and when you get speculative waves coming, the effect is to create a large run-up in housing prices, then a crash, and then a run up again. So it’s interesting that the crash of 2007, 2008 that was in housing, you would’ve thought the result would’ve been speculation would stop.
– Actually came out of it to speculate even more. So one of the problems we are running into is surplus capital with nowhere decent to go. Another place, by the way, in which you can dump surplus capital is into military expenditures.
– I mean Mark’s talked about that. He mentioned that, “Oh well, you know, all of that is like dumping capital in the ocean. It’s a huge waste.”
– Yeah. So you, you have popularized the term spatial justice. What does that mean?
– Listen, people’s life chances are very, very much dependent upon the zip code where you happen to be born. It’s as simple as that. And if life chances are structured that way so that if you live in a certain zip code, you end up being wealthy, and if you end up in another zip code, you end up being poor, then you kind of say, “Well there’s something wrong with this.” We’ve gotta change the qualities of all those zip codes so that we get greater equality, but also greater levels of choice so that people can freely choose where they live in the city and how they live in the city, and choose what kind of people they wanna be, or what kind of people they wanna be with. The question of “What kind of city we want to build?” can’t be separated from the question of, “What kind of people do we wanna be?”
– What I find so striking about what you’re saying is, I mean, you’re not talking about the big public housing projects that became infamous in the US, Cabrini-Green in Chicago, you know, these huge high rises that became riddled with crime and all kinds of problems. You’re talking about different kind of public housing here.
– Yeah, and I think the problem of public housing in this country, I mean remember, going back the Housing Act in 1948, and there was a very interesting phrase that stuck in my mind. The proposal put before Congress was “to create housing fit for poor people to live in.” It always stuck with me. Why would you, why would you do that? And if you do that, of course you end up with all the terrible things that happen in public housing here. Some of those things happen, by the way, in British public housing, and we’ve seen bad maintenance that led to the horrendous fire and the high rise in London. The way in which society has dealt with this is basically to build public housing, then not maintain it, and then it deteriorates, and then they say, “Well look at how deteriorated all is. We should knock it down and build high rises and things like that.” So we’ve got a real problem here, which is a political problem, and in fact, a reorientation of how the population really thinks. So one of the things which has been very important in housing world has been the idea that home ownership is a far, far better solution to the housing problem than social housing.
– And, do you think that’s true?
– No, I don’t. Home ownership is okay for the top 50% of the population, you can do it. What happened in the 1990s was the fantasy that somehow or other, home ownership should be pushed down, and that led into the subprime mortgage, and all of the fraud that went on around that, and extraction of wealth that way. And so people who really didn’t have the resources to be homeowners were lured into home ownership. And then the crash comes in 2007, 2008, and I dunno what, how many, maybe six or 7 million households lost their houses? Well, why was this subprime things entered into in the first place? Well, it had a lot to do with, again, the financial institutions needing to find some way to dispose of the surplus capital that they had. Now it’s interesting, a lot of that personal housing has been bought out by large corporations. And so you find an organization like Blackstone becoming one of the biggest landlords in the United States by buying up all of the foreclosed housing, taking up the bank’s books at discounted prices, then flipping them and turning them into rental properties and making a killing out of it. So Blackstone is now one of the largest corporations in the world, mainly based on how it mopped up, and in a sense, plundered the relics of the crash of 2007, 2008 or all those eight, seven or eight million people who have been foreclosed upon.
– So you have talked about what you and some other people have called, “the right to the city.” Can you explain what that means?
– Yeah, well, there are two things about that is, the first is, to what degree do people have access in the city? Access to housing, access to transportation is terribly important. Access to decent educational opportunities in public schools. So one part of the right to the city is to talk about access. But the other part is, which is very important to me, is to say, look, when we build cities, we build environments which we then live in, and the kinds of people we end up being depend very much on the kind of environment we create, so that if we create a neighborhood where nobody talks to each other, where there are no places of physical encounter and interaction and all that kind of thing, we end up with a kind of a alienated life living in an apartment where you don’t know anybody and nothing’s going on around you. So one of the things you want to do is to say, well, people should have the right to make the city, but in making the city, they’re also making themselves. That is, you can imagine a situation in which you get fed up with this alienated life and you get together with a group of people and you start to restructure the neighborhood, and develop neighborhood institutions for kids to play with each other and do sports or cultural activities. But, they should be part of the neighborhood initiative, not something that is planned from above. So you think about all those things and you wanna make a different kind of city.
– I wanna come back to this question of what the government’s obligation is to provide housing for everyone? Affordable housing and good housing, ’cause I think there’s this assumption that, “Oh, if people are poor, maybe they deserve cheap housing, but it doesn’t have to look nice, beauty doesn’t matter.” And I mean, you’re talking about something entirely different, that everyone should have a good place to live, a beautiful place with good resources around. Can you talk about that a little bit?
– Well, a lot of this has got to be worked out in particular sites. I mean, I visited with a project in Uruguay, in Monte Bideo. I mean, the quality of the housing was superb. The neighborhood life was superb. And this had been constructed over the years, collectively in this instance, by some of the trade unions getting together and in a sense, saying our members need decent house in a decent living environment. And they went off and they found the space, and they built the housing, and a lot of it was sweat equity. And some of the unemployed people in the unions became carpenters and actually built the housing that they ended up living in. Those kinds of things. It’s the grassroots approach. And I think there were a lot of the problems that arise are when the almost a patriarchal system, paternalistic system, showers and benefits here and there, and then people don’t see it as, in a sense, belonging to them or they’re accountable for it, the state is accountable for it.
– I guess I’m wondering, what is the shift in mindset that we need to make this possible, this vision that you were laying out?
– Well, you know, I’m rather antagonistic to the idea that somehow or another a change of mindset is what does it.
– I’d rather prefer the idea, and I guess this is the sort of historical materialist in me who kind of says, well, you change the practices, and when you change the practices, the mindsets start to change. So you’ve gotta find some practices on the ground, things that kind of work on the ground. Solidarity economists, community land trusts, and things like that. The collective housing systems. There are many things of this kind, which are seeds, if you like, of something alternative. But you build on the practices, and as the practices build, the mindset changes. Yes, I agree with you at some point, if the mindsets don’t change, you’ve got a problem. But the way that mindsets can be made to change is by evolving practices, which actually suggest that that mindset is a better mindset than the one you currently hold. So, when we see things like that, then there is a collective responsibility, but it’s not a collective responsibility of the central government. It’s a collective responsibility of the people who live in those places to try to find a way of working and caring and building an alternative kind of daily life.
– That was Steve Paulson, talking with economic geographer, David Harvey, who’s the author of many books, including “The Anti Capitalist Chronicles”. Those were some tremendous theoretical ways to change housing unfairness in our society. There are also novel, concrete, grassroots ways to assist those experiencing homelessness. Actress Annabelle Gurwitch was part of an experiment, a homestay program, where individuals share their houses with people who need a place to live. Gurwitch, who lives in LA, went into the arrangement reeling from a financially devastating divorce, and with what she now admits were some preconceived notions about people without homes.
– I’m Annabelle Gurwitch and I live in Los Angeles. This is the beginning. I’d just gotten divorced. I owned a house, and my kid had just gone off to college, and that’s how I became a landlady. I hear something about a program where you host unhoused youth in your home and receive a stipend. I’m thinking unhoused youth means foreign exchange student. So I call this number, and turns out unhoused youth means people experiencing homelessness. I actually hadn’t heard that phrase. I think well, “Oh, okay.” This whole thing seemed like a dubious prospect to me, but I really had to have income coming in to help with the mortgage. So, I went to what might be called like a match.com, mingle for people experiencing homelessness where you get matched. And I was told that if I took a couple, I would get double the stipend. I get introduced to this couple, Kiana and Jesse. They’re covered in face tats, tattoos everywhere. I say to the social worker, “Anybody but them.” They also had a pet rabbit. The social worker told me that this couple, Jesse and Kiana and their bunny rabbit’ were living in their car. And I just said, “Okay.” At 6:00 AM, on the day my new house guests were scheduled to move in. I was really busy. I’m hiding my grandmother’s silver in my upstairs closet and I’m hiding my jewelry. And I’m thinking, “Oh my God.” Like I, they could murder me in my sleep. I’ve invited people who I don’t know to live in my house with me. So I take this, this axe, this rusty axe that I found in the garage, and put it under the pillow of my bed. And I’m like, “Wow”, you know, I’m freaking out. And then I — The first thing they do when they come into my house is call their mothers. And I’m like, “What?” That was the first inkling that I might not know at all what I was getting myself into. Jesse and Kiana never expected to be living in their car. They had come to LA with money. She had gotten a job immediately. That job didn’t end up lasting, but they had money, and they got scammed through an Airbnb. They had done some couch surfing with people they knew, and they were trying to earn money, but, there were so many ways in which the system was just not helping them. Over the next month, we start to get to know each other, and then there’s this moment that just, everything fell away. So one day they come home, and they’re crying. This rapper they know named Sketchy, has OD’ed and is in a coma, and they’re so upset, and somewhere in my brain I’m thinking, “Great, you’re experiencing homelessness. You have a friend named Sketchy, and now they’re gonna be too upset to work or find a place to live.” Later that day, my kid comes home, in tears, totally immobilized because someone they know has OD’ed and is in a coma. And it’s Sketchy. My kid and Kiana and Jesse all know this kid Sketchy. And then I find out that I know Sketchy, that Sketchy is the child of people I know, and now Sketchy dies of a fentanyl overdose, and the entire house, all of us are mourning together. That’s when I did something that I had been too afraid to do before. And that is, I put their name in one of these search engines that’s supposed to tell you, you know, like on a scale of one to five, how good a credit rating, and how solid a person they are. And, I put their names in, and they get to be like, a four out of five. And this is a pretty good upstanding people. So I put my name in, and I have a lower rating than them. Who’s the sketchy person in the house? Me. By the end of the month of their living with me, they told me that the night that they moved in, they were as convinced I was gonna murder them as I thought they were gonna murder me. And they had hid their belongings because they were terrified. I just loved them and I loved them in a way that I wasn’t their mothers, they had mothers, but I was a mother, another mother in their lives now. And what’s so amazing about this program is that it doesn’t require infrastructure building. All it takes is the desire to participate in what you might call a care economy, and an extra bedroom. And I don’t know, I think I got the better part of the deal.
– That was Annabelle Gurwitch, telling us about how those experiencing homelessness became a personal thing for her. Still to come:
– There’s kind of an ethical responsibility to care for one another, and our cities are really our best evidence for whether we’re doing that or not. And the software of social infrastructure is care.
– That’s coming up after the break. You’re listening to “Going For Broke”, a three-part special with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and “To The Best Of Our Knowledge” from Wisconsin Public Radio NPRX. What if we wove care into the fabric of government agencies? Those everyday buildings people look to for community and warmth, like post offices or libraries.
– And people talk about the quote, unquote, “zipcode problem”, right? Of inequalities by zip code. The public library, of course, is just a really great place to think about that.
– People who are struggling with finding a steady home, they’re being kicked out from the Fort Myers Regional Library premises once again.
– This is urbanist Justin Garrett Moore, talking about a gathering space in our community we might take for granted.
– There is a great book by Eric Klinenberg, “Palaces for the People”, where he talks about the library isn’t just a place where people go to read books, right? It’s become a place of social services in many cases.
– We occupied the Fort Myers Library because we had nowhere else to go. We’ve been to every park and we’ve been kicked out of every park.
– It’s been doing this work for a long time. And I think, if we sort of think about the moment that we’re in, I think there’s a recognition that we don’t just need infrastructure, right? We’ll build some roads, fix the bridges.
– This area here was very well lit. It was clean. We had access to showers, bathrooms.
– I think more and more people really understand that we need our social infrastructures, and the software of social infrastructure is care.
– There’s been a lot of effort made to make sure that the homeless are aware of what the laws were, and that they would be in enforced.
– Poor librarians. They really are doing a lot for us.
– Everybody can come in. We do have house rules, and if you obey the house rules, you’re welcome.
– Justin Garrett Moore has been exploring this issue of spatial architecture for years. Moore works for the Humanities in Place program at the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. He’s leading projects to address social justice and housing issues through empathy and respect for each other’s humanity. He’s talking to Shannon Henry Kleiber.
– The way that cities are sort of assembled and put together reflect our systems, our economies, our cultures, our values. And, when we think about care as sort of a underlying principle, it’s thinking about what are the most basic, essential things that connect all of us that we all understand. And so, something that I’ve been thinking a lot about, and talking a lot about in the urban planning space, in the urban design space, is to think not just about our sort of problem solving or kind of technical expertise for how we think about cities, but how we find ways to connect and relate to people in very direct and empathetic ways. There’s kind of an ethical responsibility to care for one another, and our cities are really our best evidence for whether we’re doing that or not.
– You’ve even said that you think cities need Departments of Care, which is such an interesting idea. What do you mean by Departments of Care? What would that look like?
– Yes so, this is something that I’ve been thinking about a long time. So, I’ve worked for New York City government for quite a long time, over 16 years. And New York City government is one of the largest entities, 300,000 plus people work for the city government. We have like, all these different departments. There’s Department for the Aging, there’s Department of Transportation doing their mobility, et cetera. And so something that I was thinking about over the years is that care was something that every single department needed to understand, and resource, and address no matter what they were doing, right? Whether it’s the police department, or the parks department, or water department, you know, our subway system needs care, right?
– What would that look like? The subway system having care?
– Oh, lots of things. So obviously, it’s how we all are getting around. And when I say all, I mean, all, right? If you look at our entire spectrum of society, we all have different needs for how we get around. So, the biggest topic of course is accessibility. Who is able to access the system? Greater inclusivity for the spaces in terms of elevator and ramp and wheelchair access through to, you know, really providing support for people that need help, right? Someone’s got a lot of bags, or a stroller, or something, and just having some additional resources to make that experience easier.
– Is it happening?
– Yes. So the first kind of quick aside, so, the concept of Department of Care isn’t that it’s its own agency. It is purposefully a rhizomatic agency. It’s like a mycelium agency within the city agency. So the idea is that within all those different agencies and departments that exist, that there would be people within, embedded within those that are responsible for care. And across all of those agencies, you then have the citywide Department of Care. There’s kind of the prompt that’s within the city government, and then there’s the network that continues outside of the city government that includes everything from a block association to different types of groups, whether that’s artists, or people working with youth, or people working with seniors, to think about how that connectivity and mutual and kind of ethical responsibility for one another, and for one another’s shared spaces occurs. So we’re looking kind of beyond only government being the Department of Care, but something that can extend and be in partnership with a much broader network.
– We’ve talked with a lot of people for this series that we’re doing about housing issues. So a woman who’s moved 70 times while growing up, someone who’s sheltered unhoused people in her own home, kind of different ways of living and working with these struggles. What does care architecture have to do with homelessness and housing precarity?
– Housing is the great unifier. It’s something that we all need. And when we think about access to housing, affordable housing, the quality of our housing, we have to go outside of the unit, right? The kind of the living unit, the apartment, the house. Do we have access, for example, to a quality outdoor space? Do we have enough light? And so, I think housing is sort of an essential building block of the city, and therefore, it would be an essential building block for how we accomplish greater care in our cities and in our society at large.
– I love how you talk about how it’s not just about the house, that it’s about how we feel about each other, and the outdoor space, and maybe the beauty and the joy, too. And what are some innovative ideas that you’ve seen come out? I mean, we’ve seen some of the ideas, like the home fullness movement, where people are building and creating their own homes based on what they really need, and maybe co-parenting in a single house. What are some examples of radical and novel things that you’ve seen that are working?
– Yeah, there is a great sort of spectrum of ideas that people are pushing. And there have been a lot of policies that look at everything from our zoning and kind of regulatory frameworks that allow for more mixes of families and non families. Actually unpacking the idea of family itself, so that you could have multiple people living on a site, increasing density, but also more social connection. I know of a lot of projects in California and Los Angeles, there’s a wonderful architecture firm named Brooks + Scarpa, where they’re thinking about housing, really at the scale of a building, and how you create communities kind of at that scale of interaction of the neighbor, which is a really essential unit where people actually know their names and can wonder, “Well, what happened to Mary? Haven’t seen her in a while.”
– Yeah, knowing your neighbor is a really important thing in housing, it is. Yeah.
– Yeah, yeah. And so they’ve been doing a lot of great work around that and redesigning and reconfiguring buildings to actually encourage those kinds of interactions and connections. So everything from the balconies providing your privacy and your private space, but also having some connectivity and proximity that helps as well. So all these are actually design considerations, but they’re also policy and regulatory considerations in many cases. And so a lot of the innovation is happening actually in multiple fronts, with people redesigning housing models and housing typologies, but also people going and looking at what are a lot of legacy, and in some cases, exclusionary, injust policies that shape our housing, pushing that into spaces where we can have more inclusive approaches that help us make more inclusive cultures and communities.
– Do you think that we need a different kind of empathy and economic empathy to create these kinds of spaces? And how do we get there?
– The economic piece is challenging. This shows up in a lot of different ways. There’s a article recently about a professor down at John Hopkins, Nathan Connolly, who is a black man, had a home, and it appraised for several hundred thousand dollars less than when he had a white person pretend that they owned the home, right? So those big inequalities still exist, and it’s very difficult to really take on the work of shifting those. And so, I think that there’s a set of real work and understanding and reckoning and kind of challenging systems that needs to happen at that large scale. It’s challenging, but I think people are trying to do work at the local scale, right? Even from the individual to their neighbors and community to have proofs of concept that there are other ways to value space, to have meaningful exchange, and to care for one another.
– That was Shannon Henry Kleiber, talking with urbanist Justin Garrett Moore, who for many years, was the Executive Director of the New York City Public Design Commission. “Going For Broke” is a collaboration between the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and “To The Best Of Our Knowledge” at Wisconsin Public Radio NPRX. Our executive producers are Alissa Quart and Shannon Henry Kleiber, with help from Steve Paulson, Anne Strainchamps, Charles Monroe Kane, Mark Riechers, Angelo Bautista, and Sarah Hopefl, with additional help from David Wallace, George Lozano, and Deborah John Lee. Our logo is by Penny Blatt Design. Our sound designer and technical director is Joe Hartdke. And I’m Ray Suarez. To hear the rest of the series, go to ttbook.org, economichardship.org, or look for it on your podcast feeds. Thanks for listening. PRX.
Co-published with PRX’s To the Best of Our Knowledge.