Connections for the Homeless recently asked community members to plant “Love Don’t Pay the Rent” signs in their yards and local retailers to hang them in their windows. Some people love the signs, and others pretty vehemently dislike them. Mostly, people have been asking what the signs mean. And some have objected to the grammar. Connections is thrilled, because all of these opinions are leading to much needed discussion about housing, poverty, and our society’s ambivalence regarding the poor.
The phrase “Love Don’t Pay the Rent” is modified from “Love don’t pay the bills,” said by a landlord in Matthew Desmond’s book “Evicted.” The phrase was brought to us by marketing professional Steve Turner of I AM-TURNER, who volunteered to create the posters for us, selecting photographs that reflect our community and those who come to Connections for help – people with children, senior citizens, lonely people, scared people, and poor people.
The phrase resonated with us. Evanston is remarkable in that its community members generously support many non-profits, and there are great numbers of conversations about inclusiveness and equity. Yet, many people pay more than 50% of their incomes on rent – 42.8% of the population, according to the City of Evanston. And too many of those people – almost 30% – make less than 50% of the area’s average income.
When funds are available, Connections helps subsidize housing costs. Otherwise, people do not have enough money to afford the housing that’s available and still have enough left over to take care of their kids, pay their utilities, or cover emergencies. Our community cares about them and tries to support them. But that support, with rare exceptions, does not pay their rent.
To address the issue of poverty, Evanston needs to figure out how to provide low-cost housing for many more people than it does now. Such housing could take the form of any of the following, and will probably require all of them and more:
• Developing new low-cost units
• Providing more subsidies to help people pay the rent in existing market-rate units
• Having philanthropic housing provided by organizations or landlords of means, offering reduced-rate units to people in need
• Incentivizing landlords to reduce rents for people with low incomes
More difficult than figuring out the how, though, is creating the will to take these actions. Providing housing for people living in poverty means recognizing their poorness and agreeing to help anyway. Acceptance like this is not a natural thing for most of us in middle-class or wealthy America. In his preface to the play “Major Barbara” (1905), George Bernard Shaw said, “… the greatest of our evils, and the worst of our crimes is poverty, and … our first duty, to which every other consideration should be sacrificed, is not to be poor.” We expect, as a society, that people can work their way out of poverty, but most people generally cannot.
We also need to overcome the stereotypes of the poor. Despite good intentions, we, as a society, still treat people in poverty as the “other.”
What we have seen at Connections, and what our non-profit partners have also seen, is that the poor are as varied in their characteristics as is the population as a whole. And like the general population, most poor people are doing their very best – with work, with family, with community. Taking the steps to help those in poverty obtain housing they can afford will thus have a great pay-off and will cost less than doing nothing, because people who are very poor make greater use of the emergency room, are hospitalized more, are involved with the criminal justice system, and make greater use of social services than those who are not. We pay for these services every day.
More important is the opportunity cost associated with poverty and unstable housing: being unable to work well, unable to place needed focus on the children, and unable to thrive as members of the community. A stable home can help overcome barriers to employment, to education, to community involvement. The benefits of helping those in need is well worth the cost.
I’d also like to talk about grammar. While many an English teacher would take points off for a paper that included our sentence, the grammar is completely logical, predictable, and functional.
Our intent in using “Love Don’t Pay the Rent” was not to look down upon a personality or a culture, but rather to amplify both. We feel these signs are particularly expressive when posted in front of houses on some of the most gloriously beautiful and prosperous streets in Evanston. Connections hopes these signs show that we, as a community, may be taking the first step to separating the condition of poverty from the value of the people who are suffering from it. Both the statement and its syntax have seemed very right to us at Connections.