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What is shelter: a look at the concept & realities in turbulent times

 What's Up Magazine (USA) 28 February 2019

It is a simple action. Taken for granted every day by those of means. Removed from pockets, bags or purses are keys that open locks to a shelter. This simple act identifies the key holders of society as individuals with access - individuals of worth and importance. Outside of the developed world, the concept of lock & key isn’t closely linked to housing but rather jail cells and banks. (1342 Words) - By Virginia Williams & Jay Swoboda

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Image of person experiencing homelessness in St. Louis, Missouri USA. Photo courtesy of What’s Up Magazine

In conversation with those transitioning out of homelessness it has been noted that the handing over of their key (a first for some) to a new apartment is one of the most empowering and emotional events in their long slog out off the streets. Even for those first-time homebuyers able to convince a lender of their willingness to repay a 30-year amortized mortgage - this transfer of access is one of the most exciting and memorable moments to witness at real estate closings around the world.

Housing and related industries reflect a huge portion of the global economy, and while tens of millions struggle daily to provide even rudimentary forms of shelter from our planet's increasingly turbulent weather - others were finding ways to extract increasing levels of equity until the bubble burst. The economic engine of the United States was brought to its knees by toxic home mortgages leveraged 1000 times over as financial instruments representing collateralized wealth adding hundreds of billions to the balance sheets of financial firms with absolutely zero concern for the impact of their actions.

The focus of our national conversation in the United States has for the past couple years centered on recovering from the fallout of years of failed policies and loose restrictions. This was a ever-present issue for those manufacturers whose cash flow was frozen and whose businesses were at risk of having a losing quarter. At the same time, most of the world was too poor to notice or care that the world's largest economy was on the rocks. Even in the United States, where nearly 15% (43.6 million) of the population lives in poverty, most of the vulnerable members of society were busy just figuring out how to keep a roof over their head and have little or no concern that Bear Stearns was no longer in business.

A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at United Nations University reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world's total assets. The bottom half of the world adult population owned 1% of global wealth. In 2010, 3,076 homes in Orange County, California sold for $1 million or more, the highest number in three years according to housing market tracker DataQuick Information Systems. And while a $1 million home is a shocking price tag, they all pale in comparison to the most expensive home transaction ever in California.

The 2000 sale of an 8-acre estate in Bel-Air to financial executive Gary Winnick for $95 million. $95 million could have built 13,500 two-bedroom concrete homes in Haiti according to Habitat for Humanity International. The same $95 million could provide dignified housing for war-torn African refugees with over 200,000 dwellings according to the UNHCR. With such decripencies in wealth the definition of shelter seems relative to the standard of living, Gross Domestic Product, and political environment of the country where a person finds themselves seeking protection from the elements.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

How does a person protect and enforce their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without shelter?

It could be said, that despite all our political, religious and economic differences that after providing for food and water - the next great unifying factor at any income level is the need for shelter.

What is shelter? Do societal norms alter the definition of shelter? Is the United States' definition of shelter the same as the definition in China? Is your personal definition of shelter different from your neighbors? What form of shelter do you need to meet your needs? What are you willing to give up for your shelter?

In the 1950's the housing experiment of Pruitt-Igoe (see image above) was presented as a solution to inadequate, unsafe and crowded living condition in the City of St. Louis, Missouri. By the 1960's the 33 high-rise, high-density buildings were in a state of decay and become the example of what not to do in urban housing. Would this same development be looked upon as a success in urban housing by those living in the slums of Mexico City?

While urban planners preach the benefits of mixed-use, mixed-income transit-oriented development that discourages city leaders from pursuing giant projects such as Pruitt-Igoe - the cost of creating all levels of shelter must be weighed against the benefits to people, communities and the environment.

Based on their income and expenses, each individual and family unit has to make a unique calculation as to what percentage of their budget can be allocated to shelter. This percentage has been established by guarantors of mortgage debt in the United States to be no more than 29 percent of total income for homeowners.

Finding affordable housing for lower income individuals and families is increasingly difficult in our current economic times. Many find themselves exceeding these recommended ratios for housing expenses, and as a result, end up depending on high-interest personal - often predatory - credit to meet their daily needs. This vicious cycle leads many to question the cost and value of shelter when faced with the difficult decision to provide food or shelter.

Those economic participants who drank the Kool-Aid of homeownership from 2003 to 2008 across the United States overwhelmingly find themselves "renting" with mortgages. The banks seem pleased to accept monthly principal and interest payments from underwater homeowners knowing that in the event of foreclosure the home value will not likely cover the associated mortgage. Despite all of this, these homeowners have shelter - something 800,000 other Americans cannot claim.

Shelter creates stability for those with access to it. Studies have shown that children with reliable housing perform better in school. Having a home (owned or rented) provides a person with a sense of identity and connects people to communities. Shelter provides not only protection from inclement weather - but protection from crime.

Should shelter be a human right? Should the world's wealthiest country be compelled to provide housing for all 300+ million citizens? Seems like a modest goal when over 3 million men, women and children we call our brothers and sisters don't have an address, protection from the elements or a key.

Many of the benefits of shelter are intangible and difficult to value. The difficulty of the cost-benefit analysis is no easier for our political leaders deciding how much to cut from the Housing & Urban Development Budget in 2011 as it is for a family or individual to decide what to sacrifice to live within their budget. These are not easy topics, but they draw us back to the original question of what is shelter and how important an issue it remains to be questioned and discussed.

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Originally published by Whats Up Magazine ©

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