An earlier version of this article appeared on the American Planning Association website. It’s from “Housing: A Basic Human Right—Aesthetic Realism Explains the Cause of America’s Housing Crisis and the Solution!” given by Barbara Buehler and her colleagues at numerous conferences, including at Harvard, Vassar, NYU, & The American Institute of Architects national convention (HousingaRight.org) —
Housing in America: A Basic Human Right
By Barbara Buehler
Housing in America is a basic right of every man, woman and child. It is heartbreaking and shameful that we have gone so far away from our beautiful beginning purpose stated in the Declaration of Independence—to secure for everyone “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
That today, in a country with so much wealth, hundreds of thousand of people are homeless, live in cardboard boxes on city sidewalks, sleep in doorways, on park benches, look for food in garbage cans, beg for money on America’s streets, and have even frozen to death on some of the most expensive real estate in the world, is a disgrace. I am ashamed—and I know I represent many Americans in my feeling—that citizens of our land are forced to endure this inhumanity.
As a planner who worked at the New York City Department of City Planning for over 35 years, I have seen first-hand the results of the massive cuts in federal funding for housing programs—while corporations get increasingly large tax breaks and subsidies.
There has been no federal money allocated for public housing construction since 1981. And programs that assist people in being able to afford housing, including Section 8 vouchers, so widely used in New York, are pitifully inadequate. Yet even these programs don’t address the fact that housing is not a luxury; it is a basic human right. No one should have to worry about whether or not they can afford a home.
The cause of homelessness
Aesthetic Realism, the education founded in 1941 by historian, poet, and critic Eli Siegel (1902-1978), has shown that the only reason homelessness is allowed to exist in our rich land is that a person’s need for a home is seen as a means of someone else making profit. This is contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”
Contempt, he explained, is the very basis of our brutally unjust economic system, where the labor of men and women and their need for food and housing are used to make as much money as possible for a few owners and stockholders. Beginning in 1970, Mr. Siegel convincingly showed that the profit system has failed, and the only way our economy can flourish is if it is based on good will, on respect for the lives and well being of people.
In the international periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, makes clear how contempt is the cause of homelessness as she writes:
“The fundamental question about housing is: Should a person make a profit from the need of another person to have a home, shelter, a place to live? Should our ability to have a home depend on whether we can provide a profit for somebody? Does Marissa, age 5, have the right to look from her bed at night at walls that are decently made, a floor that does not have rats running on it, a home she can feel is hers; does she have the right not to be thrown out onto the street homeless and scared? Should anyone see Marissa’s need for this home as a means for making money for himself—as much money as possible? That is the underlying question. It has to be answered honestly before there can be any authentic reasoning about housing, rents, and human lives in America.”
I once was so cold to the feelings of other people, it never entered my mind that a person could worry about having an income and a home. Like other Americans who grew up in affluent communities, I felt superior simply because my family had money. I regret this so much! Through my study of Aesthetic Realism my contempt was criticized and my hope to see other people fairly was encouraged. I came to see that the insides of other people are as real as my own, and I am proud that now I have a passion about all people getting what they truly deserve—and this includes a home.
A practical solution
There is a practical solution to homelessness right now. For example, the 2011 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey—and this is the latest available—showed 67,818 vacant rentable units in New York City. As of March 2, 2015, the Department of Homeless Services lists 57,963 individuals, including 24,361 children, seeking a bed in a city shelter. These numbers are staggeringly high, and stand for living, breathing people. Yet—they are still less than the number of available rental units. It is clear that there are more than enough apartments right now so that no one has to be homeless!
Homelessness will end in New York City and across America when every landlord, legislator, developer, and citizen in this land asks and answers honestly this kind, ethical question first asked by Eli Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”
This crucial question, and its beautiful, practical answer, are the subject of a public service film titled “What Does a Person Deserve?” by Emmy-award winning filmmaker and Aesthetic Realism consultant Ken Kimmelman and endorsed by, among others, the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
For information about this film, contact Imagery Film, Ltd., 212-243-5579, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Aesthetic Realism, contact the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a not-for-profit educational foundation, 141 Greene St., New York, NY 10012; 212-777-4490; www.AestheticRealism.org.
Barbara Buehler was a city planner with the New York City Department of City Planning (retired) and is an Aesthetic Realism associate.