Tuesday, October 24, 2023

What the Many Meanings of "Shelter" Share

What is shelter? Elementary school children learn in social studies class that shelter is what people and animals build to protect themselves from predators and weather conditions. They also learn that climatic, geographical, and cultural conditions have historically shaped the different kinds of shelters people build. Shelter, in these social studies lessons, is clearly a basic need, something that human and nonhuman animals must have to survive. But it is also much more. It reflects shared cultural traditions and human ingenuity to adapt to climatic surroundings.

            When ELC participants reflected on what shelter means, many individuals noted its safety and security connotations. Indeed, the word “shelter” is often used to refer to the emergency or transitional housing provided to individuals facing housing instability or to “animal” shelters that provide temporary protections for nonhuman animals. Others immediately thought of the word “home” and its association with family, tradition, and privacy—associations that may or may not carry with them feelings of safety or security.

            Given these seemingly divergent threads, how should we think about shelter in the context of a larger conversation about human consumption and planetary boundaries? Should we be asking whether individual preferences for certain kinds of shelter are realistic in a resource-constrained world? Or is this a conversation about emergency shelter in the wake of extreme events such as wildfires and hurricanes or in response to mass migrations caused by natural disasters, drought, heat, and political violence? Conversations regarding shelter clearly involve both sets of questions. But whether we approach shelter as temporary security or the more permanent housing we think of as a “home,” a common thread emerges: the distribution of shelter in our society reflects underlying structural inequalities, leaving the most vulnerable insecure in both the short and the long term.

For example, many people lack access to affordable housing. A recent poll indicates that nearly half of the U.S. population identifies affordable housing as a problem in their communities. Indeed, in 2020, 46% of renters were cost burdened, meaning that they spend more than 30% of their monthly income on housing, with 23% spending at least 50% of their income on rent. Rents have risen 18% over the last five years and do not show signs of slowing. Even before these trends, we faced an affordability crisis with an average of only 33 affordable, rental units available per 100 households with extremely low incomes, resulting in a shortfall of 7.3 million homes. The funds needed to address the affordable housing crisis are daunting, and the political will to do so seems unlikely.

Discussions about the affordability crisis focus on affordable rents because pathways to home ownership today are scarce. After World War II, home ownership was the primary means for white middle-class families to accumulate wealth. As the U.S. government helped white families underwrite mortgages, it long denied the same opportunities to nonwhite families through practices such as redlining. Local governments also passed laws to ensure residential segregation. The result of racial discrimination in housing is the structural racism we see embedded in our communities, including the considerable wealth gap between white and Black households today. This wealth disparity perpetuates the barriers to home ownership for nonwhite families today and further entrenches structural inequalities. A combination of high interest rates and high prices means buying a home is either impossible or financially unsound for many people today.

The housing affordability crisis is on a collision course with provision of emergency shelter in the wake of natural disasters and human migration. California has had a shortage of affordable housing for some time. Now the state must confront the gentrification of communities destroyed by wildfires; when a community’s housing stock is decimated by fire, only the wealthy and highly insured can afford to rebuild. In addition, local governments face difficulties implementing state mandates for affordable housing without allowing for further development in high-risk areas. Flooding is driving a similar dynamic; by 2050, the amount of affordable housing vulnerable to damage from coastal flooding could triple. Many of these homes are in communities that were subjected to historical redlining and are disproportionately burdened by pollution and climate impacts such as heat.

            Emergency shelter is a temporary solution to the human displacement that follows these wildfires, floods, and other climate impacts—as well as the human migration associated with conflict and economic hardship. But given the scale of displacement and migration, provision of short-term shelter is increasingly difficult as well. For example, New York City, the only major city with a “right to shelter” law, is struggling to house the 100,000 migrants and asylum seekers who have arrived since the spring of 2022. With emergency shelters at capacity, the city has housed people in hotels, tents, school gyms and office buildings. Faced with few options, the mayor declared a state of emergency and pursued legal means to lessen the stringency of the city’s right to shelter law. Moreover, without work authorizations, those migrating to U.S. cities must wait (in some cases, 180 days after filing an asylum application) to lawfully earn the income necessary to secure their basic right to shelter.

These work restrictions reveal the limits of our hospitality and the “right to shelter.” But even if NYC continues to find temporary shelter, the affordability crisis will complicate efforts to secure long-term shelter. Similarly, without more affordable housing, many people have no real choice but to fear that the climate impacts of flooding and wildfire will destroy their homes. No matter what meaning the word “shelter” evokes—whether it is about security or home—it shines a critical light on structural inequities and our political commitments in responding to them.

-- Shannon Roesler


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