It was a nun and not an economist or political philosopher that reminded the world there is one timeless measure of a home’s value: love. In 1979, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was awarded the Nobel Prize. In her acceptance speech, she was asked what we can do to promote world peace. Her answer was simply: “Go home, and love your family.” In her simple and impactful way, Mother Teresa, pointed us to the truth that housing is a fundamental and basic human right, and not merely a commodity.
What Does Housing Really Mean?
As the world awaits the next Synod on the Family this Fall, we are reminded that it was as a result of the last Family Synod in 1980 that the Pontifical Council on the Family gave us the Charter of the Rights of the Family stating explicitly: “the family has the right to decent housing, fitting for family life and commensurate to the number of its members, in a physical environment that provides the basic services for the life of the family and community.” Housing is important because human development is important.
The meaning of “housing” goes far beyond a merely material understanding. Justitia et Pax (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace) in What Have You Done to Your Homeless Brother notes that “It is in direct relationship with the characteristics of the human person that are, at one and the same time, social, affective, cultural and religious.” A home provides a sense of security and environment suitable for fostering a healthy family environment. This environment is the “domestic church” that helps to model the loving Trinitarian relationship in the world.
Why is Affordable Housing a Challenge in the United States?
Having a safe, secure home is more than a matter of comfort and convenience. It is the foundation for physical and emotional well-being, and the basis for a healthy family and a successful life. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.” HUD estimates that nearly “12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing.” This means that a “family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.”
Unfortunately, due to rising unemployment, falling wages and a shortage of affordable housing options. Having a job is not always enough.
- Unemployment/Underemployment: According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Current Population Survey, nearly 27 million workers, roughly one out of every six U.S. workers, are either unemployed or underemployed. Importantly, this is a conservative measure of the total number of underemployed because it does not include workers who have had to take a job that is below their skill or experience level.
- Falling Wages: For most US workers, real wages (wages after inflation is taken into account) have been flat or even falling for decades, regardless of whether the economy has been adding or subtracting jobs. According to BLS data analyzed by the Pew Research Center, the average hourly wage for non-management private-sector workers in 2014 was $20.67, nearly flat from the average wage a year earlier. However after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has nearly the same purchasing power as it did in 1979. According to the Pew Research Center, “in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today.”
- Lack of Adequate Affordable Housing: Housing assistance can make the difference between stable housing, precarious housing, or no housing at all. However according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “the demand for assisted housing clearly exceeds the supply: only about one-third of poor renter households receive a housing subsidy from the federal, state, or a local government.” This means that due to the unmet level of housing assistance means that “most poor families and individuals seeking housing assistance are placed on long waiting lists.” Lengthy waiting lists for public housing mean that people must stay in shelters or inadequate housing arrangements longer.
Why Is Inadequate Housing a Spiritual Problem?
As people of faith, we have a long history of homelessness and inadequate housing. In the first chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden. Abraham commences this relationship with God by leaving his native land, and Jacob and his sons leave their home for Egypt. Then after the escape from Egypt, the Israelites wander the wilderness for 40 years in search of a home, then there are the 70 years of exile after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Finally, we must remember that Jesus’ first human problem was the lack of shelter at the time of his birth in Bethlehem—all of which is part of the history of salvation.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Homelessness and Housing—A Human Tragedy, A Moral Challenge, note that there are three important values drawn from Catholic Social Teaching that should guide our spiritual understanding of providing adequate housing to our brothers and sisters.
- Stewardship: This principle “calls us to use the gifts of God’s creation for the benefit of all and raises basic questions of equality, fairness, and justice.”
- Participation: This notion reflects the desire for human development and suggests that “we measure our progress by whether people are able to shape their own destiny and meet their own basic needs by a broader participation in economic, civic and social life.”
- Preferential Option for the Poor: This core concept of social teaching “restates the biblical lesson that we shall be judged by our response to the ‘least among us’ that the quality of justice is best measured by how the poor and most vulnerable are faring.”
The “Theology of the Hammer”
Jesus in the Gospel of Mark 14:7 reminds us that “you will always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them.” The faith community has taken these words to heart and has developed networks of professionals and volunteers to combat some of the nation’s most difficult housing challenges. Some examples of pioneers in faith-based affordable housing and community development include:
- Habitat for Humanity: Founder Millard Fuller’s “Theology of the Hammer” is based on “the conviction that to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, we must love and care for one another. Our love must not be words only— it must be true love, which shows itself in action.” This ministry has inspired more than 1,400 affiliates in the United States and about 70 national organizations around the world to coordinate Habitat efforts to build, rehabilitate and repair homes with those who cannot access conventional home loans. Through their work, Habitat has served more than 800,000 families.
- Christian Community Development Association: This national association of Christians committed to community development, representing over 3,000 people and 500 organizations devoted to both living and working in distressed communities to become one with their neighbors.
- New Community Corporation: Founded by Monsignor William Linder and a group of dedicated Newark residents in the aftermath of the disastrous 1967 riots, New Community Corporation (NCC) is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive community development corporation. NCC’s mission to help residents of inner cities improve the quality of their lives to reflect individual their God-given dignity and personal achievement. NCC owns and manages more than 2,000 units of housing and employs 1,600 people, more than 95 percent of whom live in urban areas. The array of community-based services and programs provided by New Community includes housing, education and training, transitional housing for the homeless, health care, community arts, youth programs and a host of social services for children, families and senior citizens.
Other interesting solutions are being implemented in local communities across the county and include such strategies as land trust communities, workforce and co-housing models, and cooperative housing structures—each being delivered by congregations, dioceses and other faith-based institutions.
The Value of a Home: Priceless.
Mother Teresa had a very simple message about the value of a home– and the family that is raised and nurtured there. She reminds us that sometimes “poverty is [not] only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.” She also reminds us that “Prayer is the mortar that holds our house together.” Pray that we may be inspired by Mother Teresa’s message and the example of our faithful brothers and sisters to build mansions for the “least of these.”