Reflections and Commentary on National Fair Housing Month: Blake Turpin
April is National Fair Housing Month, commemorating the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. This landmark legislation prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, sex, disability, family status, or national origin. This was a monumental piece of legislation for its time; however, as I reflect on my own experience and share my perspective on the ongoing affordable housing crisis, I recognize there is still work to be done.
My name is Blake Turpin, and I am the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow working with staff on RESULTS’ housing campaign. I am a recent first-generation college graduate (May 2021), I am Queer, I have mental and physical health conditions that affect how I experience and participate in society, and I grew up experiencing poverty and benefiting from federal assistance programs. Like many people living in the United States, I am also struggling to make ends meet.
Growing up in the United States, the idea of working hard toward a better life has been heavily ingrained in my mind. I worked hard through school and earned a bachelor’s degree while working, interning, and volunteering. Despite graduating during the COVID-19 pandemic when the entire world shut down and the housing and economic crises worsened, I remain committed to the idea of working hard and creating a healthy foundation for myself and my future family.
However, despite my commitment, I have been faced with high costs of living and rent costs that have at times left me unable to afford even my most basic needs, such as clothing and healthy food. When I left home to attend college in Knoxville, Tennessee, I was immediately thrown into the world of being overextended and underpaid, often struggling to make rent payments, even in student housing where I lived with multiple roommates. Like many college students, I took on low-paying and unpaid jobs and internships to pursue my passions in exchange for “networking” and “experience,” while balancing a full-time college schedule and an active social life. I took odd jobs like delivering pizzas and stocking shelves at Target to supplement my income, help pay for my school, and make ends meet.
After college, I was thrilled about the prospect of making more money than I had ever made; however, when I relocated for the job in Boston, MA, I found out that I was still not making enough to afford an average one-bedroom apartment. I was forced instead to rent a room in a shared house for $1,200 per month. I was unhappy and unsafe, and I struggled to get along with difficult roommates, so I decided to return home to Knoxville, save money, and focus better on my work and my health.
Moving to Washington, D.C. was not much better. Even though I found housing that is far safer and healthier, it is also far more expensive. My boyfriend and I spent months looking for an apartment that would be safe, accessible, and affordable. While there were thousands of listings, we found there were very few units available to us within our budget that could accommodate our physical and mental health needs. I have been fortunate to live with my boyfriend, as he is able to work and split the costs of rent, utilities, and basic needs – an arrangement that may not be available to others in my situation.
Our housing search made me reflect on just how few housing options are available for people with disabilities in Washington, D.C and across the United States. I consider myself lucky that my rental unit is only on the second floor because the apartment building does not have an elevator, and the steep stairs can be difficult for me to climb. Developers choosing not to accommodate people with physical disabilities has led to a shortage of accessible housing – only 3.5 percent of homes in the United States have basic accessibility features, which has contributed to higher rates of housing insecurity for disabled people. Those who have mental health conditions fare no better because our country does not prioritize mental healthcare and many housing providers discriminate against those with mental health disabilities.
Additionally, my experience has been worsened by the fact that I am a Queer person. I have often refrained from disclosing the fact that I am in a same-sex relationship when I apply for housing, opting instead for gender-neutral language like “partner” or “significant other” in fear that I could be denied opportunities because of my sexual orientation. While I am protected under D.C. law, I do not know how to enforce my rights, and I do not have the time and resources necessary to fight a discriminating landlord.
LGBTQ+ people like me continue to experience housing barriers in the rental market. One study has shown how housing providers discriminate against same-sex couples and transgender people (who often are unable to fight back or enforce any legal rights they may have) by informing them of fewer available listings and/or quoting higher housing costs, limiting the housing options available to them.
It has been more than 50 years since the Fair Housing Act was passed, but my own experiences of and reflections on trying to find safe, affordable, and accessible housing today serve as a reminder that the promise of this federal law is yet to be fulfilled.
What Lack of Rent Affordability Says about Homeownership and Fair Housing
The idea of working hard and saving money to own a home has been a major part of my “American Dream,” but it seems like no matter what corners my boyfriend and I cut to save money, owning a home seems increasingly out of reach due to high rents and costs of living. With all the other expenses in our monthly budget, we are unable to save for a down payment, closing costs, homeowner’s insurance, or any of the other major costs associated with homeownership, and it does not seem like this will change any time soon.
Unfortunately, I am not alone. In 2019, about 20.4 million renter households were forced to spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent — up from almost 15 percent in 2001. This means that many people must make difficult choices between spending their income on basic needs like rent, childcare, and food or saving for a medical emergency or buying a house.
As a result, I do not know a single person my age who owns or is able to own a home – a stark contrast to my parents who, at my age, already owned their first home. At the time, their first house cost $89,900, which, even adjusting for inflation, is far lower than today’s median home price of $152,300 in my home city of Montgomery, Alabama. Yet, in the face of rising rents and home prices, wages have remained low, making access to safe, decent, accessible, and affordable housing extremely difficult for my generation. I can barely afford to rent an apartment — how could I possibly afford to buy a home in the future?
Affordable rent is important because it prevents housing instability and allows individuals to save money to someday own a home. Homeownership is the primary driver of household wealth in the United States. In 2019, the median net worth of homeowners ($255,000) was over forty times more than the net worth of renters ($6,300). How much wealth you have determines whether you graduate from college, how healthy you are, the kind of neighborhood you live in, the quality of your child’s education, and the kind of job you have. However, with the many barriers to finding safe, decent, and accessible housing, wealth building through homeownership is out of reach for so many of us.
Despite the promise of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, disparities in access to housing continue. Housing discrimination and segregation remain prevalent and housing segregation has even worsened. Renters who are LGBTQ+, renters who have disabilities, renters who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and renters who find themselves at the intersections of these identities and who are living in poverty, remain limited in their housing choices and opportunities after facing decades, or even centuries, of oppression and marginalization.
If we wish to break cycles of poverty and housing insecurity, we must address the systemic sexism, ableism, racism, and other forms of oppression in federal housing policy, prioritize the needs of those with lived experience with poverty, and make targeted investments to keep housing affordable and accessible for my generation and future generations. Only then can we truly fulfill the promise of the Fair Housing Act and ensure that everyone has safe, accessible, and affordable housing.