I first arrived in this country in 1995, traveling from a refugee camp in Kenya. Having lived for four years without running water or permanent housing, I dreamed of finding stability and opportunity in the United States of America.
But my first impressions of the U.S. were vastly different from the land I dreamed about in the refugee camp. Arriving in New York City, I saw people experiencing homelessness as we rode through the city. As a 12-year-old, I turned to my father and said, “This is not the America you told us about.” He smiled and calmly said, “Don’t worry. We will get to that America.”
We eventually did. We settled in Minnesota — one of the coldest states in the country, where the people have the warmest hearts.
And even though our state economy may be doing well on paper, thousands in our state are barely scraping by. The single biggest reason for that is the skyrocketing cost of housing.
On a single night, more than 10,000 people in Minnesota were homeless last year — the highest number ever recorded. Six thousand of them were youths — which means children are showing up at school without a place to go home to. And this does not include the thousands more who are behind on rent, or are looking for a permanent home after an eviction. In fact, outside of coastal states like New York and California, the Twin Cities was ranked No. 1 in housing costs among the nation’s 20 largest metro areas.
And that’s just Minnesota. Across the nation, families are struggling with homelessness and housing insecurity. This year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that no state or major metropolitan area in the entire nation has an adequate supply of rental housing for its poorest renters. As a result, 12 million renters are severely housing-cost-burdened, spending more than half of their incomes on housing.
Meanwhile, the federal government has not made a large-scale investment in affordable housing since the New Deal. The construction of new public housing has been banned since the 1990s — forcing more than 1.6 million families onto a near-endless waitlist for public housing and another 2.8 million families onto the waitlist for vouchers.
This crisis is not going away — and it could get worse if we don’t act. In the wake of the Great Recession, nearly 10 million homeowners lost their homes. A future recession could destabilize the market even further. And with a changing climate, extreme weather events and natural disasters will displace ever more people — making it especially vital that we have an adequate supply of affordable housing.
The private market alone will never be able to provide enough adequate homes for every American. This is why we need a solution that meets the scale of the problem. We need to treat the affordable housing shortage like the crisis that it is.
This week I introduced the Homes for All Act, which would authorize 12 million new public housing and private, permanently affordable rental units — vastly expanding the available affordable housing stock, driving down costs throughout the market and creating a new vision of what public housing looks like in the United States.
The goal is to invest in housing with the same vigor we did during the New Deal era. The housing would be integrated with public transit and vehicle alternatives like walking and biking. We would prohibit any discrimination against residents based on sexual orientation, gender, criminal history or immigration status. And we would provide residents with free, voluntary wraparound services that help address the needs of those experiencing chronic homelessness or housing instability — like access to health care, employment or education assistance, child care, financial literacy class and other community-based support services.
All of this would be built to the highest possible environmental standards — making this a key part of the Green New Deal.
The bill also would create a new Anti-Displacement Fund within the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in order to protect families from gentrification, prevent displacement and stabilize neighborhoods. And it would make public housing a mandatory part of the budget, just like Social Security and Medicare, ensuring that public housing is guaranteed as a human right and not subject to the whims of particular politicians.
I know many will ask how would we afford this. To that, my answer is simple. If we can afford to give millionaires and wealthy corporations $2.2 trillion in tax breaks, we can afford to house the homeless. If we can afford to spend nearly $6 trillion on wars of choice, we can afford to make sure poor and middle-class Americans can afford a home. And the truth is, we are already paying for it. We pay for it in the form of health care, when people have to go to the emergency room from freezing on the streets. We pay for it in the form of other social services, which people are more likely to turn to if they can’t afford rent.
This isn’t just a one-time payment. It is an investment. It’s an investment in the health and well-being of our fellow Americans. And it’s an investment in thousands of good union jobs across this country.
Housing is a fundamental human right. It’s time we as a nation act like it and end the housing crisis once and for all. Only then can we achieve the America I dreamed about as a refugee.
Ilhan Omar represents Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District in the U.S. House.