Opinion

There is no fault in needing affordable housing

McDowell County, W.Va., is in Appalachia, where stark poverty contributed to the birth of several welfare programs during the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Fifty years after the war on poverty was begun, the local economy is still struggling. (Credit Travis Dove for The New York Times.)
McDowell County, W.Va., is in Appalachia, where stark poverty contributed to the birth of several welfare programs during the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Fifty years after the war on poverty was begun, the local economy is still struggling. (Credit Travis Dove for The New York Times.)

It was a colder than normal winter day and the effort needed to keep the wood stove going to heat the house was proving a challenge. The water was kept at a trickle in the kitchen sink in the adjacent room, to keep the pipes from freezing. Most of my extended family lived along the same stretch, in similar houses that sat back from the road, down long driveways, on small plots of land passed down from our grandfather.

We knew one another’s cars and trucks not only by sight, but also by sound, so our attention was piqued when an unknown vehicle traveled up the road. A few minutes later, the driver came back down the road, and then stopped. We peered out the window as a man got out, set up a tripod, mounted a camera with a long lens and began taking pictures.

I will never forget the hurt and shame in my mother’s eyes. We all knew this unwelcomed visitor wasn’t taking photos for an architectural or home and garden magazine. These were pictures that one sees published with accompanying derogatory descriptions about the “hardscrabble” life of mountain people, replete with judgments and assumptions we were on the public dole. Our house was rundown and falling apart, thus fit perfectly into the perception of poverty in Appalachia.

My brother chased the photographer away, but that memory still stings. I’m certain if the intentions were honorable — and they were not — this “gentleman” would have knocked on the door and asked permission to photograph our home. He likely saw failure and laziness, the kind that’s accompanied by banjo music in skewed documentaries and TV news magazines.

What he didn’t see was a hard-working family that never had the benefit of a financial safety net (and no concept of a trust fund) and had always lived paycheck to paycheck. He didn’t see two parents working full-time at a textile mill, having nursed one dying parent through a long battle with cancer and another through a stroke, while raising three kids and growing tobacco to supplement their income to make ends meet and keep everyone fed. Life might have been easier on public assistance, but they were too proud to ask for help, with the exception of free school lunches.

I have thought of the trespass of the photographer several times recently when reading about Raleigh’s current and worsening affordable housing situation. It only takes a few comments to an online story before finger pointing, shaming, and placing blame on the have-nots begins. There’s the same tired argument from these people that if people would “only prioritize education” or “get a job and work hard” that they too could own a home in a “tony” neighborhood.

There are the “rags to riches” examples people love to cite, which implies that by sheer willpower people can join the ranks of the upper classes. It’s not impossible to move up, but it’s a lot damn harder than these people could imagine. Nasty and judgmental retorts expose this ignorance. Fortunately ignorance is a condition that can be cured, but only if those who are afflicted open their mind to the possibility that not everyone shares the same life experiences and advantages. We’re living in a time where empathy is in short supply on many fronts, not just housing inequality.

The shifting sands in Raleigh’s housing market mean that more of us will be feeling pushed to the margins. Not just people who historically have been affected by gentrification and loss of affordable housing, but those with college educations, those who have always held a job, who have always paid their bills on time, who have never tapped into government assistance.

When someone questions growth or the rate of growth, they are derided as wanting to live in the past. “You can’t stop the demand!” “Change is going to happen!” “Move on!” Stop for a moment and consider that those questioning this growth are perhaps looking to the future more than the past. Yes, change is going to happen, but let’s not kid ourselves. What’s happening now is not sustainable.

What would I say to the photographer who showed up uninvited that cold winter day years ago, in the unlikely event I were to see him? I would tell him that I hope no one ever made him feel as small as we felt that day. Although our house was tiny and drafty, it held more love than he could imagine. That’s more important than any capital gains.

Carla Osborne lives in Raleigh.

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