We need social workers to help fix our housing issue | NASW Member Voices

Apr 24, 2023

family playing with moving boxes in living room

By Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW

When I was young, I loved a gloomy ballad sung to perfection by R&B crooner Luther Vandross. The piece had a haunting refrain which is also the title of the song, “A House is Not a Home.”

April is Fair Housing Month and as always it is an opportunity to reflect on our myriad attempts to provide high quality safe affordable housing. It was well known that unaffordable, overcrowded, or unhealthy housing has had a negative impact on families.

In 1968, in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act.

Civil rights activists were elated and thought that the passage of the Fair Housing Act would lead to the residential desegregation of American society. It prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, (and later) disabilities and family status.  

It was thought that housing would become more available and affordable, leading to safe homes that would lead to integrated communities. Over half a century later, secure, safe, and dependable housing is still a problem.

A House is Not a Home

Affordable housing was once part of the corporate investment in workers and company towns were prevalent. After World War II, companies got out of the housing business and left the problem of fair affordable housing to the federal government. Yet, decades of legislation and governmental policies to provide adequate housing for all haven’t made problems disappear.

For example, the Levitts, a family of developers, created Levittowns that became one of the nation’s most famous suburbs, providing cute houses at affordable prices. But it had a whites-only policy.

There is a long NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) history of public opposition to providing affordable housing in non-poor areas. When I consider our failed attempts to create not only affordable shelter, but welcoming homes and communities, I think of those Vandross lyrics.

I also wonder if social workers should become more involved in fair housing issues or even more broadly in urban planning. After all, we understand the price of housing insecurity – poorer health and educational outcomes and more violence.

It isn’t a new concept to involve social workers.

The Public Housing Convention (PHC) was founded in 1902 in part by Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, a social worker in New York City. The purpose of PHC was to bring together social workers and housing experts to lobby on the state and federal levels for housing legislation.

In 1936 Senator Robert Wagner addressed the PHC and talked about the connection between societal harm and poor housing: “It has long been known that many of the evils confronting philanthropy and education are rooted in bad living conditions.”          

Home ownership is still a major part of the American dream.

But the marginalized, including minorities, have been left behind. Rasheeda Philips, formerly of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia and now PolicyLink’s Director of Housing said, “Under constant threat of displacement from their homes, and often occupied with planning how to financially survive the next day, week, or month, Black families are often left unable to dream about and plan for the future.”

After a half century we should have so much more than a sad ballad to show for our efforts.

About the Author

Chad Lassiter

Chad Dion Lassiter is a nationally recognized expert in race relations. He has worked on race, peace, and poverty-related issues in the United States, Africa, Canada, Haiti, Israel, and Norway, and is frequently featured in the media providing commentary and solutions to racial issues. Lassiter is currently executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, where he has legislatively delegated authority to investigate filed complaints alleging the occurrence of unlawful discrimination in the areas of employment, housing and commercial property, education, and/or regarding public accommodations.

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