Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Housing for All
distributed 8/9/02 - ©2002

Gentrification is chewing its way through neighborhoods in central Denver.

Radical changes are being made in areas that some would call "blighted," but that others call "home." The apartments that provide rare affordable housing are being demolished, and are being replaced by upscale condominiums.

The process moves block-by-block, shifting the boundary line that divides the affluent from the poor. At the interface between the two areas, new construction swallows up old buildings. The old trees that line the streets fall along with the old buildings.

An acquaintance of mine lives in one of the apartments facing the boundary. Harold and his wife, Margaret, have been homeless off and on over the years. The small apartment has provided a comfort and stability -- a home -- that seems luxurious in contrast to their life on the streets. Their building hasn't been bought up by the developers yet, but it is likely that it will be. With cheap housing in very short supply, Harold and Margaret may be homeless again soon.

Their bedroom window looks out at a block of empty buildings that are next in line for removal. Harold tells of one morning when Margaret looked out the window at the approaching construction and asked, "Where will all the birds live?"

Harold and Margaret 's experience of living under a bridge has implanted in them a deep compassion for all those who are forced from their homes. For Margaret, it is a compassion that crosses the boundary lines of species to care about the birds whose nests will disappear along with the apartment buildings.

In a fresh way, Margaret embodies one of the most deeply challenging themes of the Bible. The Hebrew people, who were oppressed as slaves in Egypt, are reminded again and again that they are not to turn the tables and become oppressors. Rather, they are to vividly remember their history, and to be moved to compassion by their experience.

Living "on the edge" -- homeless, poor, oppressed -- can plant the seeds of selfishness and anger. But it can also stir the most profound and far-reaching compassion.

Margaret's question disproves the assumption that only the well-to-do care about the environment. Indeed, many studies have shown that poor people are well represented among those who are deeply concerned about the health of the earth.

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The gentrification in Harold and Margaret's neighborhood is only one expression of the changing face of our growing cities. The urban landscape spreads out into subdivisions -- some with gigantic trophy homes on large lots, and others with lower cost housing.

Middle class families who have been priced out of the central city housing market often find that their only real estate options are in the distant suburban ring. Their limited housing choices force them to make long commutes on packed highways.

Two years ago, a Colorado ballot initiative tried to put the brakes on this sort of urban sprawl. The proposal called for more comprehensive planning by cities and counties, and for clear growth boundaries around some metropolitan areas.

The initiative was overwhelmingly defeated. A turning point in the campaign came when advocates for affordable housing sided with developers in opposing the initiative. In the heated debate leading up to the election, many people were persuaded that slowing sprawl would drive up housing prices, with the poor feeling the most severe impacts.

Through the last two years, a new partnership has been forged between environmentalists and those who are committed to affordable housing. Leaders of both movements have seen the truth of the other's cause.

It does not work -- morally or politically -- to contain sprawl in a way that makes housing unaffordable. But it also does not work -- for people or the environment -- to use uncontrolled sprawl as the primary way of providing housing at a moderate cost.

The defeat of Colorado's anti-sprawl referendum has brought together agencies like the Sierra Club and Habitat for Humanity, and has spawned a vigorous new interfaith project, Housing Justice! These cooperative efforts are part of the growing movement that sees how social justice and environmental sustainability are inseparable.

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Margaret's question of "Where will they all live?" is born out of deep compassion. We do well when our compassionate concern includes both humans and wildlife.

Providing appropriate places to live for people and for wildlife calls us to forge alliances that span income ranges and political agendas. It calls us to look not only at the monthly cost for rents and mortgages, but at all the other costs that are carried by individuals and the community, at environmental impacts, and at long-term sustainability.

May our faith communities be leaders in these compassionate, intentional alliances.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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