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For housing abundance and diverse, livable communities in Asheville

Housing Is in the Air

by Andrew P.
July 7, 2023

This member commentary post does not necessarily reflect the views of Asheville For All or its members.

I listened to a good podcast episode recently. It was an interview with Matthew Desmond, a sociologist who has recently published a book about poverty and inequality in the United States. The book’s primary thesis is that it’s not just the “one percent” that are behind economic injustice, but rather that a broad swath of the upper and middle classes play a role in perpetuating poverty and segregation.

The episode touches on a lot of different issues, not the least of which is housing, and I recommend it. But one small moment in the interview got me thinking about something.

In this particular segment of the interview, Desmond is talking about how there’s a kind of small talk conversation that we have with neighbors or family members that can become opportunities to educate, advocate, and organize. He imagines a scenario where you are talking to a neighbor during tax season. Perhaps you’re just talking over the fence between your yards. And your neighbor inevitably gripes about having to do their taxes.

“I hate doing my taxes. You know what I’m talking about!”

These kinds of small talk conversations, Desmond notes, place important subjects “in the air.”

So, he suggests, the next time someone engages in this kind of chit-chat, you can do the usual thing, which is to respond with “I know, right? Taxes. What a pain.”

(At this point, I should note that I am totally going off of my memory of having listened to this podcast while out on a run, and quotes most definitely are not verbatim. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a transcript available on the show’s website.)

Or you can say something unexpected. In his example, you might say something like, “Yeah, isn’t it crazy that we get a mortgage interest deduction, which is essentially a subsidy for the rich? Have you ever thought about writing your congressperson to ask them to sunset this policy so we can help people that are struggling more than we are?”

This kind of conversational move is a variation on what labor organizers call a “one on one.” In this case, you take a social connection that you already have, and try to transform an instance of formless, abstract small talk, in order to move the discussion towards one with more coherence and purpose.

Well, it occurred to me, listening to this interview, that housing is in the air in Asheville. All the time. Online, offline, with neighbors, my wife’s friends, any informal hangout where my toddlers are running around on the floor while the adults are sipping drinks, someone will say something like, “Gee, aren’t housing prices around here crazy these days?”

These conversations are rudderless, lacking coherent ideology, and they often end up with just plain bad conclusions. (Tell me you’ve never heard someone say “I wish people would just stop moving here.”) This is to be expected. People are prone to make observations about what they see around them, and we are all prone to use those observations to make guesses about how the world works, and assumptions about how the world should work.

But if we want to change the political culture around housing, we need to interject in such discussions. We need to give them form and shape, to present informed and coherent understandings of how the world works, and to propose that it is in our power to change the status quo and make things better.

So the next time you’re in one of these Asheville housing small talk moments, consider saying something like:

OK, some of these suggestions are rather impolitic! (There’s also the assumption, that I’ve made following Desmond, that you’ll be interacting with a home owner.) Is it actually effective to shame our neighbors?

Probably not. And to its credit, there’s a real tension throughout this podcast episode, one that Desmond and his interviewer openly and admirably discuss several times during the hour, about whether or not it makes sense to emphasize our neighbors’ complicity in institutions that promote segregation and poverty, or to suggest that housing justice (or any other kind of justice) is against their interests if they’re in the middle- or upper-class.

In the list above, tongue half-in-cheek, I’ve provided a couple of great ways to really shame your friends about their homes and the way that they might think about home ownership and land use. But a better way to engage might be to emphasize something like what Heather McGhee calls “the solidarity dividend”: the idea that most of us—even home owners!—would benefit from a world with less injustice and less scarcity.2

And borrowing again from labor organizers, the most effective strategy in deepening these “in the air” conversations might be to focus on asking follow-up questions rather than immediately sharing what you know. Ask your neighbor or friend: “why do you think rents and home prices have gone up so much?” And see how they respond.

In any case, I encourage you to see what happens the next time you find yourself in one of these “in the air” moments. It’s often the case that people simply don’t know what they don’t know. You can help make them aware, and guide them on how to start thinking about the causes of our city’s housing shortage, and about real solutions to the exorbitant rents and home prices that are so often remarked upon in day-to-day conversation.

  1. I hasten to note here that most people, of all income levels, tend to move to a place when they already have friends, family, or a job opportunity in the region. 

  2. Besides the aforementioned benefits to the tax base, more housing and greater density does or could mean: more housing options for seniors/empty-nesters looking to downgrade their living space but remain in the same neighborhood; more customers for businesses like the great Grata Pizzeria that was forced to close due to lack of business; the opportunity for Asheville children to live in town and stay close to their families when they move out on their own; fewer homeless people on the streets; fewer shortages of teachers, doctors, service-industry workers, and daycare providers; and I’m sure that there’s more. 

This member commentary post does not necessarily reflect the views of Asheville For All or its members.

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