Valerie Novack: Housing insecurity follows us wherever we go

Build an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A roadside camp in Provo on Monday, May 17, 2021.

I’ve moved nearly 30 times in my life, including seven states and more than a dozen cities, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I was raised, to Seattle for work, Toledo, Ohio, for college, and now Utah for graduate school. But no matter what part of the country I call home, housing instability has followed me wherever I go.

Housing is a basic right that is central to economic prosperity, public health and climate resiliency, yet millions of people in the U.S. are living just one missed paycheck, bad accident or misstep away from losing our homes indefinitely. For communities of color, housing insecurity is especially severe, a symptom of deeply entrenched racially targeted policies and practices that kept people of color in poverty and shut them out of our economy.

As a Black, queer and disabled woman, I am painfully aware of these inequities. At 17, I found myself sleeping on couches until I could legally rent an apartment on my own. Six months later, I moved to Seattle to experience “city living,” but couldn’t actually afford to live in the city. By the time I could afford my own place, it was a 415 sq. ft. studio apartment 17 miles outside of the city. Every day, I commuted to work by bus for nearly two hours each way from Edmonds to Bellevue, like so many others like me: workers of color experience a longer commute on average than white workers, and transportation barriers cause over half a million people with disabilities to never leave their homes, denying them economic opportunities.

In Ohio, I rented a room in a two-bedroom apartment from a grad student for $300, less than half of what I was paying in Seattle. The apartment was bare-bones — no living room furniture, a twin mattress on the floor left behind by the previous tenant, a desk, and some shelves, which I found while walking the neighborhood on trash day — but I could afford it. Then four months later, my agreement ended unexpectedly, and I found myself 22-years-old living in a new state with a limited income, little to no savings, and just seven days to find a new place to live.

I moved to Utah last year, a state that scores less than one on a five-point scale for housing safety and affordability and where rent has increased nearly 10% in the last year, well over the national average. With uncomfortably limited options, my partner and I were able to shift our budget in order to find a place within a manageable range from my school. We are the lucky ones. Others are far less fortunate.

While Utah was once a national leader in combating homelessness through its “Housing First” policy, rising land and housing costs, stagnant wages and the opioid epidemic have led to a steep rise in housing instability and homelessness.

Despite the long history of housing insecurity facing communities of color and low-income workers, the COVID-19 pandemic has made these inequities impossible to ignore. While Rep. Cori Bush and advocates have helped stave off millions of evictions and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has demonstrated a commitment to creative and bold ideas to address the problem, and the housing investments in the American Jobs Plan offer an important first step, these temporary federal moratoriums and a patchwork of state and local rental assistance programs are woefully insufficient.

There’s no place like home and every person deserves to have one that is safe and affordable so they can live their lives with dignity. It’s time for our leaders in Utah to deliver deep public investments to strengthen tenant protections, expand access to quality housing and build an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthiest few.

Valerie Novack

Valerie Novack is a Ph.D. student at Utah State University and policy researcher focusing on housing, infrastructure, and building inclusive communities. She currently resides in Smithfield, Utah. Her story will be featured as part of the ProsperUS State and Local Digital Week of Action, running August 9 through August 13, 2021. You can learn more about the ProsperUS coalition and join the conversation using the hashtag #ProsperUS.