Housing as a Moral Issue

Hansen Wendlandt, Nederland Community Presbyterian Church. The data says that Nederland has a housing shortage. Some people say it’s a public crisis. The stories I hear make it sound more like a moral issue.

Our rental market is almost zero, and many of the units that do come open are priced beyond what most people can afford—which is not a condemnation against anyone, just a simple fact about the economics of where we live.

As a result, many families that cannot afford mountain rent are forced to move down below, which draws kids out of our schools and young adults out of our community. Public servants can rarely afford to buy up here, which places a strain on police, firefighters, teachers, and town employees. So many locals struggle to make it work, and it is even harder for new folks to find stable housing.

In my role as a pastor, I hear people’s grief and stress all the time. Sometimes, it’s an honor when a church member feels safe enough to share their deep problems. Other times, people just wander into the sanctuary, desperate for any help we might be able to offer. (If my car is there, the doors are always open, in case you want to talk about anything.)

Other than issues with one’s own mortality, the difficulty of losing a loved one, and struggles with domestic, substance, or child abuse, the most pain people share with me comes from finances.

When folks lose their job or are in danger of losing a home, their world is in turmoil. Some of us know all too well what it is like to stare at your checkbook, wondering how we will cover this month. Some of us know the frustration from following every lead we have, without a single reasonable option. Some of us know the fear of calling everyone we know, asking to land on a couch for a while, so we can keep working, so your kid can stay in school, so that hope remains.

My mom worked for a while at HUD in a small city in Arkansas. It was pretty standard low income housing—cheap buildings in worse neighborhoods, case management that would make your head spin, a system that helped people survive but rarely helped them thrive. These days, thankfully, there is more creativity in the world of housing assistance.

New York City recently (and controversially) started directing money designated for mental health toward subsidized housing. The idea is that stable housing will help protect folks vulnerable to the psychological struggles involved in poverty.

Salt Lake City recently (and controversially) started giving homes to certain people who were experiencing homelessness. That sort of program has failed miserably elsewhere, when agencies simply handed over keys and checked back every few months; but this program involves community-building and holistic care for folks to learn life skills.

A church in Boulder even considered using some prime land to develop a mixed income apartment building, with volunteers directly and personally supporting people in need, and part of the annual mission budget designated for the project. Controversy got the best of that one.

Nederland has a few housing development proposals, controversial of course. Whether or not you support them in theory or detail, they could provide some relief for our housing situation/crisis/scandal. In so doing, they could provide some relief, directly and indirectly, for the local families and folks who work and worry so much.

I believe more is needed, especially for people with lower incomes to thrive, and especially so that our town can thrive. The housing study said as much, and the people who ask me for help say so.

Last summer, I met a man who was camping at West Magnolia. Maybe 45 years old, a veteran, he had been homeless for a few years already, and was getting tired and scared. I drove him down to Boulder once, just because he seemed to speak very wisely about poverty, how to help society understand those struggles, and simple measures that could help—an odd job bulletin board, for instance.

One day we were eating together, leftovers from the Summer Sandwiches and Socks. He said, with a bit more force, something to the effect of, “If I don’t get a place to live soon, I’m in trouble. And plenty of people are desperate, because even if they have a house today, they might be on the streets tomorrow. And isn’t it the job of churches to help?”

Yes, I think that is our job. And I think the only way to do that job is to partner with other folks who can help. So, that’s what we are trying. Since July there has been a group of caring and wise locals, from all three churches and across town, who have started working on providing sustainable and fairly-priced mountain living. Now we need your help.

Maybe you can help build a network of folks who can respond to immediate needs. Maybe you can give your time and expertise toward planning a larger project. Maybe you can help folks transition from anxiety to stable housing, and then from steadiness to a place of strength.

If you want to support adequate and attainable housing, in a way that lets Ned stay Ned, please give me a call (303-258-3579) or an email (ncpcpastor@gmail.com). We can’t fix everything for everyone, but maybe we can make a big difference for a few dozen folks.