I still remember the first conversation I had about buying a home in Seattle. It was 2004, I was fresh out of seminary with looming student loans and only a modest part-time salary from a local church. A friend of mine, who had recently become a part-time mortgage lender, assured me that I could buy a home in spite of these constraints. “Are you sure?” I inquired. “Don’t you need a large down payment, and a sizable salary to purchase real estate?”
“Don’t worry about it!” he said. “Good credit is all you need.”
Those who saw the 2015 film The Big Short may remember that large-scale, high-risk home loans were a major factor in the national housing market collapse—the one that led to the largest global economic recession in a generation. I did end up buying a modest home and I was very fortunate to get through the local housing bubble largely unscathed. Many others didn’t.
Those uncertain times are now long past as Seattle’s housing market came roaring back in the last few years. Local real estate values have actually reached new peaks in pricing that surpass the previous bubble’s heights. As of October 2016, the median home price in the city of Seattle was about $630,000. To put that in perspective, a conventional purchase of a home of that value would require not only a cash down payment of $126,000, but also an annual household income of at least $130,000. There is nothing “average” about those wealth requirements. In Seattle and throughout urban Cascadia, the housing affordability crisis is real. It’s been especially costly for those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. What does faithful Christian discipleship look like in the midst of these market realities?
Good News to the Poor?
One of my more memorable seminary experiences was a forum for students and faculty held around a simple topic: is Christian scholarship accountable to the poor? I’m still haunted by the fundamental challenge of that question. I’m absolutely convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ is always good news to the poor and liberation for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). Yet, I often struggle to connect the dots between that beautiful proclamation and the dynamic financial systems that shape my daily economic decisions.
What I do know is that the overall costs of housing—whether rent, a mortgage, or other associated costs—are in total the biggest expense of my monthly budget.
What I do know is that the overall costs of housing—whether rent, a mortgage, or other associated costs—are in total the biggest expense of my monthly budget. This is true for most households. No other expense so dominates my economic landscape. The costs of housing loom large over so many other decisions related to work, family, and community. It’s true that housing affordability will remain a significant economic challenge for the foreseeable future in Seattle. But I also wonder if we have too readily taken this market reality as a given. If we have, then we’ve neglected possibilities for Christian communities to think differently and creatively about the opportunities shaped by where and how we live.
Housing and the Common Good
In the face of consumerism, theologians like Walter Brueggemann and Miroslav Volf have long lamented the inability of so many North American Christians to coalesce around a compelling vision of the common good. The common good—with the self at the center—will always prioritize individual goods over love of neighbor. Housing is a perfect example of how consumerism drives the habitation costs that disproportionately shape our lives together. In other words, when we allow the market—driven by our appetites for the good life—to determine the cost of housing, it’s difficult to see any viable housing alternative. Land is a precious commodity, and housing follows the market logic of supply and demand.
But what if we imagined our lives together in service to a common good that prioritizes neighborly concerns, even in housing?
But what if we imagined our lives together in service to a common good that prioritizes neighborly concerns, even in housing? What if Jesus’ gospel to the poor is not only good news for the disenfranchised on the margins, but also for the wealthy and powerful who need liberation from oppressive forces like greed and self-interest? In cities like Seattle, we desperately need Christian communities to rethink the economics of housing around generosity instead of scarcity. We need to reimagine belonging in places of exclusion.
For those paying attention, glimpses of this are already happening around Seattle, but there’s not nearly enough funding. There’s even fewer Christians at the table of the affordable housing conversations taking place between developers, planners, and activists. In my own neighborhood of Columbia City, billionaire Paul Allen is working with a local housing alliance to build transitional housing out of repurposed steel shipping containers for Seattle’s growing homeless population—the first community of its kind in the U.S. Just down the street, the Christian Community Development ministry of Urban Impact—one of those few Christians at the table—built sixty units of affordable apartments for the many working-class, immigrant, and resettled-refugee families that make the Rainier Valley such a vibrant neighborhood. For myself, I’m currently in the process of building a small housing development on Beacon Hill, a historically East Asian immigrant community in southeast Seattle.
Each of these examples is only a small drop in the bucket of meeting housing demands with alternative models of community living. Still, I wonder how much more the church could accomplish if we turned our attention to housing as a primary consideration in our discipleship and stewardship, rather than just as an expensive fixed cost in our personal finances.
Yet I remain hopeful that Christians can remember we belong to a different story. We should be an alternative community that inhabits that story in fresh and creative ways.
Too often, our vision of the common good has been wrapped up in notions of the good life defined by upwardly-mobile housing amenities that suit our consumer tastes and lifestyle. Even when we try to “live simply so others can simply live,” market forces push us into unrealistic economic situations where the costs don’t add up and we’re left feeling like we never have enough. Yet I remain hopeful that Christians can remember we belong to a different story. We should be an alternative community that inhabits that story in fresh and creative ways. If where and how we live can be a gift to our neighbors—and together we can experience the generosity and love of God—then that’s certainly an embodiment of good news. Imagine if our housing truly reflected a communal commitment to one another. What could happen in neighborhoods across Seattle and beyond if we started to see housing in service to the common good, and not merely as an expense for ourselves?