John Oliver began his main story by defining housing in the United States as “the thing that 16-year-old TikTok millionaires can afford, and you can’t.”
This week’s episode of Last Week Tonight only got more infuriating from there. More than a third of US households are currently renters, which is a problem for a whole bunch of inequity-related reasons. But as many news stories in the past couple of years have pointed out, being a renter is hard and getting harder — in the past year alone renters have risen 15 percent nationally, 30 percent in mid-sized cities like Nashville and Seattle, and a whopping 50 percent in Austin, which is not a great way to maintain weirdness.
Rents were already unaffordable before Covid. Personal finance gurus say that you shouldn’t spend more than 30 percent of your income on rent. But for years in cities all over the country, the average percent of income devoted to rent has been higher than that, and rent continues to rise faster than wages—though to be fair, pretty much everything has been rising faster than wages for decades.
New rental housing is being built all the time, but the vast majority of that new housing is relatively expensive. Since 1990, the total number of US rental units has risen by more than 13 million. The total number of very affordable rental units, however, has dropped by almost four million. One result of this bullshit is that landlords are now able to charge more money because there’s too little housing available. Another result is that landlords are increasingly not individuals, but serpentine companies and investors who have seen US rents trending skyward and purchased housing so they can keep jacking those rents even higher, happily bleeding more money out of society’s gradual collapse.
Federal Section 8 housing vouchers in theory help low-income people keep their housing costs manageable, but only one in four households that qualify actually receive the assistance because — hold onto your hats — politicians don’t bother to adequately fund the program. Oliver related the story of a Chicago woman named Jeanette Taylor who applied for a voucher in 1993, when she was a single mom of three young kids living in a too-small apartment with her mother and two siblings. Taylor did eventually receive a letter from the government informing her she had made it to the top of the waiting list — but it was 29 years later. In the interim, she’d become a city alderwoman and her oldest kid had become a 32-year-old adult.
Even people lucky enough to get Section 8 vouchers often have trouble finding housing because landlords who say they accept vouchers won’t actually rent to people with vouchers, whether it’s because the landlords discriminate against lower-income people — this is technically illegal in many places — or don’t want to deal with government red tape.
“That is terrible, because even the worst people will honor vouchers,” Oliver said. “Take Willy Wonka. Sure, he may have run a sweatshop with horrible safety protocols that put children’s lives in danger, but even he had the decency to honor the fucking vouchers.”
Oliver ticked off several policy changes that could make the nightmare faced by low-income people trying to find and keep housing a little less nightmarish. But he also acknowledged that more fundamental change is what’s really needed. He didn’t go so far as to question the morality of even allowing landlordship as we currently know it, but he did advocate for codifying the fact that housing is a basic human right — something three-quarters of Americans already believe.
“For a large potion of the population, simply having a place to live is an everyday battle,” Oliver said. “And for far too long, we have prioritized the protection of investments over individuals.”