Friday, January 21, 2005

Our Housing Crisis

Except for the elderly and perhaps those who are ill, housing is not a Jewish communal concern, which is understandable because where people live and what they buy or rent is governed by socio-economic factors that ordinarily do not require communal intervention. Free market arrangements have worked reasonably well for most, as home-seekers have found affordable housing.

Along the way, there have been population shifts. It's been said that America is a nation of movers. We Jews are among the most frequent movers, which may be our fate in the Diaspora. There seems to be an Eleventh Commandment, essentially embraced by those who disregard much of the previous Ten, that prohibits living near one's parents. When the suburbs were developed in the post-Holocaust years, urban Jews - many of them newly affluent - came marching in, bringing with them offshoots of the communal infrastructure that they had in the core city, although often in a more secular form. As Jews moved physically, they also moved religiously, generally away from religiosity.

Given the value placed on home ownership, the contemporary Jewish housing picture partakes of some of the principal features of the population shifts of a generation and two ago. There is also a difference in that with soaring housing costs, much of what is on the market is beyond the reach of many younger families and this inevitably affects the choices they make. This development is tied to the extraordinary reversal in the pattern of American socio-economics, as for the first time in U.S. history the parent generation is overall more affluent than their offspring. A growing number of young families face severe pressure as they make their housing decisions.

There are those who have the resources - at times with parents chipping in - to purchase costly homes, else the asking price for such homes would decline appreciably. A greater number are being impelled to seek less expensive dwellings. For younger Jewish families this can mean relocating to areas where Jewish connections are tenuous, if they exist at all. It is true that many of the Jewish families that are now moving have assimilated to the point where they scarcely care about the character of Jewish life. Yet, there are those who do care and when they are forced to relocate to areas with a weak Jewish infrastructure, there is likely to be a weakening of their Jewish ties.

When younger families move away from the inner city and the suburbs where they were raised, there is apt to be a negative impact on day school enrollment, synagogue attendance and organizational membership. Day school enrollment has gone down in at least two dozen communities, primarily because younger families are not staying and the cost of housing is clearly an important factor.

There's probably little Jewish officials can do to improve the attractibility of their communities by trying to create affordable housing. This activity is not in the playbook of Federations and community planners, especially since public funding is not available for any initiatives that they may sponsor. The efforts that I know of to encourage younger families to remain or to move in seem to have gone nowhere. The social, psychological and economic determinants of housing decisions are impervious to pleas for people to come or remain.

Orthodox Jews are limited in their social and geographic mobility, if only because they require a developed institutional life. In practical terms, this means that they choose to live among other Orthodox, thereby encountering additional hardships when they seek housing. For them, the impact of sharp increases in housing costs is especially pronounced. It helps not at all that typically their housing needs vary greatly from the needs of typical Americans - whether Jewish or not - because of their remarkably high fertility. A three-bedroom unit is often on the small side, particularly for chassidic and yeshiva-world families. Even without the added burden of far more expensive housing, many Orthodox families are in financial crisis and under relentless pressure because of tuition charges and other costs related to their lifestyle.

As with other services, the chassidic sector is better organized to deal with housing needs as they seek new places for satellite communities and attempt to expand existing neighborhoods. Satmar, the largest of the groups, illustrates the point. There are plans for a second community in Monroe, New York, near Kiryas Yoel. In Williamsburg, private entrepreneurs have built hundreds of 3-6 bedroom housing units and many more are underway or being planned. They are located on the outskirts of Williamsburg in the direction of Bedford-Stuyvesant. It appears to be only a matter of time until chassidim are a significant presence in one of the prime Black neighborhoods in the country.

Flatbush is the primary yeshiva-world neighborhood. Housing that is on the market is beyond the reach of most younger families and helps to explain why former kollel families are deciding to remain in Lakewood after their yeshiva study has been concluded. One interesting development is the establishment of a new community in Waterbury, Connecticut, a rundown city that is being rejuvenated as young Orthodox families are clustering around a relatively new yeshiva and purchasing homes at a fraction of what such housing would cost in Brooklyn.

The Orthodox will, in short, at least attempt to adjust their sights to conform to housing realities. In the process, there are neighborhoods and cities that are being weakened by population losses, while other places are being strengthened. There is no comparable development among the far greater number of Jews to whom living among Jews is a far lesser concern. Their response to the housing crisis is impelled by calculations that paid little attention to Jewish considerations. As housing prices continue to rise, there are major consequences for the future pattern of American Jewish life.