For well over a decade, I’ve heard many people I admire and respect say, “We can’t build our way out of this problem,” referring to the national affordable housing shortage or the homelessness crisis. It’s always spoken in a very matter-of-fact way, like how you’d say, “There sure is a lot of air outside today,” or “Madonna’s been on a creative decline ever since she released Ray of Light.” It’s so obvious, it’s barely worth mentioning, and yet, people do. A lot.
Not the Madonna thing. The housing thing. I didn’t think much about it when I heard it for the first several years, I just nodded seriously and waited for whatever came next. Over time, I noticed that everyone seemed to start the sentence the same, but end it differently and vaguely: “Well, we can’t build our way out of this problem, so we’re going to have to get creative,” or “We can’t build our way out of the homeless crisis, so we might as well have tacos for dinner.” At some point, I realized I didn’t even know why people were using this phrase or what it meant. Rather than ask, I decided to make a list of possible translations and my own handy response to each.
- “We have failed for many decades to build the affordable housing we need, so I’m resigned to the idea that we will continue to fail.”
That’s not the kind of can-do attitude that put a person on the moon. This is America. We failed for over 200 years to provide marriage equality and things didn’t change from a bunch of people saying, “Well, we can’t marry our way out of this problem.” Put on your fix-it pants!
- “It would take a long time to build all the affordable housing we need.”
That is a more accurate and manageable problem statement. Thank you.
- “It’s too expensive to build our way out of this problem.”
No, it’s not.
- “We should provide a mix of more built affordable housing and more vouchers to help people pay rent on the open market.”
That’s fine. Say that.
- “I actually thought her next album, ‘Music‘ was really solid.”
You’re off topic again. Focus.
In closing, I have purchased a small air horn and, from now on, when someone starts to say “We can’t build our way out of this problem,” I’m going to blow the air horn and yell, “We can totally build our way out of this problem!” You should, too. People are counting on us.
A version of this post originally appeared in the Home Forward newsletter.