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There’s a sweet, somewhat obscure holiday movie, It Happened on Fifth Avenue, that’s worth watching any time of year. Released in 1947, the film revolves around a historical footnote to World War II.
After the war ended, discharged soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen flooded home. In New York City, the setting for the movie, many vets couldn’t find a place to live. My dad was one of them, so the film is especially poignant to me.
In It Happened on Fifth Avenue, a veteran handcuffs himself to a bed to protest his eviction from an apartment house that is set to be demolished and replaced with an office building. The landlord’s minions carry him out, bed and all. A couple days later, he runs into the feisty wife of an Army buddy. She’s sitting on the tailgate of station wagon filled with boxes, her young son beside her. The veteran asks where they’re living.
"Right here," she retorts. "How do you like our penthouse on wheels?"
Few Christmas tales – except the one that started it all – focus so intently on young families searching for shelter. Most striking is how sympathetic the movie is to its homeless characters. The film is simplistic, to be sure, but it also confirms a truth: Ordinary, trustworthy people, folks we can imagine as neighbors and colleagues, can wind up homeless because of social and economic trends beyond their control.
People move their blankets down Park Avenue next to The Stewpot in downtown Dallas on Jan. 16, 2018.
That’s a relevant message now, especially in North Texas and other regions experiencing shortages of low-cost housing. Through no fault of their own, a lot of working people cannot find a decent place to live.
New York City had a postwar housing crisis because the Great Depression had halted new construction for more than a decade. Then the war effort diverted labor and materials to defense needs. After the war ended, and all those GIs came back, an already tight housing market tightened more.
In Dallas in the late 2010s, the housing crisis has a different cause: a fast-growing economy. This region has added tens of thousands of jobs annually and attracted tens of thousands of workers to fill them. But wages are mediocre. Between 2013-2017, the median household income in the city of Dallas was about $47,000, and about $54,000 countywide.
Meanwhile, North Texas added few new moderately priced houses or apartments. According to RENTcafé, all the new apartments completed in Dallas-Fort Worth in the first six months of this year were "luxury" units, as were 98 percent of those that came online last year. People are working, but they can’t afford rent. It’s like having $10 in your pocket and needing to eat, but there’s no McDonald’s around, only a Morton’s Steakhouse.
Worse still, developers have been tearing down older apartments and smaller houses that low- and middle-income families could afford, especially in the neighborhoods closest to downtown.
In the movie, the veterans become squatters in a Fifth Avenue mansion. Then they devise a plan to remodel closed military barracks into inexpensive apartments. That actually happened in real life. City authorities in postwar New York and Los Angeles built villages of surplus Quonset huts to shelter young families. It was only a temporary solution, but city officials recognized that the problem was housing, not the people needing it.
The only thing "wrong" with many North Texans who currently live doubled up in crummy apartments or decrepit rent houses is that there’s no place to go they can afford. I was broke and making barely more than minimum wage when I moved to Dallas, but cheap rentals were abundant then. That gave me a chance to pay off student loans and stash money away for retirement.
Today’s low-income North Texans don’t share that good luck. We could improve the situation by welcoming moderately priced homes into our towns and neighborhoods. We could allow builders to scatter well-designed duplexes or triplexes in upscale areas instead of more 4,000-square foot single-family houses. We could view affordable housing as infrastructure, something vital to our long-term economic and community health, and invest significant public and philanthropic dollars in it.
The movie got it right. The problem isn’t people. It’s a lopsided market that isn’t producing enough lower-cost places to live.
Jennifer Nagorka is a writer in Dallas and a former Dallas Morning News editorial board member.
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