Modern Rent Parties Highlight The Need For Affordable Housing | KUOW News and Information

Modern Rent Parties Highlight The Need For Affordable Housing

Jan 26, 2016
Originally published on January 27, 2016 4:33 am

When people had trouble paying the rent in the early 1900s, they might hold a party in their homes, with music and dancing, and sell tickets at the door. Now, a nonprofit group is holding a modern-day version of the rent party to shine a light on the growing lack of affordable housing.

The new parties aren't exactly like the old ones, which were mostly held in Harlem. There's no dancing, food or tickets. But there is music, as was the case recently in Annapolis, Md., where about 20 people gathered in Tom Wall's small apartment to help him, and others like him, pay the rent.

Wall, 67, used to be a lawyer in the housing and finance industry. He had to quit when he had a stroke in 2011. But then he and his wife couldn't pay the mortgage on their house, and the lender moved to foreclose.

The couple moved to the apartment last summer. But Wall's wife, Peggy, died three weeks later of cancer. He now lives on $2,300 a month from Social Security, but his $1,600-a-month rent eats up more than two-thirds. Wall is like a record number of American families — 11.4 million — that spend over half of their incomes on rent. It's especially difficult for low-income families, who have little left over for food and other necessities.

Wall used to be well off. Now, he's barely making it.

"Stuff happens," Wall says. "Nobody plans to fail. But sometimes circumstances beyond your control happen in life, and you're challenged with what are you going to do about it."

So recently he hosted a concert in his living room by classical violinist Tim Fain, who played music in the movies Black Swan and Twelve Years A Slave. The nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners coordinated the concert as part of its campaign, called Make Room. The event is being filmed and will be posted online, along with several other concerts highlighting families with similar housing problems. (You can watch some of the concerts here.)

Fain, who had just flown in from appearing with the Pittsburgh Symphony, told Wall's guests — seated on folding chairs and two small couches — that he appreciates how scary it is not knowing when the next check will arrive.

"I think about this," Fain said. "Being a self-employed artist, nobody's looking out for me really."

Housing experts say it doesn't take much to get in a bind. Almost 2 million Americans who pay more than half their incomes on rent are seniors, often with fixed incomes. Others are workers whose wages have gone down over the past decade while rents keep going up.

In the audience was Donnie Lehman, who lost his masonry job in 2010 and has been unemployed ever since.

"I lost my house [and] found myself literally homeless," Lehman said.

Then Wall invited him to crash at his place. Wall has been trying to make ends meet by bringing in roommates when he can, although Lehman has no money right now.

Everyone in Wall's apartment appeared captivated as Fain played. No one passed the hat. Instead, there's an online fundraising campaign to help Wall and the others with their rent.

The real goal is to get people talking more about what can be done to address the lack of affordable housing, whether it's more public aid, tax incentives for developers or higher wages.

Fain ended to loud applause. And Wall is thankful for the support. But he says he isn't sure the campaign will make all that much difference in the long run.

"I have to say that, by and large, I think it's going to fall on deaf ears," he said.

Wall notes that the federal government has been cutting back on housing aid in recent years, and state and local governments are also strapped for cash. So, as he nears 70, he is looking for some part-time work to avoid eviction.

Two friends have also offered to let him live with them for free. But he says he is not ready yet to admit defeat.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A record number of American families - more than 11 million - spend more than half of their incomes on rent. For low-income families, that can mean little left to spend on food and other necessities. Almost 100 years ago, the answer to getting money to a landlord might have been a rent party. Tenants would sell tickets at the door to their homes for a night of music and dancing. There's a modern-day version of that now, and NPR's Pam Fessler has the story.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: OK, this isn't exactly like the rent parties of the 1920s, which were mostly held in Harlem. There's no dancing or food or tickets. But there will be music, and the 20 or so people crowding into Tom Wall's small apartment in Annapolis, Md., are here to help him and others like him to pay the rent.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Do you want to come sit on the couch over here?

FESSLER: Everyone sits on folding chairs or too-small couches. Wall stands in the center. He's 67, a heavyset man with pale blue eyes and a sandy-haired mustache.

TOM WALL: That's the mother of my two goddaughters. Hi, Chris.

FESSLER: Wall used to be a lawyer in the housing and finance industry. He had to quit when he had a stroke, but that meant he and his wife couldn't pay the mortgage on their house and the lender moved to foreclose. They moved here last summer but then Wall's wife, Peggy, died. He now gets $2,300 a month from Social Security but his rent is $1,600, more than two-thirds of that. Wall used to be well-off. Now he's barely making it.

WALL: Stuff happens. Nobody plans to fail, but sometimes circumstances beyond your control happen in life, and you're challenged with - what you going to do about it?

FESSLER: Today, he's hosting a concert in his home by classical violinist Tim Fain, who performed in the movie "Black Swan."

(APPLAUSE)

FESSLER: The concert is part of a nonprofit group's campaign called Make Room to raise awareness about the millions of Americans like Tom Wall. Fain, who's just flown in from appearing with the Pittsburgh Symphony, says he can appreciate how scary it is not knowing when the next check will arrive.

TIM FAIN: I think about this. You know, being a self-employed artist, nobody's looking out for me, really.

FESSLER: Housing experts say it doesn't take all that much to get in a bind. Almost 2 million Americans who pay more than half their incomes on rent are seniors with fixed incomes. Others are workers whose wages have gone down while rents keep going up. In today's audience is Donnie Lehman, who lost his masonry job in 2010 and has been unemployed ever since.

DONNIE LEHMAN: And I lost my house, found myself literally homeless.

FESSLER: Until Wall invited him to crash at his place. Wall's been trying to make ends meet by bringing in roommates when he can, although Lehman has no money right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM FAIN SONG, "ARCHES")

FESSLER: Everyone appears captivated as a Fain plays a piece called "Arches." The event is being filmed and will be posted online, one of a series of such concerts. There will also be a fund-raising campaign to help Wall pay his rent. But the real goal is to get people talking more about what can be done to address the lack of affordable housing, whether it's more public aid or tax incentives for developers, or higher wages.

(APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM FAIN SONG, "ARCHES")

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM FAIN SONG, "ARCHES")

FESSLER: Fain ends on a high note, and Wall is thankful. But he says honestly, he's not that confident the campaign will make all that much difference in the long run.

WALL: I have to say that by and large, it's going to fall on deaf ears.

FESSLER: Wall notes that the federal government has been cutting back on housing aid, and state and local governments are also strapped for cash. So as he nears 70, he's looking for some part-time work to avoid eviction. Two friends have offered to let him live with them for free, but he says he's not yet ready to admit defeat. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM FAIN SONG, "ARCHES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.