A wealthy woman once gave Dorothy Day a diamond ring as a gift to help support the work of the Catholic Worker. According to some other workers, she slipped it into her pocket for a little while. A short time later, she gave it to one of the regular guests at the Catholic Worker, a woman known to be an especially difficult personality. This resulted in some argument around the hospitality house as to the best use of the gift. Someone questioned Day — shouldn’t the ring be sold to pay the woman’s rent for a year?
Day responded that the woman ought to be given her dignity to decide for herself what she would like to do with the gift. She might want to sell it and pay rent, or sell it and go on an extravagant vacation, or simply get some pleasure from wearing it around. Whatever the decision, it belonged to the woman. Day asked, “Do you suppose that God created diamonds only for the rich?”
I have been reminded of this story recently as we have done renovations on some housing we maintain for low-income neighbors at QC Family Tree. Many of the volunteers and paid contractors who have worked on the apartments we are renovating have done excellent, careful work on the project. But almost as frequent have been other volunteers and contractors who have recommended cutting a few corners, skimping on materials or processes here and there. “Given what this project is for …,” they will say, their voices trailing off.
But there is nothing too good for the poor. There are no granite countertops that are too fine for God’s beloved. There is no detailed trim work that would be wasted on the downtrodden. No accessory is too extravagant for those who, like Jesus, live in occupied bodies, who cannot afford to flee from the immediate violence of the domination system.
In my city, as in most American cities, we are talking now about the growing shortage of affordable housing. As populations swell, and as older, affordable housing stock closer to central cities is rising quickly in price, most cities are facing the problem of how to maintain affordability in urban areas. We badly need a new supply of affordable housing, we are told. The demand is overwhelming and we cannot keep up. The data back this up.
But this also misstates the problem in an important way. We do not have a shortage of housing in our cities. It is easy to find houses the size of small hotels, occupied by a minimal number of residents. We have no shortage of ostentatious homes whose very existence is for the purpose of showing off. Those who occupy these homes cluster together in enclaves of wealth. There may be gates, iron bars and security guards to maintain the illusion of difference. Every city has neighborhoods like these, where the poor are not welcomed except as servants. Do we believe that God made certain hills or streams or trees or gardens only for the rich?
The problem facing our cities is not a lack of affordable dwellings so much as it is a shortage of imagination. We do not lack rooms, or the ability to build them. For people who build 1,000-foot towers and mega-malls, constructing decent housing is not a problem. At the foundation of our inability to house our most vulnerable neighbors is a narrative that justifies some people getting housing built purely for efficiency, while others luxuriate in finery that fills more rooms than they could ever need. This narrative places an emphasis on social status over love of neighbor.
It is easy enough to see through this illusory narrative. If the finer things in life are really that good, the most human response is to share them. Sharing reduces the distance between us and our neighbor. It builds our imaginations to see the ways that God has tied us together, to see how we cannot live without one another. Such knowledge changes the questions we ask. No longer do we wonder how to help efficiently and at a distance. Instead we begin to see that what is good for our neighbor is also good for us, and that whatever comforts are good enough for us are also good for our neighbors.