Heather Squire

10 Films to Help You Wrap Your Head Around the Housing Crisis

I taught an undergraduate class on the housing crisis for the Fall 2018 semester that met weekly for 2.5 hours. I wanted to spark debate and discussion about segregation, redlining, gentrification, the failure of public housing in the US, etc., but I quickly realized that the readings I had assigned were too dense for a student lacking a background in social science, rendering in-class discussions lifeless right out of the gate. I started researching films to show in class that would reinforce what I thought were some of the most important concepts, as well as drive home the human element of the housing crisis (in particular for the students who had never experienced housing insecurity). We watched several films throughout the semester and they were great tools to help students talk about various facets of the housing crisis in their own words, as well as to interrogate some of their own internalized biases around housing, poverty, and race. Most of these films can be streamed for free, via Kanopy (login using your local public library card), PBS, Vimeo, or YouTube. Do you have a film related to housing justice to suggest? Add it in the comments and include a link if you can.

1. America Divided: A House Divided (2016)

45 minutes. Part 1 of a 5-part series exploring inequality in the US, America Divided. Norman Lear explores the housing divide and affordability crisis in New York City. Tenants tell stories of what it’s like to live in a building owned by a landlord who is trying to attract higher-paying tenants. Nicole Hannah Jones (NY Times Magazine) describes how entrenched racial segregation and the racial wealth gap. Lear (who is white) and LB Williams, a black actor/activist with the Fair Housing Justice Center, attempt to rent the same apartment in order to see if the Landlord discriminates based on race.

2. Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story (2008)

54 minutes. Accessed via Kanopy. Brick by Brick is a documentary about housing and school discrimination in Yonkers, NY, and the 1980 federal litigation brought to fight it (US v Yonkers). The drama of this particular case provides a great context for filmmakers to explain how ghettos were created in the US, as well as the human impact of the deep social isolation of the people forced to live there. One of the characters in the film, a vocal opponent of integration in her neighborhood, forces watchers to grapple with how individual racism can intersect with and strengthen structural racism, while the other characters shed light on the human cost of racist housing policy.

3. Homes for All (2012)

56 minutes. Homes For All is a joint project of Twin Cities PBS and the
Minnesota Housing Partnership that looks at the current issues surrounding affordable housing: land trusts, government funding, fear of low-income people, and the limits of the market for providing housing at all income levels. The film looks at three different affordable housing developments through the eyes of the residents that live there. Stream for free on PBS.

4. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011)

84 minutes. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is an essential film for understanding the history of public housing in the US and how racism infected our public housing policy from the beginning, guaranteeing the failure of public housing. The uniquely American mythology surrounding the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St. Louis and other high-rise urban public housing projects continues to influence housing policy today, making meaningful public discussion of publicly-funded affordable housing almost impossible. Knowing this history is crucial to moving forward and pushing for equity and justice in the realm of housing. Watch for free on Kanopy or for $3.95 on Vimeo.

5. Adam Ruins Everything: The Disturbing History of the Suburbs (2017)

6 minutes. Adam uses humor to explain the racist history of how the suburbs came to be (so white): redlining, blockbusting, racially restrictive covenants, etc. Also digs into the connection between residential and school segregation.

6. Shelter (2018)

80 minutes. Shelter is a Vice Documentary that looks at the lives of homeless teens in New Orleans, as seen through the eyes of the residents and staff at Covenant House, America’s largest non-profit shelter system. This film humanizes some of the most vulnerable citizens of this country, leaving the viewer with a sense of just how important housing security is for people trying to claw their way to stability while struggling with trauma, poverty, and mental health issues.

7. Sold Out: Affordable Housing at Risk (2017)

56 minutes. Sold Out; Affordable Housing At Risk is another documentary by Twin Cities PBS and the Minnesota Housing Partnership that looks at how structural economic forces impact low-income people looking for housing. Interviews several tenants who were evicted when a new owner purchased their building who increased rents by 30% and implemented new rules designed to get rid of poor, black and latino people.

8. A Matter of Place (2014)

27 minutes. A Matter of Place is a film by the Fair Housing Justice Center that digs into the present state of housing discrimination based on race, source of income, sexual orientation, and disability in NYC. This film also provides a good overview of the root causes of housing discrimination in the US, as well as other inequities that remain common in spite of the existence of fair housing laws. FHJC provides a toolkit on their website for those interested in planning a public screening of the film.

9. Housing in Vienna, High Quality and Affordable (2016)

26 minutes. This film will be of interest to those in the affordable housing development and urban planning fields, as well as those who imagine what public housing in the US could look like. Several buildings and units are showcased to show how elements of design, architecture, ecology, and social sustainability are used to make beautiful high-quality affordable rental housing.

10. Poverty, Politics, and Profit: The Housing Crisis (2017)

55 minutes. This episode of the Frontline looks at why the billions spent on housing low-income people continues to fail. The film investigates taxpayer-funded housing programs like Section 8 vouchers and the Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) program and introduces the watcher to some of the people benefiting, as well as those left behind. Stream free on PBS.

BONUS! Owned: A Tale of Two Americas (2018)

I have not yet seen Owned and it does not seem to be available streaming yet, but it looks like a great film. From the film’s website: “Owned is a fever dream vision into the dark history behind the US housing economy. Tracking its overtly racist beginnings and its unbridled commoditization, the film exposes a foundational story that few Americans understand as their own.” You can request a screening and see if a screening is scheduled near you on the website.