Who Determines Shelter?

Navigating the bureaucracy of housing

a window with blinds have drawn at dusk.

Ellie Esterowitz

Through Burger Hut’s large front windows, painted with colorful caricatures of dancing milkshakes and laughing ice cream cones, I spot the back of K.’s head, seated in the rear booth, her rich brown hair pulled into a low ponytail. From the way she positions her shoulders and the droop of her neck, I project what she might be feeling: a readiness to do what’s needed, perhaps, in spite of the effort it will take. 

I’d asked K. to meet me here because it’s close to where she lives, and no one will care if we simply purchase sodas or fries—inexpensive items—then linger for the next hour, talking. Because I remember, viscerally, what it feels like to live a life where every single dollar makes a difference—how one small indulgence (like those glistening fried tater tots) could result in the inability to dry a load of clothes at the laundromat later in the week.

K. is a single mom, and her family is the selected partner for our local Habitat for Humanity (HFH) affiliate, meaning the house we’re currently building is meant for her and her son. I’m K.’s assigned mentor, a role designed to support her success through the program—or at least that’s the intent. 

Since beginning my term on the HFH board a year ago, I’ve heard many people joke, “How do I get one of those free houses?” But let me be clear, Habitat houses are not free. In order to finally be on the path toward owning their own home, recipients must fulfill a long list of requirements: commit a certain number of “sweat equity” hours to the construction of their home (either physical labor on the site or volunteer work in some capacity for the affiliate); attend financial education classes; contribute a designated minimum amount to a monitored savings account; complete a loan application (like any potential home buyer); make monthly payments on the loan once the house is complete (again, like any home owner); agree to participate in publicity opportunities (photo shoots and interviews with local news sources); and attend monthly sessions with an assigned mentor (someone like me) to ensure they’re staying steady at their job and keeping up with all their obligations to HFH. 

What many people don’t realize is that a certain level of knowledge is required to even qualify as being “poor” in the eyes of service providers.

The oversight component of the mentorship role makes me feel uneasy. There’s such vulnerability demanded from the partner families, and it unnerves me how agencies or individuals can be given a power over those with less resources. It truly is a power to intervene—for better or worse—and make decisions about someone else’s shelter, and holding it isn’t at all comfortable. I’d agreed to become K’s mentor because, over the course of our planned year of working together, I’d hoped to become a member of her support system, a cheerleader for her transition from renter to homeownership. I was in my late thirties then, and I’d just purchased my own first home—a modest one-thousand-square-foot condo—the prior year. I figured I could appreciate the significance of K.’s journey.


On the afternoon of our first one-on-one meeting, I swing open the glass door to the joint’s small interior, and a warm breath of burger grease strikes me. K. does not glance my way; rather, she remains slouched over her cell phone, fingers texting. I take this to mean that a minute still remains for me to stop at the counter and pick up a Diet Coke.

The Styrofoam cup squishes against my palm as I set it down. “Hi, K.,” I smile in greeting, sliding my way across the hard bench seat opposite her. Around my feet, a few dirty napkins litter the floor. I nudge them away with the toe of my high-heeled leather boot and take a sip of sticky sweet soda. Then I remove my satchel—a laptop computer bag purchased from Target, the first “businessy” looking accessory I’d ever carried—filled with papers to remind me of the various requirements she must fulfill. 

As I place the bag on the table’s edge, K. glances at it briefly, wary, as though it were an official’s briefcase. The realization spreads through me: I’m probably just one more hurdle to her—not a potential friend, not a mentor—but another obligatory appointment in an already overwhelming schedule. This feels disheartening, but I can understand where she’s coming from, having been there in some form myself. 


During my childhood, I remember repeated occasions when my mom screamed at my dad, “I can’t believe you did this to us! We’re going to lose the house!” 

And my dad had countered her each and every time: “We’re not going to lose the goddamn house!”

That was the language they used. “Lose the house.” Lost—like a set of car keys, or a sock. And abrupt: one day the keys are in hand, and the next, they’re not. As a kid, I tried to imagine what it would look like when we “lost” the house. Would it be like the time our car got repossessed, when Dad drove it to work and came out to find it missing? Would it happen quickly, like a fire, enabling us to take only what we could grab in a flash? Or would we be aware they were coming, with an appointment scheduled for our unfortunate demise? 

Mostly I worried that, when the moment arrived, I wouldn’t be allowed to stay with my parents anymore—that they would be seen as officially unfit. (Even then, I’d already gathered that when you’re under-resourced, other people are entitled to make decisions on your behalf.) I tried my best to prepare myself. 

In retrospect, I’ve often wondered how much my parents could possibly have owed the IRS. It’s not like my dad was some savvy entrepreneur—rather, he was a gullible guy, easily duped by get-rich-quick schemes. He entered into a business partnership with a questionable character, and together they ran a small-scale security firm keeping watch over a couple of local establishments. As the partner steadily embezzled money from the firm and failed to pay taxes, Dad never demanded to see the books until the whole operation was on the verge of collapse. Despite his actual distance from those dealings, Dad’s signature on a set of forms held our family accountable, and our cookie-cutter, 1970s ranch-style house served as the collateral. 

In more recent years, I asked my mom how we managed to keep my childhood home after all. “We were going to lose it,” she told me with certainty. “We had to make a minimum payment of ten thousand dollars right away, or it was gone. There was no way we had that. I was preparing for us to leave. But then, at the last minute, Aunt Ruth sent me a check for it.” 

The comprehension sank in, a swirling mix of gratitude and guilt filling my belly: we were simply lucky. Fortunate to have a relative who’d done well for herself (by marrying into wealth) and cared enough about us to gift the money. Most people in our position would not have had such a benefactor.

Ten thousand dollars. It’s an amount that might sound manageable to some—or at least attainable through some concerted effort—but it was insurmountable for my parents. It was also a figure that the government had decided was significant enough to warrant kicking a family out of their home, uprooting their children, and forever scarring their sense of security—that meager sum more important than us remaining housed. 

Even all these decades later, where I’ve managed to eke out a stable, middle-class-ish existence for myself, I’m still haunted by our past. I just can’t shake the thought that something beyond my control—a layoff, a recession, an untimely collapse of my mental health—could cause me to irretrievably lose my home. To offset the nagging worry that something might happen that would make me unable to pay my mortgage, I stockpile savings and construct contingency plans to the point of near-paranoia. 

Once it’s embedded, the thought that your shelter could be taken from you at someone else’s discretion is nearly impossible to shake.


K. and I had seen each other on only one occasion prior to that meeting at the Burger Hut, but I knew everything about her financial situation: work history, credit score, monthly salary, the amount she owed on her car, and her total accumulated debt. As a member of HFH’s family selection committee—a group comprised of local community volunteers—we pored over all of it, comparing each applicants’ debt-to-income ratio and trying to assess the probability of who would be most able to repay their loan if awarded. 

Partner families are chosen based on the family’s level of need (meaning, how dire their current housing situation is); their willingness to become partners in the program (meaning, to complete all the listed terms); and their ability to repay the loan through an affordable payment plan. The repayments can’t exceed 30 percent of income, or they would no longer be considered “affordable.” While those guidelines all seemed reasonable, with K.’s income as a single mother, it was going to be a challenge to keep the repayments to 30% of her income and still plan for her to repay the loan within an acceptable timeframe. 

Despite how narrowly she qualified for the program, K. was ultimately nominated by the committee because the lot we had available for the home was small and could best accommodate a two-bedroom house. Those circumstances, at least, were in her favor. And that was a rarity because, sad as it is to say, a single mom like her, with one child, is not often chosen as a partner family. Publicity photos look better with a grateful-looking mom and dad hugging a minimum of two kids. 

Upon her nomination, another committee member and I visited K. where she lived in order to conduct a site assessment. She was renting a single bedroom, which she shared with her ten-year-old son, in another family’s double-wide trailer. That family, unrelated to her, allowed her and her son to access their kitchen, bathroom, and laundry facilities when they weren’t using them; otherwise, she and her son had only one room to call their home. 

When we arrived, K. invited us in and took us to see that small, shared bedroom. I wondered how she must have felt, having two strangers look in on her private space, inspecting it—good enough, or not?—in order to qualify her for something more her own. Standing in the doorway to her rented room, I did my best to keep my facial expression neutral, careful not to show either surprise or sympathy. The other committee member and I had a checklist of the conditions we were tasked to look for during the home inspection: signs of pest infestation or mold; whether or not there was electricity, running water, and adequate heat; and evidence of the structure’s stability—did it appear as though the roof was about to fall in? The more items we could check off as problematic, the better K.’s chances would be of having her nomination finalized. 

Per the checklist, K.’s situation wasn’t “that bad”; so, in order to give her a chance of being accepted, we would need to write up a summary detailing the shared bedroom and the emotional and psychological effects that the cramped living space would likely have on K. and her son. Of course, as a Westerner, I believed they needed private bedrooms in order to be their happiest, most productive selves, but a part of me was also curious about their eventual transition to the HFH house. 


I do know that, if I’d taken that checklist to where my brother lives—in his girlfriend’s dilapidated mobile home—he would have passed with flying colors. Unstable structure, check. Black mold, check. No heat source, check. No hot running water, check. No electricity, check. Infestation of termites, rodents and cockroaches, check, check, check.

If the housing authority ever cared to look around, the place would certainly be condemned, deemed unfit for human habitation—though it seems ironic that someone’s living conditions could be condemned without also giving thought as to what their alternatives might be. After all, I do prefer my brother to be surrounded by that trailer’s four crumbling walls than to be out in a tent on the sidewalk—which is where I fear I might find him one day. Actually, what I’d most prefer is for him to allow me to buy him a new (or newer) trailer. But each time I’ve offered, he’s refused.

My brother suffers from substance use disorders and possibly undiagnosed mental health afflictions, which keep him from maintaining steady employment, learning how to navigate rental markets, or accepting meaningful assistance. His work history is too sporadic, and he would, in short, never qualify for a HFH home. Plus he wouldn’t agree to show up and grin placatingly for all those publicity photos. 

It's curious to consider: Who gets to decide what it means to live a viable life? And who decides which among us get to have access to it?


But on that first day at the Burger Hut, K. and I wrap up our initial mentorship meeting and head back out to the gravel parking lot. Over the course of the last hour, she has confirmed that she’s already signed up for the mandatory financial education classes and is donating her labor to the house’s construction each week, during her one day off from work. She clearly understands what this process will require of her without needing me or any paperwork to remind her.

As we say our good-byes, I’m hopeful we may still form some type of alliance. Thinking ahead to the next month, I’ll plan to handle things a bit differently. First my satchel will stay behind. And I’ll remember to ask K. how her son’s visit with his father went, how the new computer system that they’re installing at her job is going, and whether or not she’d been able to buy that pair of jeans she was admiring. 

K. deserves autonomy, the right to make the decisions she needs for herself. The most helpful thing I can do is to be one less person checking up on her, hounding her, undermining her confidence. Hopefully our upcoming time together can just be about two women enjoying a conversation. 


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