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Modern Rent Parties Highlight The Need For Affordable Housing

Brandon Chew
Classical violinist Tim Fain, who played music in the movies Black Swan and Twelve Years A Slave, performs during a concert in Tom Wall's apartment in Annapolis, Md.

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.

Brandon Chew / NPR
Tom Wall sits in his bedroom before the Make Room concert begins on Jan. 18. Around 20 people gathered in Wall's small apartment to attend the concert and to help him, and others like him, pay the rent.

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.

Brandon Chew / NPR
Donnie Lehman (left), Chris Cable and Cyril Syoboda introduce each other before the Make Room concert at Tom Wall's apartment. Lehman used to be homeless, living on the streets, before Wall brought him in as a roommate.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.