Modern Rent Parties Highlight The Need For Affordable Housing There's no dancing or passing the hat at these new rent parties. There is music — and online fundraising. Recently, a classical violinist played a concert in an Annapolis apartment to help the tenant.

Modern Rent Parties Highlight The Need For Affordable Housing

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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."


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.


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.




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.


Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.