A Tale of Two Zip Codes

Imagine this: You’ve reached the end of your work day and you’re heading home. You shut down your computer, grab your briefcase and umbrella, and head to your car. As you ease out of the parking garage and into Atlanta rush hour traffic, you start thinking about what’s waiting for you at home. What do you have in the fridge for dinner? What veggies did you pick up at the grocery store last weekend? Should you splurge and order delivery? Or if your other half beat you home, maybe dinner will be coming together already, something simmering on the stove, delicious smells radiating from the hot oven. You make a mental note to throw a load of laundry into the washing machine before sitting down to eat.

Across town, Tabitha Jackson is also leaving work. She punches out and heads to the bus stop, glancing down MLK Jr. Boulevard with increasing impatience for the MARTA bus that seems to run later every day. She huddles under the bus shelter, leaning away from the splashes of cars passing through puddles, so the mud doesn’t catch her uniform. There’s no time to go to the laundromat tonight. When she’s finally on the bus, she considers her dinner options. The refrigerator conked out again last week. Her landlord has promised three times to fix it, but he hasn’t done so yet. She makes a mental note to stop at the gas station on the corner by her house to pick up some microwave dinners, even though their prices are too high and she worries about the sodium.

You pull into your subdivision and then into your driveway, past the bicycle that your son left lying on the lawn again – how many times do you have to remind him to put it in the garage? The raindrops have smudged the chalk drawings your daughter made on the asphalt driveway. The weather’s getting warmer, and in a few weeks the daffodils that you planted by your front steps last year will welcome you home. Inside, you’re greeted by the sound of the television and your dog’s exuberant barking. Your son waves from the couch, and your daughter throws her arms around your waist before asking you to help her with her history homework, which is spread across the dining room table. The house is warm, and as the rain picks up and the wind tests the windows, you take off your shoes and tuck your briefcase in the closet.

Tabitha’s children are home already, too. As she walks up the path to her front door, she can see their silhouettes in the living room window. The bannister on her porch stairs is wobbly and loose – another thing her landlord hasn’t bothered to fix – and the stairs are slick from the rain. She frowns at the drooping gutters and the missing shingles on the roof. When she pushes open her front door, she’s greeted with that dank musty smell she’s noticed for weeks. That’s got to be mold, she thinks again. Her daughter throws her arms around her waist. “Hi Mommy,” she says. “It’s raining inside!” Tabitha looks toward the kitchen with a sinking heart and sees that her kids have set her biggest soup pot on the floor to catch the steady drip-drip coming from the cracks near the light fixture.

Once dinner is over and your kids are preoccupied with video games and their phones, you pour yourself a glass of wine and flip through the day’s mail. The electric bill ($95); a reminder from your kids’ dentist that they’re due for cleanings; a postcard from your brother; some junk mail that you toss in the shredder. You consider lighting a fire in the fireplace and finding a good Netflix movie, but then decide you don’t want to stay up that late. When the clothes finish spinning in the dryer, you’ll fold them, make sure your front door is locked, and then head for bed with your Kindle.

Once dinner is over, Tabitha rubs her feet, sore from a long shift standing behind a cash register, and flips through the day’s mail. The electric bill: $300! She knows something’s wrong with the house’s wiring – some sockets don’t work and others spark dangerously – but the landlord insists it’s her imagination. Tabitha makes a mental note to ask him AGAIN to send an electrician; she can’t afford to pay this bill, not even half. She sighs and keeps going. A past-due telephone bill. A bank statement. She tears it open and sees that her bi-weekly pay was direct-deposited yesterday: $473 – her net pay for eighty hours of painful, repetitive, minimum wage work. She sighs again and counts the days until rent is due, tallies the bills, counts up bus fare, wonders for the millionth time how she will ever afford to move to a nicer house with a better landlord.

You and Tabitha climb into bed at around the same time, on opposite sides of Atlanta, in houses and neighborhoods that bear little resemblance to each other. The same housing laws apply to you and to Tabitha, but she lacks the money, time, and legal representation that she needs to hold her landlord accountable. Tabitha’s toolbox is nearly empty. And housing rights without the legal tools to enforce them are just an abstraction – not enough to keep the rain out.