Gimme shelter
A radical, practical plan to address the housing crisis
Linda Averill
volume:  
volume 38
issue 5
October 2017
imagestuff

Dignity Village, a "tiny house" community in Portland, Ore. Photo: Leah Nash for BuzzFeed

Homelessness is one thing shared by many full-time workers, the newly unemployed, and those displaced by gentrification. Homelessness soars in cities and towns across the U.S. and millions more are at risk of losing their homes.

Right to the City, a national alliance founded to oppose gentrification and fight displacement of the poor, calls today’s situation a national housing crisis: “Half of all renters pay unaffordable rents and one of every four households pay 50 percent or more of their income on rent.” Their call for human rights and democracy includes the right to housing free of market speculation.

Christina López, a public employee and housing activist in Seattle, agrees. “We have to take away the profit motive behind housing.”

López grew up in public housing, near Phoenix, Ariz., and it provided stability for her mom and siblings. Rent was based on income. “It really helped,” she said. “We didn’t have to go from slumlord to slumlord.” A majority of those in public housing were seniors, people with disabilities, and families. She connects today’s crisis to the cuts and privatization of public housing. The Section 8 program has replaced much of public housing with private landlords who need to make a profit. Under this system, landlords get paid in vouchers for most of the rent of those who qualify. But landlords are now exiting the program in droves because higher profits are available from people who can pay full price. In Renton, a Seattle suburb, several families were recently evicted from their homes for this very reason.

Big cities have a Band-Aid approach to housing problems. Tent cities get bulldozed. Affordable housing, provided by non-profit developers, is no real solution. López lives near such a complex, built for artists to purchase their own loft. “That’s a solution for them, but what about all the people at the bottom?” Here are some ideas.

Open the books, overhaul taxes. Less than ten years after the 2009 housing meltdown, Wall Street still wreaks havoc. Blackstone, one of the world’s largest equity firms, buys up foreclosed homes to rent at huge profits, gouging the swelling ranks of renters, desperate to find shelter. Opening the books on real estate speculation and profiteering would expose this phenomenon and radicalize the public about the need for structural change.

Revise U.S. tax law so that renters, not the rich and Wall Street, get the breaks. Right now, 75 percent of the mortgage interest deduction goes to the richest 20 percent of homeowners and landlords. Renters, who pay the bulk of a landlord’s mortgage and property taxes through their monthly payments, get no tax breaks at all.

Steep taxes on real estate tycoons, businesses and speculators — like Microsoft, Boeing, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, would discourage profiteering and generate billions of dollars for public housing.

Defund the Pentagon and spend the money on housing. The U.S. war machine, whose budget is routinely increased by both political parties, spends obscenely to blow up the homes of working people worldwide, while folks need housing here. Freeing up all those billions could fund a massive increase in public housing. Dismantling the war machine would also make friends of the billions of working people around the world who suffer from U.S. wars.

Dramatically expand public housing and enact universal rent control. There is nothing like a quality, government-run program to control prices. Enough public housing would put price-gouging slumlords out of business. Quality public housing once enabled millions of families to get on their feet. But in the 1980s, racist scapegoating of tenants, fueled by the punitive war on drugs, demonized this housing and justified privatization and demolition. Communities of color, and women and children, were hit hardest.

Seattle’s Yesler Terrace housing project, the first integrated garden community in the U.S., was sold for peanuts to billionaire Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate, to build luxury housing. The Mayor and Democratic Party-dominated City Council rubber stamped wiping out an entire community.

Nationally, millions of dollars are gifted to developers to build “affordable housing” that many renters can’t afford. In Seattle, for example, people have to make $48,000 per year pay for an “affordable” unit, leaving behind minimum wage workers, who earn less than $27,000 per year. The definition of “affordability” needs to be tied to the minimum wage.

In several cities, government officials declare states of emergency to free up funds for shelters, “affordable housing,” and social services. Los Angeles County Supervisors did this in 2016, and now the homeless count is 23 percent higher! Why? Because rents keep soaring. So called “public-private” partnerships fuel homelessness because low income housing units replace only a fraction of what is destroyed. There is no substitute for a massive public housing program. Converting vacant public buildings to public housing by hiring the homeless at union wages to renovate buildings would give people both hope and jobs.

Universal rent control is urgently needed because as public housing dwindles, market rents shoot skyward. On average, in New York City, a one bedroom apartment is $2900 per month, in Washington D.C., it’s $2200, in Seattle, it’s $1900. To be effective, rent control must apply to all rentals. The destruction of rental housing to build luxury development should be banned. Elected local control boards should set rents and enforce basic housing and non-discrimination standards.

A moratorium on foreclosures and evictions would reverse the rising homeless count and stabilize housing costs.

Housing is a human right! It’s a crime that people are forced to live on the streets in the shadows of luxury development. This will continue as long as housing is designed around profits. Many activists, such as those involved with Right to the City, fight evictions, gentrification, and other forms of displacement.

What is needed is a national movement where dedicated activists and organizations can join with unions, put forward bold national initiatives, and turn up the heat to bowl over resistance from the Democratic and Republican Parties — both tied to the big business of real estate.

It will take radical action to win housing as a human right. But homelessness is radicalizing. Let’s seize the time!

Send feedback to the author at avlinda587@gmail.com.

Also see: In defense of public housing