Homelessness: Sign of a Broken System
The past two years have revealed a shocking rise in homelessness in virtually every corner of the nation. Los Angeles County homelessness rose 23% in 2017. New York City moved 38,000 people from shelters into permanent housing in 2015, but the total number of homeless for the year still went up. Washington, DC had 8350 homeless in 2016, the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country. California was particularly hard hit. In addition to Los Angeles, Alameda County experienced a 39% increase in homelessness this year, Santa Clara County 13%, Fresno 19%, and Sacramento 30%.
“It’s important to know that these people on your street are your people,” said Ryan Loofbourrow of the non-profit Sacramento Steps Forward, quoted in the Sacramento Bee. They are not refugees from other states or countries. An estimated 70% of Sacramento County’s homeless come from the same community where they grew up or lived for years, including many in residential suburbs. Karen Edwards reported her experience volunteering in a church shelter in Rancho Cordova: “We had local homeless knocking on our door asking, ‘Can we come in?’ I think the big thing that we’re learning the most, they’re not homeless migrating from other places …. The majority of the homeless in Rancho Cordova are from Rancho Cordova.”
Where the homeless are coming from is another example of a failing private property economic system. The worldwide trend of replacing human workers with automation has left millions of Americans with no source of income. People with disabilities, the elderly, and the unemployed have had social security and other benefits cut, because corporations refuse to pay taxes to support workers they will not employ. For employed workers, they have driven wages so far down that more and more can no longer afford to keep a roof over their heads and their families.
The result is an intensification of the struggle for homes by people all across the country. Since only government action can make affordable homes available, these battles are necessarily fought out in the political arena. They are fought in the city councils, legislatures, in electoral campaigns, and in street actions that influence these contests. The struggle for homes is an expression of the objective impulse for political independence of the working class. When people’s lives are being ruined by homelessness, they are not satisfied with compromises, or calls for patience, or legislative wheeling and dealing, or silence and betrayal from Republicans and Democrats. They will only be satisfied by homes that they and their families can actually live in. This demand for homes, and the growth of tent cities and other forms of resistance, are some of the seeds of this emerging political independence.
Features of the Crisis
Automation and its effects have been accelerating for several decades. The upsurge in homelessness in America today marks a new quantitative stage of the increase. What is triggering the sudden increase of homelessness? According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, over 11 million U.S. households now spend over half their income on rent. “That means that they are one emergency, one broken-down car, one illness, one missed day of work away from not being able to pay the rent,” stated Diane Yentel, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. “They’re really at risk of losing their homes altogether and becoming homeless.”
These 11 million households represent a 25% increase since 2007. The upsurge in these “severely cost-burdened” households is caused by declining or stagnating incomes, a shrinking supply of affordable housing, and escalating rents. Seventy-three percent of severely cost-burdened households are categorized as extremely low-income (ELI) (earning 30% or less of the area median income). In a March 2017 study entitled “The Gap”, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition documented a national shortage of 7.4 million affordable housing units that are available for ELI families to rent. In other words, for every one hundred ELI families, there are only 35 available affordable housing units. Because affordability standards are geared to local incomes, the ELI housing shortage is relatively even in its spread across the country. The ten cities with the worst shortages are Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Houston, Orlando, San Diego, Dallas, Riverside, Sacramento, Austin, Miami, and Phoenix.
The housing shortage is the product of decades of rising rents and declining government affordable housing programs. As a rule, the private market simply does not build rental housing to be made affordable to the ELI households without a public subsidy. Today there is growing political pressure to reduce regulations and unleash private housing developers. The alleged result of this is that a “filtering” process will cause older housing to become affordable over time. However, the decades necessary to make this happen are no help to people on the edge of homelessness today, and in hot markets, building owners will often opt to tear down less expensive housing before it becomes affordable and redevelop it for higher income renters.
Federal programs that subsidize housing to make it affordable for ELI families (such as Section 8 choice vouchers, public housing, and project-based vouchers) have been going through years-long, sustained reductions and are now in danger of accelerated cuts by the current Congress and Trump administration. Only 25% of those eligible for federally subsidized housing assistance actually receive it. State and local subsidies are also being removed. In California, where homelessness is increasing the most rapidly, affordable housing funding was slashed by over 70% since 2008.
Speculative Capital in Housing
Declining subsidies are only part of the reason for rising rents. As electronics replaces human labor, corporations are moving their capital into financial speculation instead of industrial production. In March, 2017 the United Nations Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, released a comprehensive report detailing how this worldwide shift is causing an historic and destabilizing transformation of the entire global housing system: “Structural changes in housing, financial markets and global investment, whereby housing is treated as a commodity, have become a means of accumulating wealth and often as security for financial instruments that are traded and sold on global markets. It refers to the way capital investment in housing increasingly disconnects housing from its social function of providing a place to live in security and dignity and hence undermines the realization of housing as a human right.”
Her conclusion is echoed by economist Joseph Stiglitz, who points out that lending stimulated by bank deregulation has “gone to increase the value of land and other fixed resources (buildings, real estate, etc.)”, which is causing the wealthy to become wealthier, while “the workers, who have no wealth, don’t benefit.” The outrageous escalations in housing prices and rents in the high demand, so-called “hedge cities,” are driving working class families out of entire regions, or making them homeless. Over the course of five years some 13 million homes were foreclosed in the United States, causing evictions of 9 million households.
Smaller landlords are increasingly being replaced by private equity funds with the aggressive management and legal resources necessary to maximize profit and destroy communities. “The clearing out of rent-stabilized tenants has become such a common real estate practice that it is added to a building’s value even before the fact,” writes Michael Greenberg about New York City. “Landlords have found enough loopholes in tenant protection laws to make widespread displacement a viable financial strategy.” Already, 15% of the city’s rent-controlled apartments were deregulated in the past ten years, through devious eviction schemes, buyouts, and extreme landlord harassment. In an economy where automation sharply reduces profitability in the so-called “productive” sector, the boom in real estate is devastating the ability of human beings to be able to live in homes.
Role of Revolutionaries
While Ms. Farha and Mr. Stiglitz present excellent descriptions of the problem, they do not propose effective solutions. Farha’s recommendation for “more constructive engagement and dialogue between States, human rights actors, international and domestic financial regulatory bodies, private equity firms, and major investors,” will accomplish exactly nothing. Revolutionaries have historically held that the emancipation of the working classes around the globe must be won by the working classes themselves. It is the responsibility of revolutionaries to make them aware of this historic mission and organize them to accomplish it.
Above all, our role is to explain that today they constitute a new class cast off by a broken system. They are being separated from social production by automation and therefore from their livelihood. This is a problem that no existing State, no human rights organization, no regulatory agency, and certainly no investor will solve. Only the workers themselves, organized into a material political force, have the inclination and the power to overturn the corporate private property system and establish a cooperative society to meet human needs. Indeed, this is literally the only way they can survive the deepening social destruction.
The battle is on, over whether the government should represent and serve the interests of humanity or the corporations. The corporate sector and its agents are attempting to organize and inflame a new movement against the homeless, similar to the 1960s resistance to fair housing, in an attempt to divide and isolate them. Law enforcement is on the front line of the attack. Although they especially target the African American and Latino homeless, it is increasingly done more based on their economic status than on color, as is clear from the increasing assaults on the white homeless as well. More and more, the equality of poverty and equality of repression are creating an impulse toward class unity among the homeless that make them key players in the fight for the overall class unity that is necessary to win.
Revolutionaries fight for the unity of this new class over and against its divisions based on color, social status, employment, or homeownership. The great recession that began in 2008 taught us that homeowners become renters overnight and renters become homeless. The role of the revolutionaries is to teach these truths from within this movement as it develops stage by stage.
November.December 2017 Vol27.Ed6
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011