Housing Policies Create More Homeless in California
When the most devastating wild fire in California’s history tore through Paradise and other mountain towns in northern California last fall, thousands of residents – most of them low-income renters and seniors – were scattered across the country. Like communities across the world, the people of Paradise have been battered by the forces of a changing climate in crisis. Those without resources or places to go (their number currently unknown) joined the region’s homeless residents as the winter rains gathered force.
No plans or proposals by the various agencies responsible for addressing the problem of housing in this situation, have advocated for the urgent and massive investment in permanent housing that is needed for people without assets or income.
Instead, according to the consensus among policy makers, funds are being directed to emergency shelters. Only a few hundred beds are provided, usually in barrack-like living arrangements that are inappropriate for many houseless people, especially those in families or those with disabilities. The recent funding proposed by California’s Gov. Newsom, a billion dollars in “emergency” services, is being funneled primarily to temporary shelters. This funding points to the magnitude of the desperate situation of the tens of thousands living outside, not to a solution. It amounts to an annual grant of only $7,400 per homeless person for the year, even if we accept the official count of 135,000 homeless residents in California, which is widely believed to be an undercount.
Mayors intend to use the funds to clear the streets and sidewalks, even though it could be spent on housing and to support survival strategies like the self-governed encampments advocated by many homeless activists. In Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti recently announced the opening of a temporary shelter with 48 beds, built in the midst of a community of hundreds living in tents along roadways. At the same time, arrests and confiscation of property will be stepped up. “During the daytime, we do need these sidewalks to be clear,” Garcetti stated.
Up to $75 million is projected for temporary shelter in Los Angeles. Sacramento’s mayor has announced that $40 million will be spent to house 700 people for two years, costing more than $1,000 per month per person, for a bunk bed and “services” that do not include the promise of stability and dignity.
For the fire victims of Paradise, the non-profit North Valley Community Foundation collected $43 million in donations. When confronted by a local activist pushing for rapid construction of new, low-cost units, envisioned as an ecological intentional community, NVCF responded, “We need to have more people leave the area before we commit money.”
This response starkly reveals the broader policy trend to force out the people who can’t pay the cost of housing. As New York’s Mayor Bloomberg stated, “…if they can’t afford to live here, they are the kind of people we don’t want.”
Six million low-income people left California between 2007 and 2016. Fifty percent of residents can’t afford housing. Homelessness is epidemic. The state needs 1.3 million units of affordable housing. Yet California has cut housing funds to one third of the amount spent as recently as 2012, even after housing bonds passed last fall. If the past practices are any indication, the funds will be directed toward politically connected developers.
The New Class
To understand this ongoing dynamic of displacement, we have to look at the new class, part of the working class, that has been brought into being by the forces of electronic production. For the first time in history, the economic system no longer depends on human labor – our labor. Instead, increasingly intelligent robots dominate the production of goods and services. Of course, there are jobs for tech workers, but many of these jobs are also insecure “contract” positions. Tech jobs are concentrated in selected areas of the globe, like California’s “mega-region” of 21 Northern California counties, where they employ about ten percent of the workforce.
The new class, mostly excluded from the world of technology, consists of many millions of people across the globe, from subsistence farmers to unemployed or barely employed workers in California. People of color are especially vulnerable. These millions of people have been driven to the margins of the economy. Companies today view labor “…as akin to staplers: something to be procured at the time and place needed for the lowest price possible.” (Neil Irwin, Sept. 3 2017, “To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now,” The New York Times)
Generally, if not unemployed, the new class does insecure work; because it’s cheap, it is not worth automating. Job growth in health care, social assistance, accommodations, food services, building administration and landscaping represents low wage occupations in which employers have little incentive to automate.
This, too, is changing. For example, strawberry picking, now in the process of being automated, will soon be performed by robots in the fields. This has been spurred by the loss of cheap labor, as migrant workers from across the border are threatened and forced out.
As the new class emerges, as in Paradise, it is being driven from communities and neighborhoods by the deliberate policies of the ruling elite – those who command the new economy and control the government. This ruling class refuses to fund basic necessities for those who have become a “surplus population.”
Reshaping Our Cities
The historically woven fabric of urban life is being destroyed by the new economy, as the ruling class reshapes our cities and expels its diverse, rooted communities and its small-scale businesses. The San Francisco Bay Area, one of the wealthiest areas in the country, is a good example of this transformation.
Clusters of specialized high-tech industries have located their headquarters in the Bay Area region. Corporations are financing mega-projects and building housing for the higher-paid workers, who are indispensable to keeping their operations profitable. Recognizing the housing crisis throughout the region, their spokespeople, planners, and governmental representatives are laying the basis for increased density along transit lines, so that future urban development serves their needs.
The current package of proposed Bay Area housing measures (CASA Compact) deserves careful examination, because it gives the illusion of tenant protections. As pointed out by one activist, these illusory benefits are actually designed to undercut the demands of the rising housing movement, without delivering any real rent control or eviction prevention. Another platform for urban development are the new, federally created, tax shelters, known as “Opportunity Zones,” which facilitate investment in selected low-income areas and further incentivize” the displacement and expulsion of these low-wage workers in the new class. It rejects the call for housing as a human right. It is clear that selling or renting housing to the highest bidder, treating it as private property to be sold on the market like any other commodity, is not a workable way to house the millions who need it.
In the Bay Area, with some of the highest housing and rental costs in the country, more than 1.1 million workers, over one third of the total workforce, earn less than $18 per hour. Most of them earn less than $12 per hour. As a social force, with thousands on the streets or in “emergency shelters,” these are the people – a broad demographic that includes youth and middle-income families – who are fighting California’s housing struggles against a ruling class that uses housing policy as a weapon against them. RC
July/August 2018 Vol29.Ed4
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Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011