In America, half a million people sleep on the streets every night. Almost half of renters are “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing. Millions of poor Americans live in a constant state of flux, moving from apartment to apartment as they are evicted and cast onto the streets. Millions more live in substandard housing infested with mold or coated with lead.
This is an unconscionable moral crisis.
There is no acceptable level of homelessness and no acceptable level of housing insecurity. Every person needs safe housing in order to prosper, and therefore, the only moral course of action is to eradicate homelessness and guarantee housing for all people, regardless of income, citizenship status or criminal history.
So the question becomes: How?
In America, housing is a commodity good which is gambled on by developers and wealthy investors. It is thought of as a financial asset, which for centuries, only upper-class white people have had the privilege of investing in.
The first step is confronting this paradigm. If we are to guarantee housing for all, we must think of housing as a social good to be held in public trust, not an asset to reap profit from.
The second step is confronting the private market, which is by nature exclusionary. The market’s profit-motives inherently leave many low-income families — and in some cities, upper-income families as well — behind. After all, it’s much more profitable to build a luxury apartment complex than to maintain an affordable complex with razor-thin profit margins. Federal, state and local governments, along with non-profit groups, try and fail to account for gaps in the market with lackluster housing vouchers and a pitiful amount of public housing. But even for renters who are lucky enough to get into these voucher or public housing programs, American tenants protections are notoriously weak, often leading to evictions for minor infractions.
Many people — especially “Yes In My Backyarders” or YIMBYs — argue that the private market is failing because of overzealous zoning restrictions which restrict supply. But loosening zoning often leads to more luxury apartments, and eventually, mass gentrification. Only private greed — not a lack of supply — explains why there are more vacant homes than homeless people in places like Oakland and New York City. We can’t tackle the problem of insufficient supply without also addressing the equally harmful speculation and greed of the private market.
It is clear that our current system is failing us. Here are some ideas for rectifying the situation.
First, we can invest in a massive expansion of social housing. This housing should be beautiful, safe, mass transit-oriented, mixed-income and powered by clean energy. The cure to homelessness is housing, so we should provide this housing unconditionally. Perhaps most importantly, social housing must be more than a “last-resort.” People of all incomes should be encouraged to live in social housing — not just low-income renters. Places like Vienna, Finland and Singapore have had incredible success with their social housing models.
We should also dramatically expand protections for those who remain on the private market. To start: When landlords put apartment buildings on the market, tenants should have the right of first refusal to buy their building and run it as a housing co-op or community land trust; tenants should have a right-to-counsel and be afforded lengthy legal protections from eviction; tenants unions should be supported and encouraged (even in publicly-run social housing), so that tenants can bargain with their landlords on equal terms; and rent control should be universally implemented to cap yearly rent increases in line with inflation. Speculation must also be dealt with. For instance, there should be severe penalties for vacant units (many real-estate speculators buy and hold apartments as assets) and units that are “flipped” within a short time of being bought.
This is a hodgepodge of ideas, but they have a common theme: In a society as productive as ours, no one should be homeless or have to worry about keeping a roof over their head. It’s our moral prerogative to decommodify and secure housing as a human right for all people.
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Harry Zehner is the opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.