The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Homelessness and Poverty Are Policy Choices

The issue is simple enough. There are more empty homes than homeless. For example, in New York:

AirBnB, deliberate withholding, seasonal users, and I suspect, a lot of flippers and foreign buyers who rarely use the property.

All of these could be dealt with by political means: much higher taxes on empty homes, disallowing foreign owners who do not live in properties, cracking down on AirBnB by making hosts abide by hotel regulations, and taxes, among other things.

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As with food, where we produce far more than we need, but people go hungry, homelessness in the first world, with the exception of a few individuals, is a policy choice. We have the homes, and can easily build more, but we let people go homeless or hungry (or without medicine) because we don’t care enough.

It’s one thing to ration actually scarce resources, but when there is surfeit, and people going hungry and homeless, society has lost its way.


Open Thread


The Curse of Knowledge and Predicting Electoral Results


  1. Hugh

    The US is a rich country. That is it has the resources both physical and human to make sure all its citizens have the basics for a decent and meaningful life: food, shelter, healthcare, education, real jobs, pensions. No American should fear not having any of these things. No American should fear getting sick, growing old, being hungry or homeless. No American. Not one.

    Say any of this to our rapacious looting neoliberal Establishment, and they scream “Socialism!” Well, if this is socialism, bring it on. They say it will cost too much. No, the wealth is there. This is about redistributing resources. What will happen is that the power of the rich and elites will be reduced and tied to providing actual benefits to our society.

  2. nihil obstet

    Our economic system is based on scarcity. As we have achieved plenty, we have not changed the system — instead, we artificially recreate the scarcity, which we have made virtually the sole source of value.

    People care in some sort of abstract way for affordable housing. They care in a very specific way for their property rights. They don’t want to be restricted in any way from doing what they want on their property, but want other people restricted from doing things that lower their property values. It makes for interesting and depressing neighborhood association meetings. Your stance depends on whether you envision yourself renting out an airBnB with a cleaning service to take care of everything so that you just effortlessly collect the income stream or whether the airBnB next door is causing you problems.

    These are issues of the structure of the economy which creates the framework for human choices.

  3. Hugh

    All private ownership of land, and therefore what sits on it or what it is used for is conditional: mortgages, easements, zoning, eminent domain, property taxes, associations, clean water and air regulations, the list is extensive. The idea that an individual “owns” the land is a myth. At most, it is a kind of rental.

  4. Willy

    Where I live newcomer tech wealth buys up local shelter, extranational offshoring wealth buys up local shelter, dwellings which the new owners will themselves never use, resulting in forcing unnaturally high costs and demand. This is a form of legalized predation since the quality of life for anyone not currently owning their own shelter will steeply decline.

    Any attempt to rationalize such a system with some sort of ‘freedom dogma’ is folly even if one cannot consider it evil. Basic human nature wants to reject systems which are failing it. After the obfuscatory indoctrination wears off, I cant wait for wingnuts to start calling for force to maintain “freedom”.

  5. Mark Pontin

    To be clear, in the US overall —

    ‘There are roughly 18,600,000 vacant homes in the United States as of February 2014. There are 600,000 Americans who experience homelessness on any given night, making the amount of vacant homes six times the amount of individuals without a place to sleep at night.”

    And that’s because artificially-created homelessness is much more than a policy decision by elites. It is at the _very heart _ of their wealth and power, which depend on it.

    This was made blazingly obvious after the 2008 GFC, when Geithner and the Obama administration ‘foamed the runway’ for the banks by making war on the American population as a whole. The central focus of their strategy was, above all, on keeping real estate prices artificially high.

    That was because the creation of financial wealth by bank ‘lending’ for real estate mortgage purposes remains the center of the financial oligarchy’s wealth and its predatory hold on society and the economy. When that system ends, so does that oligarchy. And they know it.

  6. someofparts

    From slavery to Shock Doctrine capitalism, it’s a feature, not a bug.

    A friend tells me that neighborhood meetings around here are unbearably contentious. Young families moving in want taxes jacked up to support better schools for their kids while retirees push back hard on those demands because they don’t want to be priced out of their homes.

    We are so dishonest about our history, but the truth of who we really are shines through.

  7. Stirling S Newberry

    We care, but it is our economic reason to insert a minimal cost. If you can’t pay it, then there are cemeteries.

    “Are there no prisons, are there no workhouses?”

  8. joe

    In SF, it\’s scary to be a mom and pop landlord. I know of one retirement age couple who built a mother in law unit in their house because they were thinking of renting it out. They decided not to because of all the scary stories like this one they heard:

    This is partly why there are many empty unit in SF for example, or potential units left un-built because people don\’t want to deal with crazy ass shit like that with homeless tenant types. They can\’t afford themselves to spend $10k evicting a crazy like that because they are not a professional corporation with the ability to self-insure against such incidents.

  9. Willy

    I worked with rental management businesses for several years, directly with owners, tenants and vendors. With current surveillance and background checking technologies and a working knowledge of tenant law it’s not risky to be a landlord. About a third of applicants will have something up their sleeve but with reputable management companies the financial damage risk for owners is minimal. Usually. One once reputable company I know of wanted more revenue streams and replaced its qualified maintenance vendors with their own in-house ‘technicians’ drawn from the undocumented, inexperienced and recovering meth addict labor pools. That company also took advantage of the high demand and used application fees, as many as 50 per rental, as an intentional source of revenue (keep showing long after the qualified tenant has been found). LLC owner teams buying section 8 buildings (I never had a serious problem with the down and out) and then evicting them to do a full upscale remodel using undocumented labor was common. Overall, in my expensive west coast city I found nightmare tenants (which do obviously happen) to be much rarer than nightmare owners and managers.

  10. Ché Pasa

    Let’s do a “prior to” exercise. What was it like before the rise of homelessness under the Reagan regime? Was there homelessness and hunger in the US Before Reagan?

    The answer obviously is “yes.” But it wasn’t quite the situation we see today.

    Reagan is notorious for closing the mental hospitals which in turn led to an immediate and seemingly permanent increase in rough living by all sorts of people — not just drug addicts and alcoholics — who couldn’t get by in the “normal” world. Many of these people had been sheltered in mental hospitals prior to their closure. In the ’50s, for example, mental hospitals had a population well in excess of today’s prison population.

    But even with the mental health care system that once existed, there were still “vagrants”, “bums” and “free spirits” unhoused or barely housed in the US, many of them. Much of Jack Kerouac’s literary output is about those people and celebrates them.

    If you were poor in America at any time, the specter of homelessness and hunger always shadowed you. Evictions were commonplace and often brutal. Having nowhere to go once evicted was typical. Many of those who wound up on the streets eventually found shelter but not without struggle, and often not without losing cherished possessions and people (such as children and elder family members.) Rural residents sometimes had more options than urban ones in that extended families might take in down on their luck members or could sort out what to do with children and elders more easily and quickly than a bunch of strangers and bureaucrats could in the cities.

    Hunger and dietary deficiency was wide spread, far more than today, though by tomorrow we might catch up with where we were. Americans weren’t just thinner in the past than now, they were lean and often hungry. Frugal habits combined with lack of food availability and very limited incomes made for a lot of lean and hungry Americans, some of whom were literally starving or very near to it. Hunger existed independently of homelessness, but the two certainly intertwined.

    Prior to WWII, this situation was sometimes deplored but typically it was taken for granted. Even during the New Deal, the underlying problems weren’t dealt with. Certainly the racist aspects weren’t. That only started happening with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society — which was partially based on FDR’s Second Bill of Rights.

    Housing, food, meaningful and necessary work, social uplift of the downtrodden, health care, education, etc. etc were all part of a huge effort to curb or end poverty and its deleterious consequences during the Johnson presidency and subsequently (Nixon kept much of the Great Society going and expanded parts of it). But there was fierce and lasting opposition from rightists, and libertarians, and piece by piece, much of what of what was instituted through the government programs of the New Deal and Great Society was defunded, jettisoned, spun off to the private sector or dismantled altogether.

    So here we are now. Homelessness is intractable and institutionalized — and a source of revenue for thousands of NGOs. Hunger is growing but largely hidden — except for all those long lines at the food pantries. Mental health care is spotty at best, and there are few institutions to house the mentally ill — except prisons, where “care” is an oxymoron. Extended family support is widely unavailable and apparently becoming less so.

    The fact that there are so many vacant properties — far more than the number of homeless at any given time — was made note of during the Great Recession of not so long ago, and many proposals were made to utilize some of that housing stock to house the homeless and were promptly dismissed on liability and other grounds. Better by far to keep the stock vacant and provide alternative and difficult to access shelter for the unfortunate than to mess with the private property (ie: bank) overburden of vacant housing. Never mind that whole cities in parts of the country are nearly depopulated and a majority of housing stock stood vacant and deteriorating. The sacredness of private property had to be maintained. No matter what.

    Well, maybe that time is coming to an end. It should have done so long ago, but the struggle was barely engaged before the forces of reaction won. And now their grip is tighter than ever.

  11. someofparts

    From that post in the Guardian, a passage that seemed relevant here:

    “And there, the Finnish capital is fortunate. Helsinki owns 60,000 social housing units; one in seven residents live in city-owned housing. It also owns 70% of the land within the city limits, runs its own construction company, and has a current target of building 7,000 more new homes – of all categories – a year.

    In each new district, the city maintains a strict housing mix to limit social segregation: 25% social housing, 30% subsidised purchase, and 45% private sector. Helsinki also insists on no visible external differences between private and public housing stock, and sets no maximum income ceiling on its social housing tenants.

    It has invested heavily, too, in homelessness prevention, setting up special teams to advise and help tenants in danger of losing their homes and halving the number of evictions from city-owned and social housing from 2008 to 2016.

    “We own much of the land, we have a zoning monopoly, we run our own construction company,” says Riikka Karjalainen, senior planning officer. “That helped a lot with Housing First because simply, there is no way you will eradicate homelessness without a serious, big-picture housing policy.”

    So how to we begin to replicate those conditions in our own towns?

  12. Lemonhead

    Liberals are AMAZING at “thinking” with their feelings.

    Not so great at anticipating second and third order consequences.

    How are the homeless going to buy or rent those empty dwellings, hmm? Do we just GIVE it to them?

    You think that wouldn’t be taken advantage of by the same people driving BMWs but paying their groceries with food stamps?

    You think that wouldn’t serve as disincentive for anyone to pay high taxes so other people could live free, and just leave an awful state like NY?

    You think it maybe would crash real estate wherever this is implemented now that a nice family is living next door to mental / drug addicted / dangerous person?

    For all your “intelligence” it’s mostly just emotion based ideas over here. Moist robots.

  13. nihil obstet

    The right wing has claimed to own the concept of “fair”. It is “unfair” for government to restrict any opportunity for a rich donor to make money. The post office can’t compete with private businesses by offering modern communications products, but must do the unprofitable deliveries that the businesses want. Municipal broadband is “unfair” to Spectrum and AT&T. Government ownership of land must be liquidated so that taxes can be lowered; that’s called “fair” taxation.

    I think this framing is more effective than most of us realize. We experience so much unfairness that simply calling something “fair” or “unfair” wins minds. It’s not the only thing obviously, but there’s a whole framework of language that we will have to change to get decent policies of people rather than profits.

  14. Mike Barry

    “No, the game never ends when your whole world depends on the turn of a friendly card.” –Alan Parsons.

  15. Hugh

    Shorter Lemonhead, if you are rich, you deserve to be rich, and if you are poor, you deserve to die in a ditch.

  16. Willy

    A significant percentage of the homeless are veterans. Losers. In Lemon world they should’ve been serving themselves instead.

    There is are homelessness correlations with rent increases and drug addiction. So make more money and stay off the drugs. It’s all so simple.

  17. anon y'mouse

    homelessness and mental health issues are also highly correlated with experiencing abuse and/or neglect in childhood.

    so, get better parents one guesses. how to do that though…..

  18. Creigh Gordon

    Unemployment is also a policy choice, since useful things to do are not scarce and money to pay people to do useful things is also not scarce, if you use fiat money. Not only is this related to homelessness, it is also critical to simply being a part of society.

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