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Finding home: Lack of affordable housing is a crisis across the West


Stuck on the street: only a quarter of families in the US that qualify receive housing assistance. © Nick Beer/Alamy Stock Photo

In the sharp glare of spring sunshine the paint on the simple wooden display case is peeled and fading. It is a modest affair, the top angled in the shape of a roof, as if offering final shelter to the men and women whose names are displayed there. Fresh flowers, a solitary act of commemoration, perhaps atonement, have been placed to the side. Eight sheets of paper are pinned under glass, each sheet filled with the names of homeless people who have died – on the street, under bridges, in ravines and back allies. The Toronto Homeless Memorial sits beside an inner-city church, cheek-by-jowl with one of the city’s largest downtown shopping malls.

Not far away is another Toronto. A skyward glance reveals dozens of construction cranes crowding the horizon: 50- and 60-storey towers joust with each other to get the best view of Lake Ontario. The last decade has seen a frenzy of new building in the downtown core, mostly luxury freehold flats (condominiums), a phenomenon not uncommon in other ‘hedge cities’.

Across the globe money is pouring into urban centres considered safe harbours for deep-pocketed investors. In the Toronto city centre nearly 100,000 condominium units were built between 2012 and 2016. In older residential areas the average selling price of a detached home has soared, leaping by 33 per cent in the past year alone. Meanwhile, 180,000 people are on the waiting list for subsidized housing and the city faces a $2.6 billion repair bill for existing social housing. Buildings too costly to fix are sold: 475 units are on the block this year.

This phenomenon is widespread across the industrialized world. The US has shuttered 10,000 units of federally subsidized housing every year since the 1970s. The right to shelter is recognized by the UN in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and more than 40 countries have declared housing a basic human right. Yet, the UN estimates more than 1.6 billion people worldwide lack adequate shelter and more than 100 million are homeless. They flock to temporary shelters or sleep in public buildings like railway stations or bus terminals. Others set up house on the pavement or erect simple houses from salvaged materials on waste land.

In the global South millions living in slums from Mumbai to São Paulo have migrated to the city in search of work. The growth of these informal settlements is fuelled by rural poverty and landlessness. They live in precarious housing without tenure; they don’t own the land and they lack basic services like water, sewerage and electricity. Their right to shelter often depends on the benevolence of local elites. These poor communities are tolerated or ignored until the price of land jumps and makeshift homes are ‘cleared’ for development under the guise of ‘squatter rehabilitation’.

But homelessness in the South is also a by-product of top-down economic development. Established slums are bulldozed to make way for international sporting events or glitzy shopping malls. Natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, earthquakes), climate change, civil war and political conflict also conspire to force people from their homes.

In the West our clichéd view of a homeless person is a single, older man – jobless, uprooted from family, socially isolated, mentally unstable and addicted to alcohol or drugs. And, indeed, many people living on the street do fit this category.

But these visible homeless are the tip of the iceberg. Far more numerous are those who suffer from housing insecurity. An estimated 75 per cent of people who are homeless are not on the street. These hidden homeless, often women, teens and children, sleep in shelters or double up with friends or relatives. Women are most often homeless as a result of violence. One Canadian study found that 71 per cent of women in shelters reported abuse as the reason for seeking refuge.1

It’s a similar story for young people, most of whom have either fled or been forced from home because of abuse or neglect. Without adult coping skills, often emotionally confused, homeless young people are easily exploited. On the street they are drawn into a vortex of substance abuse, victimization, violence and sexual exploitation. A 2013 report by York University’s Homeless Hub found that 82 per cent of homeless youth are victims of crime, and more than 30 per cent are sexually assaulted.2

The Toronto Homeless Memorial

Wayne Ellwood

The new precariat

There are many paths that lead to homelessness but poverty is always a key factor. The rise of low-wage, part-time jobs; the declining power of trade unions; the attack on the welfare state, and the hollowing out of industry have left people scrambling to meet rising rental costs. The poor simply cannot afford a decent place to call home. According to the Washington-based National Low Income Housing Coalition, a US worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would need to work 90 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment.3 Housing insecurity extends to the new ‘precariat’ (young people whose work is marginal and low-paid) as well as to single families, disabled people, new immigrants, refugees, ‘illegal’ squatters and the working poor.

Eviction and wrenching dislocation is a constant threat.

The US sociologist Matthew Desmond notes that ‘if you’re paying 60-80 per cent of your income in rent, eviction becomes inevitable’. The result: broken communities and a downward spiral of neglect and suffering. In the US, says Desmond, ‘the face of the eviction epidemic is moms and kids from predominantly Latino and African American neighbourhoods... About one in five Black American women renters are evicted at some point in their lives.’4

Children who grow up in the shadow of homelessness struggle with school and face mental health challenges as well as behavioural problems. They often live in poverty as adults

Lack of affordable housing is a crisis across the West. Inflated real estate markets have combined with growing wealth inequality and a systematic neglect of public provision to create a surge of homelessness.

It’s no secret that market-based solutions don’t work. Treating shelter as a commodity rather than a basic human right leads to what critics call the ‘financialization’ of housing. In essence that means a house is no longer a place to live but a source of profit. That’s been good news for the banks who’ve been raking it in providing loans for inflated mortgages. As the gap between house prices and incomes grows the banks gladly step into the breach. According to the New Economics Foundation, domestic mortgage lending in the UK has grown from 40 to 60 per cent of GDP since the 1990s.

‘It’s housing disconnected from its social function,’ stresses Leilani Farha, UN special rapporteur on the right to housing. Speculators treat housing as just another commodity. The result: ‘Housing is as valuable whether it is vacant or occupied, lived in or devoid of life. Homes sit empty while homeless populations burgeon [because] that is the quickest way to turn a profit.’

In Melbourne, she points out, a fifth of investor-owned apartments are unoccupied, while in Chelsea and Kensington in the city of London the number of vacant units increased by 40 per cent between 2013 and 2014.5

Across the industrialized world skyrocketing real estate has made home ownership for the average family an impossible dream. The contradictions are stark. Luxury condos abound in booming cities like Sydney, Auckland, Hong Kong, San Francisco and Vancouver, while homeless shelters are packed, food banks can’t keep up with the demand and the supply of affordable public housing stagnates or plummets.

What’s clear is that unless it’s forced to comply the market bends inexorably towards the wealthy.

The destructive consequences ripple out in all directions. As inequality grows rising rents and higher mortgages absorb an ever increasing chunk of net incomes.

Housing activists have a phrase for it: ‘the rent eats first.’

A young Angolan boy perches above an open sewage ditch in Bairro Rangel, Luanda. Slumdwellers are often the victims of development.

Novarc Images/Alamy Stock Photo

When minimum wages are below the poverty level and social benefits like welfare or disability support are inadequate, paying the rent means less money for other expenses like food, transport, clothing, healthcare and school supplies.

The UK housing charity, Shelter, warns that nearly 40 per cent of renters are a month’s pay away from not being able to meet the rent.

A fifth of all renting families in the US spend half their income on housing. Matthew Desmond argues that America’s housing crisis ‘is driving poor families to financial ruin and even starting to engulf families with moderate income.’

‘Families who spend more on housing spend less on their children,’ Desmond writes. ‘This problem is leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation.’4

Major cities across the West are now physically divided by race and class, polarized between wealthy, gentrified urban centres and scattered pockets of poverty and privation where low-paid workers, immigrants, refugees and racialized communities find barely affordable shelter.

This stands in contrast to celebrated urbanist Jane Jacobs’ view that cities need a range of class and culture to survive and thrive. Jacobs wrote famously of the need for density and diversity to support a busy streetscape and create ‘eyes on the street’.6 Instead our major urban centres are increasingly divided along class lines. Inequality is embedded in geography.

Bailing out

As real estate markets have exploded cost-conscious governments are bailing out of the housing business while cutting social assistance and unemployment benefits.

Thirty years ago Margaret Thatcher launched the austerity model in the UK with her drive to radically shrink the role of the state. She introduced a ‘right-to-buy’ policy for public housing in 1980. Since then, more than 1.8 million council homes have been sold at a discount. Fewer than 10 per cent of those have been replaced, resulting in a huge loss of affordable housing. From April 2012 to November 2015 more than 40,600 homes were sold under the right-to-buy scheme while just 3,694 social housing units were built.7 In addition, housing benefits have been slashed by more than £5 billion, and funds for homelessness services cut by 45 per cent.

Not surprisingly the number of ‘rough sleepers’ has mushroomed. Shelter says more than 250,000 people are homeless across Britain. In the capital soaring rent and house prices have pushed ordinary working people out of the market. Councils are shipping homeless families to parts of the country where rents are cheaper. The number of people being housed outside their local authority has tripled in the past five years.

This trend has been repeated wherever market-based policies have come to dominate. In the US federal support for low-income housing fell by half from 1980 to 2003.

Living on the edge means struggling families are stuck in a cycle of poverty. Only a quarter of American families that qualify for housing assistance actually receive it. In Washington, DC the waiting list is more than 20 years.

Housing as commodity: a protest against the changing face of London.

Urbanbuzz/Alamy Stock Photo

Homelessness is literally deadly. A 2011 study by the British charity, Crisis, found that the lifespan of the chronically homeless is 30 years below average. They were also nine times more likely to commit suicide than the general public, and twice as likely to die of infections. Another study found that the life expectancy of the homeless in the Canadian province of British Columbia was half that of the rest of the population.8

Homelessness not only destroys lives, it’s also expensive. It’s cheaper to house someone than to leave them in limbo. The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness found that Florida residents shell out, on average, $31,000 a year for each chronically homeless person – on things like transport, hospital visits, policing and jails. Alternatively, they found it would cost just $10,000 a year to provide permanent housing, job training and healthcare.

Most people who work with the homeless understand this.

Here’s what Canadian doctor and anti-poverty activist, Gary Bloch, wrote recently: ‘Last week I saw a patient who had spent more than 10 years living in a ravine. He had been to hospital multiple times... with heart attacks, skin infections and serious depression. If he had been housed... at even the most basic standard of living... the tens of thousands of health dollars spent on him may well have been avoided.’9

Homelessness feeds a whole set of social pathologies. These include sub-standard education, discrimination, addictions, crime, spousal abuse, as well as issues of mental health and family well-being. Children who grow up in the shadow of homelessness struggle with school and face mental health challenges as well as behavioural problems. They often live in poverty as adults.

So we are left with an army of researchers and academics who dissect and analyze the ‘homeless problem’. And a support group of social workers, activists and NGOs who advocate on behalf of the homeless and the housing insecure.

Shifts and strategy

Nonetheless, things are changing. There has been a seismic shift over the past decade, spurred by the ‘Housing First’ model. Providing housing for the chronically homeless is the first step. Give people choice and control over their accommodation, combine that with support and counselling, and they are more likely to get themselves back on track (see page 16).

Housing First is an important breakthrough, but it’s a partial solution.

The causes of homelessness are rooted in a complex mix of the political and the personal. If we want to stop homelessness we need to start with poverty. Employment is scarce and available jobs are poorly paid and insecure. Add to that a frayed social safety net and government support programmes that can’t keep up with the rising cost of housing and rent. Lastly, are individual and social factors: people under stress are more vulnerable, less able to cope with change. The slightest shift in fortune, a loss of income or a family row, could push them over the edge.

A clear strategy for preventing homelessness involves addressing all these things simultaneously.

We must also recognize that a ‘home’ is more than just physical shelter. Stable housing builds stable communities. But a home is also an anchor for the soul, a place where we live out our lives. That’s why homelessness is so devastating. It’s both a personal tragedy and a social disaster – a loss that sabotages self-esteem as it erodes collective well-being.

  1. Statistics Canada nin.tl/womenCan
  2. ‘Local service offers support to local disadvantaged youths’, Toronto Star, 27 December 2016
  3. NLCHP, ‘No Safe Place: the criminalization of homelessness in US cities’, nin.tl/NLCHP_SafePlace
  4. Desmond Matthew, Evicted, Poverty and Profit in the American City, Penguin Random House, 2016.
  5. UN Human Rights Council, Thirtyfourth session, 27 February-24 March 2017.
  6. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House, 1961.
  7. Dawn Foster, ‘Right to buy’, The Guardian, 7 December 2015, nin.tl/MTRight
  8. Megaphone, November 2014, nin.tl/MegaDOS
  9. Gary Bloch, ‘The cost of poverty affects us all’, 6 December 2016, nin.tl/Star-cost

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