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There’s an answer to

Millions of homeless, millions of empty homes

Published Dec 12, 2010 11:37 PM

As the cold winter chill sets in across the U.S., homelessness is at an all-time high.

Over the past few years, millions of people have been forced from their homes by foreclosures and evictions and into overcrowded shelters and transitional housing. The number of homeless families rose by close to 30 percent between 2007 and 2009. (hud.gov)

With layoffs continuing in nearly all industries, tens of millions more families and individuals are living with oppressive anxiety caused by not knowing if they will be able to make next month’s rent or mortgage payment.

Recently, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which includes a multitude of government agencies, ranging from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Department of Defense, unveiled a plan called Opening Doors. It has been billed as the “first ever federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness” and claims to be “centered on the belief that no one should experience homelessness — no one should be without a safe, stable place to call home.”

Nice words. The federal strategic plan to end homelessness is more than 70 pages of charts, graphs and statistics. (usich.gov) But noticeably absent from all the analysis is the one economic statistic that shows there can be an immediate, common-sense solution: the housing vacancy rate.

According to the Census Department, there are more than 18.9 million vacant housing units in the U.S. (census.gov)

That’s enough perfectly usable housing units to put a roof over the head of every single homeless person in the U.S., with millions of homes to spare. If it is true that “it is simply unacceptable for individuals, children, families and our veterans to be faced with homelessness in this country,” as President Barack Obama writes in the preface to Opening Doors, then how can rising homelessness in the middle of 18.9 million vacant homes be explained?

The paradox of plenty

The barrier between the homeless and the millions of empty homes is capitalism and capitalist property relations. In capitalist society, property rights are protected by law while human rights — like the right to food, shelter and a job — are not. During a capitalist economic crisis, when millions can’t find jobs, are losing their homes and are going hungry, the absurdity and cruelty of this system become glaringly obvious.

Throughout most of human history the chief economic problems have been rooted in scarcity and the hoarding of scarce resources by one segment of society at the expense of another.

The rise of capitalism and the dawn of the industrial revolution, however, which enormously expanded productivity, brought about an absurd new type of economic problem. In the early 1800s the French philosopher Charles Fourier was perhaps the first to describe this new problem when he reported on commercial markets becoming glutted with more products than could be afforded by the populace. He termed this phenomenon a “crise plethorique,” or a crisis of abundance.

What Fourier was seeing was the inherent law of capitalist overproduction in action. Two generations later, Karl Marx laid bare the inner workings of this system in his monumental work “Capital.”

Under capitalism, each capitalist firm is compelled, by competition with rival firms, to produce the maximum amount of goods by exploiting the maximum amount of labor so as to gain the maximum amount of power and profit and thus avoid being overtaken by competitors. Because there is no coordination between rival firms regarding the limits of the market, there inevitably comes a point when the amount of goods produced exceeds the amount the workers can afford to buy.

When supply outpaces demand in this manner, markets become glutted and capitalists’ profits fall. Workers are laid off in large numbers as the glut lessens the capitalists’ need for their labor power. Unemployed workers are less able to consume, thus exacerbating the general crisis of overproduction

A look back at the U.S. housing market over the past decade reveals this process.

From 2000 to 2006, home construction surged to record highs as firms in all areas of the housing sector, from construction companies to appliance makers, upped production and profited handsomely. But there eventually came a point when the surge in home construction outpaced the ability of workers in general to afford the housing units being produced.

By late 2006 the housing market was glutted with more units than could be sold at a profit and layoffs began across all areas of the housing trades. Housing prices fell as the glut set in, exposing the big banks and institutional investors to massive losses on the projects they had bankrolled through a host of securities and loans.

The ensuing financial meltdown led to more layoffs, foreclosures and evictions, and the downward spiral intensified. As 2010 draws to a close, millions of workers and their families are unemployed and homeless — while millions of homes and apartments sit vacant and the bankers and bosses sit back and count their bailout money.

The socialist solution

Simply put, capitalism is the root cause of unemployment and rising homelessness in recent years. And capitalist property relations are the sole reason why millions of perfectly good homes sit vacant while working class families crowd into already packed shelters and tent cities or freeze out on the street or in their cars.

The solution to the growing homelessness epidemic will not be found in government-produced charts and graphs. The solution can only be achieved through the struggle of the workers themselves.

Workers can, through militant action, force some reforms to ease their plight, like a government jobs plan and a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. But ultimately, the struggle must be to abolish capitalism and replace it with socialism.

Under socialism, when the working class takes over the vast means of production it has created and liberates the factories, the mines, and so on to be used for the good of all, the anarchy of capitalist production for profit will be abolished. Production will be planned and the “bottom line” will be to satisfy human needs.

Through the development of socialism, the absurd calamity of rising homelessness amidst a sea of empty homes will be a thing of the past and the doors to human progress can truly be opened.