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‘Banking on Vacancy’ study reveals homelessness amidst abundant housing

Published Feb 24, 2012 8:53 PM

Picture The Homeless recently performed a great service to the people of New York City, the United States and the world. PTH describes itself as an organization “founded and led by homeless people” that opposes the “quality of life laws” that “criminalize homeless people.” PTH aims to “change these laws and policies as well as to challenge the root causes of homelessness.”

PTH, along with Hunter College, recently conducted a study called “Banking on Vacancy” that sent 295 volunteers to walk the streets of 20 of New York City’s 59 community districts to investigate the housing situation. They discovered that there were approximately 3,500 vacant residential buildings and about 2,400 vacant lots in those districts.

Researchers estimate the vacant buildings could house 70,000 people, while the lots could house more than 120,000 people if buildings were constructed.

The study shows that the 40,000 people in New York City’s shelter system, a number that has doubled since 2002, no longer have any rational reason to be homeless or to endure poor conditions in overcrowded shelters. A rational system could easily provide a decent home.

While the report concentrates on the findings, it also makes a strong argument that the rule of private property is an obstacle to a rational solution to the housing problem.

The report points out that often apartments are kept vacant for years and years so that real estate developers can remove a building from rent controls. PTH calls this “banking on homelessness.” It makes a proposal to restrict the amount of time a landlord can keep a property vacant — up to three years, which is modest but still challenges private property and its owners. It also asks that the city do its own study of similar conditions throughout the entire city.

The report also argues that a construction program for empty lots would provide jobs for many workers, while resolving the housing crisis for many others, if it were combined with a program to provide affordable housing to low-income New Yorkers. PTH’s position is that the high cost of funding shelters would be much better spent subsidizing rent for currently homeless people and providing housing space.

This study illustrates the words of the labor anthem, “Solidarity Forever”: “We stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made.”

The current global capitalist meltdown was touched off in 2008 when the housing bubble burst. This “burst” did not occur due to any shortage of living space. Millions of construction workers, bricklayers, architects, engineers, electricians and other workers sweated hard and long to create countless private homes, apartment buildings, condominiums and other decent places of residence.

Yet, despite all this abundance, homelessness continues, and many housing units made by collective human labor remain vacant. They remain vacant because under capitalism housing is not provided because people need it. Housing is only useful if profits — in this example, very high profits — can be made.

This very important report will force many to rethink the “free market” that people in the U.S. have been taught to worship.

In the modern age of “We are the 99%,” this study conducted by PTH and Hunter College sheds light on the real problem. The fact that the basis of homelessness is that housing, production and all economic activity is conducted, not for human need, but to make profits.

To read a copy of the complete report, “Banking on Vacancy,” visit the PTH site at picturethehomeless.org.