Homelessness to Foreclosures: 40 Years is Enough!

Posted: March 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

[The following was delivered as a speech to the Baltimore County Communities for the Homeless on March 19, 2012.)

I first visited a soup kitchen in the 1970s.  I volunteered at a homeless shelter when I was in law school in the early 1980s.  At my first job, I wrote a report on Homelessness for the Massachusetts Senate Ways and Means Committee—that was in 1983.   In 1986, at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, I began visiting homeless shelters and making my attorney skills available.  In 1987, that led to the creation of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, which supported other attorneys doing the same.  And for about 20 years at the Project I sued, and lobbied, and mobilized, and organized, and educated, and wrote, and argued, and fought against homelessness.

It’s getting close to forty years since I first visited a soup kitchen; since homelessness was described as “new” and “different” from the skid row alcoholics who been affectionately described in lore and literature as “bums;” since soup kitchens and shelters began to crowd the landscape; and since McKinney and other funds starting supporting lawyers, social workers, and advocates to “help” take care of this problem.

Almost forty years—so why is it still here today?  This “new homelessness”?  It was new in 1980s.  New because it was families.  New because it was the unemployed.  New because it was children. And every few years it becomes “new” again,   New because now it is the employed.  New because now it’s the foreclosed upon.  New, again, because it’s the newly unemployed.

We’ve done some great things with McKinney money, with private foundation grants, with contributions, and even with a shoestring, but why , why, forty years later is Homelessness still here today?

Because we never fought the real demon—the private housing market.  We’ve fought the other demons—the mental illnesses, the addictions, the personality disorders, the Aixs 1’s and Axis 2’s, the dependency—and we’ve won a lot of these fights.  And we’ve noticed along the way that other people have these demons too—people who are housed.  People who live in homes.  People who have support, a family, a friend who will pay a rent or mortgage when the  demons get out of control.

But not everyone has that.  And as we try to create a service system that guarantees that everyone does have that, I have to wonder what did people do in the 40s, the 50s, and the 60s when they didn’t have it?

Well.  They lived in rooming houses.  They lived in boarding houses.  They lived in low rent apartments and dwellings.  They lived in some marginal housing.

They did what an alcoholic did when the anthropologist Kim Hopper asked him why he was homeless.  “I’m homeless because I’m an alcoholic,” he said.  “How long have you been an alcoholic?” Hopper asked.  “Twelve years,” he said.

Hopper:“How long have you been homeless?”

A:“Three years”

Hopper:“What happened during the first nine years of alcoholism?

A:“I find a place to live.  I drink, I get drunk, I get kicked out.  I find another place to live.  I drink, I get drunk, I get kicked out.  I found another place.  I get drunk and get kicked out.”

Hopper:“What’s been going on the last three years?”

A:“I can’t find another place.”

Between 1973 and 1983, demolitions and structural conversions permanently removed 4.5 million units from the housing stock—half of which were occupied by low-income households.  Rental rehabilitations more than doubled from 1982 to 1986, after remaining constant in annual terms from 1970 to 1982.  As housing that had once “trickled down” to the poor became scarcer, those dependent on fixed-income public assistance checks or low-wage or sporadic employment faced a housing squeeze.  They got “gentrified out of the market.”  And they  became homeless.  People we hadn’t seen before on the streets.

And in the midst of this market transformation, the federal government retrenched.  It began withdrawing from public housing investment in 1978, then in the next thirty years AS it supported increased emergency assistance to persons without housing, it  accelerated its withdrawal from public and permanent housing.  In 1996, the Clinton Administration introduced the Hope VI program, which provided federal support for the conversion of public housing to mixed-income housing, thereby resulting in a net loss of 75,000 public housing units, while another 75,000 units were transformed into private market rate housing.

Funding for Section 8 vouchers increased marginally, from $15.5 billion in 1996, to $16.2 billion in 2010; however, in real dollar terms, this amounted to a 24% reduction.  Between 1995 and 2011, the nation’s supply of affordable housing was diminished by 290,588 units of public housing and by 360,000 Section 8 units.

This is why homelessness is still with us today.  Because Housing is not recognized—even by our government– as a Human Need that has Human Rights Obligations.  Housing is recognized as an investment and a source of speculation.  It’s seen primarily as a source of profit.  “Real estate, my son, go into real estate.”    And for forty years, folks on fixed incomes and folks without support when the demons strike have become victimized as others “have gone into real estate,” have been victimized by the rising costs this speculation and investment create, and then demonized as if they are not human.  Sentenced to Public lives in public spaces–and then they are treated like criminals.

But something has changed in forty years.  The greed of the housing speculators got worse.  And inequality increased. Wages stagnated.  Pressure for profits in the housing market drove up housing costs, but incomes failed to keep pace. “The number of renters paying over 30% of their income for housing reached 18.5 million nationwide in 2009, representing 52% of all us renters. A decade ago, 40% of renters were in this predicament, AND only 25% of renters faced such a burden in 1960.”  The increasing gap was filled by increased debt.   And as those in an increasingly concentrated top income and wealth classes searched for the greatest return on investment, the debt of the housing market became an attractive target.   In short, they looked to real estate!

They looked and then they found  new financial instruments that allowed more and more players to invest, and the increased demand by those investors led to an explosion of “predatory” and “fraudulent” lending to satisfy that demand.  The inevitable and subsequent collapse of the instruments caused a major financial crisis that threatened to bring down the entire financial system (because so many large financial players were tied to housing debt instruments).   The system was bailed out ostensibly to save the economy, and you know the rest.

Banks, at the time of this article, are sitting on an historic pile of cash reserves–derived indirectly from U.S. government rescue—and are hesitant to lend.  Consumer demand continues to falter, foreclosures continue–as does unemployment.  And we have a new homelessness.

As gentrification and rental housing conversion and homelessness forty years ago made visible those who could no longer compete in an increasingly competitive private housing market, the foreclosure crisis now has done the same.  The Housing Market has simply CAPTURED the next higher rung on the income ladder: 

  • more than half of homeowners who are delinquent borrowers (57%) earn less than $50,000 per year
  • another 30% earn between $50,000 and $100,000.

While those with fixed or low-incomes were hidden in rooming houses, low-cost rentals, and substandard housing in the 1970s, and became visible on the streets as this supply of housing disappeared in the 1980s,  those in the current foreclosure crisis were able to hide their housing cost squeeze by debt.  When these debts ballooned, a new class of consumers was swallowed by the housing market.

And so forty years later we have strangely—what we who fight for  against homelessness have always wanted—Clear demonstration that folks who are homeless are no different than anybody else.

They are products of a housing market that is founded on profit, encouraged to profit, and even given subsidies to profit.

And a Housing Market that can’t afford them anymore!

And we—the Advocates, Service Providers, and Fighters, are left like Lazarus, in the biblical parable, begging for scraps from the master’s table.  “Give us the scraps of some more housing vouchers.” “Give us the scraps of some more Housing First slots.  Give us the scraps of more supportive services.”

And the God of the marketplace looks at us in pity and amusement.  Making us grovel and fight and scratch and claw for some slots, vouchers, and services, knowing that it caused the housing crisis of the 80s that led to homelessness,  and the housing crisis of 2008  that led to foreclosures, but convinced that folks like us will never make the connection,  and even if we do, we won’t have the power to do anything about it.

But Markets are not Gods.  Perhaps to some, but they they are false gods.  Idols, golden calves.

Markets make good servants, but terrible masters.  And just as there came a time when tablet stones needed to be shattered to demonstrate that the laws of god, the laws of human self realization, the laws of human fulfillment were superior to idols and golden calves, it is time put the god of the marketplace into its proper place:  To serve human beings.  To meet human needs.  To recognize the human right to subsistence with dignity and respect.

And as a lawyer, I know there are laws of the market place.  Laws that ultimately determine who wins and who loses.  When is a contract enforced?  When is a tort recognized?  Who is liable for unintended consequences?  What promises are legal, which are not?  The market doesn’t determine that—we do.

And those laws allow speculation on any piece of land, any home mortgage, any gentrified apartment, any development where someone has an idea to turn a profit.  Don’t’ get me wrong.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with profit.

But as with the Landowner in scripture who took all his harvest into the barn and stored it up for years to come, only to find himself dead that very night, we need to ask—how much is enough?  Tolstoy said it in a short story based on that scripture:  How Much Land Does One Man Need? 

We can limit that by law.  We can limit speculation and profiteering by law—yes we can–it’s called Limited Equity, Deed Restricted Sales, Land Trusts, Shared Equity, Limited profit cooperatives.  We have 18.5 million empty homes in the U.S. and 3.5 million homeless.  What’s the problem here?  Why has it become intractable?  Why can’t these properties be converted to serve human need and not stand idle– waiting for profit?

Let’s bring it down to the local level.  We have twice as many  bank owned properties in Baltimore County– already foreclosed upon properties held now by banks—as we do folks in Baltimore county homeless shelter beds:  1006  bank owned properties vs. 550 living in shelters.

And with another 1,050 foreclosure filings in Baltimore County in 2011, we could have more than enough property to house all without housing in Baltimore County (roughly 881).

If we were able to convince banks to simply write off  ¼ — 25% — OF their foreclosures by donating them to land trusts and shared equity arrangements (where profits would be forever limited by deed restrictions and law, and housing thus perpetually affordable) that would SURPASS the number of public housing units and Vouchers we have nationwide!  If we did it in Baltimore County, it would house all those currently in shelters.

Forty years is too long.  Do you want your sons and daughters at a rally like this 40 yrs from now?  Still battling the personal demons that individuals have, while the big demon of the housing market terrorizes another group higher on the income ladder–putting more and more on the brink of homelessness?

Yes, battle for Housing First slots, and the vouchers, and the services, but unless our advocacy and target includes the private housing market, we will be here forty years from now.   The market is our servant — not our master.

We have an historic opportunity to do something now–   now when the market has gone too far.

When it has made no distinction between the foreclosed upon homeowner and the gentrified homeless.

When it has made no distinction between black, white or brown

No distinction between old and young

No distinction between middle class and lower class

No distinction between the addicted and the clean

When it has done, ironically, what we are all called to do in every spiritual tradition—

See ourselves as connected,

See ourselves as one body,

See ourselves without attention to color, gender, or class.

Without attention to personal failings, demons, and challenges

See ourselves as human beings, with human needs, and human rights—that we can secure in our lifetimes.

The market can’t see that.  And even if it could, it has no power to act on that realization.

But we see it.

And we have power—if we come together as one

If we squat

If we occupy

If we legislate





And motivate

And make the market serve us—as it was intended.

Forty years is too long.

–peter sabonis

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