According to Leilana Farha, the United Nations Rapporteur for Adequate Housing there are now 900 million people across the world living in ‘informal settlements’ even though adequate housing is enshrined as a basic need in the UN Universal Declaration on human rights. She explains that there are rising rates of homelessness in the richest countries in the world as the ‘world’s capital markets have priced people out of cities, with speculators and investors treating housing as a ‘place to park capital’’.
Nikos: The housing crisis in the US has been characterized as a ticking time bomb. What is the actual situation nationally on homelessness, the housing bubble and mortgages?
Kelly: The for-profit housing system has failed working people. In the U.S., not a single county anywhere has enough affordable housing. Ten years after millions of homes were lost to Wall Street in the 2007-2009 foreclosure crisis, there has been a sharp decline in homeownership while the number of renters has increased by more than 10 million households. Now half of all renters in the country pay more than 30% of their income to housing, half a million people are homeless, and tents line the streets of many major cities.
The city of Seattle is a case study for the US. Seattle’s affordable housing crisis is among the worst in the entire country. One in ten units sit vacant because they are unaffordable, while working people, small businesses, people of color, and LGBTQ people are being rapidly gentrified out of the city. A ‘state of emergency’ has been declared by the City of Seattle over the homelessness crisis, yet rents continue to increase. Studies have found that for every $100 increase in rent in the city, homelessness goes up 15%. On top of this, the extreme weather caused by climate change has contributed to a record increase of homeless people dying on the streets. Without shelter, people die.
Nikos: What does the housing crisis mean for ordinary working people in their everyday struggle for survival?
Kelly: As housing costs skyrocket nationally and internationally, working people are pushed out of their homes. For millions of Americans, homelessness is a constant threat. We are constantly forced to choose: housing or healthcare? Housing or child care? Housing or groceries?
This impossible position is only made worse by the all-encompassing nature of capitalism. The financial instability caused by the housing crisis contributes to the fact that the main reason women stay in abusive relationships is not being able to afford to leave. People of color are twice as likely to lose their homes, whether through foreclosure or rental eviction. Economic inequality has never been higher, even while there has never been more wealth in human society.
Nikos: Socialist Alternative fights for rent control. What does this demand actually mean, how can it work and how can it be implemented?
Kelly: In Seattle, Socialist Alternative City Council member Kshama Sawant is helping build a citywide rent control movement alongside her battle for re-election this year. Right now landlords have the right to raise rents by however much they like: 50%, 100%, or even 200%. This amounts to an economic eviction, and in Kshama Sawant’s district, on average one family is evicted every other day.
Rent control outlaws this price gouging, putting a limit on how much landlords can increase rent annually. This is essential to change the power imbalance where landlords and developers have all the control, just as a minimum wage is essential to defend workers from corporate executives who prefer to keep wages low.
Of course, big landlords and corporate developers are fighting tooth and nail against rent control in Seattle, putting hundreds of thousands of dollars towards Kshama Sawant’s opponent. Winning rent control and affordable housing will require building our independent strength and a movement to demand real action.
Nikos: There is a struggle on the question of housing in different states. How is this battle fought, and what are the prospects for it?
Kelly: Momentum for rent control is growing across the country, with major victories for renters in Oregon and New York City earlier this year. Successful fights for rent control in one city inspire working people across the country to do the same. Each victory has only been won by the pressure of movements.
Socialists support every improvement we can win to provide relief in this housing crisis, but we have to be clear that the crisis goes much deeper. Even if rent control is passed, as long as housing is subjected to the needs of capitalism, working people will have to constantly struggle over housing. We need to build tens of thousands of new publicly-owned, permanently affordable homes to meet the needs of our city with the creation of thousands of union jobs building beautiful, sustainable, walkable communities alongside free public transit options to reliably meet all work, school, shopping, and childcare needs.
Socialists campaign to replace the for-profit housing market with a democratically planned system that guarantees housing for all. This requires a national and international struggle, rooted in the organized power of working people, and armed with a program to take the biggest banks, real estate corporations, and multinational developers into public ownership under democratic control of working people.