Give Me Shelter!

The capitalist order of society produces again and again the evils to be remedied.” – F. Engels, The Housing Question (1872)

Those who do not believe that society is divided into classes with antagonistic interests should check out any commuter rail station in Boston early some weekday morning. As the trains empty their human cargo, hundreds, if not thousands, of exhausted, sleepy people crowd the platforms. These travelers come from as far as fifty miles away, an hour’s ride one-way, two hours a day, forty hours a month. That monthly total adds nearly 6 seven-hour days to the time the job consumes in the lives of these working people and subtracts the same amount of time from the workers’ leisure, from the time they can devote to their families or personal interests. Of course, these forty hours a month are not compensated, even though more than a few commuters spend the time working. For many workers, commuting time is the unpaid fifth week of exertion, every month. To add insult to injury, it is the commuter, not the boss, who pays for the privilege of working an extra week on the train each month; the cost of commuting can take over $2,000 out of each worker’s pocket annually.

Lacking sufficient sleep, deprived of leisure, these involuntary early-risers face another day packed with stressful work. As they drag themselves to their jobs, perhaps they notice the lone Boston resident, a Back Bay bourgeois, walking his Weimaraner on an errand to pick up a latte at his favorite Starbucks before relaxing over The Wall Street Journal and checking on the performance of his stock portfolio.

In California, the situation is even worse: people on the left coast may end up driving two hours from home to work and then back again; four hours a day spent in traffic and pollution. They find time to recover only on the weekends, which they spend sleeping. Living one hour’s distance from work equals travel of 22,000 miles a year by commuter rail. The earth’s circumference is only 25,000 miles. What accounts for these unhealthy choices? Why would people subject themselves to such an arrangement? The extraordinary distances traveled by working commuters reflect the lack of housing in the mega-cities where most jobs are found.

This lack is not owing to an insufficient number of dwellings: in Boston and Providence, for instance, one sees constant construction of conveniently-situated living space. A Back Bay condo, within walking distance of the financial district, for the benefit of the investor and his Weimaraner, cost a quarter million dollars (plus interest) to acquire – twenty years ago! In Providence today, a downtown condo can fetch $500,000, while a small house on the lovely East Side may be had for $1,500,000. So the “lack” of housing really means that the numerous properties which exist or are being built are not affordable.          

The specifics of the problem of obtaining housing in the U.S. are well-defined. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), whose research is regarded as reliable, reports that from June 2002 to June 2003, rents for primary residences in the U.S. increased by 2.9 percent, greater than the rate of inflation (a CPI of 2.1 percent). From 1999 to 2003, the hourly wage necessary to afford a two-bedroom apartment would have had to rise 37 percent; this means that falling real wages in 2002 and 2003 were confronted by relentless increases in the cost of shelter. (This is confirmed by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, which notes that rents have risen steadily since 1997, something every tenant knows. The Federal fair market rent for Boston rose by 69 percent from 1997 to the present. Fair market rents in both Chicago and New York City increased by nearly 30 percent in the same period.) The NLIHC further reports that in no state and in no metropolitan area can an extremely low-income family afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Thus, the 34.6 million Americans officially living in poverty, a total that includes 13 million children and represents one out of every eight people, are simply out of luck.   Indeed, paying for an apartment in two-thirds of the metropolitan areas in the U.S. requires that one earn at least twice the minimum wage. In 40 states, with almost 90 percent of all renter households, one must make more than twice the minimum wage to compete for an apartment. Even workers fortunate enough to be paid decent salaries are sharply challenged by skyrocketing rents. To those of us who live in New England, it comes as no surprise that Massachusetts leads the nation as the most unaffordable state when rents are compared with tenant incomes: 60 percent of Bay State households cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment. Only the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are more unaffordable for those who must rent.

Looking at rental unit affordability below the state level, the situation is even worse: in 106 cities and 597 counties, more than 50 percent of renter households cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment.   High rents make life hard for people who work. For families with children and for the poor, the housing situation is calamitous. Market forces will soon make affordable housing an oxymoron for millions of people in the U.S. Now this crisis is the fault of no one who rents; we certainly never asked or voted for this.

There is nothing new about a housing crisis forced on working people. Friedrich Engels, writing in 1872, reported: “At the very time when workers are streaming into the towns in masses, workers’ dwellings are pulled down. . . . In London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, the [housing] shortage took on acute forms at the time [the 1870’s], and has, for the most part, continued to exist in a chronic form. . . . workers are forced out of the center of the towns towards the outskirts; workers’ dwellings, and small dwellings in general, become rare and expensive and often altogether unobtainable, for under these circumstances the building industry, which is offered a much better field for speculation by more expensive dwelling houses, builds workers’ dwellings only by way of exception.”  

Thus, the housing shortage is a constant symptom of capitalism. Engels’ work, The Housing Question, addresses this problem. Since the capitalist system finds it unprofitable to house workers and the poor, since all capitalist political parties ignore this important question, a solution can only be found when the system that created the housing shortage and homelessness is overturned. Engels is very clear as to how we can do this: “every real proletarian party, from the English Chartists onward, has put forward a class policy, the organization of the proletariat as an independent political party, as the primary condition of the struggle, and the dictatorship of the proletariat as the immediate aim of the struggle.” This means building a mass party of labor based on the unions, the only existing organizations of the working class in this country, to fight for a socialist program of housing, health care, education and a job for everyone, in a society ruled by those who work. Let’s get started now!


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