Housing is a Right, not a Commodity

 

Housing is a Right, Not a Commodity

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Homelessness sucks. Imagine for a minute, that you didnt have a place to
call home. You didnt have a warm place to go to on a cold night. Your
struggling to find a place to sleep or even just rest. The police and
other unsavory characters regularly harass you and tell you to ‘get
lost’. People routinely look down on you because of the way your
dressed. You cant shower anywhere so you don’t smell like other people.
This is the life of many of our fellow citizens. Even on a warm-ish
night being homeless is a challenge, but in a place like Canada with
below 0 temperatures, its a death sentence. Countless canadians have
called for an end to homelessness over the decades, but at 150 years
we’ve yet to ensure a healthy home for all. What is the root of this
failure? Why can’t we seem to end homelessness? What are the systemic
forces that have been overlooked and are preventing us from solving this
issue?

On November 18th of 2016, housing activists gathered in Toronto to
demand the Trudeau Liberals fulfill their campaign promise to introduce
a National Housing Strategy. This national day of action was being
organized by the Right to Housing Coalition, an alliance of community
organizations. In the past, this coalition brought federal and
provincial governments to court arguing their failure to address
Canada’s homelessness crisis is a violation of the Charter of Rights and
Freedoms and international law. Indeed, Canada has ratified a number of
binding UN agreements that recognize the right to housing such as the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Theses documents have been
ratified by Canadian institutions and are therefore binding. The
coalition is calling for more public investment to guarantee everyone
access to housing; especially more money for social and cooperative
housing which are by far the most affordable. While calling for
affordable housing is important, we need to remain mindful of what that
means. Affordability essentially means cheaper; ensuring that rents are
low enough that low income people can pay for them. There is an
assumption that everyone has money, however low. The truth is, many
people are moneyless. Many homeless people dont have any money at all
and if they do its barely enough to eat. If they do have money, often it
is simply not enough to cover all expenses for basic goods. A guaranteed
income would make sure that people have money for housing. The question
should be asked though, why do we need to pay anything for housing? If
housing is a right, not a commodity, then why is it being bought and
sold like one?

Before colonialism was established here in the 17th century, land was
shared collectively by different First Nations. The concept of ‘rent’,
‘property’ and even ‘money’ was foreign to them. When the white man came
and introduced these ideas, the indigenous people had a hard time
understanding them as they were fundamentally different then their
communal values. Rent is a legacy of colonialism. The settlers who came
here brought with them ideas of private property and the tenant-landlord
relationship. In Europe, feudalism had dominated economic relations for
many generations. The Crown owned the land and lords managed it on
behalf of the monarchy. Peasants, the vast majority of people, were
landless and forced to work for the landlords to stay alive. They were
tenants forced to pay rent. This rent-seeking was so outrageous that
peasants in France revolted and demanded the end of this tenant-landlord
oppressive system. These events became known as the French Revolution, a
process which is still ongoing. Unfortunately, the merchants took
advantage of the situation and became the capitalists of the new system.
Capitalism, while doing away with some elements of feudalism, maintained
this tenant-landlord relationship and its rent-seeking. Landlords are in
many ways, the original capitalists. Today, large sums of money are
transfered each month from tenants to landlords in the form of rents.
Often, the landlord does little work to maintain the units to receive
this rent. The rent is imposed through fear; if the tenant does not pay
rent, they are evicted through the use of state force. The capitalist
state therefore maintains this exploitation and serves the interests of
landlords.

Reform orientated Liberals in the post-war welfare state era invested in
social and cooperative housing. This was due to the New Deal climate
favoring public investments, strong labor and social movements, and
international pressure from state capitalist regimes like the Soviet
Union that did provide free housing and other basic goods. The
subsequent rise of neoliberalism (trickle down economics) lead to social
spending cuts, especially for housing. The Chretien/Martin governments
made huge cuts to investments in social housing which lead to a shortage
of units, long wait lists, higher rents and lower quality. These same
governments gave hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to
corporations and the wealthy; wealth was transfered from the masses to
the elite. Homelessness is a choice. Capitalist governments choose to
ignore their legal obligations so they can support their financial
backers at the expense of the rest of us. The lack of social housing
effects everyone else. There is less public housing available meaning
that more people are forced to rely on the private housing market. This
increase in demand for private housing increases the price and makes
housing more expensive for everyone else. In addition, private housing
markets are highly unstable as demonstrated by the 2007/08 US subprime
mortgage crisis which lead to widespread foreclosures. Even in good
times, speculation and the profit motive causes gentrification which
turns working class neighborhoods into havens for the rich. Markets
favor those with money; the poor lose out and are evicted.

Free housing thats accessible to all, is the only way to truly guarantee
the right to housing. Everyone that needs a home can get it; regardless
of whether they have a paid job, are on social assistance, or have no
money at all. This process of decommodification would mean that housing
becomes a public good; the costs are covered through public finance.
Instead of spending billions on war, we can use that money to make sure
everyone gets a home. Instead of investing in police brutality, we can
divest and put those resources into social housing, ensuring everyone
has a healthy home and preventing crime as a result. We can tax
corporations and the rich more to raise revenue for housing and other
basic needs. It is well documented in the Panama Papers and other
reports that trillions of dollars are in secret accounts in offshore tax
havens. Governments can easily enforce the law and seize these funds
that rightly belong to the people; especially the homeless who need it
the most.

The Government of Libya provided free housing to its citizens before
they were bombed by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) members
including Canada . If a much poorer country like Libya was able to do
it, then surely we can too. We can examine ways to cut costs, reducing
high salaries in the public housing sector, focusing on building
smaller, environmentally friendly homes, that require less resources and
labor. The next step would be teaching and empowering people to build
their own homes, learning from indigenous people who’ve been doing this
since ancient times. Housing activists need to remain fearless and call
for free housing. As long as we put a price on housing, those with money
will get it and those without wont. Its really that simple. All that is
required is the will to be bold. While im an eternal optimist, the
Liberal party as a whole is too tied to big business and the wealthy to
be expected to introduce free housing. The party has a tendency to
support public-private partnerships which only help to prop up the
capitalist system; the very system that creates homelessness in the
first place. Rich people, who are often landlords, want housing to be a
commodity because they make money off of it. They want us to pay rent so
they can be richer and buy ridiculous things like mansions and big cars.
Many are supporters of the Liberal Party. Its likely that new,
anticapitalist leadership will be required. Housing activists, homeless
and poor people need to take over the state and build free homes
themselves.

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