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   Vol. 68/No. 34           September 21, 2004  
The fight for affordable housing
Millions of working people today face a housing squeeze. Rents eat up a growing hunk of our wages. In Washington, D.C., for example, monthly rents average $877, and more than half of tenants in the city pay at least 30 percent of their income for rent. Many workers are forced to live in cramped apartments with crumbling ceilings, water leaks, and roach and rat infestation. In New York City, more than 40,000 working people live in homeless shelters or on the streets. Similar conditions exist in other cities. As for those who “own” their homes, they are increasingly burdened by rising mortgage payments—in fact, they are owners in name only, making payments to the bank instead of the landlord, and facing the threat of foreclosure. Government policies favor landlords and real estate barons at the expense of working people.

The lack of decent, affordable housing is aggravated by declining real wages, hikes in utility rates, rising medical expenses, and persistent high levels of unemployment despite the current upturn in the business cycle.

What is the cause of the housing crunch? It’s not a lack of housing construction—the building industry has enjoyed a boom. But the real estate tycoons find it more lucrative to build luxury high-rises than affordable housing. This leads to workers being pushed out of neighborhoods that become “gentrified” as decrepit buildings are renovated or torn down and replaced with expensive condominiums or commercial offices. Meanwhile, many of us have to either pay more for rent—and less for other essentials—or look for a cheaper and more worn-down place to live.

The housing crisis is a permanent feature of capitalism, both in the United States and worldwide. As long as housing and land are commodities, there will be a shortage of affordable places for people to live. Under the profit system, working people will always be squeezed by rent-gouging landlords, real estate speculators, and loan sharks. Capitalism will keep reproducing all the social relations of class exploitation and its related evils—from unemployment to economic crises, war, racist discrimination, and housing shortages. And the capitalist government—using its twin parties in the United States, the Democrats and Republicans—will always enforce the interests of the industrialists, bondholders, and landlords.

In response to this crisis, the Socialist Workers Party candidates are calling for a federally funded crash program to build high-quality, low-rent public housing. As part of a mass public works program, this could also create millions of jobs at union-scale wages—which is also key to addressing the housing squeeze.

Also needed is full cost-of-living protection—for the minimum wage, union contracts, unemployment pay, Social Security, and other benefits—to protect working people from rising prices and rents. The socialist campaign calls for increasing the minimum wage to union scale—about what unionized workers in the building trades get—which will raise the wage floor for all workers.

What can be done now, on an emergency basis, to hold down rents? The government should immediately institute a program of rent subsidies so that no household would have to pay more than 10 percent of its rent. This subsidy could be financed, for starters, by taxing the corporations, loan sharks, landlords, and real estate speculators.

In order to take the profiteering, rent-gouging, and speculation out of the business of providing people with a place to live, all apartment houses and rental units should be nationalized and turned into public property, with rents paid to the government, and buildings managed by elected tenants committees. Land should also be nationalized so that it is no longer a commodity, and instead its use can be guaranteed to working people.

As long as the capitalist minority maintains its economic and political rule and the laws of the market prevail, however, working people will face a housing crisis. To address this and other pressing needs, workers and farmers will need to organize a mass movement that can overturn the rule of the billionaire minority, establish a government of working people, and reorganize society based on the interests of the vast majority.  
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