A recent facebook post caught my eye. It contrasted the number of homeless in the United States with the number of vacant homes. The image stated that there are 24 vacant homes for each homeless person in the US. Sources of empty homes surely vary, but could include second homes, abandoned homes, unsound structures, land and houses held as investments, and failed redevelopment schemes. These can be owned by either private parties or government. The proportion of each of these categories almost certainly varies by region. It does, however, appear to be a global issue, and not confined to the US.

I had read something to this effect before, but only once, and it was quite new to me then. When I first heard of this phenomenon, I found it interesting, surprising, and thought provoking. For that reason, I considered the post worth (re-)sharing on facebook. Since, in my experience, there are a lot of shares in most people’s facebook news feeds, and most are glanced at pretty quickly, I was surprised at the emotional response this one generated.

In general, the comments were defensive and reflected little thought, including claims in the same vein as “no one wants homeless people in their second home”. I was surprised by these for a number of reasons, not the least of which were the lack of compassion demonstrated.

I was reminded of comments on a YouTube video about a US man’s (legal) attempts to gain the rights to an empty suburban home (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w22EOq7IsTk, 2011, originally a News8 broadcast). Both the man’s neighbours and YouTube commenters expressed the opinion that his attempt to secure a home by means other than paying for it were unfair. Some even attempted to defend him by rationalizing that the legal work or study he had to do “counted” and somehow made the situation fair. At the root of many comments appeared to be the feeling “since I had to work/pay for my house, everyone should have to”. This seems to me to imply that having work and the ability to pay for things is some sort of unfairness.

I read the post more generally than it appears my commenters did. I read it as a comment on and illumination of disparity in our society, economic inefficiencies, and a problem of distribution of resources. I did not read it as a suggestion that second homes be opened to the homeless.

However, a quick search revealed that a number of jurisdictions are tackling the issue on a much more literal level than I expected. It appears that in the UK government and non-profits programs exist to address the issue of empty homes directly:

In Scotland, local councils can access information on empty homes and make direct contact with owners, under powers gained in October. This is intended as a first step to bringing empty homes back into use.

In Wales, local authorities have powers to make empty houses available to those in need of homes. Conway council is the latest local authority looking to make use of these powers.

BBC News UK, December 4, 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16021539

Brazil has laws similar in nature, which facilitate the legalization of squatters’ settlements on land held by investors (in other words, facilitates adverse possession). This land is often held by investors without any productive use of the land, simply as an asset. (Note that this is not to say that land should be “in productive use” to secure property rights, but rather is intended to explore the situations in which vacant land or housing, especially in relation to homelessness, is or is not deemed acceptable by a society.) The same occurs in other countries, notably China, in which numerous houses in new subdivisions sit empty, as these investments lose their value as soon as they are lived in (in much the same way that a new car does as soon as it’s purchased in North America). China does not appear to have any programs or legislation to fill these houses with the homeless or individuals in need of affordable housing.

In terms of housing the homeless, it does appear that providing secure and dignified housing (among other things) through housing-first policies yields positive results, which often costs much less than providing temporary shelter and care. Part of this is because shelters are only temporary to the individuals sheltered, but are in fact a permanent feature in many larger cities, and a lasting budgetary concern. Another reason for the encouraging results seems to stem from the fact that, once they have the security of permanent housing, many individuals seem to find a better footing to make positive changes.

This does not suggest that all currently empty houses be commandeered for the purpose. In fact, Calgary’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, which uses a housing first approach, does not do or suggest this (Calgary Homeless Foundation, 2011:  http://calgaryhomeless.com/10-year-plan/fundamentals/), nor do I think it would be appropriate. The plan, incidentally, has been quite effective to date, though it has not been ten years since adoption in 2008. Indeed, recent news reports indicate that the number of homeless persons in Calgary has decreased, for the first time in twenty years (Myers, February 6, 2012, Calgary Herald, http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/Fewer+homeless+Calgary+study/6107917/story.html).

I do not intend by this blog post, or the facebook share upon which it is based, to condemn those who own second homes, nor those who wish to discuss the issue and have opinions opposing mine. However, I do hope that it generates some thought about what this situation reveals about the state of housing and resources in our society, and about whether the situation is economically or socially reasonable and desirable.

To me, it indicates that enough resources are available to alleviate housing shortages, homelessness, and the misery associated with these. Combined with positive results from housing-first policies, it gives much reason to hope. These also indicate to me that, as with many things, lack of money or resources is not as much an issue as is distribution and approach. I am not suggesting that direct transfer of resources (or houses) is the solution, though I’m sure it’s the first that comes to mind for many. Rather, I’m suggesting that the situation indicates that a solution is possible.

One Response to Empty Houses and Homelessness

  1. Edwin says:

    In Maine, even the shelters have wtaniig lists. Cities seem to have no money going into new shlters or housing. Here is a think piece about cold Maine.What Our Government Will Not Tell Us! By Jan LightfootLaneThe Deliberately Broken Safety NetThe safety net consist of mostly governmental programs who provide food, housing and in case of disability, income. The private sector should make-up for any lack of these programs. Some of these programs in one form or another have existed here, in the states with little improvement, in the past 60 years. Others have been dropped. When the programs fail to work its often due to abuse by the officials, or Official Abuse of its low paid citizens. The Hate the poor crowd overlook most oficial abuse. Since before America became a country, or in the colonial times their have been relief for the poor. As the programs, we today call general relief, general assistance and town welfare. Some near sighted republicans want to remove these. Others call for them to be fixed, to serve every one in need, up to the full necessity to support life. With the election giving the republicans the power, we must fight a long standing injustice as well the new ones.Many facts about the safety net, the security and protection of the thoughtfully composed programs, are hidden by the Government and it’s puppet of media. At best, these set of courses, are designed by the upper middle classes, with not thought to the poor attempting to access them. At worst, they are policy, which are intentionally changed according to how gullible those in hardship seems. This means the laws behind the assistance to the poor are UNFAIRLY Applied by the trusted Law givers. Occasionally, these unlawful actions by officials, results in the applicants, physical death. Other times just the death of hope. This whimful application of laws causes the lost belief in justice for all. Such is a violation of both Constitutional and human rights.Such happens with the so called safety net for the disabled, SSI and SSDI. Half of those who seek a lawyer, are find eligible for benefits. And 2/3 of all American on disabilities federal programs, receive LESS Than the price of the rent. Then are called lairs and thieves, when they find the other require monies. As are many TANF Mothers. Why aren’t programs set up to cover 100% of the need? This is democrats need to be calling to happen.Today we focus upon General Relief. Not all states has this. But those who do has state laws which is intended to guide conduct of officials. So with officials twisting the laws, qualified people are denied help. The stated plan of action is put aside, to save money in the short term. Yet the public think help flows freely for all of those who need such. Many programs, are transposed at delivery. This process could be likened to aide workers throwing darts at a photo of the town manager. Then if, the projectile gets him in the nose you are aided. The bogus excuses, are similar in nature no matter what state or town you are in. We lack funds, we helped your cousin twice removed, and we cannot aid you. You have to in town X amount of days, when the law clearly say if you just arrived in town and plan to stay they should be helping you. You are under 18 years of age. And so on.If we call out to the news to inform others of this flaw, the print media refuse’s to print how one guy slept in his car with faulty heater wiring, and burnt to death after the safety net program of General Assistance denied him a place to sleep. Mainstream newspapers refuse to carry editors, telling folks how the eligible are routinely and with illegal thought and actions denied aid. People become and remain homeless due to lies by towns, state, and federal officials.But us Public are comfortable in the illusion, that those in need will be aided. When in fact they Are PUSHED THROUGH THE SAFETY NET. Those in need are told lies, instead of having fairly applied laws be validly given them. Does denying the qualified save money in the long run? No A study of 30 years ago found the un-housed are more likely to be injured, raped, get sick etc. This means hospital bills, lost of hope in the system, and death. It cost more to treat one case of pneumonia than to house 10 families.This lies by officials is a form of income-cide. The killing of those regardless of ethnic background due to lack of poverty. Neglect which causes death of hope or body, is murder. We need to inform the everyday republicans, that many of them also are one step away from needing help. Those blaming the poor, for a state of society leaning toward being barbaric in nature, they are looking in the wrong direction. Whooray for me the heck with other people, is the rallying cry for those blaming their pain on the deliberately underpaid. They needs to widening their gaze, and see the entire picture.This is one of the many things the government does not want you to know.Jan LightfootLane,

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