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.