Economic Update: Housing - Human Right vs. System Failure

[S12 E18] New 

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In this week's show, Prof. Wolff discusses global impacts of food inflation, endless class struggle over length of the workday and workweek and US deaths by guns. In the second half of the show, Wolff interviews housing activists Manon Vergerio and Velvet Ross (Fannie Lou Diane) on the US housing crisis, homelessness and evictions.

Transcript has been edited for clarity

Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update. I'm your host, Richard Wolff. Today I'll be discussing rising food prices, gun deaths, and more. After the break, we’ll be talking with housing activists Manon Vergerio and Velvet Ross (Fannie Lou Diane)

I want to begin with comments from world bank president, David Malpass. He says we may be seeing food prices rising 37 percent and that that will be devastating for the world's poor. He says it could push, and now I’m quoting, “hundreds of millions into poverty, worsen nutrition, and force millions of children out of school.” What’s going on here? He says, in an important aside, this is even worse in terms of its unfairness than the Covid epidemic was. Think about that.

Let me explain. About 60 of the poorest countries in the world have already borrowed money to get through the pandemic and they have to pay that money back. But, of course, food prices come first because people have to eat to live. As food prices go up, these countries, many of whom import parts of their food or all of it, import fuel and other items that have soared up in price. So, whatever amount of scarce foreign exchange they have in their country has to go to pay for the food and the fuel without which daily life would come to an end. That leaves them with no money to pay back their debts and that is going to cut their ability to function. They won't be able to pay their debts. If they try to pay their debts it will have to come out of the school budgets, road budgets, and health budgets.

You can see the kind of catastrophe that’s unfolding here but I want to analyze what the issue is here. The issue is not the war in Ukraine. It doesn’t account for this. It’s more the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia, and Russia's allies, that are disrupting global markets, including food and fuel markets, in ways that drive up prices. Maybe the most fundamental lesson to take from this is that the real culprit here is the market. Why? Well, if we have a shortage because of the war, because of the sanctions—even more, if we have a shortage of fuel and food—then the rational humane way to deal with it is to have a mechanism to distribute it where it's most needed, to distribute it equally, fairly. Every one of us needs food and fuel. It’s not something that we can divide up rationally or humanely, any other way—but the market doesn't do that.

Here's what happens in markets, the people who have the fuel and the food can take advantage of the scarcity to drive up the prices and make more money. The vast majority of the people who don't have enough money can't afford to pay the higher prices for the food and the fuel. If the market runs the system, a few people become very wealthy when there is scarcity and a large number of people are forced to do without. The reality is that the market distributes in a fundamentally unjust way and an inhumane way. The market is the problem here—not the scarcity.

My next update has to do with something Karl Marx taught us about. Early on in the first volume of Capital, he has a long discussion of the length of the working day. In that he says— and remember this is written back in the middle of the 19th century—that in capitalism there's an endless struggle between the employer and the employee. The employer wants the employee to work for the longest number of hours possible for the lowest pay that the employer can get away with giving out as a wage. The employer is always pressing down the wage or lengthening the working day or both. If you know something about the history of capitalism, everywhere in the world it is always this—when it first comes to a country or a region, the working day is 14-16 hours long. Struggle, usually lasting decades, is needed by working people to reduce the length of the working day down to what's the convention in the world today—40 hours per week—8 hours on each of five days—but it took a long time to get it down to that. But, the struggle never stops— that was Marx's point. So here's what happened—very quickly employers responded, “Okay, if the working day is eight hours let me tell you, John, the Employee, we need you to stick around for an extra half hour, and believe me, you better do as we ask you to, otherwise, you know, we might have to let you go for somebody who won’t object if we tell them, hey, we need you today or maybe even tomorrow for an extra half hour, an extra hour or something.” Well to make a long story short—that was done until workers pushed back.

In the Great Depression, in 1938 to be precise, they passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, under President Roosevelt, and that specified something interesting. You cannot make a worker work beyond 40 hours and if you can get the worker to agree to work beyond 40 hours, you must pay that worker time and a half—50 percent more for every hour after 40 compared to whatever the going rate is for the first 40. You know that had a lot to do with creating the so-called middle class in the United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Workers who were required to work longer had to be paid time and a half. You know, there were two ideas behind that, not only do you pay workers more if you ask more of them but there's a bit of a penalty for the employer. Right? If you're going to hire a worker and make him or her work beyond 40 [hours], you going to pay 50 percent more than if you don't do that and hire another worker. In other words, time and a half doesn't only help the worker who does overtime, but it creates more jobs as employers prefer often to hire someone at regular pay rather than make someone work overtime at regular pay plus 50 percent. But then, of course, the employers never gave up just like Marx told us.

Starting already in the postwar period they began to say, “Well there should be some exemptions. Some workers do specialized work, administrative work, executive work, professional work, and they shouldn’t be…because we need them extra.” This was won—the business community got together, bought enough republicans and democrats—mostly for sale, most of the time—and got the law changed to the point where today more than half of full-time workers in this country work more than 40 hours. They don’t get paid, most of them, time and a half, because [the employers] use the exemptions as they've been worked out over the years.

There's a wonderful article by one of those capitalists who is not afraid of talking about how the system really works, Nick Hanauer, by name. In Time magazine of April 21, he talks about the scandal of the overtime struggle. You know, here's an irony, you ought to think about, the Department of Labor could change the rules. It's only a matter of the rules. You don't need the Congress. You don’t need the Senate. Mr. Biden could, tomorrow, reinstate time and a half for everybody over 40 [hours] no matter what work he or she does. That would be reasonable—a good program to create better jobs. A good program to pay workers what they ought to be paid if they work extra but Mr. Biden and his labor department aren't even talking about it, let alone doing it.

So, the struggle, it’s called the class struggle—that’s what Marx called it—sounds like a good idea. That class struggle never stops. Pay as little as possible, and get as many hours out of those workers as you can squeeze. Not [considering] the health of the worker, mental or physical…not the well-being of the communities those workers are part of—that's not the issue. It's squeezing the extra profit—that's the name of the game. That's how the system works.

I was struck by a gun statistic, you know, we get them from time to time but every now and then they jump and I have to talk to you about it. In the latest year for which we have complete statistics, 2020, here is the number of people who died…died from gun violence…45,222. That’s the federal government count. The overwhelming bulk of those were homicides—not suicides. Among young people, between the ages of 1 and 19, more now die from guns than from automobile accidents, which used to be the number one. In fact, I want to tell you about the number one, two, and three killers of young people in the United States between 1 and 19 years of age. Number one: guns. Number two: automobiles. Number three: opioid overdoses. I want to drive a point home with you. Every one of those is preventable. We could do much more to prevent opioid overdoses. Right?…by controlling the pharmaceutical companies whose profits drove the distribution of these kinds of painkillers on a scale that the whole world looks at with shock and awe. Just like profit drives our transportation system, instead of having first-class buses and trolleys and jitneys to move people around, we have the private automobile—that’s much more profitable. That’s why we're replacing diesel and oil-driven private vehicles with electric private vehicles. What we need, for example, to save the lives of our young people is a quality public transportation system but we don't get it because profit-making auto companies prevent it—and now guns. Why are they everywhere?…because the gun industry, with their well-paid ally the NRA, is constantly doing whatever is necessary to block and prevent a restricted availability of the number one killer of young people in our society. Again, the problem isn't the gun or the opioid drug or the automobile even but it's a profit-driven system that imposes on us something we should never have allowed in the first place.

We’ve come to the end of the first part of today's show. As we, at Democracy at Work, continue celebrating our 10th anniversary, we want to help [and] move closer to a more equitable and democratic world. I want to invite and encourage all of you to explore the variety of other shows, podcasts, and books we produce…like Cities After, a show about the future of cities hosted by Miguel Robles-Durán, whose aim is to spark civic imagination into action. You can find his show and others, as well as how to get involved with all of the work we do, by going to our website: democracyatwork.info. Of course, we couldn't do all this without your support and encouragement which we appreciate greatly. Please stay with us, we'll be right back.

Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. I am both proud and pleased to bring to our microphones and our cameras two remarkable housing activists. Housing is a fundamental right of human beings and it is a right under attack and in danger in our society—as are so many other fundamental rights. These two people are fighting in a way that all of us should applaud. The first is Manon Vergerio. She is an organizer and researcher on housing issues in New York, San Francisco, and Paris, her hometown. In her view, victims of urban injustice are expert problem solvers equipped to imagine and design creative solutions. Alongside, someone who works with her and who has been busy in her own right is Fannie Lou Diane, she's an activist, artist, women's historian, and writer. She has an M.A. from Sarah Lawrence College in women's history and a B.A. from Brooklyn College in communications. Evicted and homeless, she became committed to fighting housing discrimination and poverty. This brought her a leadership position in New York City and New York State social movements.

RDW: First of all, to both of you, welcome to Economic Update.

FLD: Thank you for having us.

MV: Thank you so much.

RDW: Well, you're doing all of us a service and a favor. Let me begin, with either of you, to start…tell us what you think, in your experience, is the problem of homelessness or the condition of the homeless in this country at this time.

MV: Well, I think it's important to start with some numbers. So today, there are over half a million Americans who are unhoused. I think far too often people think of homelessness as, “Oh, that's that person's problem” like they must have had some sort of issue…been an addict or something. But, when we look at the numbers, it's really clear that homelessness is a structural problem. It’s a product of our housing crisis, so it makes sense that in cities where real estate is really expensive—like New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco—[there are] staggering numbers of folks who cannot find a home today. Since we're in New York, I also want to talk a little bit about the context here. New York City is very particular because we have a right to shelter. The right to shelter was won through a class action lawsuit at the end of the 70s by a group of unhoused men and while it's really powerful it also means that sometimes it invisibilizes or misrepresents homelessness because folks usually think of homelessness as only street homelessness. We don't really think about the 50,000 people that are in the New York City shelter system and many of these are families and kids. Then, when you add to that, folks who've been evicted and are living doubled up with family or doubled up living in their cars, the numbers are actually super undercounted. One last thing to note about the current state of homelessness in New York City is that because the city has a mandate to offer [or] provide shelter to its population, there's this whole ecosystem of organizations—private companies that build and operate shelters. It's in their interest to keep the shelters full and that's what many homeless leaders and advocates call the shelter industrial complex.

FLD: Just to add on to what Manon said, we have to also realize that, like she said, New York is very specific in terms of how it houses its homeless but that's only New York City and not New York State and the rest of the country. Prior to the pandemic, we were already on the brink of a homeless crisis. HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] states that 580,000 people in the United States were homeless and in New York City we were already having a burden of cost in terms of housing because 30 percent of people pay at least 50 of their paycheck towards their housing costs. It doesn’t leave much for many people to have anything more and then with the sheltering-in during Covid, it exacerbated those rates leading many people to become homeless—especially those who are single. During Covid, we saw the most amount of single people homeless—92,000 single people were homeless. Fortunately, during that time, when people were mandated to stay in the house, there were some programs that were able to save some families. But, not all families were eligible for many of the vouchers that the state and federal governments were able to give them. This crisis was prior to Covid, but also it is being exacerbated more now with the lack of affordability and the lack of options for affordable housing.

RDW: There was a terrible irony that was noted, that we were telling people during the pandemic and even to the present, “Wash your hands all the time, stay indoors.” The mockery of the homeless—telling them that the only way to be safe was to do something they obviously couldn't do. It was a kind of torture that struck many of us watching.

I want to get to the deeper issue. Housing has been a problem. You can find people talking about homelessness in the 18th century, the 19th century, the 20th century, and here we are in the 21st century. What in the world is going on? Why is this problem not solved? Why are we in this situation? I turn to you because I know you’ve done research as well as being activists. Help us understand what this system is failing at…that it cannot deal with this.

FLD: Well, for me, there are two different issues. First of all, people make money off of people being homeless. You know, it costs more money to shelter someone in the shelter at night than to give them an apartment. The city usually pays three grand a night for someone to stay in the shelter and so it would be easier for them to get a voucher and for them to find a place to live but it's not coming off as easy because of the fact that people are making money off of people being homeless. It's a money-grabbing process. These shelters make money and those people are counted as money for them and so that's one of the [reasons] why homelessness is still deeply embedded in our society and it really won't go away until people stop profiting off of it.

MV: Totally. When I think about the root causes of our housing crisis, it really comes down to the fact that land and housing have been commodified. You could trace this back all the way to settler colonialism. European colonizers coming to this land and stealing land from indigenous communities and imposing a private property system that had very rigid lines around who could own land and who couldn’t. We only have 15 minutes today so we don't have time to talk about the entire history but you know, you fast forward 400 years, and today this commodification of land and housing has accelerated into this hyper-financialization of housing so homes are being treated as these speculative investment vehicles.

Now we have private equity firms, like Blackstone, that own hundreds of thousands of housing units across the globe and they're accountable to their shareholders, right, they're not accountable to their tenants. Their priority isn't the safety and well-being of their tenants. It's profit margins. They'll do anything they can to really drive up rents to optimize their portfolios and what that looks like for tenants is evictions and ever-increasing rents. In New York City, we've seen how predatory equity has led to a ton of displacement so that's when a corporation comes in, buys a rent-stabilized building, and then harasses [and] evicts the tenants and then deregulates the building and turns it into market-rate apartments. So you take that and then add the entire layer of living in a white supremacist society and how the racist policies that have shaped this country and have really shaped also the housing market and who has access to housing—and who doesn’t.

FLD: On top of that, you have to also look at the fact that when Manon said, “White supremacy housing”—housing and justice are related to white supremacy and that is a racial justice issue. If you think about how many people are homeless and 39 percent of the population of people who are homeless are Black but we're only 13 percent of the population and a lot of that has a lot to do with the systemic rules and laws that were put in place by this government to deny Black people housing. When you look at those rates and you see that you see this is a systemic issue that is going back towards slavery and so something like that is not going to be rooted out overnight because it is so rooted and embedded in our country's fabric.

RDW: There’s a lot of talk these days that we're about to suffer a tsunami of evictions. Somehow, the combination of real estate investment, the way Manon just mentioned, rising prices everywhere, and money to be made by real estate makes it desirable for the speculators and the investors to evict as many people as they can in order to prettify the apartment and raise the rent astronomically.

Are we about to have an eviction catastrophe that makes homelessness even a larger problem than you're already telling us?

FLD: Well, we already are having an eviction crisis right now. Currently, you have more evictions that are happening—more than before the pandemic and so now, with the Right to Remain counseling that people can now be [their own] attorneys. It's gotten so bad that there aren't even enough attorneys available for people to have representation in court. People always say, “Well, evictions hurt small mom-and-pop landlords”…but that's not really true. It’s basically these wealthy real estate developers who benefit from all of this. Right now, because of the fact that we did not extend the moratorium [on evictions]. We are in a crisis right now. Thousands of people are being evicted as we speak. Right now.

RDW: Obviously, a society that was committed to this problem could easily hire the lawyers that would make it possible, at least, for those threatened with eviction to get the maximum legal support that they're entitled to under the law.

In the time we have left, could I ask the two of you based on your own experience—What would you do? What kind of solution would you ask us to be thinking about and would you be organizing to achieve?

MV: I think one thing we've learned from the 30 or so years of neo-liberal housing policy-making is that relying on the private sector to build affordable housing just doesn't work. New York City has tried all sorts of things like giving tax breaks to developers, rezoning entire neighborhoods to sweeten the deal, and telling developers, “If you build this giant tower in a working-class neighborhood you'll have to include some sort of affordable housing percentage in it.” But, what happens is that none of the units created are actually affordable to the people who need them.

I would advocate for [taking] land out of the speculative market. I'm really excited about models like community land trusts which again take land out of speculation and put it under a legal structure that's community-controlled, at the community level, to make sure that the land stays affordable in perpetuity. I'm also really excited and inspired by movements abroad like Berlin, last year, held a referendum and the majority of the city voted for corporate landlords who were destabilizing the markets to be expropriated and for their properties to come back under public ownership. I think this country has used eminent domain many times to sometimes tear apart Black communities and I think eminent domain could be used in a very different way and bring some of these units, that are being speculated on, back under public or community-controlled ownership.

FLD: I will add on to that, what we’re doing at Unlocked is we're also trying to stem the tide of people who are being discriminated against for having vouchers. That’s one part of the work that we are doing to kind of stem the tide here in New York City also, in New York State, with Housing Justice for All. We are looking to get passed [a] Good Cause eviction [law] which would benefit 1.6 million renter households in New York State from being evicted for retaliating against their landlord for different conditions that are really bad. Another thing is extending the right to counsel, not just in New York City, but also to the rest of the state so residents of the rest of the state can have someone represent them in court. A lot of times they find that those who are evicted usually don't have representation in court. Those are some of the things that we are working on. They're small but they will have a larger context and be beneficial to generations to come.

RDW: I apologize that we only have the time that we did but you have enlightened us in enormously important ways about a problem that is about to get worse and that is already a kind of blot on this system. So more power to you…Thank you for the work that you do and thank you for the time you've given to share what you have to say.

FLD: Thank you so much for having us.

MV: Thank you for having us.

RDW: You’re very welcome and to my own audience thank you very much for joining us today and I look forward as always to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Barbara Bartlett

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About our guests: Manon Vergerio (she/her) is an organizer and a critical urbanist who's spent the last decade researching and organizing around housing issues in New York, San Francisco, and Paris, her hometown. Recent projects include co-founding the NYC chapter of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, a data visualization and storytelling collective documenting evictions and the housing crisis, co-directing a documentary film on the upcoming 2024 Olympics in Paris and its impact on surrounding communities, and working to develop Unlock NYC, a mobile-based app to report on housing discrimination in New York. Her practice is firmly rooted in the belief that people most directly impacted by urban injustice are expert problem-solvers equipped to imagine and design creative solutions.

Velvet Johnson Ross aka Fannie Lou Diane, is an activist, accomplished performing artist, Women’s Historian and writer. She has a MA from Sarah Lawrence College in Women’s History and a BA from Brooklyn College in Communications. Her educational, artistic and activist background has fueled her passion for Women’s rights, the arts and speaking and advocating for Black Women who have been disenfranchised and disengaged in society.
She understands personally how the intersectional spaces of race, class and gender impact Black women in the housing market. She became homeless after she was illegally evicted by her landlord who refused to remediate and correctly treat toxic black mold, several rodent and insect infestations in her rent stabilized apartment. This wreaked havoc on her health and led to severe health complications that still resonate today. That’s why she wants to make sure no one else goes through what she went through and is fighting hard to stem the tide on homelessness in her advocacy. She is an active member of Unlock NYCs of Leadership Collective an all- female lead teach organization dedicated to helping aid individuals impacted by housing discrimination. She is also a member and a part of the Leadership Collective of Neighbors Together, an organization dedicated to helping disenfranchised groups around issues of poverty and homelessness in Brooklyn. She is also a part of the Homeless Can’t Stay Home Coalition which is fighting to address the various inequities in housing in New York City and Housing Justice for All which is fighting for housing justice, equity and parity for renters and those unhoused in New York State. She is a member of the East Harlem Repertory Theater Company where they bring educational community theater to underserved communities. Fannie Lou Diane is a former Bronx Community Board 7, a member of Delta Sigma Theta and the National Council of Negro Women. She was recognized by former Speaker of the New York City Council Melissa Mark Vivirito and given a city citation for her community work.

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Showing 1 comment

  • chris shelton
    commented 2022-05-11 15:47:00 -0400
    how about explaining to your listeners stagflation and how all the international sanctions are hurting the poor people of the world by the break down of supply chains.
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