Josh Marshall, who is a smart guy, found himself far from alone today on Twitter in wondering where landlords think more tenants will come from if they keep evicting massive numbers of tenants.
Unfortunately, landlords and marginal tenants know the answers to that question. They know landlords can hold spaces vacant — essentially, can go on strike against the public — and then they can reopen at jacked-up rents. And that people will show up to pay those rents.
Why? Out of fear of the alternative. The old proverbial fear of the poorhouse.
Anyone familiar with what Americans call “homelessness” knows that we live in a two-tier housing system. The upper tier is what comfortable people think of as “housing,” with legal ownership or tenancy rights, privacy, freedom of movement, and rights to trappings of full social membership such as voting, mail delivery, maintenance, utilities, and a fair chance at being the beneficiary, not the victim, of a call for public services.
The other tier is the system of quasi-carceral or criminalized living arrangements that, in the U.S., people broadly call “homelessness.” Housing that isn’t officially housing; resident statuses that don’t carry tenancy rights. Shelters, programs, encampments, vehicles, camps. [Because this matters, I want to add that people without formal housing often can meet requirements to register to vote in accordance with local law, and there are many ways to receive mail — but it’s all just more difficult. So many things are just more difficult without housing that counts as housing.]
Landlords know tenants have to fear the abusive conditions in the U.S. homelessness sector. Tenants make terrible sacrifices to hang on to first-tier tenancy status for fear of landing in the second-tier settings.
If there were a right to housing in the United States, or any floor under the level of mistreatment visited on unhoused people by municipalities, institutions, and respectable phone-wielding denizens of the upper housing tier — then housing owners might be filling vacancies instead of hoarding them. Because prospective tenants would have bargaining power to turn down a bad deal.
As it is, we live in a housing economy where displacement works in a nautical sense: the emptiness of closed spaces that were people’s homes, and the pervasive misery of the people excluded from homes, are exactly what floats the price of housing higher and higher.
This is why to call your members of Congress this week about rent relief. All of our futures depend on keeping as many people as possible from being thrown into the routinely abusive living arrangements that we categorize as “homelessness.”