Fair Rental Association Annual General Meeting
December 3, 1998
We hear a lot these days about homelessness being a national disaster. What we don’t hear is that homelessness is a new phenomenon, the term was not even in common parlance until the 1980s.
We don’t hear that homelessness first came to the public’s attention during the big spending 1970s, before the recessions of the 1980s and the hard-hearted era of cutbacks in the 1990s.
Homelessness is a disaster, but it’s one of our own making. And it was brought to us by governments with only the best of intentions.
In the 1960s and 1970s, urban renewal became the vogue. Urban renewal meant clearing slums. Thanks to urban renewal, vast supplies of low-quality housing disappeared.
Newark and New York City lost almost half of their low-rent housing between 1970 and 1990; The Bowery had 10,000 beds in 1965, but 3,000 in 1980. In the 1970s and 1980s, Chicago lost 20 per cent of its low-rent housing; of the 10,000 spaces in the Loop area’s cubicle hotels, 600 remained. In Toronto, we lost virtually all of our 500 flophouse beds by the early 1980s. By the end of the decade, we had lost one-third of our rooming houses.
That was only the beginning. Legislation of various kinds was passed, all designed to help the poor, but it backfired on the poor.
Rent control is one example, and not just because it discouraged new construction. Rent control was designed to keep rents low in a time of housing shortage, and that it did. But the effect of having a surplus of apartment seekers was to let landlords pick and choose who they would rent to.
Landlords, naturally, picked stable tenants over potentially dicey ones. The down and out had no chance in this new competition for scarce space.
Tenant right legislation also backfired on the poor. This legislation prevented landlords from evicting the prostitutes, drug dealers, and rowdy tenants who caused good tenants to leave.
So landlords stopped renting to anyone with the potential to be troublesome. Again, the poor were the first to suffer.
With all this low-rent housing demolished, and so much of the balance reserved for respectable tenants, the poorest of the poor had no place to go but the streets. Ironically, they were newly freed up through the repeal of vagrancy laws.
The way out of homelessness begins by backing out along the same path that created it. We must restore vagrancy laws. We must require housing for those unable to properly look after themselves. Welfare must provide the down-and-out with housing vouchers that can be used anywhere, not just in shelters, but in exchange for a couch in a relative’s living room. That’s how many poor people, including alcoholics and the mentally ill, used to live. They doubled up with relatives or sublet rooms in exchange for cash or household services, typically babysitting for women, odd jobs for men.
The last thing the homeless need is anonymous public housing.
To encourage friends and relatives to take the homeless in and other landlords to re-enter the business, we must throw out rules preventing easy evictions of tenants, even publicly funded hostels and shelters routinely evict or refuse to admit disorderly occupants. This accountability will prod some of today’s homeless to get along with those around them, as their counterparts once did.
The government must re-regulate the use of public spaces, and deregulate the housing market to let the homeless find inexpensive housing niches for themselves. The largest sources of appropriate housing, ones that many municipalities wrongly ban, are basement apartments and other occupancies in residential districts.
Doing so will give homeless people what they need most, to be engaged in society. Above all, we must force the homeless to engage the rest of us.