When You Can’t Stay Home View all 4 stories

On Redistributing Vacant Housing

It’s never been more urgent to turn our cities’ vacant living spaces into housing for the homeless.

Jenny Akchin and Lynn Lewis
October 23, 2020
People prepare places to sleep in a Las Vegas parking lot, marked with squares for social distancing, after a local shelter was closed due to a positive coronavirus case, March 30th, 2020. Photo: John Locher/AP Photo

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LONG BEFORE the Covid-19 pandemic, homeless people, public health experts, and advocates had noted the many ways that homelessness damages health, from an increased likelihood of developing chronic conditions, to an elevated risk of contracting communicable diseases, to higher-than-average mortality rates. The pandemic has dramatically heightened the danger. In shelters, social distancing is virtually impossible, given the shared—and often cramped—sleeping quarters, bathrooms, and dining areas. And many of the attempts to encourage distancing in spaces where homeless people stay have been futile at best, with shelter staff moving beds in crowded dorms slightly further apart, or—in a particularly disgraceful case —Las Vegas city officials drawing chalk squares in parking lots to create socially distant encampments. 

Tragically but unsurprisingly, the coronavirus has disproportionately affected homeless people. More than a third of the residents at one Boston shelter tested positive for Covid-19; as of May, an estimated 20% of those hospitalized with the virus at San Francisco’s Zuckerburg General Hospital were homeless. And homeless people who contract the virus are more likely to fare worse, in part because the comorbidities that increase the risk of infection and death are more common in Black, Latinx, and First Nations communities, which are disproportionately impacted by evictions and homelessness. As of June, the mortality rate for homeless New Yorkers living in shelters was 61% higher than for people who were housed. (The lack of sufficient testing, failure to account for deaths outside of the hospital, and the logistical difficulties of tracking hospital patients’ housing status all suggest that such statistics are undercounts.) It’s never been clearer that access to housing is a matter of life and death. 

The situation will only get more dire as the pandemic generates its own wave of displacement and homelessness. As short-term unemployment and stimulus payments run dry and eviction moratoriums come to a close, we are quickly approaching what many analysts are calling an “eviction tsunami” that will leave many more people without permanent housing. Meanwhile, many of the public health regulations ostensibly intended to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 have been weaponized against the homeless community, who have widely been painted as vectors, rather than victims, of the disease. In the name of public health (and against CDC recommendations), officials in New York expanded the ejection of homeless people from public spaces through “sweeps” of homeless encampments and the “enhanced cleaning” of subways from 1 am to 5 am every morning, resulting in the displacement of people who found relative safety in subway stations and trains into floor spaces and stairwells in already overcrowded shelters. 

This horrifying approach is continuous with the United States’s response to the homelessness crisis, driven by broad disinvestment in public and subsidized housing and rampant speculation. The pri­mary “solutions” to this crisis have been the stigmatization and criminalization of homelessness and the deployment of “broken windows” policing strategies to remove homeless people from public space, often into hospitals or jails.  

The solution to homelessness is not crim­inalization and containment, but immediate, urgent action to ensure that everyone has access to stable and affordable housing. Long-term change will require fundamentally reconceptualizing housing by divorcing it from private profit and publicly investing in housing as a human right. This will mean creating many new affordable housing units. But we can also begin by making use of existing livable spaces that currently sit empty. 

Currently, the mass exodus of residents and rapid decline in tourism in several large cities during Covid-19 has opened up a large number of unoccupied residential spaces: In New York in March, about 100,000 hotel rooms were left vacant. As of July, hotel occupancy rates were still hovering just above 36%, with industry leaders speculating that up to 20% of the city’s hotel stock may never reopen. The availability of these spaces has not been lost on organizers. In New York, and also in San Francisco, activists collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to book hotel rooms for the homeless. In Minneapolis, organizers went a step further, briefly taking over a vacant Sheraton to offer rooms to over a hundred homeless people. While this effort was short-lived, it’s an inspiring example of what’s possible.

Just as temporarily empty living spaces can provide short-term housing solutions in the current emergency, longtime vacant properties can be reimagined as community assets to solve the ongoing housing crisis. Across the country, over 10 million units of housing currently sit vacant. It’s a common misconception that vacant properties only exist in weak markets where there is little demand for housing; in fact, some of the strongest real estate markets in the country are filled with vacant properties that serve as instruments of speculation. In New York, properties often sit empty for decades, with speculative owners—whether private individuals, banks, corporations, or city and state governments—packaging them into investment portfolios while waiting for the neighborhoods to gentrify around them. 

Rather than let millions of housing units lie dormant so owners can profit, we must reassess the purpose of vacant property in terms of the common good. 

Rather than let millions of housing units lie dormant so owners can profit, we must reassess the purpose of vacant property in terms of the common good. Many cities already maintain inventories of vacant properties; as a first step, these documentation efforts should be implemented in every community, and the data should be made available as the basis for civic engagement and discussion about land use. But data is not enough; communities must also fundamentally change their land use processes, informed by the participation of grassroots organizations and leaders—including homeless people and those most at risk of homelessness. Local governments should offer to purchase vacant properties or make available those they already own, rehabilitate them, and make them available to those most in need. Many politicians will argue that the public reapportionment of vacant properties will prove too expensive, especially in an economic downturn. But state and local governments not only have the power to reclaim these vacant properties, but the resources to do so—resources currently invested in homeless shelters, broken windows policing, carceral systems, and an ever-expanding web of social services tied up in maintaining the untenable status quo. 

Already, homeless activists are making moves to turn the short-term reclamation of vacant residential spaces into longer-term solutions. Through the #HomelessCantStayHome campaign, people residing in crowdfunded hotels in New York have begun organizing to reconceptualize the city’s approach to chronic street homelessness, presenting a hotel room-to-housing model as a viable alternative to the dysfunctional shelter system. Similar strategies are underway across the country. In this perilous moment, in which the dangers of homelessness are growing while the pandemic’s economic effects put more and more people at risk of homelessness, we must finally listen to homeless people and their advocates. It’s time to implement the solutions to the housing crisis they’ve been crafting for years.

Jenny Akchin is a third-year law student at CUNY School of Law, and a former staff member at Picture the Homeless, where she provided housing policy and research support to the organization’s homeless-led housing campaign. She currently volunteers with the #HomelessCantStayHome campaign.

Lynn Lewis is the founding executive director of Picture the Homeless, where she worked for 17 years; she is currently compiling an oral history of the organization. She volunteers with the #HomelessCantStayHome and #StoptheSweepsNYC campaigns and teaches workshops about community organizing.