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The Fire This Time: the Urban Housing Crisis

A pair of headlines the past two weeks illustrated the gruesome underbelly of the urban housing crisis. Last Wednesday night in the Bronx two young homeless sisters, aged 2 and 1, were found dead after a malfunctioning radiator in the room they shared caused steam to spew into the room inflicting severe burns on the girls. The building, part of the cluster-site program whereby the city houses homeless people in privately home buildings, had 26 open violations of the housing-maintenance code and multiple dwelling laws according to records from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The cluster-site program, which current Mayor de Blasio had pledged to end, has been oft-criticized for being both expensive and dangerous as a 2015 report by the city’s Investigation Department showed numerous buildings in the program with building code and fire safety violations.

A few days earlier on the opposite coast in Oakland a fire broke out at a warehouse party killing 36 people in what is being called the deadliest fire Oakland’s history. The warehouse, housing more than 100 people, largely an artist community, provided affordable rent in a city becoming increasingly unaffordable. A report from Oakland’s Housing Cabinet estimates that rents increased 68 percent between 2007 and 2015 as Oakland has gotten sucked into Silicon Valley’s orbit. City officials have admitted that no building code inspector had stepped foot in the warehouse in at least 30 years. According to the LA Times the building wasn’t listed in the fire department’s database of buildings requiring inspections. The aftermath of the fire has triggered a surge of warehouse inspections in the area that has artist worried about being evicted further accelerating gentrification.

Fire of course has long been the scourge of the expendable population and an ally of capital. Who could forget the images of Jimmy carter walking through the streets of the burned out Bronx in the late 1970s or Howard Cosell’s commentary of the blaze caught on camera during the 1977 World Series?  A perfect, if predictable, storm of budget cuts combined with faulty ‘systems analysis’, brought on by the city’s partnership with RAND, that called for a more efficient streamlined fire-department (i.e. less trucks and stations would equal better service), all aligning with the ‘planned shrinkage’ floating in urban planning circles at the time, saw the withdrawal of fire houses from the Bronx (while sparing more well off areas of the city which had the clout to resist the absurdity). The inevitable fire epidemic spread. For all the mythology about arson, until 1975, the epidemic already well under way, the percentage of fires attributed to arson never rose above 1.1 percent. At its peak in the late 1970s arson still made up less than 7 percent most of which occurred in already burned out buildings. Fires led to abandonment: in their book A Plague on Your Houses Deborah and Roderick Wallace calculated that fires displaced two million people citywide, leaving the Bronx open for redevelopment.

Arson or accident the dynamic is a global one. In Planet of Slums Mike Davis writes:

Slums, not Mediterranean brush or Australian eucalypti, as claimed in some textbooks, are the world’s premier fire ecology. Their mixture of inflammable dwellings, extraordinary density, and dependence upon open fires for heat and cooking is a superlative recipe for spontaneous combustion. A simple accident with cooking gas or kerosene can quickly become a mega-fire that destroys hundreds or even thousands of dwellings, and fire-fighting vehicles if they respond, are often unable to negotiate narrow slum lanes.

The Bay Area has long been known for its massive homeless population. It has gotten more attention in recent times with the media spotlight on the tech industry with its Google Buses. One finds a consensus that the roots of the housing problem are the NIMBY instincts of two generations of neighborhood activists.

Meanwhile in New York the official number of homeless people has reached 60,686, nearly 40 percent being children. New York’s building boom would seem to go some way towards refuting the idea that the crisis is the work of neighborhood preservation movements. The chorus would have a harder time saying New York isn’t building. There’s enough of a boom for the city’s Building Department to number 11 construction related deaths so far this year with 12 in 2015; the city’s construction unions tracked a higher number of 29 such fatalities the past two years, mostly undocumented immigrants working in dangerous conditions. The latest death was on December 9th on the site of the old Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn. The massive site is being converted into luxury apartments in keeping with pretty much the whole East River waterfront.  The newest features to the iconic skyline are half empty towers of opulence that call to mind giant middle fingers pointed at the city’s populace,  half of whom are rent burdened with an increasingly number living in overcrowded, often illegal, spaces. It is the distinction between real estate and housing, a distinction that can be easily observed in the ‘warehoused’ builds throughout the city whose LLC owners are waiting for the next rezoning, the empty storefronts in wealthy SoHo holding out for another national chain or bank branch, or in the vast number of empty apartments on Manhattan’s East Side used as piggy banks, speculation, or summer homes.

As for the homeless the city has been relaying on cluster-sites and hotel-rooms to handle the increase. Neither is considered a serious solution. Neighborhoods are pushing back hard against future shelters being built in their midst. Inherent in the word ‘shelter’ is its temporary nature, as if homelessness is a condition to be gotten over like an illness. If that could at times be said about individuals it utterly fails as a general rule. Shelter isn’t housing. In a world where housing is a commodity slums and homelessness are much less bugs than a built-in features of the system.

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the UN General Assembly in 1948 it is stated: ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.’ The Housing Act passed at home by Congress in 1949 reads the words ‘a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.’ In a city, country, and world largely dominated by real estate interests these laws remain tragically ignored.

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Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City.

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