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.

More articles by:

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

March 20, 2019
Elliot Sperber
Empedocles and You and Me 
March 19, 2019
Paul Street
Socialism Curiously Trumps Fascism in U.S. Political Threat Reporting
Jonah Raskin
Guy Standing on Anxiety, Anger and Alienation: an Interview About “The Precariat”
Patrick Cockburn
The Brutal Legacy of Bloody Sunday is a Powerful Warning to Those Hoping to Save Brexit
Robert Fisk
Turning Algeria Into a Necrocracy
John Steppling
Day of Wrath
Robin Philpot
Truth, Freedom and Peace Will Prevail in Rwanda
Victor Grossman
Women Marchers and Absentees
Binoy Kampmark
The Dangers of Values: Brenton Tarrant, Fraser Anning and the Christchurch Shootings
Jeff Sher
Let Big Pharma Build the Wall
Jimmy Centeno
Venezuela Beneath the Skin of Imperialism
Jeffrey Sommers – Christopher Fons
Scott Walker’s Failure, Progressive Wisconsin’s Win: Milwaukee’s 2020 Democratic Party Convention
Steve Early
Time for Change at NewsGuild?
March 18, 2019
Scott Poynting
Terrorism Has No Religion
Ipek S. Burnett
Black Lives on Trial
John Feffer
The World’s Most Dangerous Divide
Paul Cochrane
On the Ground in Venezuela vs. the Media Spectacle
Dean Baker
The Fed and the 3.8 Percent Unemployment Rate
Thomas Knapp
Social Media Companies “Struggle” to Help Censors Keep us in the Dark
Binoy Kampmark
Death in New Zealand: The Christchurch Shootings
Mark Weisbrot
The Reality Behind Trump’s Venezuela Regime Change Coalition
Weekend Edition
March 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
Is Ilhan Omar Wrong…About Anything?
Kenn Orphan
Grieving in the Anthropocene
Jeffrey Kaye
On the Death of Guantanamo Detainee 10028
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
In Salinas, Puerto Rico, Vulnerable Americans Are Still Trapped in the Ruins Left by Hurricane Maria
Ben Debney
Christchurch, the White Victim Complex and Savage Capitalism
Eric Draitser
Did Dallas Police and Local Media Collude to Cover Up Terrorist Threats against Journalist Barrett Brown?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Straighten Up and Fly Right
Jack Rasmus
Trump’s $34 Trillion Deficit and Debt Bomb
David Rosen
America’s Puppet: Meet Juan Guaidó
Jason Hirthler
Annexing the Stars: Walcott, Rhodes, and Venezuela
Samantha M. - Angelica Perkins
Our Green New Deal
Mel Gurtov
Trump’s Nightmare Budget
Steven Colatrella
The 18th Brumaire of Just About Everybody: the Rise of Authoritarian Strongmen and How to Prevent and Reverse It
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Riding the Wild Bull of Nuclear Power
Michael K. Smith
Thirty Years Gone: Remembering “Cactus Ed”
Dean Baker
In Praise of Budget Deficits
Howard Lisnoff
Want Your Kids to Make it Big in the World of Elite Education in the U.S.?
Brian Cloughley
Trump’s Foreign Policy is Based on Confrontation and Malevolence
John W. Whitehead
Pity the Nation: War Spending is Bankrupting America
Priti Gulati Cox
“Maria! Maria! It Was Maria That Destroyed Us!” The Human Story
Missy Comley Beattie
On Our Knees
Mike Garrity – Carole King
A Landscape Lewis and Clark Would Recognize is Under Threat
Robert Fantina
The Media-Created Front Runners
Tom Clifford
Bloody Sunday and the Charging of Soldier F