Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Revolutionaries, Let's Pit Landlords Against Employers

As recently as 2005 there were many American activists calling for class war. That obviously didn't go anywhere. Many people, like the homeless and the child laborers of the world, are too busy fighting for their daily sustenance to involve themselves in a class war where they'd fight for full systemic change. Therefore, homelessness and extreme poverty persist.

Add to that the fact that the non-profit/industrial complex has evolved to a point where many of the non-profits that ostensibly are pushing for solutions to homelessness and/or extreme poverty are now receiving government funding from a capitalist system. With capitalism being a system that permeates the world, none of the people who benefit from this exploitative system are incentivized to accommodate the less fortunate – unless and until the poor arise. These beneficiaries include obvious entities such as government and the business community as well as the not-so-obvious entities like non-profits that serve the poor.

Fact of the matter is that such non-profits help to keep the lid on the pressure cooker. They help to ensure that the poor will receive daily sustenance – food, shelter, clean clothes etc. They manage housing programs for the mentally and physically disabled. Some of these non-profits get paid to end homelessness, fail and continue to get paid. Then there is the fact that, when government officials who work on “ending” homelessness are formulating their annual plans, they call meetings with these non-profits. With the majority of attendees making money while managing a problem that they claim to want to solve, a vote is taken on what the attendees think is the most pressing issue within the homeless continuum. Not surprisingly, the vote always indicates that a room full of people who make most of their money managing the disabled who have been housed in programs like Permanent Supportive Housing think that the needs of the “most vulnerable homeless” are the most pressing.

I would never argue that we should decrease services for the most vulnerable among us – unless that group were to irreversibly decrease in size. However, there is no point in repeatedly voting on a matter wherein the outcome of the vote is likely to remain the same. Furthermore, DC Government initially said that they would start with the most vulnerable homeless and eventually assist the least vulnerable too. That was in mid-2008. The latter part of the plan hasn't materialized yet.

The “least vulnerable homeless” who are able to work if they were to receive assistance in finding and/or being trained for living-wage jobs are relegated to spending yet another year in shelter. The only silver lining in this dark cloud is the fact that, when they grow old and turn silver, they'll likely – but not certainly – be housed. That said, we need to blow the lid off of the pressure cooker.

We need to pressure government into connecting “homeless A-bods” to living-wage employment. But we must first realize where politicians are coming from if we re going to drag them to the place where they should be in their thinking. As elements of a worldwide capitalist system, homeless service providers – especially government – are not incentivized to do anything that would cut into the profits of businesses. They don't want to force employers to pay a true living wage or force landlords to keep rents down to a level that is affordable for the lowest-paid workers in their respective locales. If government were to make a robust effort to connect able-bodied homeless people to living-wage jobs and affordable housing, it stands to reason that other constituents who are teetering on the edge and about to fall into homelessness would clamor for these targeted programs to be expanded into citywide programs or for the underlying admissions (the need for living wages and affordable housing) to be codified into law. This would cause employers and landlords to cry foul and to come out against city governments. Municipal governments fear this phenomenon – and with good reason.

In Washington, DC rents average $1,500 per month. A full-time worker must make about $30 per hour to pay that much in rent. The minimum wage in DC will rise from $10.50 to $11.50 on July 1st, 2016. In just over six months a full-time worker in DC will make $1,840 per month – a whopping $340 more than the average rent. (you can't rent a hole in the wall for $600 – the amount such a worker could afford to pay.) This brings me to the reason for my proposal that we pit landlords against employers.

Until now, landlords have lobbied for the right to raise the rent any time that the DC Council considers any type of rent control. In similar fashion, employers like Wal-mart have lobbied for the right to pay low wages any time that the DC Council has considered creating any living-wage legislation. Both groups approach government with their respective concerns – though not simultaneously. As it turns out, someone who makes $1,840 per month before taxes can't afford to pay $1,500 or even $900 per month in rent. We should therefore create an initiative that brings these two groups together. We could tell the landlords that the employers don't pay their employees enough for these employees to pay local rents. We could tell the employers that the landlords are raising the rents which are already far beyond what their employees can afford to even higher levels. We could then tell these two groups to decide whether the pay goes up or the rent comes down.

This idea, of course, is lost on the argument that low-wage workers can live outside of DC and pay more for transit to come into the city. After all, they can take two or three buses over the course of two hours in order to get to work each day. It would only cost $1.75 each way, as opposed to a per-station charge on the subway. Who cares if they spend four hours in transit each day??? That's the price of poverty.

Being as a movement should be based on a widely-understood principle that the masses are willing to get behind and fight for, I've often argued that a person should be able to afford housing in the city where they work. Let's face it: your work (or willingness to work) is your primary bargaining chip – even in a society where labor is becoming obsolete and people are being replaced with more productive machines that don't demand benefits. (It's worth noting that, in many cases, laid-off people were also customers of the companies that let them go.)

All things considered, it behooves those of us who fight for the needs of the working class to demand that municipal governments create legislation that requires that anyone who works 40 hours per week in a certain city be able to afford housing there (without paying more than one-third of their income after taxes and without government assistance). We could call it “The Right to Live in the City Where you Work” Law.

Such a law could place demands on landlords to ensure that the percentage of their units that rent for one-third of a minimum-wage workers monthly pay is directly proportionate to the percentage of employees in that city who make a minimum wage. It could require that employers double as landlords by renting large numbers of units which they then sublet to their employees for no more than a third of an employee's wages. The possibilities are endless.

A former director of DC Government's Dept. of Human Services, David Berns, had a mantra – the one good thing he left us with. It was: “Get a job. Get a better job. Get a career.”. Current director of DC Government's Dept. of Employment Services (DOES) has made that her mantra as well. Great. Now to actualize it.

Oddly enough, it is a group of 50 local religious entities who do grassroots advocacy and which call themselves the “Washington Inter-faith Network” or “WIN” which has taken the lead on this matter. They've begun talks with the local water and sewage administration (WASA) around employing homeless parents for green jobs in the soon-to-be-developed sewage overflow gardens that will catch the raw sewage that is currently overflowing into the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers every time there is a substantial rain. (This problem must be fixed per orders of the EPA.) Of course, no one aspires to become a “sh*t shovel-er”. Nonetheless, it's a dirty job that someone has to do. It affords homeless parents with opportunities to build their resumes. A good reference from WASA could lead to “a better job” which could lead to a career. The trick after getting homeless parents employed at WASA is to then ensure that they are kept on the roles at DOES and trained up to 20 hours per week for better employment. The responsibility of DOES shouldn't end until the homeless parent is connected to a job that pays at least three times the amount of the parents' rent. All of this same thinking should also be applied to homeless singles.

As stated earlier, the possibilities are endless. However, the conversation has to start somewhere. As Frederick Duglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has. And it never will”. In lieu of these wise words, we should start the conversation by pitting rent-raising landlords against low-paying employers – by adjoining the concerns that hereto now have caused these groups to lobby separately and thereby forcing them into direct confrontation with each and AND with the third part of a “power triangle”: local government. Let's get the pillars of capitalism fighting each other at the local level. This should be fun.

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