Tag Archives: housing

(299) The Housing Monster [Book review]

housing monster coverThe Housing Monster.  PM Press: Oakland, CA, USA, 2012
152 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60486-530-1

If the monster home is the thing that ate your street, well, meet the Housing Monster, it just stuffed your entire society down its throat.

Housing is a primary commodity of modern life.  We can think of living spaces as where the heart is and as a monetary investment right at the very core of how we define our communities in physical and spiritual terms.  Thing is, housing is inescapably the product of economic relationships and processes.  That usually means conflict and inequality and difficulty for many because this is a world of scarcity. There is not really enough of anything to go around, especially the surplus wealth created by a given activity.

In its 150 or so pages The Housing Monster takes a look at pretty much everything to do with keeping roofs over our heads.  The picture isn’t too pretty in this little book, full of stylish-but-grim illustrations, one per page, of the kind usually found in a graphic novel.  If you want an education in the neglected truth about housing, from the often profane and depressing lives of construction workers to the anti-social economics of lending, rental tenancy, land development, class strife, gender relations, unions then this is a very good place to start.

Produced by a small independent publisher, The Housing Monster makes concise statements, rooted in basic Marxist analysis, that deserve a much wider reading than they are likely to get.  We found a single copy of this book in a big box bookstore in Mississauga by accident.

Having lived in southern Ontario, where property development is perhaps our single largest undertaking, a transformative application of many billions of dollars worth of material and labour to thousands of square kilometers of land since 1945, we recognize most of the critique on offer to be authentic.  The urgency of this critique has only intensified since 2008.  Keeping ourselves housed has most of us in debt and drawing deeply indeed on the natural world.

The Housing Monster is intended to be a tool for going deeper than happy, aspirational surface images of the pursuit of real estate, houses, places to live, economic growth and employment.  Even if one is reflexively disinterested in anything associated with Karl Marx, there is a huge need for critical eyes and minds when it comes to housing ourselves.  Nobody can argue with that.

It may not be possible to tame the monster, but after we’ve read this one and shared it around, at least some of us will have a more honest and coherent view of reality.  Most of the people recognizable in The Housing Monster are probably too oppressed for it to make much difference to them.  After the sharp analysis comes a chapter about communal living and the spiritual aspects of waking up and doing something to respond.  I think most of us know there is something wrong, but not what to do about it.

prole.info …for the angry wage worker
at this link you can download a print quality .pdf of the book and find translations of it in more than a dozen languages

(293) Students out there

800px-Old_Finch_and_Kengate_in_Scarborough_RougeStudents usually form a portion of most communities when those communities reach a certain size and come to host insitutions of higher learning.  Generally, this is all to the good.  To be in any way a progressive and economically competitive society, education is advised.  Part of that equation means keeping students, housed, fed, clothed and healthy while they study.  We see friction developing out there on the perimeter where housing is concerned.

Last month in the Toronto Star there was a piece about a city raid in Scarborough on a rooming house near a University of Toronto satellite campus and a Centennial College campus.  Inspectors entered a fairly ordinary-looking home designed for a single family and apparently found “…11 people …crammed together paying $500 to $700 per month each for spaces created by subdividing rooms at 1289 Military Trail.” (GTA section of the Star February 11, 2013)

This conversion is alleged to have been done without permits or inspections and without reasonable regard to the provision of fire exits, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors or proper heating and ventilation.  The owner of the property mentioned above, at the time of inspection, was potentially liable for fines of up to $70,000.  They, and other owners of ad hoc student residences seem reluctant to talk to the media.  Perhaps they may see themselves merely as housing entrepreneurs responding to increased enrollments at nearby schools.  On a bad day, however, they could be seen as slum landlords, taking advantage of a group who may find themselves in a weak position because of their status as students.

Many communities have come to cherish the “eds and meds” portion of the post-industrial economy.  It seems that suburban communities in particular value the presence of colleges and universities for the good paycheques and prestige associated with them.  Schools in turn may find a variety of incentives for expanding in ex-urban areas including cheaper land, physical space and a student-age population ready to study.  Housing in the communities near satellite schools simply may not have adapted quickly enough to student housing needs for a variety of reasons and the schools themsleves may not have invested in their own, on-campus housing infrastructure.  The results seen in the article below model what is happening all over North America in proximity to places of higher learning.  Is it really a great idea to leave housing our future taxpayers, voters, citizens, entrepreneurs, professionals and tradespersons to the random, frequently sloppy efforts of unknown landlords?

No, of course not.  This phenomena must be seen as part of a pattern of suburban-poverty.

Scarborough homeowners charged with running illegal rooming house: bylaw enforcement officers have charged a trio with illegally housing 11 students in a Scarborough home.

(289) Berlin

745px-BerlinBerlin should have Straßen mit Gold gepflasterte.  It is a major city-state by any standard: 3.5 million people in 900 square kilometers with an economic output of about 100 billion Euros.  The city is renowned for its universities, green spaces, public transit, cultural and business life.  It is also much poorer than Germany as a whole.

Spiegel Online International published a brutal piece on Thursday about the slum housing industry in Germany’s capital.  This is a true industry, the large-scale undertaking of rental brokers and property owners to exploit the social difficulty of newcomers and the poor.  Truly hazardous nineteenth century dilapidation and exploitation is visited upon Roma, and other vulnerable people, to the profit of businesses registered outside of Germany.  The authors describe a lack of heat, toilets that don’t work and rents that have skyrocketed.  Those among Europe’s worst off people don’t complain, or cannot complain, indeed, seem not to even know they have the right to complain. “…conditions on some of the floors at Scharnweberstrasse 111 are like those in a refugee camp, with multiple parties sharing the few intact bathrooms,” say the authors.

Scharnweberstrasse 111 is cited as an example of a business model involving some 6,000 apartments and numerous players.  It is a low-rise residential building located barely one kilometer from the end of the runways at Tegel airport.  You can see it for yourself via Google Street View.  A mysterious German said to be abusing social welfare is described as having been the agent for a firm called Helvetica which has partners in the Middle East, Asia and the UK, exemplifying Berlin’s lucrative, internationally-based real estate industry.  Cash rents are funnelled upwards to the partners via Helvetica and a brace of holding companies after a handsome premium is deducted by the broker.  Claims are made as to the social value of housing the Roma, the homeless, the mentally ill, displaced youth and ex-convicts.  But this is true suburban poverty partly facilitated by a sell-off of publically held apartment buildings by a city government under financial stress.  In Berlin, a dynamic real estate and property development market exists alongside socio-economic difficulty with results that are not pretty.

Where this particular mess will be in twenty-five years defies positive imagination.

Real Estate Locusts: Developers Cash in on Europe’s Poorest

Increasing Returns: Berlin’s Poor Collect Bottles to Make Ends Meet

(275) Brampton 2

Züm_Queen_Kennedy_NWThe suburban-poverty.com Lear Jet finds itself touching down in Brampton, ON …yet again!  The Toronto Star’s urban affairs columnist Christopher Hume continues to blaze a trail across suburbia a step or two ahead of us.  Hume is realistic, dry and barely contains his sarcasm in the land of clothes line bans and monster homes.  Locals counterattack viciously in the comment boxes, advising Hume to stay downtown with the other density-loving, latte sipping yuppies.  Almost the inverse of the previous posting’s problem this time the issue is a housing form with too much visibility.  A massive monster home grows in an older suburb.  The owner/builder wants his extended village-sized family under one roof.  To do this he has to go big.  It could get ugly.  Well, actually, ugly it already is.

The point is not what is going on at a single address in Brampton.  Larger issues present themselves.  Again, if this is the best the culture can do to get started working out the housing challenges of the twenty-first century then it doesn’t say much for us.

Now, where did we put our latte spoon?

Brampton monster home controversy exposes suburbanites’ fear of density

Monster homes are here to stay despite Brampton’s new bylaw

image: a taco establishment behind one of Brampton’s groovy new bus stops by Secondarywaltz via Wikimedia Commons

(274) Illegal apartments

800px-Bungalow_(PSF)A form of second class citizenship results from having a bad landlord.  It is remarkably stressful for working people when a property owner is outside the law regarding the state of repair, provision of heat in winter, increases in rent, fire and electrical safety, lighting, ventilaton, crowding, cleaning, and snow removal reasonably expected by a rent paying tenant.  Anecdotes about bad landlords and substandard/illegal apartments, particularly in the basements of houses designed for single family living, are never hard to come by.  Students, immigrants, low income workers, the mentally ill and retired persons often find themselves in substandard housing because they are economically vulnerable.  Exaggerated real estate values also compel property owners to consider shoddy installations of poor quality suites and basement apartments at least as much as simple greed does.

Even a casual use of Internet search terms such as “illegal apartments” followed by virtually any North American suburban place name yields a peek into a massive social change for the worse taking place in North America. This is true from Vancouver to Boston.  Such a change represents the mainstreaming of substandard housing and is another feature of poverty associated with traditional urban social difficulty now fully rooted in suburbia.

To wit: Brampton, Ontario, Canada.  In 1998 Brampton banned basement apartments.  They were cited as unsafe and not appropriate to the single-family ideal of a fast-growing, low-density suburb.  Basement apartments were said to be fire hazards that also bring an unwelcome increase in vehicle parking, create unplanned demand for schools, police, libraries, parks and garbage removal.  Extra basement-dwelling tenants are even cited for lowering water pressure at certain times of day!  There is truth in all these things but the story does not end there.  Brampton is now thought to have about thirty thousand illegal basement apartments.  Some houses have had such apartments for decades.

Brampton’s situation can hardly be unique.  Suburbs all over North America are being forced to adapt to change.  A basement apartment represents a cheap, unimaginative, fast, minimalist approach to keeping people housed.  The single-family home-based suburb is obsolete. Super-sized monster homes and rooming houses encroach on moderate homes and the result is uneasy.  Thing is, where is the alternative?  We have barely begun to conceive of what it might look like.

Brampton residents battle over basement suites-which are illegal, apparently
Toronto Life

Jan Wong: the simmering class war over basement apartments in Brampton
Toronto Life

Brampton, to the northwest of Toronto, has just over half a million people and is one of Canada’s fastest-growing communities.  In the early 1970s much of it was still agricultural land.  Older Queens, New York, home to more than two million, finds the issue of illegal apartments similarly tough.  To crack down on all the illegal housing in Queens would make life harder for many tenants who need cheap, basic places to live.  At the same time, the illegal units can be burdensome.  They represent unsafe conditions, can be crowded, their owners are not paying proper taxes, and tenants may be exploited.  What to do?

Housing: illegal conversions
Queens borough president official illegal conversion page

Fire Reveals Illegal Homes Hide in Plain Sight
NYT

How about the introduction of the rule of law to basement land and substandard landlords?  Respect for tenants is already enshrined in the law in Canada and the United States.  Slack standards and a lack of inspection endanger people.  We have the meltdown in the British and American banking systems to remind us that market-driven openness can be taken too far.  A tenant is not a colony to be exploited, they are in a buiness reationship with their landlord.  A little more balance at City Hall would help tenants get value for their money.

Landlords have rights and concerns yet many may be in a position to legalize and improve their suites with relative ease and at reasonable cost.  Others will need to be shut down, tossed in jail even.  The system must enforce existing, reasonable laws.  After that, a little imagination and a lot of investment, public and private, should be leveraged to support good housing alternatives.  Right now, it seems like North Americans can’t even imagine how to economically house themselves for a world of cultural changes, super storms, global warming, financial difficulty and energy scarcity.  This will change one way or another.

image: Scott Forseman via Wikimedia Commons

(262) Living in a van in Van

Well, this is certainly interesting …in a depressing-yet-designey kind of way.  A young man living in a Dodge van in Vancouver.  Turns out, he’s not alone.  Rents are too high, wages are too low.  See the link to Mathew Archer’s Tumblr for more on this reality.

Mobile Living: Vancouver Van Dwellers’ Nomadic Lives huffingtonpost.ca

See also: (103) A man’s home is his castle …and frequently also his shitbox

(241) London to 2016 [LSE brief]

This London School of Economics briefing paper looks ahead to 2016 and serious increases in the unaffordability of housing in both inner and outer London. Among the findings: “A majority of people in poverty in London now live in outer London. Ten years ago they were evenly split between inner and outer. In addition, across London, in-work poverty has risen over the last decade while out of work poverty has fallen. As a result, half of children in low-income households in London are in working families.”

Poverty and inequality in London: anticipating the effects of tax and benefit reforms .pdf file

(235) A hidden homelessness

We had hoped to provide links to more academic papers regarding suburban poverty and related topics by now.  These papers, and the journals and institutions that publish them can pose payment and access issues at times for general internet users.  These important documents, research efforts from academics who do the detailed, heavy lifting when it comes to understanding the world around us, will get more attention in future postings.

An example is the item linked below.  It approaches the under representation of visible minority newcomers in the shelter system in Canada.  It has been assumed that this reflects a strategy of residential crowding based on family and ethnic connections.
The paper is from Canadian Studies In Population 38, No. 1–2 (Spring/Summer 2011), pages 43–59.  The author, Micheal Haan of the University of Alberta, asks if this observation represents a “hidden homelessness.”

Does immigrant residential crowding reflect hidden homelessness?
via homelesshub.ca

photo: See Ming Lee via Wikimedia Commons

(223) Rethinking the corporate campus

Just as the smokestack and the skyscraper symbolized a particular kind of economic development so did the corporate campus.  These were all the rage for decades, groupings of commercial buildings deployed amid greenery and reached mainly by car.  The corporate campus was chosen by high technology industries in particular with the example of Microsoft in Redmond, Washington known internationally.  The corporate campus first took root near the larger, older centres and were eventually replicated all over North America.  They seem to have served their owners well enough in their day, allowing firms to secure, centralize and rationalize their operations on greenfield sites beyond busy and expensive cities.  They were seen as a way to control real estate and operational costs and as enhancers of corporate culture and performance.  Some were plunked down in urban areas, others are suburban with yet others built in the middle of nowhere.  Now the business campus has come in for a timely rethink.  The idea going forward seems to be not to fully segregate places of work from places of residence.  This reduces transportation costs and stress for workers which also goes a little lighter on the environment.  The result is healthier and easier for everyone.

Steps-from-work housing
NYT piece looking at planning efforts in Hartford, CT which add residential uses to a large corporate office corridor

Crain’s Special Report: Corporate campuses in twilight

photo: JonRidinger via Wikimedia Commons

(206) Nova Cidade de Kilamba

From its offices in Mississauga, suburban-poverty.com seeks both topic and audience as globally as possible.  Canada, the United States, Scandinavia, Germany, Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and China have made the (dis)honour roll over the past year-and-a-half.  Thanks to the BBC we can reach out to a reality in Angola.  Once a part of Portugal’s squalid empire the country of twenty million is an oil producer that remains very poor.  Courted of late by China, we see a familiar pattern of weirdness and stupidity in the making of place called Nova Cidade de Kilamba, some thirty kilometres outside Luanda, Angola’s capital.  How bizarre and unexpected, but given the reach of a globalized economy, perhaps not totally so.

Angola’s Chinese-built ghost town article plus video

image: SKopp via Wikimedia Commons