homelessness

Charging More to Close a Door

Most people are familiar with the term “colored people time,” or as it is more commonly known, “CP time.” While this reference is related to the misconception that Black people are “always late,” people rarely if ever discuss the reason why Black people might have been late. In truth, when Black people were no longer ostensibly enslaved and had endured most of their communities being burned to the ground in hate, those responsible for enslaving Black people never wanted to see a Black person again without violence, physical or emotional. Thus, Black people were forcibly moved to the outskirts of town, or places were “decent people” would not have to view them as human beings—and it took longer to get from those places to the bad jobs that were available. Thus, we in the United States have a heritage of pushing away accountability for issues we created.

Throughout the country, a blast of arctic air is creating some of the coldest temperatures some parts have seen in years. While weather is not normally so noteworthy, consider that the country has been in a pandemic for over a year with insufficient financial relief and a notable loss of jobs. This means that the homeless population has been on full display while people have been quarantined, and many people are angry that they are forced to look at people who have little choice about where they live. Crowded households have made quarantine another opportunity for class to determine the difference between sitting at home while bingewatching and eating takeout, or staying up indefinitely to claim a small moment of quiet. For homeless encampments, this has meant more than going without power or watching ice form on vegetation. Many will go into cold weather shelters not knowing if they will have lost even more by the time they return to their makeshift homes, forcing them to choose between loss and death.

In the top right, there is a typical Austin bench.

The municipal response to homelessness has been irritating in two parts, with an overarching objective to hide the homeless constituents from the emotionally cold, wealthy population. The favorite solution has been the homeless ban, otherwise known as the wealthy being entertained by the harassment of people with no resources and no respite from state aggression. Before 2019, every time a homeless person slept, they had the potential of being arrested. Architects and designers are encouraged to make it impossible for campers to get comfortable on benches, rocks, or anywhere they can comfortably lay in an outstretched horizontal position. In May, when Texas starts hitting the 90s and possibly 100s again, the city council will again abdicate responsibility for renewing its threat against the homeless population by commanding a vote on the homeless ban. That is the way of the wealthy: amuse themselves by setting a standard, and once people meet it, telling them to meet another. Even though people just finished voting not to ban homeless people, the wealthy have smirked at the efforts of countless activist efforts and will condescendingly tell people again to go vote.

Secondly, the city is making efforts to purchase hotels to “help homeless people get back on their feet,” while being encouraged by people to purchase land for building tiny homes. Why is this problematic? Developers were given incentives and allowed to pay fees-in-lieu to avoid building consistent infrastructure for their grandiose condominium complexes. People are constantly shouting down any conversation about slowing development of luxury real estate due to stagnant wages, and activists have fought for eviction moratoriums during the pandemic, which are still threatening low income households. Therefore, after the city gave incentives to developers to build almost nothing but luxury real estate, the city is reluctantly spending more money to purchase hotels because of the cost of luxury real estate. Meanwhile, the hotels and tiny homes are far away from the sight of the heartless wealthy in Austin, who have still managed to denigrate the unfortunate by demanding that even the hotels be “someplace else,” so that no one has to acknowledge homeless people.

Homeless encampments exist for many reasons, and many residents are Black and brown people. In Austin, the encampments are located in places with a great deal of traffic and/or “safe places” in the center of town. Why? Unsurprisingly, people who have been consistently kicked in the gut by society are trying to be close to resources. It turns out that everyone–not just anyone blissed out on excess—prefers density, which includes people who have next to nothing and are extremely vulnerable. My encampment neighbors are close to multiple grocery stores, fast food restaurants that allow people to use and charge electronic devices, a clinic, and two pharmacies—not to mention multiple bus routes, one of which takes people to the VA clinic. Most of the services that assist homeless people are in the core of the city above US Highway 71, west of Mopac Expressway, and south of US Highway 183. Why would anyone want to move to someplace where they might need a car, internet access could be spotty or expensive, they could miss an important/impossible appointment, or it could be harder to beg for funds?  At least the encampment is closer to help if something goes wrong, including the cold weather shelters. After all, if the residents die because they froze to death on Valentine’s Day, everyone could see them here, whereas in some other location, they might not be discovered for days.

In the end, everyone is dancing around the truth: large encampments make the homeless population look bigger than it is, as the campers defiantly stay in sight of all who have made them a “problem.” As of 2017—the last time the city bothered to count the number of vacant housing units—there were 41,430 vacant housing units. As of October 21, 2020, there are 2,506 people who are dealing with homelessness in this city. Since 2019, one-third of the population has been composed of Black people. These numbers are fascinating when people consider that there are cranes all over the city, and people still proclaiming that “supply-and-demand” requires that developers and real estate companies continue to build. If there are more vacant units than there are people dealing with homelessness, that means that the people running existing properties feel entitled to more money than reality is providing right now. While some are naively thinking that the addition of another big employer—who facilitated a coup, which is supposed to be a bad thing—will fill these luxury units, others are waking up to the reality that there apparently is no rent cap for people who incessantly demand more than people have to give.

How might this issue be solved? It is irresponsible to bargain for piecemeal affordable housing, or buy more land for housing when we need to start cultivating farmland due to the impending climate crisis. One solution is to look at the situation for what it is: a solvable mess. Instead of pleading with entitled monsters, the city needs to go to the property managers of all the luxury properties and demand that they either pay back their incentives, or house people up to the price of such incentives. Moreover, once the homeless people are housed, the luxury properties will eat the cost at the low market rate at the time, not whatever exorbitant rate is being charged for an “experience.” For example, The Domain was given $37.5 million in tax incentives. Therefore, Simon Property Group LP would be required to house the number of households for the number of months that equal up to $37.5 million. If they house one family in a three-bedroom at the low market rate, they would be required to house that family (including utilities) for over 29,000 months, or 2,400 years—or take as many people as they can to bump down that number. While this is happening, the local governments either only accept builders who will create housing that costs the market rate or less—or the builder is not permitted to build. Meanwhile, employers who got tax incentives should make it their mission in life to employ those who are housed lest such employers be forced to return their incentives.

Homeless people are not the problem; the problem is greedy people who feel entitled to infinite monetary growth. The only thing the developers, property management companies, and the local government have made clear is that they feel entitled to stay comfortable at the expense of the public. Building luxury housing has been nothing more than finding another way to shove Black people out of the sight of the rich people who created an unsustainable society, and it is time to confront the parasites. The city should not be purchasing hotels, building tiny homes out of site, or appeasing those who seem to revel in causing pain and stress. It is time for the city to either admit that it enjoys having homeless people to harass with excessive profits, or that it is intolerable the people are homeless in one of the richest in the country. It is time to stop selling a façade to alienate reality.

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