Taking Possession of Vacant Housing and Protecting the Environment from Profits: The Need to Consider Both Process and Product or Result

A person on Facebook posted the following relating to the problem of accessible housing:

Isabella Gamk shared a post.

Thought the group would like this
May be an image of car and road

Isabella Gamk
“Housing Shortage”? This is not that old of a building and could be fixed up. This building has been shuttered to make room for a condo. There are many such buildings in Toronto. In Canada there 1.3 million empty homes in Canada, many just sitting vacant waiting to be turned into condos. They never talk about this when they say they need to build more homes.

Fred Harris

But to turn them into homes–would it not require an attack on the principle of the sanctity of private property on a massive scale? And would not that require an organized mass struggle? And why stop there? What of the means of production used to construct houses? Why not convert them into common property of all?
well we are on a planet with finite resources. Perhaps we should leave some of those resources for future generations and civilizations.
Fred Harris

Which resources? The cranes, drills used to construct the houses? These are supposed to be left untouched–in the name of “future generations?” If we leave these means of production to employers–we in fact leave a process that constantly strips the natural world of what future generations will need. Employers who own drills, cranes, etc. purchase or rent them with the goal of obtaining more money–profit. But profit at the end of the process is just–money–and not more money. So they need to reinvest again–and again–and again.
To end the rape of the earth, it is necessary to end the rule of the class of employers.
Unless you have an alternative diagnosis of the problem of the rape of the earth and how to stop it. I am all ears.

Now, I am hardly objecting to the goal of trying to take over vacant homes in order to address the serious problem of a lack of adequate housing in Canada and elsewhere. If a movement to seriously aim for that goal were ignited and grew, it could form the point of departure for pointing to solutions that go beyond a society dominated by a class of employers.

To find out more about Ms. Gamk, I looked on the Net. I did listen to an interview with her, dated September 28, 2019 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFZOhVXcmf4&list=LL).

Ms. Gamk is the founder of POOF–Protecting ODSP OW Funding. ODSP is the Ontario Disability Support Program and OW is Ontario Works (social assistance). She has had a number of health issues in her life, including cocaine addiction, HIV and glaucoma, among other issues.

She receives ODSP, but she points out that ODSP covers $497 for rent and welfare will cover $390. She argues that these need to be doubled–immediately–and then within six months it needs to brought up to average market rent. She argues that even if you double the amount from ODSP, it is $994, but a bachelor suite rents out now between $1100 and $1500; this means that those who receive ODSP would still have to dip into money destined for basic needs was $662 prior to last fall’s 1.5 percent increase–it increased to $672. This is inadequate to survive. Many are now relying on food banks and community meals to eat. Even the NDP, which stated that it would increase rent allowances by 27 percent over three years, would be insufficient, leading to homelessness. Ninety-five percent of the people on the streets receive ODSP or OW.

To double the rates, people would freak because they would be afraid that it would be necessary to raise taxes substantially. But they could tax the corporations and stop giving them incentives, etc. to them.

She also argues that many on the streets want to have a job, but they are stuck because of their homeless circumstances. Furthermore, although there are a number of vacant units for the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, which provides subsidized housing; many of these units are inhabitable due to the large repair bill that TCHC has–without sufficient funding to provide such repairs. She had to wait 20 years to gain access to a unit with TCHC, but even then repairs are often shoddy because of a lack of money and there are often cockroaches and bed bugs. But the homeless will still have to wait 10 to 20 years to gain access to TCHC units. This is wrong.

TCHC, or Toronto Housing, is charging $139 for rent for those who receive ODSP or OW. Why is not John Tory, the mayor of Toronto, increasing the rent to $390 (as allowed for those who receive OW, which is funded by the province) in order for Toronto Housing to receive increased funds to repair the buildings and units? The argument that it is $139 for low-income workers is invalid. The minimum wage, now being $14 an hour works out to $1,750 for a four-week month. That person making $1,750 can surely afford $390 for rent.

She has organized protest rallies, created. distributed and emailed flyers for the rallies. She joined ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now); their logo is on her flyers. She had already been a member of OCAP–the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty). OCAP in particular did not support POOF; they never put POOF’s events on their pages; they never helped distribute flyers; they didn’t help with anything.

OCAP pulled out in part because she opposed affordable, subsidized housing based on the level of income because she believes such housing keeps people in poverty; she also opposes shelters for the same reason; furthermore, she opposes homeless people having the right to live in stairwells whereas OCAP believes they should have the right to do so. ACORN and POOF are fighting to clean up the buildings; OCAP does not care about the buildings or the tenants in the building; they care only about the homeless–but only to the extent that they want to keep them in shelters. POOF, on the other hand, is demanding more money for ODSP and OW recipients.

Another reason why OCAP opposes POOF is because Isabella does not consider sex work to be a job like any other job. If you do it because you want to, then that is fine. However, if you do it because you are in poverty and need to do it in order to obtain money, then it is not right.

Once you are in such a system, it is difficult to move anywhere else except within the system–which leads to the perpetuation of poverty. Furthermore, it is difficult to move within the system even if you have problems with neighbours–whether due to noise or harassment. In addition, if you want to move outside of Toronto Housing, with the inadequate level of rent money that ODSP and OW recipients receive, they cannot afford to move anywhere else except within the Toronto Housing system.

Her solution would be to scrap Toronto Housing and bring ODSP and OW rates for rent to average market rent, and low-income families should receive a rent-subsidy cheque so they could afford average-market rents.  Furthermore, if Toronto Housing is still to exist, land owned by that organization should be used exclusively, she implies, for Toronto Housing units rather than to build condo units as is happening now.

The interviewer, Michael Masurkevitch, implied that we could fund such a system by taking away some of the income of CEOs and distributing it to the lower-income people and homeless in order to achieve a balance.

Ms. Gamk argued that this is true since she implied that the use of high-end or very expensive cars in public these days (which was not the case in earlier times) provides evidence of the availability of money and hence the possibility of taxing the rich to a greater extent.

Given the more recent advocacy for taking over vacant homes on Facebook–as the quotes at the beginning indicate–it would seem that Ms. Gamk now advocates more radical measures in order to address the issue of the lack of housing in Toronto and in Canada. However, it is unclear whether she advocates taking over the vacant homes with compensation or without compensation. I should have asked her that in order to clarify the situation.

However, there are a number of points that can be made.

  1. Focusing on the seizure of existing housing stock (a social product of various workers) without considering the processes that produce such housing stock is one-sided. They are two sides of the same coin. The initiator of the above Facebook post, Isabelle Gank, may not have thought about this before, but when I pointed it out, she shifted her attention (in effect ignoring the connection between process and product) to the issue of finite resources on Earth.
  2. However, when I pointed out that the kind of society in which we live necessarily involves a tendency towards the infinite exhaustion of resources, Ms. Gamk did not respond. Now, this lack of response can be interpreted in various ways. Perhaps she would reconsider her position–and respond later. However, there is no such response from her despite three days having passed. Or she considers my response incomprehensible. If so, she should have asked for clarification–which she did not. Or she chose to simply ignore my response and ignore the need to connect up the fact of limited resources on this planet and the tendential infinite process characterized by an economy–which contradicts the finite nature of the world on which and through which we live.Given the fact that Ms. Gamk did not respond, I choose to interpret her silence as an indication of her failure to connect up the result of diminishing resources on this planet with this tendential process (which I have briefly indicated on my blog on the page The Money Circuit of Capital; I also tend to believe that she probably fails to link up the  result of homes being empty and not being used despite a lack of adequate housing here in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, with the process of producing those homes.

Her reference to treating sex work as a job as being okay if the person wants to do it but not okay if they are in poverty and have to do it in order to obtain money to live fails to address using the same logic to all jobs that involve working for an employer. She probably means by poverty a certain level of income; the use of this category to determine whether a person lives in poverty or not is shared by the social-democratic or social-reformist left. The use of level of income as the prime factor in defining what constitutes poverty certainly has its place in terms of level of consumption and the quality of life outside work; I too have had a lack of money to the extent that I had to apply for and receive social assistance temporarily. I also remember trying to find enough pennies in the apartment (when they existed) in order to be able to go to McDonalds to buy the relatively cheap coffee and muffin combination.

Nonetheless, Ms. Gamk obviously accepts the market standard since she advocates such a standard for ODSP and OW recipients receiving the market rate. Of course, advocating increased rates for such recipients is legitimate, but we should question the adequacy of such a standard. We should also question whether people who work for an employer do so out of their own free will or whether they do so out of need to obtain money–even if their wage or salary is considered by some as relatively high. If we question that, then we can redefine what poverty means–a definition that is broader than the definition of poverty according to level of income. I quoted such a definition in another post (“Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)). From Geoffrey Kay, The Economic Theory of the Working Class. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1979, pages 2-3:

The absolute poverty of the working class is visibly present in the conditions of work where everything the worker touches belongs to another. The means of production he uses, that is, the machines, buildings, materials, etc. all belong to the employer, who also owns the output. The only thing the worker owns is his capacity to work, and his economic welfare depends upon his being able to sell this at the best possible price. In the course of this [the twentieth) century, particularly during the period of the post-war boom, this price measured in terms of the commodities it can purchase, the real wage, has risen to unprecedented heights, at least in the advanced industrial countries of the west.

As a result of this and the maintenance of full or near full employment backed up by social welfare, the working class has enjoyed greater prosperity and security than at any time in history. In these circumstances it appears strange to talk of absolute poverty, and the old socialist claim that the working class has nothing to lose but its chains seems and archaic relic of the past when the working class did indeed live in dire poverty. Yet the fact remains that the working class today has no greater economic autonomy than its forbears a hundred years ago.

Consider the situation of a contemporary worker who loses his job. This has happened to several million workers in the industrialized world since the long boom faltered in 1973 not counting the other millions of young people who have never found jobs at all. Many of the workers who have recently suffered unemployment for the first time, earned wages that allowed them to enjoy all the trappings of ‘affluency’—decent housing, cars, television, refrigerators and so on. But the loss of the job puts the standard of living immediately in jeopardy, particularly if unemployment lasts for anything more than a few weeks. In the unlikely event of a working class family having a large private income, its initial response to unemployment is to cut back spending on marginal items, and attempt to maintain its lifestyle intact in the hope that new work will be found shortly. As the period of unemployment lengthens, it begins to eat into savings, but this does not hold out much hope.

Working class savings are notoriously low, and often take the form of insurance policies that can only be cashed in at a considerable loss. If the family decides to sell of its consumer durables, apart from reducing its standard of living immediately, it will invariably make further losses as second-hand prices are always far below prices for new articles. Moreover, many working class purchases are financial by hire purchase where the interest element makes the actual price higher than the market price, and the family that sells off relatively new times bought in this way often finds that, far from releasing cash, it lands itself in further debt. Working class affluence is entirely dependent upon wages: remove these—i.e., unemployment—and the absolute poverty of its social situation shows through very quickly. In the nineteenth century unemployment meant immediate destitution; the modern worker is clearly much better off than his forbears—for him and his family poverty is a few weeks, maybe even a few months away.

As Marx also wrote, in relation to prostitution not in its usual, particularized, sense but in a general sense (from Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), page 153–a draft written between 1857 and 1858, which forms the basis for the writing of Capital, volume one of which was published in 1867)

(The exchangeability of all products, activities and relations with a third, objective entity [money] which can be re-exchanged for everything without distinction – that is, the development of exchange values (and of money relations) is identical with universal venality, corruption. Universal prostitution appears as a necessary phase in the development of the social character of personal talents, capacities, abilities, activities. More politely expressed : the universal relation of utility and use. The equation of the incompatible, as Shakespeare nicely defined money.

I invite Ms. Gamk and any others to broaden their definition of poverty to include most workers who need to work for an employer in order to obtain the money they need to live (some workers, such as managers, may be excluded since their function is to exploit and oppress workers–even if they too need to work for an employer).

The major problem with Ms. Gamk’s approach has to do with focusing on issues of distribution of already produced commodities rather than their production. For once I agree with Sam Gindin (although this should be center-stage and the focus for criticism of all social-democratic or reformist organizations). He writes ( https://socialistproject.ca/2022/04/inflation-reframing-the-narrative/):

But we need to be sober about an inevitable ceiling on redistributive policies. If we don’t also address the democratization of production – if we don’t also redistribute economic power, capital’s control over production and investment will leave it with the capacity to undermine or sabotage alternative priorities and redistribution goals.

We can put controls on house prices, but developers can refrain from building more houses or build the kinds of housing society needs. We can put controls on gas prices, but this won’t address the issue of a planned phase-out of the oil industry and investment in renewables. We can set drug prices, but the drug companies will still decide which kinds of illnesses they should focus on to maximize their profits. And we can’t control the price of food or adequately subsidize food as needed without a radical rethinking of food production.

As the struggle over distribution comes up against such impasses and causes new crises, the crucial lesson to internalize is not to retreat from our goals. It is to organize to go further.

However, Mr. Gindin then elaborates a little by what he means by “going further”:

and pose public ownership and planning in key sectors – not just for ideological reasons but also as a practical matter of self-defence and meeting critical social needs.

If he means by “public ownership” the mere nationalization of industries without a thorough restructuring, then my earlier criticism of “public ownership” also applies to his proposal (see, for example, my criticism in  A Critical Look at The Socialist Project’s Pamphlet on Green Jobs Oshawa).

Public ownership hardly is identical to democratic control of the workplace by workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers.

I will leave the issue there.

Of course, part of the problem may be the way in which I responded to her post. If others have suggestions about how I can improve my communication skills, feel free to comment. I am always open to improvement in my communication skills. Or perhaps my logic is faulty. If so, please provide counterarguments.

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