Recovery or Failure: Housing By the Numbers

Recovery or Failure: Housing By the Numbers

Though the economy may be on the upswing, it doesn't erase the inequality that sits under the surface.

A recent Bloomberg article is looking forward for housing in 2013. Or, perhaps that should be restated. The housing “market.” With a look towards economic trends that have rounded the corner from 2012, it looks like housing prices are going to be heading upwards and, assumedly, will stabilize the economy even further because of its central role in holding wealth for a majority of middle income families.

“Climbing home prices are lifting household wealth and boosting the purchasing power of consumers. Declining mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures are buttressing bank balance sheets, giving them greater leeway to lend. And rising property- tax revenue is fortifying the finances of state and local governments, alleviating pressure on them to cut budgets.” (1)

This has its obvious benefits, and a shift in market stability can have very real benefits for average workers. This will inevitably create jobs in the construction industries, as well as in low and semi-skilled manufacturing sectors associated with home building in some way or another. This also, as was pointed out so kindly by Bloomberg, that will likely allow for an increase in re-sale for people who may have been dealing with underwater mortgages that left more owed than was worth on the house.

Yes, it looks as though this nightmare was just that; a temporary hallucination and now things are back to normal. But let’s take a second and remember what normal has been.

The statistic that “there are twenty-four empty homes for every one homeless person” has been roundly criticized recently for misrepresenting the facts in some pretty obvious ways. Beyond the fact that it is opportunistic sloganeering for shock value, the question has come up as to how true it is. Well it turns out, that the number itself is actually a composite of all sorts of different “empty home situations.” First, it includes the obvious: empty bank and city owned homes. It also includes empty rental properties that have not been rented out yet, vacation homes, luxury rental locations, and homes that are sitting empty while up for sale. The number also includes dilapidated properties that have become unlivable because they have lacked residents for a significant period of time. (2)

The assumption here is that this 24:1 ratio is reflective of the financial crisis, and the housing crisis that followed, but that would only be representative if it was illustrating homes that were empty due to foreclosure or some other type of property seizure. Instead, the ratio exists as a marker of an entire complex system of housing commodification. When it is broken down we see several institutions that are part and parcel of the housing market, such as the extravagancy for the wealthy of owning enough homes to fit every part of their personality. This is not, however, a result of recent market failures. Instead it is a signal of disparity that maintains itself in most financial climates. Now that the market is recovering we are likely to hear about the next decadent purchase made by the upper echelon on some beach that working people are never likely to see, let alone lounge near on four day weekends away from the office.

The housing market, like most sectors of the capitalist economy, relies on a bottom rung that lack access to it. This maintains part of its perceived value, but also serves as a result of the mechanized way that the top extracts wealth and product from the rest of the population. The question of whether or not the 24:1 statistic is misrepresentative becomes almost monstrous. If this fact is true, by any measure and any qualification, it is the signal of a system that is so massively misbalanced that it can hardly continue to fain legitimacy. For a home to sit empty while someone is without one is vile in any situation, whether it is being managed by a realtor for “sale” or sitting at the top of a mountain in Aspen. The reality is that this housing “market,” though it may be gaining some of the wealth that was lost in the gambles of the last decade, it can never “recover.” Recovery implies that it has been made well after a period of sickness. But this cancer has metastasized, and the only option now is to amputate.

Many people are going to see a real material gain as the market continues to make headway, but this is not progress in any meaningful way. It does not represent a substantive change even on the most reformist of levels, but instead a slight ripple in an economy that is in a state of perpetual crisis. These slight improvements should not take away the burning desire to fundamentally change a system of housing that looks at empty properties as and a perpetual underclass of homeless people as simultaneously normal.

Our housing justice movement is not simply a response to a recent crisis, but the perpetual crisis of housing inequality. Instead this should act simply as a launching point for consciousness, and instead we should maintain a long-term vision of what it means to make sure everyone has a real home.


Miller, Rich and Shobhana Chandra. “Housing Packs a Punch for U.S. Growth in 2013 and Beyond.” Bloomberg. Feburary, 4 2013.

Alter, Lloyd. “18.6 Million Empty Houses in America.” Treehugger. April 29, 2008.


jef costello
Feb 18 2013 21:27

good article, thanks