Empty Homes, Homeless People: The Politics of Vacant Housing in the United States



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The United States is facing a housing affordability crisis. Housing costs continue to rise, outpacing both inflation and wage growth. In December of 2022, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that over forty percent of American renter households—over nineteen million households—were rent-burdened, meaning they spent over thirty percent of their income on rent. Harvard University’s State of the Nation’s Housing report estimated that thirty percent of all households—including those who own their own homes—spend more than thirty percent of their income on rent or mortgage payments. In such a broadly unaffordable housing market, it becomes pertinent to analyze where homes are being left empty. Vacant and underutilized housing is a perplexing problem that underscores the pitfalls of the commodification— specifically the hyper-commodification—of housing. The number of vacant housing units in the United States far exceeds the homeless population, according to data collected by the US Postal Service in partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In response to this paradox, housing reclamation movements have sprung up across the country, practicing a highly politicized form of squatting. My thesis asks: what are the causes of vacant housing in the United States, what can municipalities and state governments do to address vacant housing, and what activist work is being done in response to vacant housing? Ultimately, I argue that vacant housing exists in the United States because of the hyper-commodification of housing. The relationship between housing hyper-commodification and vacant housing manifests itself in a two-tiered process: in low-income areas, homes are abandoned because their owners are unable to extract monetary value from them in the private housing market, and in high-cost cities, out-of- town real estate investors purchase homes for investment purposes and do not live in them. These two processes have disparate impacts on surrounding communities: in low-income areas, vacant and abandoned properties create blight and encourage further disinvestment, while in high-cost cities, out-of-town home purchases exacerbate cities’ existing affordability crises as empty condominiums eliminate the use of these crucial and often sparse housing resources. Government redresses to vacant housing must be targeted to the type of housing vacancies an area deals with. However, policy choices that aim to remedy the prevalence of housing vacancies in both contexts contribute to the partial decommodification of housing. Finally, housing takeovers and political squatting in low-income communities raise the fundamental contradiction between homelessness and vacant housing and, if expanded, have the potential to disrupt our profit-based housing system, further promoting the decommodification of housing.



housing, housing policy, vacant housing, squatting, social movements, homeless movements