By Jacob Vito
One of San Francisco’s most unique and appealing traits has long been its city architecture’s eclectic nature. 100-year-old wooden townhouses can live mere blocks away from towering high rises made of glass and steel. But in 2020, many of those diverse living spaces share a common trait: they remain disproportionately empty.
As many as 89,000 households have moved out of the San Francisco area during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report from The Guardian. This has led to a near-100 percent spike in open and available homes in the city.
A large number of these moves seem to stem from a common cause: a sudden lack of the need to go to the office. With opportunities for remote working expanding and becoming more permanent, many formerly living and working in San Francisco have left in hopes of more affordable housing elsewhere.
However, this rapid increase in empty living spaces has only made one of the Bay Area’s most persistent problems all the more apparent: homelessness.
Estimates from 2019 have shown that the greater San Francisco area is one of the largest hotspots of homelessness in the country, with the city’s homeless population alone at over 8,000 people. What’s more, the number of homeless in the area has only been rising for the last number of years, with the coronavirus only further growing the demographic.
Though the city government implemented a program to move the most vulnerable of San Francisco’s homeless to temporary living in hotels, the future of that program remains uncertain moving into 2021. Many of those struggling with homelessness are forced to prepare for a life without stable living conditions once again.
Even when looking at such a situation, an important number should come to mind: 1,800 houses are currently open and on the housing market. That means this conversation would not exist by simply using the unoccupied homes for this homelessness crisis and having around four people per dwelling. There are already enough empty living spaces in San Francisco to end the city’s homelessness epidemic.
Yet during these unprecedented times of empty dwellings, something baffling happened: as noted by the San Francisco Chronicle, housing prices rose. In a year where more people have moved out of the Bay Area than ever, such data would be preposterous. Because of this abundance of supply and lack of demand, one conclusion remains: the number of people who want to live there does not decide the housing cost in San Francisco.
In truth, many of the most expensive living spaces in San Francisco do not exist for people. Very simply, they are an investment: a way of temporarily storing the wealth that gives the property’s owners a slightly favorable tax rate. Any benefit gained by actually having individuals live in such a space is no doubt preferred but often secondary.
Ultimately, the math is not that hard. Some empty homes and apartments will likely not be occupied for months or years to come, and some people would have their lives bettered by living in them. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what to do next.
However, those who consider the homeless lazy or imagine a shelter as a privilege, not a right, receive pushback. But in truth, what differentiates the two?
Americans have many rights: freedom of speech, protection from cruel and unusual, etc. Yet among all the strictly defined rights lies one of the most impactful phrases in the Declaration of Independence: the inalienable right of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Does systemic homelessness allow for any of these? In a city where the very concept of shelter has such an inflated cost, can someone truly pursue happiness without access to one of the most important factors in life’s stability? To put it bluntly, no.
There’s a reason that shelter is considered one of the most basic needs. Without it, people are exposed to exponentially more physical and mental harm outside of their control. Many factors leading to homelessness, from debt to addiction to the loss of a job, are often caused by a bad stroke of luck, but bad luck is no real excuse to destroy the foundation of someone’s life.
What’s more, with other public services and utilities, this situation has already been noticed and rectified. A public fire department or mail carrier, or school were all founded on the fact that a country is better for everyone when some basic level of care is given to all its citizens.
Emergency services, electricity and water, sanitation and perhaps soon healthcare are all services and protections now guaranteed to practically every American, knowing that doing so makes the standard of living for everyone in this country better. So, to further grow this country into the 21st century, I ask, “Why not housing next?”