Two Fires Tell the Tale of the U.S. Housing Crisis

The Bronx and Philadelphia residential fires point to broader housing problems throughout the U.S. But tenants are fighting back.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept

The number of people experiencing homelessness decreased by 8 percent between 2020 and 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD suggests that the decrease could be attributed to Covid-19 pandemic relief efforts. However, many relief efforts have expired or will soon, from eviction moratoriums to expanded unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, the U.S. housing market has continued unabated, with rents rising and housing prices soaring.

This week on Intercepted: Akela Lacy, an Intercept politics reporter, talks to Stephanie Sena, the founder and executive director of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit in Philadelphia, about the housing choices low-income families and people face and how the recent deadly residential fires in the Bronx and Philadelphia illustrate how dire the housing crisis is. We also hear from organizers and tenants who are fighting back.

[Introductory theme music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Akela Lacy: I’m Akela Lacy, a reporter with The Intercept.

Just days after the new year, we saw two of the country’s deadliest residential fires in recent history.

ABC News: Tonight, here are the images coming in, the fire breaking out in a second-floor apartment of a three-story row house.

Fox News: The three-story Philadelphia Housing Authority row home, which has two separate living units, was housing some 26 people according to officials, with only two viable exits available. 

AL: On January 5 in Philadelphia, a fire in an apartment building killed 12 people, including nine children. The three-story building – owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority – was home to more than 20 people.

ABC News: We believe, with certainty, so 99 to 100 percent confidence, that the first item ignited in this blaze was a Christmas tree.

AL: And four days later —

NBC News: Seventy people dead, more than 60 Injured in an apartment fire in the Bronx Sunday. It’s the deadliest fire in New York City since 1990. Investigators blaming a faulty space heater.

ABC7NY: The building is a 19-story high-rise in Tremont and some 200 FDNY members responded to battle the fire. 

AL: Seventeen people died in the Bronx fire, including eight children. Both fires happened in low income housing properties in poor areas of two of our biggest cities. The Bronx fire took place in a building owned by private developers, where people mostly live on Section Eight housing vouchers, and where residents had repeatedly complained about inadequate heating, mold, pests, and other issues.

Amy Goodman [Democracy Now!]: City records show tenants of the Twin Parks tower had complained about a lack of heat in the building and doors that didn’t close automatically as required by law. The building did not have fire escapes or sprinklers, and many people were trapped in upper floors where self-closing doors were supposed to have blocked toxic smoke and flames from spreading. 

AL: A couple of days later, I found records that the city government had listed the building as having an open fire-related violation. We published a story in The Intercept that city records showed that the violation was still open when the fire took place, something the property owners denied.

[Solemn music.]

AL: The two fires are tragic reminders of a worsening housing crisis in the United States and the limited, dangerous, and precarious options many people face. 

Issues abound — like crowded and cramped quarters — as in the case of the Philadelphia fire, where fourteen people were living inside a four-bedroom unit. In a city with a waitlist for public housing at 40,000, what other choice is there? Homelessness? 

Stephanie Sena: In Philadelphia, only 2 percent of all landlords own over half of all rental units in Philadelphia. We’re not even able to contact these landlords. 

AL: That’s Stephanie Sena, the founder and executive director of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit in Philadelphia. She’s also the anti-poverty fellow at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law.

SS: I’ve had tenants reach out to me constantly to say: I’m in this low-income housing. I need repairs done. The heat isn’t working. There’s rainwater coming in through the roof or there’s a tree coming in through my basement. And I need the landlord to address this. 

Or I’ve had tenants call me and say: I’ve got a letter saying I’m facing eviction and I need to speak to my landlord to tell them that I had a family emergency, but I’m going to be able to repay the rent.

AL: More than 10 million people live in low-income and subsidized housing, nationwide. Stephanie has been working with Philadelphia residents to help people track down their landlords when issues arise.

SS: In these situations, I’m called constantly and asked to track down landlords. And when I do that I go on this crazy voyage — this quest — to find these landlords and it ends up that the landlords are anonymous. And when I dig deeper and deeper, I’m finding that the landlords are these shell companies. 

That is a problem for our communities when we can’t address the repairs that need to be made, when we can’t communicate with landlords so that we can ask for relief from eviction. This is all creating a problem. 

AL: In recent years, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, private equity firms started entering the housing market — scooping up distressed properties. Initially turning single family homes into rentals, firms have increasingly turned their attention to apartments. It’s a huge market: 36 percent of all people in the U.S. rent their homes throughout the country. 

SS: There’s an idea in the United States, I think, when we heard about “cancel the rent” campaigns. I got a lot of questions about: Well, what about those mom and pop landlords who own one or two properties and they’re just trying to survive? They need the income from those properties, from the investment properties, in order to pay their own mortgage. And so if we cancel the rent, this little grandmom and grandpop who own one or two investment properties are really going to struggle. 

I’ve heard that more and more and what I want to explain is that those mom-and-pop landlords own only a very small percentage of all of our housing. The vast majority of our housing is in the hands of multi-billion dollar corporations that are squeezing so much out of us and they are really creating a problem of homelessness. Homelessness is not inevitable. It is created. And it’s being created by the consolidation of housing into the hands of a few equity firms and corporations who are incentivized to keep housing vacant, to not make repairs, to evict as soon as a tenant is struggling financially. 

AL: A recent report from ProPublica found that private-equity backed firms: “have been buying up apartment buildings en masse to squeeze them for profit, with the help of government-backed Freddie Mac.”

The number of individual-owned apartments dropped to 41 percent in 2018, with private equity firms buying up multi-family complexes and even buying out large real estate companies. This led to the consolidation of large shares of rental properties in the hands of a few firms.

SS: There is a direct line between the consolidation of hands into equity firms and large corporations and the death of people who are crowded into affordable housing units and the death of homeless people who are on the streets in the dead of winter.

What we’re seeing right now is that homeless families, working families with a mother or father who are working and children, this is the largest demographic of people experiencing homelessness today. And so I think that the public face of homelessness is somebody on the street, holding a sign saying “Will work for money.” And that is only about 15 percent of all people experiencing homelessness, the vast majority of people who are struggling today with housing insecurity or homelessness are actually families who work. 

So when we talk about personal responsibility, and we have 43 percent of the entire nation that is housing insecure, where one missed paycheck, one trip to the hospital, will throw them into a spiral where they end up on the streets or couch-surfing, I think that we can’t say that’s personal responsibility. I think if we’re going to talk about personal responsibility, we need to talk about the personal responsibility of the CEOs and the corporations that are still lobbying Congress to maintain a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which we’ve had for over a decade now. In fact, there is no city in the entire country where somebody working on federal minimum wages can afford rent in a one-bedroom apartment. So this is really not a question of personal responsibility when it comes to the people struggling; it’s a question of our growing inequity, really profiteering, and people who are hoarding housing and resources. And it doesn’t have to be like that. And it hasn’t always been like this, and I think it’s getting worse daily.

AL: So I want to talk a little bit about how we got to this point. There’s a major shift in 2005. The Supreme Court case, Kelo v. New London, basically upholds the idea that a city can take private property if it’s for economic development. 

So, in 1998, Pfizer announces that it’s building this $300 million research facility in this area in Fort Trumbull, Connecticut. Local city planners and developers get all excited. They’re like: This is what we need to revitalize the area. They come up with a plan to redevelop it. They include a waterfront conference, hotel, restaurants, shopping, a marina riverwalk — the works. They get it approved, and they start buying up properties. But some people don’t want to sell. The homeowners sue, and the case makes its way to the Supreme Court. 

The Court says because the city designed this plan to “revitalize an economically distressed city,” the government can take the remaining houses. This is really fascinating to me because of the dissenting opinions in this case, which were O’Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas. In the majority were Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer. This ruling and the case itself is all about these very libertarian issues. In practice, though, it impacts a really wide spectrum of people. And it’s interesting, because this case has opened the door for housing agencies and cities to have this green light, basically, to take people’s property and give it to developers, if they can say that it’s for the greater public good. 

Can you tell us a little bit more about how this case has impacted more recent history in U.S. housing policy?

SS: Yeah, that decision — and the Supreme Court has made some really awful decisions — but this one, to me, is up there with one of the worst. 

I will just make an addendum to your excellent summary of this case to say that, in the end, the Supreme Court ruled that local governments can take land and housing away from private citizens and give it to corporations if they can make the case that private, corporate profit is public good somehow. 

In this specific case, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government, and they were able to take Susette Kelo’s little pink house that she had, as well as the houses of all of her neighbors, Pfizer that promised to build a headquarters on this land, took $80 million of tax relief from the community, and after the tax relief ran out a decade later, so did Pfizer. So they built nothing, and they took $80 million. The houses were all demolished. And then they left. And if you go there now, where Susette Kelo once had a house along with her neighbors, what you’ll see is an empty field that is littered with trash because people dump their trash in the field — 

AL: And feral cats, right? 

SS: Mhmm. Feral cats. Yup. 

AL: [Laughs.] 

SS: Feral cats, and used tampons, and smelly diapers, and a lot of other things that will never biodegrade. And so I think that’s an important part of the record. 

In any event, yes, this Supreme Court decision had implications for local governments throughout the country, and Philadelphia has used it as a precedent to demolish public housing — affordable housing — and give affordable housing over to private developers who make a profit by building market-rate housing. I will just say that this was a trend that started well before 2005. 

I think, yes — there was a time in the United States where we invested in the idea of housing as a human right, in the 1940s, under President Roosevelt, who created a Second Bill of Rights that included [that] all humans have a right to decent housing. Up until the 1970s, the idea was that affordable housing should be in reach of all of us. 

I will say that we shouldn’t romanticize that time, though. Because Roosevelt’s housing policy also was incredibly racist, and created redlining and segregation in our neighborhoods, and so many of the problems we have today are a direct result of the racist way in which the U.S. government segregated housing. But while it created a lot of problems, one of the problems it did not create was homelessness. In fact, homelessness did not exist to this extent — not nearly. 

So, really, it was during the Nixon administration, when funding for housing and HUD started to be cut, and then cut in half again during the Reagan administration. So we, steadily, from the 1970s on, see a steady decline in resources for housing, and really for safety net[s], for social services. There’s tons of cuts. 

The Clinton administration actually was one of the worst administrations for this. And the Clinton administration, under HUD, he passed something called HOPE VI, which was basically a plan that said all new affordable housing built had to be mixed income. And also it encouraged the transfer of affordable housing away from public agencies and towards private developers. This is what we’re seeing during the Clinton administration. The Clinton administration is also responsible for the total gutting of the welfare system, and also the total gutting of affordable housing. 

And so the idea behind having new affordable housing as mixed income comes from the idea that the way that you end poverty is to desegregate housing, with this idea that people who were poor were kept in these ghetto situations. And the idea is, OK, if you just have a new building that’s mixed income, and you have people who are paying market rate or above, with people who are in need of subsidies, then you get integration, and somehow those people who are paying market rate will bestow their gifts on their neighbors, or something like this. None of this was based in data. There were no studies that the government used. 

As a result, what ended up happening, without resolving the underlying causes of poverty, which is racism and classism, you have all of these towers of affordable housing demolished, and in its place, mixed housing is built. So one thing that happens is that when the housing is demolished, everyone who was in that housing is displaced. Only about 10 percent of people who were displaced, affordable housing residents who were displaced, ever are able to return. And the government does a very bad job of even tracking the people who fall off radar.

Now, where there used to be, for example, 500 units of affordable housing, mixed income now, more and more, means 10 units of affordable housing and 90 units have a market rate, while we have not replaced and replenished the inventory of affordable housing. It was enshrined in law under the Clinton administration that, more and more, every time the government was going to build housing, a large portion of that would be for market rate; that has undermined affordable housing because we are not adding more affordable housing, we’re demolishing. So that’s the context within which the 2005 Supreme Court decision Kelo v. New London is passed.

AL: As far as long waitlists, structural issues, unlivable conditions, and some of these other things [go], how does that play out differently in more rural areas in the country? And I’m wondering if you could speak to what differences there are between rural and urban environments when we’re talking about housing justice, and affordability?

SS: So nationwide, first of all, half of all housing agencies, regardless of whether they’re in the city, or the suburbs, or rural communities, have their waitlist completely closed. So we’re seeing this problem throughout the country. 

There’s a lot of concentration on the cities and less attention to rural communities and even suburbs. We don’t often think of these communities as places of high rates of homelessness, but we should be, and we should be providing resources. 

When I see when I go out of Philadelphia into the surrounding communities is that there’s no resources, there’s no housing, there’s no even homeless shelters for people. So many of these surrounding counties have no shelters at all. And they depend on Philadelphia to shelter their people. So what you have in the county surrounding Philadelphia, is you have Philadelphia service providers shipping people outside of the city and then you have the counties surrounding it shipping people to Philadelphia — and when I say shipping, putting them on trains, putting them on buses, physically removing them. Then, people have the audacity — you see people on the street and say: These are not my people, this is not my problem. But when you go into the rural areas, you get even fewer services, fewer homeless shelters. So there you’ll see people who are homeless — they’re in their cars, they’re in abandoned buildings, sleeping wherever they can. And there are no services to help people. So I think we need to draw attention to this because people in rural communities are struggling. Their industries are closing down. And this is where we’re seeing heavy overdoses when all of their original industry has left and abandoned these rural communities, you have people turning instead to the production of meth. And it’s leading to so much death and devastation in rural communities.

[Musical interlude.]

SS: I think most importantly, we have not a housing crisis, but a profiteering crisis. When we have 53 cents on every U.S. dollar that goes to war, while 3 cents on every federal dollar goes to housing assistance for the poor, that is also not a resource shortage. It’s a priority shortage. We’re prioritizing war. We’re prioritizing billionaires. Our laws and our resources are disproportionately catering to the very wealthiest people and to, really, defense.

It’s a crisis — a moral crisis, a priority crisis, and a profiteering crisis. But we can do better than this. This is not just a problem in the United States. It’s a problem throughout the world. And people are addressing this all throughout the world. So we have countries that have adopted housing as a human right in their policy, and legislation, and constitutions. This includes South Africa, and Finland — Finland, which is seeing homelessness decrease at the highest rate of any country that exists. You have countries like Scotland, where their housing as a human rights legislation means that homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring in Scotland. You have the United Nations saying housing is a human right that needs to be addressed in every country. And we have people here in every city calling for that. 

I believe that there are people in government who are trying to make this happen. Even the Build Back Better plan that the House is working on is the largest investment in public and subsidized housing that our nation has ever had. So it includes $90 billion for rental assistance, $80 billion for the repair and preservation of public housing, and $37 billion just for the National Housing Trust Fund, which will build, repair, and preserve an additional 330,000 affordable units. It’s not, I think, the final solution to homelessness, I think ending capitalism would be, but it will make a major difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people right now who are on the cusp, who are homeless, or about to be homeless. 

And so I think that this is the direction we can go if we want to address this issue: Some of that is to attack it through our policies, looking at housing as a right instead of a commodity, and addressing that in policies, in government, in Congress, in legislation. But we also I think need to put pressure on our policymakers and work from outside the system by direct action. People throughout the country are taking over housing, including the Moms for Housing group in Oakland, California that occupied housing. This is happening more and more, and I think that it draws attention to the problem and it actually gets people housed. 

So in Philadelphia, the families that took over the vacant Public Housing Authority houses a couple years ago, were just officially given the houses to keep, to stay in, and are not going to be facing eviction. So we see that when we work together as advocates, as rebels, as organizers, having protests, demanding more from our legislators, demanding lower rents and higher wages, these are things that are within reach. Other countries have adopted them, and we can as well. 

And so I’m hopeful. I think what we have now is not sustainable. I think change is inevitable. So some people say that it will never happen — our country is too corrupt, the people in power are too corrupt, we’re never going to see it. But I think that when you have 42 percent of all Americans who are housing insecure, and when you have hundreds of thousands of people sleeping on the streets, that is a crisis of a huge magnitude. And you have people who are joining ranks to say: We will not allow this. This is an injustice, and it’s inhumane, and we will work for something better.

[Musical interlude.]

AL: As wealthy developers and landlords rake in millions from working class tenants, buildings are barely maintained, leading to unsafe conditions. And all the while gentrification and rising housing costs are pushing people, mostly people of color and the poor, out of their homes and neighborhoods. But people are fighting back. 

When the pandemic began, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an eviction moratorium. It expired and was extended a number of times. The pandemic triggered an economic crisis and landlords weren’t allowed to start eviction proceedings; thousands of people are still dying every day, and many businesses remain closed, leaving people without work. 

But last month, New York Governor Kathy Hochul allowed the moratorium to expire. And although the New York City Housing Authority recently announced it would be dropping over 31,000 eviction cases, tenants throughout the state began seeking help.

Speaker: So how can we try to get it back together and organize when it’s so bad, that when I leave a flier at my neighbor’s door, I get harassed online by what I’m pretty sure is a fake account with one of my neighbor’s names on it — ?

AL: Last week, Housing Justice For All, a statewide coalition made up of legal and service organizations, held an eviction defense training on Zoom.

Speaker: So there’s a lot of things that happen before a marshal comes to your door and changes the lock. No one else is allowed to change the lock anywhere in New York State. Your landlord cannot change your lock, cut off your utilities. 

AL: As the meeting was ramping up, people were greeted by Dolly Parton’s song “9 to 5”:

Speaker: Buenas noches! Bienvenidos! Bienvenidos! Buenas noches!

Speaker: Buenas noches.

Speaker: Buenas noches!

Speaker: Hello!

Speaker: Buenas, buenas, buenas. 

AL: The training – conducted in both English and Spanish and attended by over 250 people – encouraged tenants to organize in their building and their communities.

Speaker [in Spanish]: La mejor defensa que podemos tener es que nuestras comunidades nos apoyen. Y que personas organizadas puedan defenderse en contra del desalojo.

AL: Last month, Marcela Onyango, a tenant in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush, began organizing with other people in her community.

Marcela Onyango: I’m brand new to organizing, something that was shoved upon me. This is not something that I wanted to do. I’ve done a lot of stuff, shown up to a lot of things, so I kind of have an idea of how to do direct action, but I’ve never led anything related to that.

AL: Marcela lives in a building owned by Maxx Properties — a real estate company that owns properties in six different states.

MO: The beginning of this was just me and two other people flyering my building, and four buildings. We started flyering the buildings that belonged to Maxx Properties to get tenants to meet. 

Listening to people’s problems, it was like, honestly, I was on the verge of tears. Somebody had mold. It’s cold in their apartments…

AL: But as Marcela and other community members began distributing flyers and organizing meetings, Maxx Properties got word. And during one of their meetings, a company employee arrived. Marcela and activists accused the company of trying to break up their organizing:

Activist: No employees, unless you invite them to a meeting, are allowed to be here.

Employee: Listen, listen, listen.

MO: So, this is a tenant meeting. We’re not doing anything illegal, and they’re gonna call the cops on us. 

Speaker on phone: The police should be there in about five minutes. 

Employee: OK.

MO: You can’t call the police on anybody. 

Speaker on phone: OK? I called them, and they’re coming because the people are trespassing. 

Employee: OK. 

MO: Nobody’s trespassing. 

AL: We reached out to Maxx Properties and, as of the recording of this podcast, they haven’t responded. 

Marcela and her neighbors are planning to continue organizing with support from the community.

Professor Sena from Philadelphia advocates for governments to adopt housing as a human right. But she also says the bigger solution should go much further.

SS: I think that homelessness is a crisis, amongst many, that are all really caught by our capitalist system that favors profit over people. And so while yes, you can have housing as a human right in a capitalist system and really support programs that remedy past discrimination, that fund the repair of our crumbling public housing, we can have a human rights framework within capitalism — that’s possible, it has happened, and it will happen. But I believe that for the actual changes that we need for our environment, and for our well-being, not just to address homelessness, but to address climate crisis, to address our broken healthcare system, to address everything including our crumbling infrastructure, our crumbling education system, in order to make those investments and make the changes that not only we need, but we deserve, we really need to address the underlying problem and the underlying problem is capitalism itself.

[Credits music.]

AL: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. José Olivares is lead producer. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

And I’m Akela Lacy.

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