Politics, Community & Society > The 43rd House on the Right

The 43rd House on the Right

By GREG MAFFETT
Published: April 12, 2011

I keep office hours for only a few weeks of the year. Those hours are Tuesday-Thursday from roughly 6-7 PM. My 'office' is the Pub where I eat dinner. I only do this for my tough math class where people may fail. I've taught the class 5 times in San Diego, that means I've been there 15 times for office hours. In that time, only two students have shown up.

The low turn out doesn't bother me. The office is 15 minutes from campus for the students. I started out making this offer at a place close to campus but there was limited turn out there also. So me being me, I figured I might as well eat where I usually eat.

Part of my rationale for this goes to the idea that people for the most part don't really care. Or perhaps better said, they only care to the point of appearing to care. The test is action, a 15 minute drive. If at the end of the week I have someone at risk of failing and all they have done is show up at class and randomly utter "I'm concerned..." well you see how it goes. Concerned, but not concerned enough to make an actual effort to change the outcome.

I don't want to say this is a comprehensive summary of life in 2011. I'm saying the principle is not limited to just my class and my students.

I was talking this over with the bartender, a gent who is in the process of finishing up his undergrad degree and looking to go on to acquire an M.S. in Geology. He was lamenting the curricula at his school that included a totally useless math course. In his case the course only serves as a prerequisite for yet another course that does nothing in terms of directly solving problems. It is an abstract exercise in reproducing math proofs that have already been solved. At least my math class is directly applicable to problem solving. Anyway, this was the Thursday offering on the office hours and it was 15 minutes prior to the end of the hour when I decided to start hiking home.

"But what if a student shows up?"

"Tell him to head down Polk, I'm the 43rd house on the right."

That may or may not be true. Therein lies the problem. In the suburbs, with single family detached houses, I could make such a statement. But in my case there are a number of multi-unit dwellings en route. If I count all the doorways and addresses on the right, 43 is pretty close to the correct number. But if I count discrete buildings, the number is in the 30's. And oh yeah, some of those have addresses that are on cross streets, so do they count?

You see the problem. Finding a house can be difficult if you don't have an address. I mean there are a lot of houses in the world, right?

How many houses are there in the world, I wondered?

if you do the Internet search on that you find a number of not very bright people who say the answer is unknowable because houses are "Being built and knocked down all the time." Well the same is true of people, we are being born and dropping dead all the time too. But there is a fixed number of people alive at any given time, just like there is a fixed number of housing units on the planet. All you need is a definition of what is a unit and you can count them. Perhaps you need all the satellite imagery and supercomputers we have to get to the number, but it is something that is countable. It is not unknowable, just unknown to some not very bright people who can't do the counting.

The number I was really interested in finding was the 50% number for humans. I wanted to know at what point in human history were more than 50% of the human population living in housing units? I know roughly when our species transitioned from nomadic hunter-gathers to land bound farmers and ranchers. But I didn't when we hit the tipping point from one way of life to the other.

It was roughly 10,000 years ago that agriculture started to emerge. But as late as 150 years ago in North America we still had thriving hunter-gatherers living here. Putting the tipping point at 5,000 years ago is admittedly a random answer for my 50% housing question, but I'd say it is safe to say that it was not more recent than 5,000 years ago.

When you put homo sapiens on the map about 200,000 years ago, you start to see the picture. For over 97% of our time on this planet, more of us have been homeless than have been housed. That is a lot of years of roughing it. But we did OK.

Every morning on my daily run, I pass both sides of the homeless equation. I see addresses of vacant houses. I see people without addresses.

Either in the city park or on a sidewalk, I'll pass a homeless person sleeping. This is California, after all. We have over 1/5 of the US homeless population here. I won't blame the good weather any more than I'll congratulate the state's liberal politics for creating this statistic, but I think both play into the equation (South Dakota, a frigid Red State, is on the low end of the range.)

Likewise, I run past vacant houses that have been on the market since the last housing bust. In fact, I pass many more vacant houses than homeless people.

More numbers coming at you, so be prepared. The latest Housing and Urban Development report in 2010 came up with a "point in time" number for the homeless in America. That number was just over 600,000. Of those 2/3 were sheltered, 1/3 were sleeping on sidewalks.

Granted, for over 97% of our history, sleeping under the stars was the norm. But now, not so much. It is a rarity in this country. Not only is it a rarity, but it is identified as a problem. And being a problem, it creates an industry of people who address or misaddress the problem. The problem with the homeless industry is the same problem facing the health-care industry. If people were all housed and healthy, both industries would cease to exist. I have to think that "solving" homelessness is the last thing the homeless industry wants.

The budget request for homeless programs in 2011 was $4.2 Billion, in 2012 that goes up to $4.8 Billion. That is $9 Billion in two years.

How much does a house cost? My spiffy tricked out 3 bedroom two bath place has a replacement value of $170,000 in California. Not tricked out, let's say $150,000. That could sleep three at $50,000 a head. $50,000 a head times the 200,000 sidewalk sleepers is $10B. Basically we have the ability to house every one of the sidewalk sleepers with the next two years of budget if you look at it from the government appropriation side.

It is worse if you look at it from the housing supply side. There are roughly 18 million vacant housing units in America. 30 for every homeless person, 90 for every unsheltered person.

There is a blog out there, SLO Homeless who makes the argument that "homelessness isn't a choice". From the perspective of the individual, he has a lot going for his argument. Many who are on the streets don't have the resources to say choose homelessness as an alternate lifestyle, it is thrust upon them. They are there because they earn less than $300 a month and can't make a rent or mortgage payment on that. I get that.

But on the other side of the equation, it truly is a choice. The unoccupied housing stock is out there. There is money in the Federal Budget. The political process as a whole chose to spend $3B on the last general election. It is not a resource issue, it is something else.

And more so, it is really a problem? Seeing as how we lived this way for over 97% of our existence you have to consider that aspect.

So what really is the problem? Statistically, people who sleep on sidewalks have 3-4 times the morbidity rate of people who are housed. That is one of the reasons that there are few homeless people over 50. Few live so long. OK, I'd say that is a problem.

And I'd say that a country that has the ability to solve the problem, but instead chooses to create a self perpetuating industry to admire the problem has made a definitive choice.

Just like the struggling students who don't show up a office hours. Just like the Universities that teach classes that transit no value. We set up the appearance of caring about the issue, we set up a culture that appears to be interested in solving the problem...but we seetle for the appearanace rather than the action.

Any Comments?


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