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Letter to the Editor: A lack of housing is a serious issue for rural communities

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Local activist reacts to Bob Lonsberry’s recent column

By Brock Mapes

This week, Bob Lonsberry wrote a column in which he argues that Kathy Hochul’s recently announced housing plan – tasking local governments to restore old properties or build new ones while funding them accordingly – amounts to “colonization” and even “cultural cleansing.” To give his argument flavor, he arouses the specters of undocumented immigrants and “folks relying on welfare programs” from cities, not only stoking racial animosity but sensationalizing the program as some sort of resettlement operation. The author later claims that his words are not “out of xenophobia or classism or any other sort of prejudice” after deploying increasingly xenophobic and classist rhetoric. He might as well say “no offense” to your face immediately after brutally insulting your family, your intelligence, and your dog.

Labeling a plan to help house your neighbors a “stake through the heart” and an effort to “colonize” and “flush out” culture while living on stolen Seneca land is disgraceful and betrays not only a lack of compassion but basic wherewithal. Cultural cleansing did happen here (and in ways is continuing to happen) in order to clear the way for white settlement. Using such language to describe the proposed housing initiative is deeply irresponsible and diminishes the bloody history of the region.

Distasteful turns of phrase and raving fear-mongering aside, I did want to pick up on a concept that the author so conveniently brought up in order to paper over – class.

Despite what you might assume (or hope), homelessness and housing insecurity is a serious problem in Allegany County. Unfortunately, our reputation as a low cost-of-living area does not totally match reality when paired with a chronically tough job market. You may not realize it, because it can be easy to miss for a variety of reasons (shame, intentional marginalization, bureaucratic tools of record-keeping, etc.), but the rural poor are not “sparse and currently housed.” If you’ve worked in any number of public-facing institutions – schools, county departments, non-profits – this is not only clear but striking. Folks lose their jobs, face domestic violence, or are otherwise forced out of their homes all the time, and one of the consistent problems is a lack of safe and affordable places for them to go.

Housing is a basic human need, a precondition for stability and thriving. However, it is also treated as a commodity – something that is bought, sold, and traded in order to make money. We are told to think of our home as an investment that could depreciate if, say, a place for others to live is built nearby. Meanwhile, the well-off in our communities have, especially in the past few decades as populations have dropped, snatched up properties and rented them back to people at rates often above the mortgage being paid on them. Some properties sit empty for long stretches of time despite pressing need all around. The landlord is an everyday representative of the owning class – they hold what is needed by countless others to make a profit. Whether the landlord is kind and reasonable or a cartoonish Scrooge doesn’t change the basic imbalance of the tenant-landlord relationship. Class relationships are fundamental to our lives, even if those with means would love to convince you that there is no class distinction, or no meaning in it. We rent from a landlord (or pay a mortgage to a bank), we work to make a profit for our boss, and we don’t have much of a say in the terms of each arrangement. We have to make ends meet, after all.

Without facing that basic reality, how can we begin to have conversations about what “freedom” means? How free are you when you can be evicted or fired at a moment’s notice, let alone when you don’t have a home or job to begin with? Or how much “local control” does the average person have over policy when the people brought in to sit on village boards are almost always the very people with the most property and the most economic influence? I’ve sat in on many town and village board meetings. It is impossible not to come away frustrated by how inward-looking these bodies are or how callous their members can be toward anyone without a perfect little house, family, or business.

Housing is just one front where this battle is fought, at times with a greater or lesser intensity. And we do need more attainable housing. The thing is…

I don’t disagree that Hochul’s plan is likely to be imperfect, even unjust, just in different ways than the previous column’s author claims.

The higher you go, the truer it is that politicians will fill the pockets of private business and further the exploitation of the public. You can look all the way back to the explosion of railroads in the 1800s – American history is littered with business and government in bed, because they really aren’t as separate as some would like you to think. Both business and our existing government keep the working class needy and attempt to divide us to maintain their own positions.

How much of the state’s money under this housing plan would immediately make its way into private hands in the sole interest of making a profit, rather than meeting human needs? Almost all of it, assuredly, and the relationship between tenant and landlord would be not only maintained but reinforced. Instead, we should pursue solutions that actually leave people freer, rather than simply under a different person’s yoke. Let’s not be fooled into fighting for someone else’s ability to make money off of our neighbors’ most basic necessity.

I’d like to challenge you, the reader, to think hard about the “common sense” that so often gets thrown around to justify the way things are. Instead of accepting the current state of things, let’s work together to meet peoples’ needs and truly empower our communities.

Written by Brock Mapes on behalf of the Cattaraugus-Allegany Liberation Collective (CALC). If you would like to get in touch with him, send an email to [email protected]

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