This post continues a symposium on decommodifying urban property. Read the entire series here.
We urgently need to transform our housing system into one that puts more emphasis on housing’s value as home and less on its value as real estate. This is particularly true for rental housing, where nearly half of all U.S. households making less than $50,000 annually live. The last three decades have seen capital chasing rising property values in rental housing in New York (where we live and work) and across the United States, leading to interconnected crises of high rent burdens, widespread evictions, and mass homelessness. Though in some ways this trend is relatively recent, it can seem intractable, as rising property values across all housing types are central to our economy. For those with investable capital, profit from land and housing undergirds the majority of their financial activity. For homeowners, it can create wealth faster than ever before.
Increasingly, a major distinction in our society is between the asset-owning class — investors and homeowners benefiting from rising property values — and everyone else, for whom buying a home is unattainable and renting is unaffordable. This is a new chapter in a long story, which traces its roots to the foundations of racial capitalism — from this country’s original legal frameworks for common land enclosures and slavery, to 20th century exclusionary lending, zoning, and development practices, which perpetuated segregation and urban disinvestment.
In the face of a housing crisis rooted in commodification, there is growing alignment within both activist and scholarly circles over the need to reverse this trend and move toward decommodification. There is work left to be done, however, in conceptualizing how to get there. Housing and tenant groups challenge the logic of extraction through their day-to-day struggles in privately-held rental housing. The policy priorities of this movement are rooted in housing justice. By giving tenants more power over where they live through rent regulation, eviction protections, robust code enforcement, and other forms of legal recourse, these policies make real estate speculation less profitable. In parallel, there is a growing call for social housing conversions through both public takings and private land and property acquisition to realize a vision of housing that prioritizes decommodification, deep affordability, and democratic management.
But how do these visions of housing decommodification relate to one another? In our forthcoming project Pathways to Social Housing in New York, we draw out connections between these different strategies, outlining a broad collection of policies that together can present a road to housing decommodification, both within our state and elsewhere around the country.
In particular, we argue that to decommodify urban property, we need to fight not only for policy and funding which transfers land and housing to social ownership, but also for policies that make extractive and predatory housing models less viable and organizing more feasible. We need a strategy that incorporates both social housing and housing justice.
Housing justice demands are crucial predicates for conversions to – and the long-term success of – social housing. For instance, when the government expands protections against unjust rent increases to a new sector of the housing market, tenants directly benefit; at the same time, rent regulation limits potential income that drives rising prices and outsized profits, causing speculative investors to lose interest in that sector. A similar reaction is likely when the government improves housing code standards and enforcement: tenants’ living standards improve while neglectful landlords are forced to reinvest more rental income back into their buildings, thus limiting the outsized profits that landlords would otherwise generate through minimal maintenance expenses. Housing justice demands bring rental operations back in line with what it actually takes to run decent and affordable rental housing—and thereby temper speculative pressures and excessive rates of return. Because our housing system’s focus on producing profit for landlords and investors constrains the expansion of the social housing sector by driving the hyper-valuation of land, tenant protections and code enforcement laws pave the way for social housing.
At the same time, social housing models help to permanently enshrine tenants’ rights. Housing policies that limit the speculative potential of a property, like rent regulation or expanded code enforcement, are constantly threatened by organized landlords and investors who skirt rent regulations, whittle down the power of public agencies to enforce housing codes, or withhold investment and even keep units vacant to force policies more favorable to them. When we convert a sizable portion of private housing to social housing, we build up a counterforce of organized constituents who can fight back against landlord power. Simultaneously, we shrink the universe in which those landlords and investors operate in and profit from, thus curbing their political influence. A meaningful expansion of the social housing sector would limit the political and economic power of organized landlords and investors to undercut the hard-won tenant protections and standards of habitability.
Perhaps most importantly, though, housing justice demands are pathways to housing decommodification because they make tenant organizing more attainable and more transformative. The right to a renewal lease, for instance, limits the ways landlords can retaliate against tenant leaders involved in building-level organizing. Similarly, expanded eviction protections and powerful legal tools to challenge predatory landlords make possible bold organizing and campaign strategies. Policies which lay the groundwork for organizing are necessary because social housing must be driven by committed groups of tenants seeking to wrest control of housing from landlords who profit too much and provide too little. A social housing conversion program can only exist where and when tenant organizing is strong and widespread. Indeed, such a program aims to make permanent the gains from housing struggles that prioritize people over the bottom-lines of investors.
Connecting housing justice struggles to social housing demands is crucial to achieving a meaningful level of housing decommodification, which constitutes a serious challenge to the system of U.S. wealth creation and forces direct confrontation with those who benefit from it. Changing that system also requires transforming the way the federal government interacts with land and housing. While public funding for social housing has been slashed over the preceding decades, public subsidies and support for countless models of for-profit housing have proliferated, from tax breaks for luxury construction to federal subsidies for single-family home mortgages. For most of the 20th century, our city, state, and federal governments supported suburban homeowners and urban landlords, while claiming poverty when it came to funding public and social housing alternatives. Housing justice and social housing models bring us closer to challenging our current system of property relations, which defines housing as a way to build wealth, and only provides that opportunity to those with historic access to land and capital.
Two years into a global pandemic and economic crisis, the link between outsized landlord profits and crises for tenants is clear. And the need for housing justice and social housing models is apparent. According to a report by JP Morgan Chase, while tenant households suffered unprecedented burdens and struggled to make rent during the pandemic, landlords actually made money, primarily through deferred maintenance of their buildings. The fact that landlords profited even in the depths of a generational crisis demonstrates why the housing movement in New York State must present an alternative vision of how housing should be owned and operated. To get there, we need a wide-ranging set of policies: frequent transfers of land and housing to social ownership, expansive financial resources, and robust tenant’s rights. We also need a long-term commitment to organizing, first to win these policies, then to operate social housing democratically, and finally to grow public and political support for a social housing transformation in New York State and around the country.