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Taking the Market Off Land: Symposium on Decommodifying Urban Property


Molly Gordon is a recent graduate of UCLA School of Law.

Ann Sarnak is a third-year law student at Yale Law School.

This posts introduces a symposium on decommodifying urban property. Read the entire series here.


The call to “decommodify” land and housing has—like so many other previously unimaginable radical demands—entered some version of the mainstream political conversation. Rep. Ilhan Omar reintroduced her “Homes for All Act” this March, invoking tenant organizer Tara Raghuveer’s insight that “the housing and homelessness crises are the direct and predictable result of treating housing as a commodity rather than a human right.” Community Land Trusts and other democratically responsive forms of land ownership have a presence in most major urban housing markets. Efforts to restore precolonial relationships to the land are gaining speed, sometimes in response to the looming threat of climate change

The commodification of land and housing has unfurled in stages throughout the settler colonial history of America, with several disastrous inflection points. As K-Sue Park has shown, land became an alienable and fungible category of property during the colonial period through a process of violent dispossession from Native Americans. Property ownership was then limited to white people for much of the nation’s history, and subsidized through racially exclusionary New Deal investments. White geographies were demarcated through redlining, leaving Black and Brown neighborhoods to suffer under pronounced disinvestment. More recently, Black families were looted of 50% of their wealth during the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent rampage of foreclosures.

Today, low-income renters are at the mercy of landlords, who unilaterally set the price of keeping a roof over their heads, control renters’ access to the communities that sustain them, and deploy even more pernicious methods of control and surveillance. It is clear that a non-market approach to governance over land and housing is needed not only to provide shelter where the housing market “fails,” but to provide a path out of the intense subordination that occurs through the landlord-tenant form.

We take as a starting point in this series that efforts to collectivize control over land and housing must be consciously aimed at reducing inequality and redressing racism. One potential strategy involves directing the flow of equity and political power away from private institutional investors, and allowing communities that have suffered widespread disinvestment to recapture that value. Yet—if racial capitalism is baked into the valuation of land and housing, it may not be possible to redirect the benefits of the system without reproducing its harms. What’s more, state power has been wielded as a racially disciplinary tool in the context of land and housing, so it is understandable to question whether the state can be a source of racially liberatory change in this space.

LPE scholars might ask if law can be used to re-embed land and shelter within nourishing social relationships, or whether the law is only relevant to a piecemeal strategy of transferring ownership from distant deep-pocketed investors to the people who actually reside in local communities. In other words—can we only hope to take land off the speculative market? Or can we take the speculative market off land?

The contributors to this series take up these questions through the lens of LPE, with persistent attention to the work of social movements led by Indigenous and Black communities and other communities of color. Sheila Foster sketches the contours of a state that enables decommodification of land and housing, allowing communities to steward their own resources toward the public good. John Whitlow writes that tenant organizations can curb the predatory business models of corporate landlords by leveraging solidarity, putting commodifiers out of business from below. Sam Stein, Oksana Mironova, Celeste Hornbach, and Jacob Udell explore how tenant organizing can function alongside different types of public investment to usher in an era of social housing. Elora Lee Raymond and Laura Wolf-Powers offer crucial observations about the current state of play—one in which homes are not only financialized but collateralized (allowing corporate investors to realize value from homes by using them to access ever more capital), and in which local governments rely heavily on real estate taxes to fund their budgets. Practitioners from the Sustainable Economy Law Center’s Radical Real Estate School ask what kind of violence lawyers do by inscribing relationships between people and the land into legal forms, and offer lessons from their work.