Imagining Housing Justice Under Late Capitalism

This is the last part of my thesis I’m posting here: the introduction. My purpose is to share some of the thinkers that inspire me as I continue to think and learn about alternatives to the capitalist real estate market. It doesn’t get very deep; I’m not a great theoretician or jargon generator so it’s pretty short compared to the other parts of my thesis. You can find the first two parts here: A BRIEF-ISH HISTORY OF HOUSING POLICY IN THE UNITED STATES and SOCIAL HOUSING IN VIENNA: LESSONS FOR PHILADELPHIA?

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Realizing a Right to Housing in Philadelphia: Towards a Cohesive Strategy

This paper is an intervention into the market-based housing policy status quo in the United States, and the city I call home, Philadelphia. It is also an intervention into the single-issue activism and advocacy that dominates in social movement circles that deal with housing issues. I will argue that current housing policy in the United States is layered upon generations of racialized public policy that has always centered market ideology at the expense of human flourishing, and therefore an ameliorative approach that seeks to tweak current policy will not be able to adequately address either the structural racism built into the US housing market or the gross distributional inequities the market produces. Instead, I will build the case for a transformative approach that not only critiques the status quo, but parts ways with it to create a realm of struggle for an ideological and instrumental right to housing.

I will begin with a nod to the theorists who have helped shape my own vision for what a right to housing could look like and why it’s worth struggling for. From there I move into a broad overview of US housing policy from independence until now, taking a moment at a few points to emphasize the effect that white supremacy had on policy and the spatial and economic consequences that emerged as a direct result of these policies. The logical question arising from an investigation of this history is, “So what do we do then?” To begin answering that very relevant question, I will trace the history of social housing in Vienna from the end of World War I until now. This is not to suggest that the US should or even could do an abrupt about-face and adopt Vienna’s current policies; housing policy is almost entirely path-dependent, and the stories of Philadelphia and Vienna couldn’t be more divergent. The purpose of sharing this case study of Vienna is to give the reader some fuel for her imagination, a small taste of another possibility for how other humans living in an industrial (now post-industrial) city decided to organize housing on a grand scale. With a few lessons from the Vienna case in hand, I will then move towards a discussion of the current housing situation in Philadelphia and argue that homeownership is not a “pathway out of poverty” for a large and growing part of our city. I will conclude with a proposal for a cohesive social movement articulation of a right to housing and some tools that could be used to further goals of decommodification and collective ownership including community land trusts, social finance, and worker cooperatives.

Theoretical Inspiration

Housing is a local space with global implications, fixed in a neighborhood from the time of construction but stretching out into the world economy over pathways of capital mobility. The “real estate market”, while a fairly recent innovation in the long history of private property and capitalist markets, has become the dominant language in our conversations about housing, whether we are tenants, buyers, sellers, or researchers. The history of how the commodity value of housing came to be its most important quality is discussed in the next section. I am concerned here with how conversations about the housing crisis have become overdetermined by both advocates of free-market ideology as well as stakeholders advocating for justice, resulting in a choir of variously-pitched voices singing the “There is No Alternative” chorus. Concerned with this overdetermination in the realm of social theory related to capitalism, J.K. Gibson-Graham advocate for an “anticapitalist politics of economic invention” that acknowledges the varieties of capitalism and capitalist process, rather than accepting “capitalism” as the ultimate way of understanding our social and economic relationships[i]. In Unmaking Goliath : Community Control in the Face of Global Capital[ii], James DeFilippis describes a similar phenomenon whereby capital mobility in particular becomes the overdetermined element and urban stakeholders are powerless to achieve anything beyond attracting capital to their city. Tom Slater locates this economic essentialism at the urban scale, which he describes as false choice urbanism: the binary choice between capital investment, luxury development, and gentrification on one hand, and blight, economic decline on the other[iii].

This type of thinking affects anti-capitalist and anti-gentrification activists as well, foreclosing on many possibilities for creative resistance towards new economic relationships because when cast against the capitalist behemoth, they seem performative at worst and reformist at best. Struggles against gentrification end up being reactionary and generalized, whereas campaigns against eviction or a bad landlord seem detached from the root causes of the housing crisis and devoid of hope for the possibility of doing things differently. For policymakers and activists alike, this leads to an uninterrogated commitment to homeownership and ameliorative solutions that do not question the status quo system of organizing housing, even as they seek to deliver bandaids and painkillers (when heavy antibiotics are what is needed!)[iv] [v].

In their 2016 book In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis, Peter Marcuse and David Madden lay bare the class politics of the housing crisis and what it means when we demand a right to housing:

The built form of housing has always been seen as a tangible, visual reflection of the organization of society. It reveals the existing class structure and power relationships. But it has also long been a vehicle for imagining alternative social orders. Every emancipatory movement must deal with the housing question in one form or another. This capacity to spur the political imagination is part of housing’s social value as well[vi].

Thus, we seek a transformative approach that seeks local autonomy, a discourse of economic plurality rather than hegemony, and a more democratic and sustainable organization of land uses[vii]. These are some of the building blocks for a right to housing orientation, whereby the human need for shelter takes priority over the desire for profit. This approach is necessary if we want to get past what Mechelle Dickerson calls the homeownership myth, the complex of ideas and policies that equate homeownership with The American Dream, stability, wealth creation, responsibility, moral correctness, etc.[viii]. If we accept homeownership to be an undisputed good – as have the majority of lawmakers since the New Deal – then we will be less likely to understand how “housing policies now seem more focused on boosting the economy and ensuring the financial well-being of the real estate and financial services industry than supporting the people who are being encouraged to buy houses[ix]”. In turn, this blind spot prevents us from seriously investigating alternatives to thinking about homeownership as the ideal form of tenure, the correct way to build wealth, and a popular strategy whereby low-income residents might gain greater economic security. If we are to demand a right to housing for everyone[x] and unleash our creative potential through serious experiments in community ownership – social housing, social finance, cooperatives, and community land trusts – we will need to do away with the thinking that capitalist markets (and therefore capitalist housing practices) are inevitable and act like we truly believe that another world is possible.

[i] Gibson-Graham, J.K., 2006. The end of capitalism (as we knew it) a feminist critique of political economy 1st University of Minnesota Press ed., 2006., Minneapolis ; London: University of Minnesota Press.

[ii] DeFilippis, J., 2004. Unmaking Goliath community control in the face of global capital. New York: Routledge.

[iii] Slater, T., 2014. Unravelling false choice urbanism. City, 18(4-5), pp.517–524.

[iv] Dickerson, Mechele (2014) Homeownership and America’s Financial Underclass: Flawed Premises, Broken Promises, New Prescriptions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[v] Schlichtman, J.J., Hill, M.L. & Patch, J., 2017. Gentrifier, Toronto ; Buffalo ; London: University of Toronto Press.

[vi] Madden, David and Peter Marcuse (2016) In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis. New York: Verso Books.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Dickerson (2014)

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Everyone meaning not just those with enough pre-existing wealth to secure a down payment, who can pay for the upkeep and maintenance of a house over time and through periods of unemployment/underemployment, and who are able to purchase a house in a neighborhood with appreciating land values.

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