I started the Facebook page Housing Justice Headlines in early 2019 as a way to aggregate and share all of the articles I was reading related to the housing crisis. As a public page, anyone can see what I post, so I expected to eventually get some angry comments about Sharia Law or building walls. I was not surprised then, when I got into a heated discussion with a commenter over a rather boring Newsweek article about AOC’s connecting student debt and low wages to young people’s inability to buy homes. The exchange was silly because most people accept that low wages and lots of debt are in fact barriers to buying a home. But one thing this person wrote really struck me – “It’s not a crisis, it’s an opportunity.” I couldn’t grasp it at first. “How could anyone regard displacement, eviction, and skyrocketing rents as anything other than a crisis with devastating effects on actual humans, families, and communities?” Corporations certainly make those kind of emotion-free calculations all the time, but how could some regular working guy with a cowboy hat celebrate his neighbor’s loss as his own gain? I eventually came across two items that helped me make sense of that comment.
The first was a podcast episode sent to me by a friend who I had discussed the exchange with. The basic gist of the podcast is that people tend to adopt either more of an egalitarian mindset (we all have equal rights, power lies with the people, etc.) or more of a hierarchical mindset (that of business and free markets, things *naturally* sort themselves into a hierarchy with “sharks on top and a million minnows at the bottom”, etc.). We all carry both but one tends to dominate. Thinking about the housing crisis through each of these lenses produces vastly different analyses and solutions, and to the more hiererchical-leaning person, if you cannot afford housing it is your own fault. Wages have stagnated across all industries for the last 40 years, and there are fewer opportunities to secure the kind of high-paying job that allows for stability and a comfortable retirement. For some people, this is a sign of injustice, exploitation, and the upward redistribution of wealth that needs to be fought with union organizing and equity-seeking policies. For others, this is a sign that the proving ground of capitalism is working just fine, and that in order to succeed one must innovate and become more like the sharks to prove their place in the order. And so if real estate has become the dominant form of investment, workers who similarly suffer from the stagnation of wages – but who more-closely identify with the sharks – can increase their net worth and differentiate themselves as smarter than other workers by flipping houses and becoming landlords. Not that every person who invests in real estate thinks this way, but in order to see your neighbor’s foreclosure as your own opportunity, you need to rationalize a process that might otherwise engender empathy.
The other thing that helped my understanding was finding the book Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State by Sam Stein (through an article titled To Save Urban Planners, Cities Need Community Organizers). In Capital City, the author explains the complex and often contradictory role of urban planners in capitalist societies. Planners are tasked with balancing the spatial needs and desires of the city’s residents with the all-consuming task of raising property values. What was especially interesting to me was the discussion of the types of tools planners use to do this, as well as the justifications for any gentrification that results – all of which I have read in countless articles and comments sections where “enlightened” urban planners upheld the “natural” order of the real estate market and rolled their eyes at the silly idea that housing might be a right. While most urban planners tend to be cosmopolitan liberals in favor of “representation” and “diversity”, their orientation towards the real estate market and commitment to rising property values as a sign of a healthy neighborhood betrays an internalization of the previously mentioned hierarchical thinking.
“In the real estate state, planners can create marvelous environments for rich people, but if they work to improve poor peoples’ spaces they risk sparking gentrification and displacement.”Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State
But why might this kind of thinking be so prevalent across the political spectrum when it comes to housing, especially when the devastating effects of the housing crisis can be seen all over the place? According to Leilani Farha (as referenced in Capital City, pg 2), UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, 61% of the assets in existence – $217 trillion (that is 217,000 billions if you can wrap your head around it!) – are invested in real estate, with about 75% of that in housing. There are a lot of interrelated reasons for this (and I encourage you to check out Capital City to learn more!), but the important thing to recognize is that land and housing are being bought up at a rapid pace, by both individual and institutional investors (but particularly those firms that can leverage extraordinary amounts of debt to purchase massive quantities of real estate), in cities and rural areas around the globe.
It is my completely non-scientific opinion that the reason so many people are taking this zero-sum “crisis-as-opportunity” road when it comes to housing is because they are scared. With all of this upward redistribution of wealth, the middle class is shrinking – it’s getting even harder for you to get there if you grew up poor, and it’s getting harder for you to remain there even if you were born with an economic or social leg up on your competition. People are scared of falling down the ladder and scared of their children not even reaching the ladder, and real estate investment is a much easier way to increase your individual wealth than organizing a union. The thing is that housing is so much more than a vehicle to earn “passive income”. It forms the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, along with air, water, food, clothing, and reproduction. You can choose to rationalize it as competition, but every eviction and foreclosure holds a heartbreaking story of actual human beings. There is no way to separate real estate speculation from the material effects it has on our families and communities.
It is very easy to let ourselves be ruled by fear, especially in the economically unstable times that we are living in. But I think that forging bonds of solidarity and mutual aid with the many millions of other people facing this housing crisis can be so much stronger than our fear. When we gather up all our dignity and love of neighbor, when we stop shaming ourselves and others for being poor, when we demand that housing is a human right – then we have the basis to start building the power that we need to change things together. Organizing together fills me with the kind of hope that burns brighter than any fear.