Jacobin Issue 33: Home Improvement

Housing justice issues have been getting a lot of attention from the Left lately, DSA’s Stomp Out Slumlords campaign has garnered a lot of attention. Recent studies of eviction rates listed seven Virginia localities in the top 20 for the nation. Jacobin magazine has made it the theme of their Spring 2019 issue.

Rent control seems to be the overarching proposal here, as there are several mentions of the decrease in controlled units in New York City over the past few decades, as well as Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” program, which saw a vast portion of public housing in Britain sold to the public market, transferring it to speculators and other private interests.

One of the main complaints from the Left is that housing has long been treated as a commodity instead of a basic right. The arguments between renting and buying aside, the crux is that the private markets incentivise property as investment, which increases rent-seeking, making housing more unaffordable for those at the bottom. There’s also the matter that private development trends toward higher income units, increasing gentrification. This leads to market failure, where lower income individuals are unable to find shelter, and higher priced units go unfilled. As many have pointed out, there are enough empty housing units in the United States to house every homeless person.

There are more articles within this issue that detail the difficulties of homebuying, Pete Buttigieg’s ‘war’ on the homeless in South Bend, what a Green New Deal for housing would like like, Soviet modernism, as well as a one about perhaps the only 70’s rock band out of Germany: Ton Steine Scherben, which fomented the squatter scene in Berlin during those years.

As far as solutions go, the Jacobin editors acknowledge that the most effective ones, public housing and rent control, are the least politically feasible. Likewise, the most politically palatable ones are also the least effective. What was most interesting to me, though, were the examples of public or cooperative housing that were held up as examples. My favorite might be the LILAC (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) units in West Leeds. It reminds me of a similar local effort, but geared toward a more affordable, equitable model.

It’s clear that the past few decades of increasing economic inequality, not to mention the 2008 housing crisis, have made it more and more difficult for individuals to find affordable housing. Organizers will need to continue working toward reform, urging and educating legislators and officials about tenants rights issues. Thankfully, Virginia’s 2019 session was able to pass various reforms around eviction issues, but there still need to be more of a push toward public housing, organizing tenant unions, and building cooperative housing models.

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