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The Myths of Housing Policy

David Madden and Peter Marcuse’s thought-provoking book In Defense of Housing asks us to rethink the U.S. housing crisis. They argue that the United States’ housing crises is not confined to a few big cities but nationwide since “there is no US state where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford to rent or own a one-bedroom dwelling.” Also half of the nation’s renters—in cities and also in rural areas—spend an unsustainable amount of their income on housing.

The authors’ rethinking uses an innovative global as well as a historical view of housing. They criticize the dominant U.S narrative that the U.S. lack of affordable homes occurs in a basically sound housing system that needs only a few technocratic means to solve it. Instead they argue that housing is a long time political and economic problem resulting from struggles between classes. They refer to Henri Lefebvre’s 1968 book The Right to the City that lays out the political role of housing showing that not just industrial proletariat but also urban dwellers act in crucial political struggles.

The basic conflict Madden and Marcuse see is between housing as a commodity for profit making—real estate—and housing as a home.  Madden and Marcus think that the major problem globally is the commodification of housing:  currently housing’s value “as an investment outweighs all other claims about it, whether they are based upon right, need, tradition, legal precedent, cultural habit etc.”

In the authors’ historical analysis traditionally for thousands of years work and homes were integrated globally, but in England with the enclosure movement landlords from the 16th to the 19th centuries claimed the commons and tore down the huts of poor peasants who lived on in the commons, forcing the poor to the cities for jobs to live in hideous slum housing. Only during the 1930s Great Depression national states began to partially decommodify housing with U.S. and European nations building public housing, but by the 2nd half of the 20th century real estate became a global economic force—the main driving force of the global economy.

In the U.S. now real estate is hyper-commodified where “buildings, land, labor, property rights—are turned into commodities ….” The hyper-commodification of U.S. housing helps produced growing inequality in a period of stagnant wages, growing inequality, and neoliberalism cutting the safety net. In Defense of Housing also argues that the housing shortage is global since “London, Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Lagos” and almost every major global city lacks enough housing.

The book analyzes how the state uses four ways to reinforce hyper-commodification of housing to make housing oppressive. First, the state deregulates mortgage lending, ends rent control, and privatizes public housing in the U.S. and U.K. Second, the state allows financialization of housing such as banks pooling mortgages and selling them as “liquid assets.” Third, the state allows globalization of housing with foreign investors speculating in U.S. housing or buying luxury housing as an investment which were never meant to be lived in. Fourth, the state allows gentrification to increase landlords’ profits with huge rent increases.

In U.S. cities mayors argue that building more housing—deregulation and development—will solve the housing crises, but Madden and Marcuse say that deregulation and development can never solve the problem when housing treated as a commodity. For example, global speculators build luxurious housing for profit while ignoring the huge need for low-cost rentals. While real estate speculators criticize so-called “inefficiencies” produced by state regulation, the authors reply that tenants facing displacement see “commodified residential development that is inefficient, not to mention cruel and destructive.” Treating housing as a commodity inevitably results in people living in overcrowded homes, in sheds or closets, near toxic pollution or on the streets:  housing oppression.

Madden and Marcuse criticize the “myths of housing policy” include the liberal myth of the “benevolent state” having a consistent “housing policy.” Instead they think that the state used the housing system “to preserve political stability” and “support the accumulation of private profits.” They show how in the 19th century and early 20th century New York City began to have housing regulations because the rich were afraid of diseases that spread in the slums or uprisings from the working class who rioted regularly. The U.S. first built public housing during World War I to house shipyard workers building the Navy’s ships. The authors give evidence that urban renewal helped downtown businesses and destroyed working class and colored people’s neighborhoods. Central to housing programs N.Y., L.A., and most  other cities now is “inclusionary zoning” that the state allows developers to erect buildings of market rate housing with some units “affordable,” which in New York is housing only the upper middle class can afford.  Such housing programs are state subsidies for developers and the well-to-do, not affordable at all.

A second myth is the conservative idea of the “meddling state” which ignores that the federal government spends much more helping the rich through tax deductions than spending on public housing. Second, the housing market has never been independent of the state but depends on the state for streets, electricity, sewage, enforcing contracts, etc. Madden and Marcuse argue that conservatives use the myth of the “meddling state” to justify reducing housing spending for the poor.

The authors analyze how commodification of housing results in residents around the globe feeling alienated from overcrowding, getting evicted, dilapidated rentals, and homelessness. The current housing crises causes renters to feel “fear, stress, anxiety, and dispowerment.” Mass evictions happen globally before the Olympics such as in Seoul, Korea, 700,000 were evicted in 1988. Evictions and foreclosures both are traumatizing. Housing alienation can be ended if the housing system is drastically changed to provide housing security for everyone.

In arguing for housing as oppression historically, the authors cite company towns or mining towns in the U.S., Germany, Dubai, etc. where the company exerts control over workers off-work as well as at-work. Governments can control rebellious populations by redesigning cities as Baron Hausmann redesigned Paris by destroying working-class quarters or moving out rioters through urban renewal. European colonization exerted power by destroying indigenous people’s homes. Blacks and Latinos still face residential segregation, redlining, urban renewal, predatory lending etc.

The authors also show how housing organizing can be liberating. In many other cities that had rent strikes—New York, Buenos Aires, Santiago, London, Glasgow–unions, women’s groups, anti-racists groups, and leftist parties united to make the rent strike. In 1970s, London’s East End Bengali anti-racists and black radicals led the strike. Rent strikes have been used in anti-colonial struggles from late 19th century Ireland, to 1920s Zanzibar, to 1980s South Africa.

The book shows how housing promotes actual liberation. They give an example of housing as a source of “autonomy and strength” in African-Americans’ idea of “homeplace” as the place of “humanization, where one can resist.”  From Sao Paulo to London to Durban people fight for the idea of all people having homes as a “place of dignity.” Feminists in both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. promoted housing reforms such as socialized childcare for female liberation. In Vienna the Social Democrats from 1919 on built 60,000 apartments called Red Vienna where the working class had a fortress surviving to this day. Similarly the New York radical immigrant labor movement starting in 1916 created 40,000 units in non-profit cooperative housing.

The authors give the forgotten history of 150 years of housing movements showing improvements in housing are always the result of activism. In 1915 Glasgow a rent strike of 20,000 households against high rents, overcrowding, and dilapidated housing produced the first rent control and beginning of public housing in Scotland and England.   The 1917-1920 New York rent strike “terrified the city’s real estate establishment” who then allowed the first eviction regulations. During the 1930s and 1940s U.S. housing activists allied with leftist political parties won national rent control, national building of public housing, and building maintenance.  During the 1960s blacks working with civil rights groups organized for renters’ right in Harlem with a two-year strike that resulted in “large-scale housing inspections, [and] … priority for rent strikers” to move into N.Y. City Housing Authority Association building.

After the New York elites in the 1970s convinced the city government to move out factories which decimated working class neighborhoods, activists started squats with working class families in abandoned buildings, organized against displacement, megaprojects, and luxury housing; sitting in at Occupation Wall Street; and elected de Blasio mayor, who helps maintain the largest number of public housing units in the nation.

The last chapter is excellent in bringing back a lost history of the “radical right to housing” starting with the 1949 U.S. Housing Act that the U.S. government promises “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family ….” The right to decent housing is part of the New York state Constitution, part of the constitutions of 69 countries, promoted by the U.N. General Assembly, and included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The authors feel that activists should push for the realization of their right to housing as they challenge “residential commodification, alienation, oppression and inequality today.” In Defense of Housing is necessary book for a broad housing movement in the U.S.

Madden and Marcuse think that the right to housing should include the right to “live in neighborhoods and communities.” They like Lefebvre don’t want liberal or modest reforms that make small changes in the existing housing system but want transformative changes addressing problems “at the root.” They offer broad demands to decommodify and de-financialize housing as well as democratize housing policy and management. They suggest U.S. activists globalize to learn from protests in other countries. At the end Madden and Marcuse stress that today’s world has the technology and resources to solve the housing problem but people need the political will to make not real estate but a home for all.

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