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The Properties of Property

Photo by Rennett Stowe | CC BY 2.0

What are the properties of property?

One of them, the one we know most intimately these days, is that it causes social crises, such as the so-calling “housing crisis.”

We know what the “housing crisis” is not. It is not a housing crisis. It is an “affordable housing” crisis. And it is a crisis of homelessness. It is called a “housing crisis” to fool people. But there are “Now Leasing” and “For Rent” signs all over town on market rate housing that most people in Berkeley cannot afford.

The crisis of affordable housing results from a political failure to implement a simple proposition, that “housing is a human right.” That proposition cannot be implemented because property rights supersede human rights in the US (they don’t in other places). That is why city government throws up its hands, says “there’s nothing we can do” – besides organize studies and subcommittees. .

So there’s some empty rhetoric about this crisis that needs to be desanctified.

The homeless crisis is a more serious humanitarian situation. Homeless people die on the street, especially during the winter. With respect to the homeless, the city can act, and does. It goes beyond ignoring human rights and violates them by sending the police to raid the homeless encampments. That just make the humanitarian crisis worse (The last two raids were in January and February of this year) but it obeys the priority of property.

***

Okay, I lied. These two situations that I called crises are not crises. They are forms of oppression. The name for that oppression is “impoverishment.” Sometimes it happens through unemployment. At present, it is happening through skyrocketing rents that take a family’s money away and in some cases leave then without food. When they run out of money, they get thrown out on the street by property owners. For some, the street becomes home, where one can’t get any poorer. People become homeless based on factors beyond their control. Yet once there, they can’t get jobs, can’t stay in school, can’t even use the toilets in a nearby cafe. That’s impoverishment.

It’s a property of property to make some people suffer through no fault of their own. Not everyone. There is no crisis for the wealthy. They can find a place to live whenever they like, under any circumstances. The lack of affordable housing is only a crisis for the low income and the homeless.

When a society thinks of itself as a democracy, yet sets property rights higher than human rights, it is simply practicing a form of ground-floor hypocrisy. In Berkeley, City Council functions as an agency of that hypocrisy, because it hasn’t got the guts to do what it can do to elevate people to a level above that of property – principally by resolving the affordable housing crisis (which is not a “housing crisis”).

City Council does, however, have the temerity to give the police license to use pepper spray on crowds. This becomes a threat to the homeless encampments that suffer raids at 5 in the morning. It is not enough that their meager belongings (property) are seized, and that they are left with nowhere to go. Now, they can legally be tortured chemically if they object the next time they are raided.

***

Of course, the City Council claims, with respect to rent gouging, that its hands are tied by the Costa-Hawkins Act. But that’s just gutlessness.

That Act says landlords have the absolute right to set rent levels at anything they want, and no city government can act to protect tenants from that. Nothing exemplifies the holy priority of property rights over human rights better than the Costa-Hawkins Act. Has the Berkeley City Council participated, let alone taken a leading role, in trying to repeal Costa-Hawkins? No it has not. The majority of people in Berkeley are renters. City Council simply accepts the fact that it is barred by state law from democratically representing the majority of its own people.

Costa-Hawkins gives a green light to the oppression of low income renters. City Council tacitly accepts that oppression, while rhetorically refusing to recognize it as oppression.

But the City Council is not powerless. It could refuse that oppression and countermand it. In its own Inclusionary Housing Act, it could establish that, in any new development, 80% of its units must affordable – rather than the paltry 20% that the act now requires. And “affordable” means, as a HUD standard, the tenants in low income units pay no more than 30% of their income for rent (subsidized by HUD). In other words, HUD affirms that rent should be tied to the human condition, and not to property conditions. In setting that standard, HUD has set humans above property.

Since the majority of people living in Berkeley are renters – between 60% and 70% – and Berkeley has fulfilled its quota of market rate units (from Plan Bay Area), which most residents in Berkeley can’t afford anyway, requiring 80% affordable housing units in any new project would be equitable – that is, equal justice through equal opportunity to housing.

Furthermore, the City Council could have raised the mitigation fee to something like $200,000, making it difficult for a developer to buy his way out of including affordable units. Instead, it refers to a Nexus Study that recommends a $34,000 mitigation. The Nexus figure is only a recommendation, however. Berkeley City Council hypocritically considered it a requirement. They do the same thing with their 20% standard for affordable units, which is really only a minimum (in their own ordinance), and a maximum.

So, we have discovered a third property of property. It is the utter hypocrisy and gutlessness it requires from its political agents.

***

Here’s the irony of property. It is just about the only thing one can use to defend oneself against property – that is, against the oppressions by big property. People buy houses because they know that paying rent every month is simply a treadmill, an unending drain on income and living standard. To own a home is to escape landlord rent gouging. It provides stability, and security against having ones life totally disrupted, such as often happens to renters when their building gets sold.

People buy small property (called homes) to protect themselves against the power and arbitrary capabilities of large property owners (usually corporations or LLCs). Owning one’s own home provides a level of autonomy that renters, when by themselves and unorganized, cannot attain. Owning a home sets homelessness in a greater distance.

The strength of the autonomy that property gives one only highlights and emphasizes one’s lack of autonomy when one doesn’t own any.

But owning property doesn’t save one totally from being beset by forces beyond one’s control. There are fat years and lean years. During the fat years, real estate values go up. The home owner considers him/herself lucky, and feels wealthier. That is the bright side. During the lean years, the mortgage becomes a ball and chain. When the debt crisis of 2008 hit, millions lost their homes, and all the money thay had put into them. Sometimes the bright side is not so bright. They became renters again, vulnerable to the machinations of big property, corporations that bought up the very houses they had lost to foreclosure.

But for many, the fat years aren’t so bright either. They see the house they own as an asset, as seeming wealth. But realizing that wealth is not so easy. They can remortgage the house, which turns it into debt. Or they can sell the house, which turns it into cash. The first option reattaches the ball and chain, in exchange for which one has one’s new wealth in hand. In the second option, one again becomes a renter, vulnerable to big property. The logic of selling the house is to buy another one. In which case, one’s new wealth remains essentially unrealized. Especially since, in a rising real estate market, one will probably end up with a smaller house. And if one holds onto the cash, and doesn’t buy another house, then there are enormous tax requirements that click in.

Also there are unheralded pressures to sell one’s house during years of obesity (aka gentrification). They arise from the disruption of the cost of living. As real estate values rise, taxes go up, utilities go up, housing materials go up in price, and small local stores close down when their own rent becomes unaffordable. They are the stores local communities depend on for nearby goods, services, and sociability. Gradually, the neighborhood deteriorates into wealth, and one’s community disappears. Many homeowners sell because it is no longer worthwhile to remain in that neighborhood. They go elsewhere.

There is a third option. It is open to a few. They figure out how to becomes landlords, using their property to oppress other people. It is the option that takes us full circle back to the basic property of property.

***

In sum, government can’t provide housing for everyone because the right to housing takes a back seat to the rights of property, though that right is the one responsible for there being homelessness and impoverishment in the first place. The homeless will either attempt to survive in the face of police raids that the ineffective government cannot seem to stop, or die in the streets because the meager property they use to defend themselves against the elements has been seized by the police. And we will be inundated by empty rhetoric about studies and subcommittees.

And city government will throw up its hands with cries of frustration, while spending big money on plans for renovating downtown, and buying the police military grade surveillence technology.

That is the quinessential property of property.

***

The alternative is democracy. Let the people of a neighborhood decide democratically what kind of development they want, or will allow in light of preserving their community. The Adeline neighborhood may want affordable housing. In the hills, they may want no development. For its downtown area, the whole city may want to keep its movie theaters and have one fancy hotel with a lobby big enough and welcoming enough to hang out in. And the homeless may just want some tools and materials, and the right to take over buildings that have been vacant for over a decade and make them into habitations for themselves.

Its amazing what a little democracy can do. After all, democracy means that those who will be affected by a policy should be the ones to define and decide on the policy – not an isolated City Council that only sees things from afar, reducing the public to so-called “input.” And not big property that can look at neighborhoods as raw material or a resource.

The real nature of democracy is the autonomy it gives people. That is what small property owners try to attain, and renters realize only through organization. Autonomy is the basic property of democracy. Autonomous political action is all we have left when faced with a government that cannot meet our needs or basic interests.

The immediate interests of neighborhoods are extant — a vacancy tax, a zoning standard that requires each new building built to provide 80% affordable housing units, the maintenance of playgrounds, a tutorial center for grade school students, a local clinic, and a symbiosis between the homeless as an organized community and the neighborhood in which each can provide services for the other until all homelessness is eliminated. Etc.

And neighborhood assemblies in which neighbors can make decisions about all this for themselves.

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Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.

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