Beyond the Market: Housing Alternatives from the Grassroots

Homes for All. As one city after another comes to terms with the severity of the housing crisis in the United States, these three words have become a national rallying cry. They extend to housing the principle that has already made Medicare for All and free college hallmarks of a rising democratic left—the principle that, especially in a wealthy country like the United States, everyone has a right to shelter, healthcare, and education.

If the housing crisis has been slow to register at the level of national politics, it’s not for lack of momentum at the grassroots. There is no major city in the United States today without a multitude of tenants’ rights groups, and “gentrification” has, in the span of a decade, crossed from left-wing academic journals into everyday language. From coast to coast, a loosely organized, intersectional, and bottom-up movement is coalescing around housing justice—the idea that housing is inextricable from a range of other issues like racial justice, poverty, the environment, immigration, and the rights of the formerly incarcerated.

At the same time, the mainstream policy consensus continues to revolve around market-based solutions. But if the 2008 financial crisis hardly moved the needle for these policy makers, for a generation of housing activists it has done precisely that. Now, their questions are beginning to break into national policy debates—questions of collective ownership, decommodified land, and housing under democratic control. What might such housing look like?

July of 2018 marked the second national #RenterPower assembly hosted by the Homes for All campaign, bringing more than 100 organizations and 300 people from across the country to Atlanta, Georgia. Spearheaded by the Right to the City Alliance, Homes for All came together in 2013 as a coalition of twenty-two organizations seeking to link local housing struggles. Their priority was to protect, defend, and expand truly affordable housing for low-income residents. In just five years, the campaign has spread to twenty-four states, with dozens of participating organizations. Inspired by Spain’s decentralized housing movement, the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, or PAH, Homes for All also encourages the creation of autonomous local chapters and statewide formations such as Homes for All Colorado. The Atlanta assembly marked the release of the “Green Book,” loosely modeled on PAH’s popular organizing manual, to support more renters to organize their own tenant unions.

Two ideas are central to Homes for All: that those most impacted must lead the movement, and that bolder action is required to solve the affordable housing crisis and stem the tide of displacement in communities. Homes for All’s model is based on what they call “trans-local” campaigns, connecting local struggles with similar ones in other communities. Take rent regulation. In November of 2016, in the Bay Area—ground zero for gentrification and displacement—members and allies of Homes for All succeeded in passing comprehensive rent control and just-cause eviction protections in Richmond and Mountain View through successful ballot measures. These were among the first new rent-control measures in the United States in the last four decades. At the same time, Oakland passed a ballot measure protecting tenants from illegal rent increases and unjustified evictions. This November, Californians voted on a statewide referendum to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Act to allow municipalities to strengthen and expand rent control.* Similar efforts are gaining traction across the country. In Colorado there is an effort to expand the “warranty of habitability”—in effect, legal protection for tenants to withhold rent in the face of substandard housing conditions; in Boston, a campaign around anti-eviction legislation; in Providence, Rhode Island, and Austin, Texas, among dozens of other cities, campaigns to pass rent-control legislation are ongoing. Altogether, in 2016 and 2017, Homes for All led weeks of action in forty-five cities, winning tangible gains for local residents as well as continuing to draw attention to housing issues.

Homes, not commodities

Fighting evictions and foreclosures and capping rents are critical for defending renters and low-income homeowners from predatory real estate and transferring resources and power from the speculative market back into the hands of residents. But solving our enduring housing crisis requires going a step further. A 2017 study estimated that almost one-third of U.S. households live in unaffordable housing—that is, 39 million households spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent or a mortgage. Some 19 million households spend more than half of their income on rent, with the poorest renters facing the most severe burden.

Market advocates claim that the problem is simply one of supply and demand: if we build enough housing, affordability will trickle down. But supply has been steadily growing at the high end of the housing market, and low- and moderate-income residents still struggle. To give one example among many, New York City today has nearly a quarter-million vacant housing units, while half of renters devote more than a third of their income to rent, and over 63,000 people sleep in homeless shelters. Market-based affordable housing policies do not come even close to meeting current levels of need, and the few subsidized units they create are often out of reach for the lowest-income families. Meanwhile, a legacy of underfunding and further proposed cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) threaten the already emaciated public-housing system and Section 8 voucher programs.

A crisis of this magnitude cannot be solved simply by correcting and regulating the market. Housing justice requires deeper change. For the Homes for All campaign, that means decommodified and democratically controlled housing. In the group’s recent report Communities over Commodities, which we co-authored, we lay out four models that have successfully met housing needs by partially, or fully, circumventing the market and putting control in the hands of communities. Although they remain mostly local experiments for now, each provides potential ingredients for a transformative, nationwide social housing program in the United States.

Limited equity cooperatives

Approximately 166,000 households in at least twenty-nine states currently live in limited-equity cooperatives (LECs), a long-standing, resident-controlled, and for the most part deeply affordable form of housing. Residents do not own their units in LECs. Instead, they become governing shareholders of the cooperative, which owns the property and pays for the underlying mortgage and taxes. As unit shareholders, residents are typically allotted ninety-nine-year leases, which include income restrictions, limit profits from the sale of shares, and protect households from unjust eviction.

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