Next Steps in the Fight for Housing as a Human Right
For almost two centuries during the period of the growth of industrial capitalism, workers frequently faced housing shortages, because working class housing was generally less profitable for builders than housing for the ruling classes. Housing crises tended to come and go with the rise and fall of supply and demand, depending on the growth and contraction of various industries in particular localities or regions.
In the 21st century, the introduction of high-tech automation across more and more sectors of our economy is literally destroying the capitalist system as we know it. It is steadily increasing unemployment and reducing wages, in spite of the best efforts of “Fight for $15” and other workers movements to counter the underlying economic trends. This has caused more workers to lose benefits and protections they and their families have had for decades, including affordable housing. As homeowners, workers face not only foreclosures, but in hundreds of cities across the country, they find themselves no longer able even to afford rent to keep a roof over their heads. An entire generation of children is growing up with the fear that they and their families may become homeless.
This situation has unleashed a broad movement for housing that extends over a number of distinct, but interrelated fronts. Across the country renters are battling for rent control and against unjust and abusive evictions. HUD tenants are resisting federal budget cuts, and homeowners are fighting foreclosures and evictions. People in high rent cities are grappling with displacement and banishment, when older buildings are demolished and replaced with luxury housing for the elites.
Finally, homeless people are struggling for homes and basic human rights. They are organizing tent cities with their own self-governance, calling media and testifying and demonstrating at City Halls. A Homeless Bill of Rights has been introduced in several state legislatures. Cities are responding with stepped-up attacks. Police in San Francisco and Denver are confiscating tents and blankets.
What is to be done when the battlefield is so broad and varied? The question of government accountability is the linchpin that can draw together the scattered struggles in the housing and homelessness movements. All the varying housing movements demand housing as a human right, whether for homeless people, tenants facing eviction, or workers facing foreclosure. But the only way to secure any human right is to fight in the political arena: Since the crisis is systemic, incremental and market-based solutions do not work.
The only way to enforce the right to housing concretely, and solve the housing question, is to secure every family a dwelling unit with a lifetime guarantee against eviction, foreclosure, or any other form of interference. Homeless people should receive vacant government-owned homes, or homes taken back from corporate owners. Renters should obtain title to the home they live in. Homeowners should be freed from predatory bank liens. All of these things are possible and eminently practical, but only the government can make them happen. The housing movement is already making these kinds of demands. In the process of fighting for them, revolutionaries can demonstrate that a system that fails to guarantee these (and other human necessities) should be overturned and replaced with one that will.
Freedom from Eviction
Making the right to housing a reality requires grappling with the question of who owns it and exactly what those ownership rights include.
Only 20 percent of households actually own their own homes free of any bank mortgage, an amount that has been steadily in decline. As dramatized by the 2008 crisis, the right to individual family-owned housing is not secure, as long as for-profit banks hold liens on their homes. Homeowners will only have a guarantee against eviction, when banks are publicly owned and accountable, and when payment plans are affordable.
The right to rental housing can only be ensured when it is “de-commodified” by removing it from the speculative market. Housing that is not owned or operated for profit, cannot be sold for speculative gain. Such housing provides security of tenure for residents and is generally defined as socially owned. There are already four million units of socially owned or partially socially owned housing in the US today. This includes government-owned public housing, housing owned by non-profits and housing owned by residents themselves in the form of “limited-equity” cooperatives. Federal government housing, owned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and certain non-profit corporations, are examples of partially socially owned housing, because they rarely provide adequate protections against eviction.
Even though HUD owns or subsidizes millions of units, the right of residents in government-owned housing is still not secure. Because the US government is corporate-dominated, HUD utilizes its holdings for corporate political aims and collusion with real estate profiteers. It allows thousands of units to remain empty or fall into disrepair. It subjects tenants to punitive “one-strike” eviction policies or immigration restrictions. The rightful demand of the workers is for HUD to serve the needs of its residents and all people who need housing – not the corporations.
Most twentieth century socialist societies housed their people through a combination of government-owned and socially owned housing. In Cuba, for example, the 1960 Urban Reform Law made tenants into homeowners, by amortizing the purchase price of their units through the rents they paid. In an article by Jill Hamburg in Progressive Planning, she states, “State-built housing was offered as long-term ‘lease holding’, with rents set at 10 percent of family income. Private renting was prohibited. In addition, vacant units confiscated from emigrants were distributed to people in need…Residents of poor urban housing remained as long-term leaseholders, but by the mid-1960s, no longer paid rent. Homeowners could buy and sell dwellings and land, but only at low government-set prices, and the State had first option to buy… By the early 1990s, more than 85% of Cuban households were homeowners, paying little or nothing for their units except for maintenance, repair, and utilities. There were no mortgages, or land and property taxes…”
Some of the political approaches to social and government housing ownership that are already happening include:
- Transform “housing first” from being an empty slogan to a practical reality, by demanding the turnover of vacant government-owned homes to house the homeless.
- Fight for enactment of a national “Homeless Bill of Rights” to stabilize and empower homeless people to be able to fight for the housing they need.
- Call for immediate expansion of public housing and non-profit housing to end the affordable housing shortage.
- Demand government use of eminent domain: to take possession of housing where landlords are demolishing buildings or are “going out of business” and to appropriate to rehabilitate slumlord housing.
- Move from rent control to government and/or cooperative tenant ownership of rental housing.
The political fight to expand the government and socially owned sectors of the housing market is a key vehicle for pulling together these scattered and defensive struggles, and transforming them into an effective political force. Since community land trusts or private donations of land for affordable housing is so rare, the only realistic way to secure affordable housing is through united political organization and struggle.
Government or social ownership in any of its various forms are not the ultimate solution to the housing question. However, these are steps along the line of march towards a working class government capable of organizing a fully cooperative economy, necessary to guarantee the right to housing, as well as other basic human rights.
The fight for equitable and affordable forms of housing ownership, like the fight for free health care and education, are parts of the larger class struggle for a cooperative society. Only when society as a whole takes over the basic economic instruments can the entire abundant social product be distributed fairly and on the basis of need, instead of for private profit. Only when the means of production are socially owned can they be used to meet human needs.
Tasks of Revolutionaries
Humanity invented housing to protect itself against the elements: wind, rain, snow, sun, heat, and cold. The capitalist system turned it into a commodity for securing private profit. Throughout American history, monopoly land speculators have always played a key role in impoverishing the masses and forcing them into wage slavery. The people always resisted by squatting and homesteading. What is different today is the economy based on wage-labor is being destroyed. Millions have been left homeless. Because the current economic system is broken, all the technology in the world is unable to provide protection from the elements for millions of people.
The political struggle for social and government housing ownership is important, because at every stage it allows us to raise the question of property. It allows us to point out that government intervention in the economy should be carried out for the benefit of the workers – not the corporations. This is the only way to meet the needs of the people. Any solutions that fail to confront private property are doomed to failure.
Directing our demands at the federal government brings together the scattered struggles against individual landlords, banks and corporations into a political struggle against the State. Such national demands raise the issue of which class the State serves, broadening the battlefield, where class consciousness can be taught.
March/April 2017 Vol27.Ed2
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011