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.

Early examples of LECs, such as the 1927 worker-developed Amalgamated Housing in the Bronx, demonstrate this model’s lasting benefits: high affordability, community commons, democratic control, neighborhood stability, and maintained habitability. A second wave of LECs came to New York in the 1970s: while parts of the Bronx burned, tens of thousands of tenants claimed their otherwise neglected housing and, in large numbers, over many years, converted these buildings to cooperatives. They didn’t do this entirely on their own, though. Robust tenant organizing efforts had already spurred federal financing for LECs in the 1960s. Likewise, the city established a mechanism to hold properties and provided technical and financial support for tenants to acquire, renovate, and self-manage foreclosed buildings. Tenants also contributed their labor as “sweat equity” to initiate the conversion process. Decades later, New York City is still home to almost 90,000 LEC units across some 700 buildings.

Washington, D.C. saw similar efforts in the 1970s, led by renters facing mass evictions and early gentrification. By 1981, D.C. tenants, largely led by black women, had secured 6,000 units in LECs. As in New York City, municipal support was key. Strong city rental protections, including the conversion programs, were made possible by D.C.’s home rule in 1973. Conversion there continued from the first wave of gentrification through the recent housing bubble. In 2006, immigrant tenants formed the Martin Luther King Jr. Latino Cooperative LEC in the epicenter of the city’s heated real-estate market. Altogether, across the city, 117 LEC buildings remain.

Today’s LECs represent fewer than half of those that existed at this model’s height. Created during a time of urban downturn, many LECs have since been swept up in the real-estate boom. During a period of declining municipal and federal support, welfare rollbacks, and stagnant household wages, many co-ops opted to become market-rate and allowed their members to “cash out.” Today, interest in LECs is growing again, but the model faces many obstacles. Preserving and expanding affordable, cooperative housing in the United States will require a broad-based effort, combining resident education and base-building, technical support, state incentives, long-term affordability restrictions, and hybrid models that combine LECs with community control of the underlying land.

Community land trusts

Although it’s easy to forget when surrounded by buildings, shaping the future of our cities still comes down to who controls the land. One model that has attracted a lot of attention is the community land trust (CLT), which takes land off the market and puts it under community control through a nonprofit organization that holds the land in trust. CLTs began in the United States during the civil rights movement as a means to support the independence and self-determination of black Americans in the South. Reverend Charles Sherrod, one of the founders of the first modern CLT in the country (New Communities in Georgia), summed up their rationale when he said “all power comes from the land.” Today there are close to 300 functioning CLTs in the United States, spanning from Boston to Baltimore, Albuquerque to Detroit, as well as a rapidly growing number of new projects, particularly in communities of color and low-

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Brooklyn Tenants Revolt

On one of the coldest days of 2014 I put on long underwear, a flannel shirt, my thickest sweater, a hat, and a scarf, and took the subway two stops down to 1059 Union Street to join the new Crown Heights Tenant Union’s first public action.

It was so bitterly cold that I couldn’t help but think about the previous winter, my first in Crown Heights and fourth in Brooklyn, when my heat would mysteriously shut off, often just in time for the weekend when my landlords didn’t answer the phone. My partner likes to say that most New York landlords operate on a continuum between greed and laziness. I figured at the time that mine were hovering closer to the “lazy” end with a bonus bit of cheapness thrown in; they just didn’t want to pay the extra money to really fix whatever was wrong.

One of my frustrated phone calls went like this:

“I spent two days without heat! I need to have someone to call on Saturdays if there’s an emergency.”

“Well, we’re Jewish—we don’t work on Saturday.”

“I’m Jewish too! That doesn’t mean I don’t freeze!”

I never chalked up that lack of heat to gentrification in action. But the folks standing on that freezing sidewalk on Union Street knew better. The disappearing heat wasn’t just a problem in my building. All over Crown Heights, tenants were shivering through nights without heat. Even the New York Times reported on the problem. The record cold in early 2014 saw complaints about the lack of heat nearly double from the year before.

As the residents exchanged stories, they began to conclude that it was more than just the usual neglect that working-class neighborhoods have come to expect from absentee landlords, that it was a calculated effort to drive residents out so that people who looked more like me—young, white, presumably more affluent—could move in.

Many at the rally held handmade signs with pithy slogans (“Affordable housing is a right” and “Resident power not REBNY dollars”) and specific demands or call-outs (“5-year rent freeze” and “ZT Realty Rank 58 Worst Landlords in Brooklyn”—that last one with a small toy rat taped to the cardboard). When I arrived, the crowd was chanting “We won’t leave!”

Last winter’s cold made my previous heatless nights seem mild by comparison. The weather phenomenon called the “polar vortex” had swept down on us with single-digit temperatures and mountains of snow for weeks on end. I couldn’t imagine one night of this with no heat, but some of the people standing out there with me knew that feeling well. Resident after resident stood to tell their stories, decrying constant harassment from new landlords who had purchased the buildings they had lived in for decades, big brick pre-war structures like the one we stood in front of, solid exteriors that often hid leaky sinks, clanking pipes, and crumbling plaster within. One woman wanted her landlord to stop threatening to take her to court if rent was late—“You don’t respond to us in a timely fashion! I waited thirty days for them to fix my ceiling that caved in.”

For another tenant, it was being charged extra for “improvements” to the building. “For months we had a truck outside our building to provide us with heat, a temporary boiler. They put in a new boiler and every day, every day we have no heat or hot water for some span of time. We are not paying for that boiler; that is not our responsibility.”

A third declared, “The only way we going to stop this is if we organize. In numbers there is strength.”

The rally wasn’t simply an opportunity for tenants to voice their grievances. Instead, through months of meetings, outreach, and debate between tenants from (at the time) twenty-five buildings, they had come up with a list of demands that they had formalized into a collective bargaining agreement that they were pushing for landlords to sign. Those demands, including a five-year rent freeze, a forty-eight-hour response time maximum for necessary repairs, tenant approval of renovations, and a limit to buyout offers, were printed on four-foot sheets of paper that the tenants pasted up inside the lobby of 1059 Union, where several of the union members lived. By organizing tenants from multiple buildings into one union, they hoped to wield more power against landlords who might otherwise ignore them and to be able to influence the entire rental market in the neighborhood.

The formulation “a tale of two cities” has been used a lot to describe New York at the end of the Bloomberg era, but it doesn’t entirely encapsulate the way some neighborhoods have been split into two by gentrification.

Crown Heights is on the razor’s edge of gentrification in Brooklyn, a West Indian and Lubavitcher Hasidic Jewish neighborhood with very little crossover between the two communities. Its boundaries are roughly Atlantic Avenue to the north, Washington to the west, Ralph Avenue to the east, and Empire Boulevard to the south. Its median household income, according to WNYC’s maps, is around $41,000 a year and on the rise; and it’s getting whiter.

The idea that white skin automatically means more money is both a product and a perpetuator of American racism. Before gentrification, you had disinvestment. Legally sanctioned housing discrimination both created segregated neighborhoods and kept home values and rents low; white flight saw middle-class people leave for the suburbs. Landlords and cities left black and brown neighborhoods to crumble. The recent return of white people to the cities their parents and grandparents abandoned means that prices have been on the rise, and neighborhoods once written off as “bad” and “scary” are now desirable lower-priced alternatives for mostly young people trying to make their city dreams come true. And landlords are ready for a chance to increase their profits—whether they are long-term property owners pushed out of absentee equilibrium into paying attention to their buildings and making improvements in order to raise rents, or they are private equity and hedge-fund hawks circling, looking for new “investments.”

But these days, new young gentrifiers are less and less likely to find a full-time job that pays them enough to cover those rising rents. Instead, they move from neighborhood to neighborhood, priced out of the place they moved into just the year before, following that wave further out. They leave, and someone who can afford the slightly higher rent moves in, and the cycle speeds up.

Being part of the first wave of gentrification means that you experience the abuse along with the benefit of cheap(er) rent. It means that as soon as you’ve moved in they want you to move out again, so they can raise the rent still more.

Not long after I moved into my Crown Heights place (my third Brooklyn apartment), my upstairs neighbor—who had warned me of shoddy repairs to my bathroom ceiling with a cheery “You live here now? My floor caved in through your ceiling a little while back!”—disappeared. I found out she was gone when I woke up one morning to the sight of broken furniture flying past my bedroom window, crashing onto the sidewalk below.

A new family moved in shortly thereafter.

A few months ago the folks in the apartment across from mine—a shy teenage boy, whose college information packets often mistakenly wound up in my mailbox, and his mother, who worked nights and came home in scrubs—disappeared as well. They were replaced by a crowd of those dreaded white “hipsters” who embody the worst loud-partying gentrifier clichés.

It’s almost too easy to write clichés about gentrification in New York. And yet you find contradictions everywhere—the bodega owner who tells you that it’s good to have more people like you in the neighborhood and the neighbors who invite you to their backyard barbecue, not to mention the white woman who is the angriest that there are “yuppies” in the neighborhood. And then there’s that feeling of rage I too get at my new white neighbors.

It is easy, for a somewhat self-aware person living in a gentrifying city, to either look for a way to blame yourself or absolve yourself. The impulses are two sides of the same coin: heads, you’re the “good gentrifier” because you like your neighbors and don’t blast your music too loud; tails, you should just move out of the city because anywhere you go you are destroying something. Neither answer is productive. Neither one is political.

I found out about the Crown Heights Tenant Union through an e-mail from a friend I met at Occupy Wall Street, telling me about that first public action. She invited me as a reporter, and I arrived with my recorder and camera in hand, but left with a stack of flyers to deposit in the entry to my building and the intention to go to their next organizing meeting as a member.

The meeting I attended a few weeks after the rally was at the Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation on Classon Avenue. It featured hovering documentary filmmakers, an ever-growing circle of chairs spanning the atrium, and me sitting in the back trying to figure out whether to take notes or to simply be present as a participant.

We went around the room and introduced ourselves that day and instead of doing the usual New York thing of explaining who you are and what you do for a living, we gave our names and addresses and how long we’d lived in the neighborhood. Answers ranged from a few months to nearly fifty years.

That’s the thing about the Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU)—it aims to bring these two parts of the neighborhood together, the new residents and the long-time ones. Because our needs aren’t actually different. We need livable apartments at reasonable rents and landlords who respond and aren’t trying to drive us out. We need repairs done and the heat to be on when it is legally required to be. We need to be seen as important enough to deserve a decent place to live. Young people who are new residents—many of them radicalized by or before Occupy Wall Street started shaking up the city—need this too.

Because the problems of Brooklyn’s gentrifying neighborhoods won’t be solved by a housing-market version of “ethical consumption.” It’s going to take collective action.

It seems to be paying off for the CHTU. They’ve succeeded in bringing landlords to the table to make repairs, and they’ve also grown the union by bringing in more residents from other buildings that are both rent-regulated and leased at market rate. At a rally, march, and picnic on June 7 in Brower Park, state assembly members joined the union to call for affordable housing.

But the definition of “affordable” varies among elected officials, and it’s not simply construction that is needed. It was rent-stabilization laws that regulated rent increases, which could go up each year by only a small amount determined by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board (RGB); this allowed tenants to be able to afford to stay in their rental apartments for long periods. But landlords could raise rents based on a percentage of what they spent renovating a vacant apartment. This incentivized those landlords to undertake renovations only when they could profit from them, leaving long-term residents in lousy conditions that the landlords could then use to lever residents out of their homes. Policy changes can improve this, or failing that, the CHTU can try to get landlords to sign on to its contract demands. The CHTU and other tenant organizations around the city targeted the RGB as well as specific landlords, aiming for policy changes that would benefit lots of tenants at once.

It’s not just Crown Heights that has a gentrification problem. More importantly, slowing the process down in one part of the city will only speed it up elsewhere, as new residents start to search for new housing. It’ll take citywide change to more comprehensively address gentrification and at least some of that will have to come from policymakers as well as organizers.

New mayor Bill de Blasio told me in an interview last year that he thought it was time for a rent freeze. On May 5, 2014, I took the subway to an RGB meeting, where the board was due to discuss the possibility of a rent freeze before the public for the first time, before an eventual vote on the subject that June.

Groups like Good Old Lower East Side, the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, and others showed up and formed a loose circle outside the building, walking and chanting, carrying signs that demanded a rent freeze or even a rent rollback; it felt not unlike a picket line. Cop cars turned up, too.

When the meeting finally began, almost two hours late because of airport-level security at the building’s entrance, Harvey Epstein, one of the tenant representatives on the board, asked that the board “consider the accessibility of our spaces” when future public meetings, particularly ones that would rely

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