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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