In ancient Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus augmented his fortune by flipping fire-damaged properties. Crassus formed one of the first private fire brigades, and took advantage of his market domination by rushing to the scene of every blaze. Before fighting the fires, though, he would offer to buy the buildings from panicking owners, who often sold them at a steep loss. Crassus then put out the fires, rebuilt the properties, and leased them back to their former owners at a high markup. He would have been right at home in modern-day Manhattan.
Our president inherited a real estate empire from his father and made his name through constructing and marketing luxury buildings. (Too bad for Donald we invented municipal fire companies in the 1850s.) His son-in-law is a property investor who harasses and steals from his low-income tenants. The head of HUD called ending racial discrimination in housing “a failed socialist experiment.” Meanwhile, more than one-third of the country now rents, a figure that continues to grow. Though our national rhetoric still valorizes homeownership, Americans are increasingly unable to achieve or maintain that vaunted status.
It’s fitting that we should be in this position, given the US political establishment’s approach to housing over the last fifty years. In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon declared a moratorium on the construction of all federally subsidized housing. When the moratorium was lifted several years later, it didn’t usher in a new era of public housing, but instead began the era of Section 8 vouchers, a federal subsidy to private landlords of low-income tenants. In the years since, the federal government has doubled down on the shift to private housing, notably under Clinton’s hope vi and welfare reform programs, which disallowed construction of new public housing units beyond the total that existed in 1999.
Billions of dollars of tax credits have been distributed to banks and investors through the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program; billions have been cut from public housing budgets. The results have been disastrous.
Increasingly dependent on property taxes to provide public services, local politicians are unwilling to square off against developers. Increasingly, cities have turned to selling bonds, which means they must maintain a high credit rating to attract bondholders. Credit agencies downgrade ratings on cities with “profligate” social spending, so cities starved of tax revenue turn to entrepreneurship, selling off public goods to the same developers who refuse to pay their taxes in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle that makes the plundering of feudal lords seem quaint.
In spite of the deluge of global capital into real estate assets, housing insecurity is getting worse, not better. The burgeoning city of the superrich is extricating itself from the cities in which we live. With each new elegant condo and high-end high-rise development, our economic royals are building their own luxury Ewok Village, parasite-like, on the infrastructure for which we collectively pay.
Our cities are becoming concentric rings of unaffordable housing, tourist traps, and low-wage workplaces built on Superfund sites and in flood zones. Capital is not interested in the long-term planning required for building human habitation; it is interested in its returns.
A seemingly endless wave of disposable income is turning our apartments into condos and our bodegas into brunch spots. But the brunch bros are the symptoms, not the cause. The real gentrifiers are the developers and investors who “create value” out of the homes and labor of working people, along with the elected officials who offer them tax breaks and political cover.
At present, there is little resembling a coherent vision to address the housing crisis at the national level. Whether because of the diminished political power of tenants or because the problem looks different in rural and urban districts, national candidates rarely present a platform for addressing the housing crisis. And when they do, it looks exactly like the “solutions” that plague us now: subsidies for landlords and developers, public-private partnerships, and other market mechanisms.
Yet the current political moment also creates an opportunity to recognize housing as a basic right, rather than a marketable commodity or a complex policy problem. Along with public education and universal health care, a massive program of high-quality, well-funded, and widely available social housing needs to be part of the Left’s agenda in the coming years. We need to take universal programs like rent control seriously, and support the creation of nonmarket mechanisms like limited-equity cooperatives and community land trusts.
Capitalism has proven itself unable to provide us all with homes — the most basic human need after food and water. The system has continued to perpetuate the inequality that has haunted cities since their inception. We are smug about having escaped feudalism, while we all hand over our hard-won dollars every month to someone we literally address as “lord.” We need to find an alternative in our lifetime.