News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.
Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.
June 05, 2019
By Isaac Harris
Everyone agrees that California is in the throes of a crippling housing crisis. When we look for a way out, we’re told there are two sides: NIMBYs (“not in my backyard”) who block the construction of more housing, and YIMBYs (“yes in my backyard”), who welcome more development.
The bitter rivalry between these two camps was on display during the fight over Sen. Scott Wiener’s (D-San Francisco) “More HOMES Act” (SB 50), which was blocked in May by Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) before it could go up for a vote. The bill would have made it easier for private developers to build dense new housing around transit stops and in job-rich neighborhoods, from San Francisco to La Cañada Flintridge, Portantino’s affluent SoCal suburb.
YIMBYs and NIMBYs fought bitterly over SB 50 and might appear to disagree on the fundamentals of housing policy. But a closer look shows that despite the endless bickering, below the surface these groups share a deep, and deeply flawed, commitment to the idea that housing is a commodity — a way for the wealthy few to wring profit from the everyday needs of the vast majority of society.
Until YIMBY and NIMBY groups reject the idea that anyone should be allowed to profit from our homes and instead fight for bringing housing under public and democratic control, both camps will always be aligned with the rich and against the ordinary renters and homeowners they claim to champion.
Both sides of the debate share a painfully narrow view of the role local governments can play in shaping our homes and neighborhoods: Governments set the parameters of the housing market by either restricting or incentivizing the pace of development by private actors.
As billions of dollars of real estate investment flow through the pipes into cities and suburbs across the state — generating vast profits for the wealthy along the way — both YIMBYs and NIMBYs agree that our main tool is adjusting how loose the faucet runs and which geographies these dollars pour into. Meanwhile, residents are positioned as passive consumers, buffeted by waves of physical and demographic change in their neighborhoods without tools for democratic planning.
Ultimately, neither YIMBYs nor NIMBYs challenge the right of landlords to profit off a basic human need through the speculative housing market. To be fair, both camps tend to support mild proposals that create tiny amounts of affordable housing; even SB 50 would have mandated that new development set aside a proportion of low-income units or in some cases pay into an affordable-housing fund.
But to end the housing crisis and truly guarantee housing as a human right for all, we can’t just tweak the way housing is produced, adding some affordable units here and there — we need to remove this essential human need from the market entirely. Only an ambitious program of social housing, taking ownership out of the speculative market forever, can lead us toward this goal.
The idea of social housing is grounded in several principles: It would be publicly owned, democratically planned and operated, permanently affordable for residents, and universally accessible to all. Our current patchwork of public and subsidized private housing is woefully insufficient for the scope of the affordable housing crisis. An ambitious program of social housing would go beyond means-testing and bring a significant proportion of our land and homes under public ownership. Only through this path can we counteract segregation by race and income, and build a mass movement for taking housing off the private market forever (which is also called “decommodifying”).
By bringing housing into the hands of the public, we can reclaim development from real estate capital and its cronies in the urban planning bureaucracy. Unlike the agenda of SB 50, which would have ushered in new projects with minimal public input, social housing would democratize the shaping of our built environment. Mobilizing communities at the grassroots to design and collectively run the homes they live in would redress the racist legacy of urban renewal that disempowered and displaced hundreds of thousands of working class, disproportionately black residents of cities across the U.S.
With these concerns in mind, our agenda must target both occupied rental buildings and new production. The former could emerge from current tenant struggles, from Oakland to LA, to buy out exploitative landlords and socialize ownership of their homes. Community land trusts and limited equity housing cooperatives are existing models that prefigure what social housing could look like in the U.S. And beyond ownership, putting resources into building renovation and decarbonization would benefit residents of substandard housing that landlords have neglected in order to maximize profit.
New social housing construction should take cues from SB 50, which rightly emphasized density and steered development into transit-accessible and job-rich areas. We must rebuild our cities and suburbs to reduce reliance on cars, and share resources through collective living, in order to prevent climate catastrophe.
How will we finance such an ambitious program? First, by shifting federal resources from market-based programs like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) over to locally based public entities — reversing the privatization of subsidized housing that Ronald Reagan and a neoliberal Congress pushed through in the 1980s. Second, by taxing the wealth of the real estate industry, which is worth an astounding $217 trillion globally. Lastly, we must end the rule of corporate finance by opening public banks to provide low-interest loans for community land purchases and social housing development.
We won’t end the housing crisis through gifts to private developers, with a few scraps set aside for low-income apartments. We have to build a mass movement of tenants, homeowners, and unhoused residents who are sick and tired of watching their communities change before their eyes and their paychecks consumed by the cost of living. Many groups are already mobilizing against luxury development and gentrification. It’s time for us all to fight for an alternative, and reclaim housing as a social good.