Now Is the Time to Take Radical Steps Toward Housing Equity

CHRIS TITTLE May 6, 2020

Noni Session, surrounded by other staff owners of East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, speaks at the People Powered East Bay coop launch party in Oakland, California, in December 2018.PHOTO BY ERIN CONGER

It’s time to think big about housing. No more evictions and foreclosures. Rent and mortgage cancellation on a grand scale. Twelve million new green housing units in the next 10 years. A massive reinvestment in housing under public control, resident control, and community control. Rent freezes, rent control, tenant protections, and anti-displacement measures across the nation.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of our most potent and visionary grassroots social movements has emerged out of the fight for housing justice. The current pandemic and economic crisis reveals in new ways just how cruel the private housing market can be. In April, one third of all renters could not pay rent—and 20 million more people have filed for unemployment since then. Research by the Eviction Lab shows how damaging eviction has always been to families and communities – evictions during COVID-19 might effectively amount to a death sentence for some people.     

These ideas haven’t been acceptable in U.S. politics for many decades. Even among progressive social movements, such scale seemed beyond our capacity to dream until recently. Last March, 30 Bay Area leaders imagined a radically beautiful 100-year vision for land justice in the Bay Area. Our vision included fully socialized housing…but not until 2040. All of a sudden, that vision is a real political possibility in 2020 thanks to bold grassroots demands to #CancelRent and guarantee housing for all. Both demands are now supported by elected officials, including U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar (read her Homes for All Act and Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (read the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act). 

How did we get here? We have increasingly become a “renter nation” since real estate lenders and financial institutions crashed the global economy in 2008. Ten million foreclosures later, more than one-third of American families are now renters. Eighteen million families pay more than 50% of their income on housing. How many of those people now have no income at all? And this precarity hits some communities worse than others. The Black homeownership rate recently reached its lowest percentage since before the civil rights movement—proportionally, there were more Black homeowners when segregation was legal than there are now.  

Participants at the 2019 Bay Area Land Justice Convening discuss their 100-year vision for land justice. The three-day event brought together local Indigenous leaders, housing justice organizers, and food justice organizers to build trust and a shared long-term vision. Photo by Mateo Hinojosa/The Cultural Conservancy.

For 400 years, American capitalism has thrived on racial exclusion and resource extraction, first through the theft of Indigenous land and Black labor, and more recently, through what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has called “predatory inclusion”: financial policies and practices designed to siphon wealth out of Black and brown communities through predatory loans, targeted disinvestment, and financial deregulation. The private housing market now simultaneously “includes” people of color while continuing to enforce segregation through new forms of redlining and displacement.

Nowhere is this intersection between racism and an economy built on plunder more evident today than in the housing market. Decades of racist policy and market practices have created a massive racial wealth gap, one that could take nearly as long to close as it took to abolish slavery. And it’s not really going in the right direction: By some accounts, the subprime mortgage crisis produced the greatest loss of Black wealth in modern history, while the wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans has grown by an average of 736% over the past several decades.

While private homeownership has been an engine of middle-class wealth creation for White America, the last 10 years have made it clear that it’s primarily been an engine of wealth extraction for communities of color and poor communities (read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations”). This isn’t new: In addition to violent dispossession, one of the primary ways that White settler-colonists took control of Indigenous land throughout the 19th and 20th centuries was through the “allotment system,” the forced conversion of communally held tribal land to privately owned plots that could then be purchased, often under false pretenses.   

The housing market will never provide housing for all. Housing under capitalism produces inequality, houselessness, and chronic displacement on a grand scale. It also makes strangers of those who remain in place. According to the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, Oakland’s Black population has declined by 27% since 2000 in a kind of reverse migration back into racially segregated rural and suburban communities.

Noni Session, executive director of East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, grew up in the West Oakland flats, a third generation West Oaklander. “When I came back from grad school and research in 2011, I saw a city that I didn’t recognize,” she told Oakland Magazine. Social scientists have recently coined a new term to describe the sense of “homelessness without leaving home” that frontline communities around the world are experiencing as a result of climate disruption, ecological collapse, and mass migration: solastalgia, the pain of staying put. Whereas nostalgia describes a longing for a lost past, solastalgia describes a lost present and grief for an unlivable future.

In 2018, Sustainable Economies Law Center worked with Session and other community members to launch the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative: a Black, Indigenous, and people of color-led “movement cooperative” designed to stabilize communities facing rapid and racialized displacement. By removing housing from the speculative market and asserting permanent community control through cooperative ownership, EB PREC:

• Creates housing sovereignty and community wealth now by purchasing multiunit buildings to prevent eviction of working class tenants, turning renters into stewards of community land and housing.

• Develops community capacity for governance of land and housing through EB PREC’s unique multistakeholder cooperative structure, where neighbors are empowered to come together to purchase buildings and cooperatively govern a community-owned enterprise.

• Builds new community-controlled institutions positioned to demand and receive an influx of private and public capital, as bold new policies, such as U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Homes For All Act, call for billions in public money to flow into communities for affordable housing.

The alternative to a profit-driven housing system is community-controlled social housing. House by house, block by block, community land trusts and cooperatives have been attempting to democratize and decolonize their relationships to land, housing, and community. Now, nearly 300 community land trusts exist across the country. These grassroots organizations are exercising their right to the city by meeting fundamental needs for housing and contesting for public resources.

And neither is this new: I recently visited the South Carolina Sea Islands, one of the few places where “40 acres and a mule” was a brief but actual program of land reform after the Civil War. For the Black leaders who met with Gen. Sherman in 1865, emancipation from slavery was not enough on its own to liberate people. They recognized that collective liberation required a self-determined relationship to land and control over the means of production (read Ed Whitfield’s “What must we do to be free? On the building of Liberated Zones”). A hundred years later, the vision remained the same. The modern community land trust movement traces its roots to rural Georgia, when civil rights organizers Shirley and Charles Sherrod created New Communities Inc. as a sanctuary and radical experiment in mutual aid in response to violent White backlash from local landlords and farmers.

Gregory Jackson, a staff owner of East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, shows his love of cooperatives during EBPREC’s #LandWithoutLandlords community capital campaign. The multistakeholder cooperative raised $200,000 in small-scale community investments to rehab their first property, a multiunit building they successfully removed from the speculative housing market. Photo credit by Kyle Thompson.

Tenant- and community-owned housing still only meets a tiny fraction of our housing needs, though. Looking to international examples from Austria to Sweden to Uruguay, as well as our own New Deal past, the housing justice movement now has a detailed program to deliver homes for all (read People’s Action’s Homes Guarantee). The formula for today’s freedom call is a massive reinvestment in green public housing construction; plus a major increase in support for community-owned housing; backed by tenant protections and anti-displacement measures. The right to housing is a precondition for any kind of just transition, and collective control of land and housing is an assertion of those rights. Even with a massive program of publicly owned and financed social housing, the right to housing will still be asserted through local institutions that are accountable to and led by the most affected communities. Projects such as EB PREC are building “powerful places” in opposition to the “placeless power” of multinational financial institutions and hedge funds.   

A just and livable future demands a radically democratic present. There’s no more strategic or morally imperative place to practice that future than our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities. We can decarbonize a significant swath of the economy while democratizing development and building community power from the ground up. A livable future is also about decolonizing and decommodifying our relationship to place, disrupting the logic that drives both the extraction of resources from the earth and the extraction of profits from renters, poor people, and communities of color. Land is a living, breathing, wild, teeming community of life. When we treat it as a site of loving, meaning, and belonging rather than a site of extraction and exclusion, “homes for all” becomes not just a political slogan, but a statement of interconnection with all life. 

A version of this article was originally published by Sustainable Economies Law Center. It has been updated and published here with permission.