Decommodify housing.

 

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Just because we’re all affected by the pandemic doesn’t mean that we’ve all been affected equally. Women accounted for all 140,000 jobs cut last December. Black and Latina women in particular lost jobs, since employment for white women actually rose that month (CNN). The data is clear: Black and Latina women were the worst-impacted by layoffs, white men the least (Bloomberg).

This inequality comes as the COVID recession takes a serious toll on renters and homeowners alike. In January, almost one in five tenants was behind on rent, with an average outstanding debt of $5,600 (CNBC). In 2020, 2 million households fell at least three months behind on their mortgage payments (Consumer Finance Protection Bureau). The nation’s renters are estimated to owe some $5 billion more than all the rental assistance in the American Rescue Plan and December stimulus combined (CNN).

This is important because housing inequality has long been a key way that American racial inequality reproduces itself. Before the 1968 Housing Rights Act, some white neighborhoods used racial covenants to legally exclude tenants or homeowners of color (Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project). The historic refusal of banks to extend credit to “redlined” minority neighborhoods is estimated to have cost Black families $212,000 in wealth (CBS).

These inequalities aren’t a thing of the past. The average white family in America has ten times the wealth of the average Black family. It’s a gap that’s larger today than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century (Brookings). The single largest contributing factor to household wealth? The value of housing (US Census).

Even before COVID, Black homeownership was declining in cities across the country (Urban Institute) and predominantly Black, brown, and immigrant communities were being gentrified out of competitive housing markets (Teen Vogue). Now, these communities with less wealth and housing equity face higher risks from recession lay-offs. As current eviction moratoriums expire, the expected wave of foreclosures and evictions could exacerbate existing racial and gender inequalities to a catastrophic degree. 

There’s a chicken-and-the-egg problem here: if all housing is sold or rented to the higher buyer, those with less wealth could always have their home taken away. At the same time, this housing insecurity itself inhibits the creation of familial wealth, since homeownership (or housing stability) is one of the biggest ways families build wealth for the future. 

Fortunately, community organizations across the country are working out a solution: decommodifying housing. To stop thinking of housing as a commodity means to stop thinking of houses or apartments primarily as things to be bought and sold and instead as, above all, homes. 

One way to ensure homes are used for housing people ahead of generating profit is by supporting tenants unions. Renters facing unjust evictions or unacceptable living conditions can band together to push landlords to do the right thing. When disrepair at the Villas del Paseo apartment complex in Houston led to black mold, cockroaches, and weeks without running water, tenants organized and withheld rent payments to force their property management company to fix the problems (Texas Observer). Organizing collectively builds the power of those most likely to be exploited by landlords: low-income people of color (Tenants Together).

Another approach is decommodifying housing is by removing the land for housing from the private market altogether through community land trusts, or CLTs. Community land trusts are nonprofits that collectively own the land underneath residents’ homes. These residents can buy, sell, and build equity in their properties, but the CLT retains the title to the land (Center for Community Land Trust Innovation).

Because the land underneath dwellings remains in the land trust even as buildings are bought or sold, housing prices are insulated from real estate speculation, even in expensive housing markets. And all of the residents who live on CLT land are represented in the nonprofit’s board of directors, ensuring the land is stewarded democratically. In this way, CLTs ensure that community-controlled affordable housing can remain affordable in perpetuity (Oakland Community Land Trust). 

Community land trusts now exist across the country (Schumacher Center). But they were first started in Georgia by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committees to ensure Black tenant farmers wouldn’t be displaced from their land for participation in the civil rights movement (NPR). This history should remind us of the deep connection between racial and housing justice movements, a connection necessitated by long-standing racial inequities in access to secure housing.

As COVID has deepened many of these same inequalities, it’s time to take action to decommodify housing.

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