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I was born on Manhattan Island, now one of the most expensive places on Earth. I grew up in a nearby suburb in Connecticut, a town I couldn’t dream of affording to live in today, even if I wanted to. As a young adult, I lived in Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco, among other places. As I lived in these cities, from month to month I could see the neighborhoods transform, with the families and seniors moving out, and the young professionals and group-house dwellers moving in — especially as the 1980’s ended, and the 1990’s began. Soon the new residents could reasonably enough be heard calling the neighborhood theirs, having no memories of the multi-generational communities they had unwittingly displaced.
Now, after well over a decade living in the once-inexpensive city of Portland, Oregon, after my rent has far more than doubled, I ponder my next displacement. This time with a partner and two or three children, depending on whether one of them might be forced to choose which parents to live with — the one who stayed, or the ones who had to move.
This has been life in the USA for me, and I’m one of the luckier ones, for sure. I’m not on a fixed income. As the rent keeps going up, I keep managing to find more money, despite the relatively collapsed state of my industry (independent music). Yesterday I spent the afternoon participating in a Rally For Senior Housing with a lot of people less lucky than me. Less lucky by virtue of the fact that whatever work they used to do, they’re now elderly, many of them disabled — they are what we normally might think of as “retired.” These are folks that have all moved from the more expensive places, and ended up in a nicer, newer version of what is commonly found throughout the Portland area, known in real estate circles as a Class C apartment complex. Usually grey, mostly made of wood, often in some state of disrepair, when they’re much older than Woodspring.
The Woodspring apartment complex, nestled on the corner of two busy roads, across from a strip mall, was built in the 1990’s. In one of many inadequate efforts to create affordable housing stock in the US, federal tax credits were made available with the stipulation that the housing be affordable for thirty years, at which point it can be allowed to go market rate, given no other legal restrictions to that happening. Now it’s thirty years later, for Woodspring and so many other apartment complexes built using the same tax credit program at the same time, and the contracts are expiring. And the vulture capitalists are actively looking for those expired contracts, to be there at the right time to buy the buildings and make a killing.
What this means in the case of the Woodspring complex is just about the only housing in the town of Tigard that is under any kind of rent control, which this thirty-year tax credit effectively was, will soon be gone. For many of the residents, what’s left if Woodspring goes market rate is a potential future of living in a vehicle, as so many of our neighbors are already doing, with their ranks visibly increasing daily, wherever you look. Woodspring is the kind of place people managed to end up in, after being displaced from everywhere else. A complex where you had to be over 55 to move in, where you moved in with the understanding that this was a retirement community, where it was understood the residents were mostly on fixed incomes, where the idea of suddenly doubling the rent was considered fairly inconceivable.
But now here they were, in the street, many of them pushing walkers. It may seem bizarre that one of their ardent supporters is the mayor of Tigard, who was among the rally speakers, along with at least two other local elected representatives. He spoke about passing a relocation ordinance, along the lines of the one we passed years ago in Portland. That, he noted, was something that could be done locally. What he didn’t say, but which was presumably notable to people other than just me, was that he was effectively powerless to prevent the San Francisco-based hedge fund, Hamilton-Zanze, from jacking up the rent after the thirty-year contract expires in 2023. Why? Because the Oregon legislature, like 47 other states in the US, long ago banned rent control.
Rent control used to be a powerful mechanism which cities and counties could implement, to give the half of society that rents some semblance of control over our lives and futures, without needing to rely on the moral compass of a hedge fund. But while most of us were doing other things, or in so many cases weren’t born yet, back in the 1980’s, state after state legislature was banning rent control, statewide, thus circumventing any control of more accountable, local political bodies. It was a good time on the part of the landlord lobby to engage in such a national campaign, state by state, because rent was cheap in most cities back then. It may be hard to imagine now, but at that time, most people who could afford to leave the big cities were doing so, and moving to the suburbs. It was later, beginning in the 1990’s, when the young upwardly-mobile professionals began leaving the suburbs and moving back into the urban cores in large numbers.
Although constrained by state law from passing actual rent control legislation that could directly protect the residents of Woodspring, it’s clearly not lost on the mayor of Tigard or on anyone else present at the rally that the idea of a corporation swooping in, buying up Tigard’s only affordable senior housing apartment complex, and doubling the rent, is just not a viable option for any sane society.
The mayor noted that the public relations firm Hamilton-Zanze hired to monitor the efforts of those in opposition to their real estate venture was the same one that the city of Tigard had often worked with in the past. Hamilton-Zanze spokespeople have said that they care about the people who live in their properties, but their business practices, and their website, makes their actual priorities very clear:
“Find underperforming properties with attractive capitalization rates in markets with positive economic and demographic trends.”
Let’s just say they’re definitely not in the affordable housing business. Of course, it would be very easy to satirize a nakedly greed-driven corporate enterprise like Hamilton-Zanze (as I have in fact done in song already — I sang “The Ballad of Woodspring Apartments and Hamilton-Zanze” at the rally). But the reason these real estate corporations are able to engage in these kinds of practices in Oregon and across the US, but not in many other countries, is because of the fact that in many other countries they have laws protecting their residents from such practices, and we don’t, anymore.
Anyone who’s paying attention to the news is aware of the housing crisis, and of the money in the pipeline to help people facing eviction, that isn’t getting where it needs to get to at anything close to the speed it needs to get there. But even if all that assistance got where it needs to go, it would be woefully inadequate to meet the need, which is growing constantly worse, as the cost of housing rises astronomically — another regular news story. When will the bubble burst, they ask, as if the housing market were a balloon, and money were air.
But it’s not a balloon, it’s a market, and it’s one people can at least theoretically control, through laws, whether they need to be passed in a state capital or elsewhere.
The extremely wealthy slave-owning men who we have for so long referred to as our “Founding Fathers,” who led the rebellion against British rule, wanted to replace King George, not liberate the peasants. A clear indication of this can be found in their Declaration of Independence, where they amended the basic intentions of their revolution, not to be about “life, liberty, and property,” but about “life, liberty, and happiness.” While there are at least potentially practical implications with all of these concepts, life, liberty, and happiness are all a lot more amorphous than property, as concepts.
Of these concepts, property is the one we really need for survival and prosperity. Liberty and happiness may even flow from it, but we can’t have much of either without it. But we have no right to property. We have no right to housing — housing is, in practice and in many ways in law, too, nothing but a privilege that exists only for those who can afford it, which day by day, fewer and fewer people can do.
I think the course of the next few months will demonstrate that the aid available continues not to meet the growing need, and to truly address the housing crisis, we need laws to control the housing market, and we need rights. Not just the kinds of rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights, like the right to free speech and the right to own guns and not to incriminate oneself in court, but the right to housing — the right to land. The right to property. The right to exist, in a physical location, with the basic necessities of modern urban life — dry shelter, equipped with some form of running water and electricity.