Vision for Housing



If we try to think about what a socialist vision for housing should look like, there are, as you say, a variety of examples, past practices and ideas that we can draw on, as well as hopefully learning from past mistakes. A majority of social housing units today are in government-managed housing for poor people. I’ve found that when we’ve done local campaigns for social housing funds, the opposition — usually realtors and capitalist developers and other capitalist interests — will try to tag it as "low income housing." And this strategy has worked for them. Over the past decade in San Francisco, where I am, there have been three ballot measures for social housing funds and all have been very narrowly defeated…usually by only a few thousand votes.

With 68 percent of the population owning houses…though many now just barely…there is clearly a desire by people to own their own house, for a variety of reasons. Of course the realtors and the dominant culture want people to join in the casino capitalist mentality of profit thru real estate appreciation. But that’s not the only motive. there is also the question of having a space that is yours, that you control, being out from under a landlord, having a stable situation in a particular community.

An advantage of limited equity or shared equity housing…such as limited equity coops, or limited equity condos or resale-price-restricted houses, is that people can gain the sense of having their own place, of not being subject to a landlord…public or private. 

Rental housing is going to be needed for a variety of reasons…many people have temporary living situations because of job or school, or don’t have the interest to be involved in self-management of a building or have too many other issues in their lives to deal with, or are in need of supportive services…as with people trying to recover from homelessness or substance abuse issues or other things.

But a large majority have the ability and the preference to control their own dwelling. So the question is, how to meet that desire in a way consistent with social housing? This is where community land trusts are an interesting model, even tho only a small part of the social housing sector at present. The Lincoln Land Instiute’s recent study showed that homeowners in land trust developments were six times less likely to go into foreclosure in the current crisis than owners of houses in the fee simple or price-unrestricted market. This brings up the importance of the mutual aid and stewardship role of a community organization…providing training and counseling and building capacity for self-management, and oversite to avoid things like predatory lending or being taken advantage of by unscrupulous businesses of other kinds, such as contractors and property managers.

In the community land trust I am a board member of, the resale price on an apartment is restricted to your original investment escalated by the CPI index. so you only get back the current value of the money you put it. This way we are able to secure the permanent affordability of the dwellings. This protects the larger social interest…and the general working class interest…in having as large a pool of inexpensive dwellings available as possible. Making it easier for working class people to afford dwellings contributes to security in keeping a roof over one’s head. There is thus a partial de-commodification of housing because we don’t let prices be set by market forces.

Self-management of housing adds to economic efficiency because the residents do much of the property management work, reducing the need for a property management bureaucracy.

I think there are several things in this model that are pre-figurative of self-managed socialism: 1. self-management of one’s own dwelling, 2. people pay a use fee for use of something that is socially owned (the land), 3. production is geared to meet a social need and sustain a general social interest, that is, a society where inexpensive and resident-controlled dwellings are the norm. 4. housing costs reflect actual costs, not speculative market-driven real estate values.

If I think of what a housing sector would look like within a self-managed socialist society, I would imagine that there might still be some demand for rental housing because people may be living some place temporarily, and there are other reasons. In that situation I could imagine an integrated construction worker organization that does everything from design to construction to maintenance of such buildings, perhaps through a bid process where the community has proposed an expansion in rental housing. What I mean by "integrated" is that it would be an opportunity to re-organize the jobs in the industry so that physical construction work and design and project coordination work are not split into separate "classes" of people, but construction workers acquire the skills and education to do the design and project coordination and finance work.

At the same time, I expect that most housing would be self-managed by residents. But  as I see it the integrated construction organization i described would still do the construction work and may still do other tasks as well, such as work that resident associations arrange with them to do.

For social housing, I think we need to get away from the old statist model of government-managed housing. For the existing stock of government-managed housing, however, we also have to fight to preserve it. A major fight for years has been over the tendency to knock down older public housing structures and then replace them with mixed income projects that diminish the number of units available for poor people. But this can be fought. There was a major fight on this here in San Francisco over North Beach project’s demolition and the residents successfully won a commitment to keep the same number  of low income units.

At the same time, expansion in social housing needs a different model than the old low-income public housing project model. Social housing needs to be able to be a program that can work for the entire working class majority, and this brings me back to why shared equity housing needs to be a central part of that program….as a model of social housing that fits in with the desire of most people to own and control their own dwellings.

Of course, the major political hurdle is how we can expand the funding available for social housing. This sector is woefully under-funded and always has been in the USA. This is where I think things like a higher level of tenant struggle and a broader labor/social movement alliance around  social housing are needed.

I think one of the aims we should fight for would be housing trust funds that provide funding to non-profit community housing orgganizations in the form of grants for acquisition of land and buildings and construction. To the extent the costs are financed through direct social allocation, it reduces dependency on the capitalist finance capital sector and reduces the amount of housing cost to residents that goes to the profit of the financial sector.

Leave a comment