Progressive Housing Priorities for 2019: Go Big or Go Home

Hike wages, not rent

Hike wages, not rent

For many housing activists in New York, 2018 felt like the beginning of something big. The relentless scale of the affordable housing crisis finally reached a tipping point with the public. Hundreds of community groups on the ground around the state mobilized around this new energy and the result was stunning. The maturation of a truly state-wide tenant coalition in Housing Justice for All, the emergence of universal rent control as a viable policy platform, and the electoral victory of a new class of anti-real estate progressives have shaken up the political landscape in the state for the first time in generations.

The task now is how to ensure that we translate the organizing energy of 2018 into legislative victories in 2019 — and beyond. The first and most obvious priority will be passing the package of bills that encompass universal rent control before the rent laws expire in June. The peculiar mechanics of power in Albany make this a challenging task even with unified Democratic control, but there is undoubtably a large energized base of activists and groups committed to the fight.

There is a lot of work to be done, but I want to step back as the New Year starts and take a wider view of how housing activists should think about URC and its relationship to other issues in the progressive movement. This has implications for how we proceed with the URC battle in Albany over the next few months, but it matters for all progressive issues over the long run.

Where we’re falling short

Many other housing activists have pointed out that as much success as we’ve had with building a broad housing movement in 2018, we still experienced a lot of challenges around uniting different groups, agendas, and ideas within “housing”.

We also struggled to bring in obvious potential allies like young market-rate tenants, construction labor, and even small working-class landlords. We need to understand why these challenges exist, because we need these groups to sustain progressive victories.

The lack of inroads to some groups is probably in part due to the complexity of housing policy in general (and the difficulty of getting media to talk about it, before the election at least). Some is due to the perception that rent control won’t help market-rate tenants, or that it will slow down development and cost construction jobs. I’ve covered all of these issues in various blogs last year and I think we have some good ideas to address them.

But I’ve had a nagging sense (I don’t have any data to be clear) that some people tune out because they don’t see how universal rent control fits into a larger effort to reform our society. They might think of it as a “one-off” issue rather than part of a larger effort.

What’s the Big Idea?

That’s a failure on our part. We should be able to reach these types of folks with the right message — if we can show how our housing goals are part of a single unifying theory of progressive reform in New York.

What is that unifying theory? I read the same writers and thinkers as everyone else on this and I’m eager to hear what others think. But I believe, certainly as many others do, that the broad progressive theory to build a just society means fulfilling our individual roles as citizens before consumers, reestablishing democratic control rather than market control over our economy and politics, and investing in the public good over private profit. Pursuing policies around these broad goals are the best and most legitimate way to address the dual crises of wealth inequality and climate change.

Feel free to disagree with that assessment or add/subtract to it. The progressive movement is full of important discussions about the role of personal and group identity in shaping our priorities (I think outsiders give these discussions a bad rap for the most part) and the housing movement is no different. The point is, whatever the movement defines or has defined as its central theory, we need to be clear and consistent with how we want our society organized and why we think that offers a more perfect future for America. I’m not sure we’re doing enough of that, certainly not in the URC fight.

It’s hard to convey this on signs and buttons during actions, so it is important that we talk about the organizing theory in other places and on other platforms where we can be more in-depth. Whether its more op-eds or (definitely) more video or attending more local meetings, we need more people to hear that message directly. Groups like the DSANew York Communities for Change, and Make the Road Action are working on this already, so helping these organizations expand their efforts should be a big focus for housing progressives.

Along those lines, here are three Big Priorities that the progressive housing movement should work hard on as we ramp up the URC fight in the coming months. If we keep these ideas in mind as we talk to other folks in housing and to anyone in general as we go, we should be able to translate the energy of this coalition into a larger transformative progressive movement.

1. Unite all housing issues under Housing as a Right

Mayor de Blasio’s recent year-end review of his housing policy is a good symbol of the problem we face. He continues to view affordable housing, public housing, and homelessness as three separate issues. He’s not alone. Housing policy and advocacy has always been a balkanized mess with groups often competing for very limited funding and attention.

There are groups that should seemingly be aligned because they all work on low-income housing issues that aren’t in reality because they have deep divisions over things like prioritizing homeownership over renting. Other examples include homelessness advocates sparing with public housing advocates over prioritizing available NYCHA units. Affordable housing advocates spar about definitions of affordable and whether to prioritize for-profit, not-for-profit, or public development. The list goes on.

Some of these divisions are natural and healthy because housing is a vast policy landscape that has multiple potential outcomes of value. But many of them are the unhealthy result of a zero-sum funding game dictated by the narrow ideology of prioritizing the private market above all else.

To be clear, that’s because New York housing policy is not about how we provide adequate affordable housing, it’s about how to provide adequate funding to the private market to build more affordable housing then they would otherwise. (Developers give more money to campaigns than low-income renters after all.)

That has obviously worked — because it is providing billions of dollars to private developers, but it has not worked as a housing policy. (The term “affordable housing” is increasingly meaningless because of this too.) That’s what happens when the housing world is as divided as it currently is.

This dynamic must change. It starts by making housing a right the central goal of all housing groups.

The current policy landscape is narrow and static, which blocks out ideas and voices that we need to hear. To truly expand policy thinking on housing, the housing world must become united around a single political goal of providing affordable, adequate, and available housing to all residents of New York.

By necessity, such a vast goal will need to draw from all corners of the political spectrum. Homeownership and rental options must be expanded. Public housing and private development must be encouraged equally. Land-use and building codes must be reimagined. All ideas must be on the table.

This won’t magically cure real policy disagreements or funding problems, but it will break the political status quo, which has paralyzed both discussions. Thinking about affordable housing, supportive housing, public housing, and homelessness as separate issues has trapped many dedicated housing groups, some well-meaning non profit developers, and a few elected leaders in a cage match over dwindling funds and ideas.

Housing as a right as a political goal will encourage new voices, new ideas, and new alliances. The Housing Justice for All coalition has done a remarkable job of building a wide coalition because it has committed to this goal already, but we need to reach out to other groups like NYCHA residents, homelessness groups, low-income homeownership groups, small landlords, market-rate tenants, and construction trade groups to form a single united housing as a right movement.

There are many knowledgable and creative housing groups that could be useful parts of the coalition that are fence-sitting because of reasonable political calculations around funding and relationships. Change the politics, and those calculations change. This is the kind of bold reset that the affordable housing crisis is demanding of our politics and we have the opportunity to seize it this year — if we act boldly.

2. Embrace progressive urbanism

I studied Urban Planning in grad school because I believe the city is humanity’s best idea. Humans are social, collaborative, and competitive — concentrating them in one place brings out the best of those qualities in us and drives progressive as a civilization. — if we manage it well. Progressive urbanism offers that chance.

Cities also best represent the unique possibilities of the American character. You can find community. You can find opportunity. You can find purpose. That’s why they are magnets to immigrants, entrepreneurs, artists, and exiles.

Contrary to what others say, cities are where the real America exists and where its future lies. That future is diverse, dense, and digital. America is already an urban country and will only grow more so in the 21st century.

But if 21st century America is going to work, we need to make its cities work. And they aren’t working right now. Communities are under fire. Opportunity is out of reach. Purpose is illusive. That’s especially true in NYC, which is one of the most economically and racially stratified cities in North America.

The problem is America’s politics are anti-urban. The Constitution doesn’t recognize cities. The Electoral College undervalues them. The federal government has favored (and subsidized) the rural and suburban parts of the country for most of the 20th century at the expense of them.

The racist anti-urban ideology baked into 20th century American politics is a large reason for the inequality crisis and climate crisis shaking our country apart, but cities don’t have the political power to fix it.

It’s time for the politics to catch up. A progressive urbanist agenda must be the core of 21st American politics. Housing progressives must argue that living in cities is how we live well together and how we best solve the problems facing our country and planet. We must explain why the advantages of urban life — the diverse, dense, and digital I mentioned earlier — are built-in ways to address inequality and climate change quickly and sustainably.

The housing movement must be a foundational partner in building the popular movement to reform our political system around cities. That means fighting for things as big as structural changes in the US Senate and House or changing housing and transportation policy at the federal level. And it means fighting for smaller immediate things like making sure the 2020 Censuscounts urban populations accurately and without racial animus baked in.

Cities are where the country is already moving, literally, and where the political future lies. Recognizing this and empowering cities will create thousands of democratic laboratories designed to fight inequality and climate change from the bottom up.

But only if they are midwifed with progressive values. Guaranteed affordable housing is the lynchpin of a larger set of issues that include improving wages and labor rights, recommitting to public education, creating universal healthcare, deconstructing systemic racism, and pursuing environmental justice and sustainability, among many others.

Progressive urbanism fits well into any potential organizing theory of progressive principles. It has to be a core tenant of the housing movement and it has to be the core message to bring in other non-housing groups to the cause.

3. Organize workers and consumers against late capitalism

It’s no coincidence that housing activists fighting for URC are also involved in the Anti-Amazon HQ2 protests in NYC. They are the same fight in the end. To really end the housing crisis, we must tackle the crisis of late capitalism that Amazon represents.

Capitalism has stopped working the way Americans have been raised to imagine it. Only the most ideologically blinded and deeply compromised partisans can look at the state of our economy and pretend otherwise. Most industries, especially finance, energy, telecoms, and pharmaceuticals have concentrated around a few dominant players who control their regulatory regimes at the expense of employees and consumers.

On top of this, the tech boom, despite the (now cresting) fascination with startups, has led to an unprecedented concentration of economic and cultural power in a few firms, industries, and geographies.

This has massive implications for the health of our economy and society, which we’ve only starting to reckon with properly. Getting cheap crap as consumers should not outweigh the cost to us as employees and citizens.

That tradeoff has been toxic. American entrepreneurship has plummeted. Wages for the top earners have exploded while wages for the vast majority of workers have stagnated — despite nine years of economic growth. Debts of any kind are skyrocketing to fill the gap. The chance to enter the middle class has all but vanished for many while the chance to remain there is diminishing for a huge swath of the country. This is late capitalism.

The commodification of housing is just another byproduct of late capitalism’s unchallenged thrust towards commodifying every aspect of our lives that undermines our civic and ecological lives. That is what is driving the rise of rents, displacement, and eviction. It explains part of the increase in climate disasters and is certainly a major factor in the failure to respond to them.

In New York at least, URC has a legitimate shot at clawing back democratic power over housing policy from the real estate industry for the first time in generations. But it is not enough to stop there. We must crawl back democratic control of the economy overall. URC should be the beginning of the larger movement to do so.

That means the housing movement must align with worker movements and progressive elected officials in their efforts to break up monopolies and oligarchies in every industry, but particularly in tech and finance.

This is already happening in NYC with the Anti-Amazon protests and other equally important movements like the protest over the redevelopment of Two Bridges (a major action is planned for MLK Day.)

Solidarity is the cornerstone of the housing movement, but we need that message to get out to the general public and to other potential allies: Passing universal rent control will not be enough to solve inequality. Because of that, even if we do pass URC, the coalition that made it possible won’t be going anywhere.

In the early 20th century, when the progressive movement first emerged, corporate power and capitalism itself were contested in the market place of ideas in America. Even Republicans like President Roosevelt warned against their threat to democracy.

That battle came to a head during the Great Depression when the other President Roosevelt famously said his New Deal was an attempt to save capitalism from itself. For a time, for America as a whole, it did that. The last 40 years have unravelled it.

It’s clear that we need a massive, New Deal-level reboot in this country. That doesn’t just mean a Green New Deal. And it doesn’t just mean housing as a right. It means rebooting every corner of our politics and our economy. As housing progressives fight for universal rent control in New York, we must step up and make sure people know that’s what we’re all fighting for.