Is housing about community or commodities?

This is definitely not an original thought, but it is under-acknowledged: We have a conceptual problem with housing. We have a conceptual problem, which is this:

1. Sometimes we think and talk about housing as if it were a communal good – not even a communal good; good is too transactional. We think and talk about housing in terms of communities: communal rights, communal values, communal history, community preservation and protection. We talk about preserving the character of our neighborhoods, about not allowing businesses we consider undesirable, or people we consider undesirable, or types of buildings we consider undesirable. People feel very strongly about this, and the assumption that there ought to be community control of housing and housing development runs so deep that usually no one even thinks to argue in its favor.

2. Sometimes we think and talk about housing as if it were a commodity. Housing units are things to be bought and sold on the open market, like cars or furniture, and like cars or furniture the quality of housing is stratified into many different price points for people of different financial means. And just like no one thinks you’re owed a nice car, no one thinks you’re owed a nice housing unit, so if you can’t afford to live in a place with decent schools or low crime and you complain, it sounds about as silly as complaining that you can’t afford a new Infiniti instead of a beat-up Kia. You’re on your own. But once you do buy your housing unit, it’s yours, and the incursion of other people onto your private property is as much an offense as if someone thought they could repaint your car without asking permission.

I should point out that although Perspective Two is largely the province of conservatives and market-oriented liberals (who, together, make up the vast majority of Americans), Perspective One is promoted by pretty much everyone when it suits them. Leftists and even market liberals appeal to it when they talk about social responsibility with regards to homelessness and fair housing and gentrification; otherwise market-y urbanists talk up building community and placemaking and locally-driven planning; and laypeople (and non-laypeople!) across the political spectrum lean on it to argue for or against any given piece of development in their area.

The problem here isn’t that the cognitive dissonance annoys me, or even that there’s no way to rationalize some combination of these ways of thinking. The problem is that a) the way in which we have chosen to apply these clashing ideas to policy tends to maximize benefits to the already privileged, and b) the existence of two competing definitions of what housing is leaves people who would like to change problem a) on shifting and unstable argumentative grounds.

As far as a) goes, I marshal these pieces of evidence: We apply communal housing standards to planning and zoning, so that municipalities can ban apartment buildings or even small houses or dense construction or otherwise outlaw the type of housing that moderate- to low-income people might be able to live in, or limit overall supply to preserve the exclusivity of a neighborhood or entire city, thereby raising property values to unaffordable (and, more importantly, non-market-rate!) levels. All these laws rest on the premise that what happens down the block, or on the other side of town, should be at least partially under community control, even if that means putting major restrictions on private property rights. On the other hand, we apply commodity standards when it comes to housing access: even during the triumphant heyday of public housing, those who argued for a broad social housing commitment were defeated by those who believed government ought only to step in with public or subsidized housing as a patch on the most egregious market failures. And, over the past fifty years, even that obligation has been rolled back to ever-shrinking protections for people in a metropolitan scene that is radically more segregated by income – both within metro areas and across them – than it was a few generations ago.

So people who believe that the government should, at the very least, not make things worse for society’s disadvantaged are getting it from both sides. In response, though, fair housing advocates (with some exceptions) overwhelmingly focus their rhetoric and policy prescriptions on communal arguments. This makes sense in some respects, since the vision of housing access as a right is, at bottom, almost impossible to reconcile with the idea of housing as a commodity. But if I have nothing to say about the commodity perspective except that it’s wrong, my arguments are going to fall on an awful lot of deaf ears, attached to people who are primed (when it suits them) to think that talking about the right to live in a decent neighborhood is as ridiculous as talking about the right to drive a nice car. At the same time, focusing all my energy on promoting a communal vision of housing makes it much more difficult for me to attack local community control when it’s used for radically anti-progressive goals – ones that are pretty hard to square with any reasonable conception of legitimate state interests.

What to do about this? It seems to me like there’s quite a bit of hay to be made by turning the usual fair housing script on its head and talking about justice in terms of commodities. To begin with, it allows us to much more effectively attack zoning provisions whose regressive effects on not just the poor, but the middle- and working-class, are massively underappreciated. And, unlike communal arguments, the commodities perspective has the additional benefit of making many (powerful, at least compared to fair housing activists) developers the natural allies of fair housing policy, since they stand to gain if restrictive zoning is lifted. Moreover, it highlights the truly perverse circumstance of the privileged using government activism to protect their interests, rather than focusing on ways in which we would like government activism to support a relatively small but disadvantaged proportion of the electorate. Especially in places where the privileged beneficiaries of exclusionary development law can be made out to be a small elite – San Francisco, very wealthy suburbs, etc. – the former suggests a more natural majority coalition in favor of progressive legal changes.

It’s absolutely true, of course, that government activism is necessary to support those who will never be able to afford market-rate housing; but a) switching between commodity and communal housing arguments is obviously a workable solution – I’m arguing that we ought to be using the commodity perspective more, not necessarily exclusively – and b) there are examples of commodities for which we recognize the imperative of government support: food, for example.

In any case, I was heartened this last week to see the seeds of this sort of thinking among fair housers: in this Nation essay, for example, which argues for more market-based development to drive down prices; and in a recent San Francisco referendum on a large waterfront housing project, lower-income districts were some of the only ones to vote in favor of increased housing supply. I’d love to see more.


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