Displacement Battles On Two Continents Show How We Can Reshape The Politics Of Housing

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Above Photo: From thenextsystem.org

The US is in the midst of a major housing crisis. People earning minimum wage cannot afford to rent a home anywhere in the country. Housing prices are out of reach for many, especially the younger generation saddled with massive debt. Where neighborhoods are going through transition, it is often gentrification that pushes the poor and workers out of housing and creates neighborhoods for the upper classes.

It does not have to be this way. There are other models around the world, as the article below described. Huffington Post reports on Vienna, which has become the public housing model for Europe. Here are a couple of excerpts:

“With its affordable and attractive places to live, the Austrian capital is fast becoming the international gold standard when it comes to public housing, or what Europeans call “social housing” ― in Vienna’s case, government-subsidized housing rented out by the municipality or nonprofit housing associations. Unlike America’s public housing projects, which remain unloved and underfunded, the city’s schemes are generally held to be at the forefront not only of progressive planning policy but also of sustainable design.

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“Social housing in Vienna has been widespread since the 1920s when the post-war municipality, led by the Social Democrats, began building high-density estates all over the city ― typically six- to eight-story apartment blocks with communal green spaces. Today, anyone earning up to $53,225 a year after taxes is eligible to apply for a subsidized apartment in Vienna in a country where the median gross annual income is about $31,500.

“According to the municipality, 62 percent of Vienna’s citizens currently live in social housing. Here, rents are regulated and tenants’ rights are strongly protected. In contrast, less than 1 percent of America’s population lives in public housing, which is limited to low-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities.”

The housing crisis is an injustice that is becoming an issue that cannot be ignored. This front of struggle has a good deal of activism already, but we expect it to escalate in coming years. KZ

Communities can do more than just put a Band-Aid on the problem of gentrification and displacement, and a panel of researchers who held a forum at the Democracy Collaborative’s offices in Washington discussed the best thinking and work happening on both sides of the Atlantic to keep housing affordable for everyone.

In a panel entitled “The Politics of Land and Housing,” The Democracy Collaborative’s Jarrid Green and Peter Gowan were joined by Laurie Macfarlane, who is based in Edinburgh, Scotland and is co-author of The Economics of Land and Housing and editor of openDemocracy. (Watch the full panel discussion below.) Together, they discussed the financial-sector-driven processes that keep housing costs spiraling upward and how we can move toward a world in which housing is a social good for all rather than a profit center for a few.

“The place that we’ve landed in is suboptimal for a whole range of reasons, and inequality is growing between those who own property and those who don’t; those who are facing higher rents and higher costs versus those who are riding the wave of increasing asset prices,” Macfarlane said.

Macfarlane stressed that “there is no single-bullet solution to what we do about this,” but the two speakers that followed laid out a set of strategies that are beginning to bear fruit either inside or outside the United States.

Gowan drew a contrast between the housing market in Ireland, which mirrors the United States in that it is driven largely by borrowing and rent-seeking, and Austria, where 40 percent of the residents live in “social housing” that is publicly owned and regulated. While in Ireland housing prices soared in the early 2000s before entering a crash that paralleled the U.S. financial crash in 2008, Austrian housing prices have remained stable throughout the past 20 years. One reason, Gowan said, is the attraction of good-quality affordable social housing to middle-class as well as lower-income households, who therefore don’t feel compelled go to into 15-to-30-year-debt to buy a home.

To Gowan, Austria’s example suggests that the US should overcome the negative stereotype of “public housing.” He concedes “there were legitimate issues” with the low-income housing built in decades past, but “that’s not to say that we can’t do better in the future. It’s not to say we can’t have a democratic community- or publicly controlled housing sector that is racially integrated, socially just and fit for the future.”

Green discussed work he did with the Alliance for Housing Solutions to help community leaders in Alexandria, Va., just outside Washington, to grapple with a market that has become increasingly inhospitable for low-income people.

The set of solutions that are being discussed around community control of land and housing, through such strategies as community land trusts, limited equity co-ops, land banks, resident ownership communities and community benefit agreements – together make up less than one percent of the housing economy in the United States, Green said. “It’s a mix of things that are approved by voters at the ballot box as well as some things that agencies can do on their own” with state or local funding. The challenge is to scale-up these solutions in the midst of what is increasingly acknowledged as an affordable housing crisis.

The strategies to address gentrification and displacement discussed in this panel will be explored more deeply in a report by Green that the Democracy Collaborative plans to release in August.

  • Sybil Cochrane

    Excellent! This is a fantastic example of how to turn capital against capitalism. Housing is a human right and the wellspring of all of our creativity. No person or group can accomplish anything worthwhile without a decent, comfortable home. The fact that I move around in the place I call ‘home’ and see both huge empty attractive dwellings with ‘for sale’ signs posted in overly large perfectly manicured lawns surrounded by human beings huddled in park benches even in inclement weather is an absolute travesty of justice and particularly so in a country with as many resources as the United States! This is NOT what democracy looks like! Thank you for posting this article and big thanks to everyone working to resolve this crisis for all of us!