Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice and equality.
– Malcolm X, Message to the Grassroots, November 10, 1963
While the land relationships that dominate this society have implications for every relation in society, the recent crisis of gentrification and forced removal in low income Black communities, along with the volatile boom-bust real estate cycles, has made the struggle for adequate housing the most pronounced battleground in an increasingly intense war over the vision for the future of how we relate, prioritize and manage access to land.
The current regime of land relationships renders housing and community development fatally flawed in at least two respects: first, houses serve dual social functions in this society, but those functions are contradictory and at odds with each other. And second, decisions about land use is fundamentally undemocratic, rendering people unable to make basic decisions about how to improve their own communities. Left unresolved, these two contradictions conspire to perpetuate poverty, destabilize societies and provoke social unrest.
As things stand, a house simultaneously serves two starkly dissimilar functions: the first function is housing as the shelter required for human survival. A place to live, rest, raise a family and contemplate the meaning and direction of one’s life. The second function is housing as an investment. Generally speaking, real estate is regarded as a solid investment specifically because human beings cannot survive without it. The quality of that investment improves as housing prices increase beyond the reach of low and middle income people. That is to say, the more difficult it is for average people to access basic housing they can afford, the greater the likelihood of a substantial return on investment.
This dual function, housing as both shelter and investment, creates a perverse incentive for banks, corporations, developers and individual investors to support gentrification, which constitutes in essence the forced removal of low-income people from targeted communities. The aforementioned actors profit directly from this economic phenomenon, setting the stage for an inherent conflict of interest that pits two opposing rights directly against each other.
It is easy to see how those rights—the right to housing and the right to make profit—can come into conflict with one another: if the right to housing means everyone gets a home they can afford, then how do banks, developers and landlords make a profit? Conversely, if banks, developers and landlords have the right to profit maximization by increasing prices, how do the human beings who do not have a lot of money access housing?
When the economic stakes are sufficiently high—such as during a housing ‘boom’ where hundreds of millions of dollars in profit are on the line—the drive to expand the supply of housing and increase profit margins intensifies, making the competition even more cut-throat. At this point, the core issues of land and housing exceed the corrective powers of regulation or other types of legislation. At this point, a house can no longer effectively function as both a home, of which every human being has a right, and an investment vehicle, through which investors have a right to derive profit, which might come at the expense of human beings seeking life sustaining shelter. At this point, the fundamental role of land and housing in that society is in full contradiction.
The second fatal flaw in the current regime of land relationships is the undemocratic nature of decisions made about land usage. Under the existing economic order, residents of a racialized low-income neighborhood may collectively decide, in a democratic manner, that their community is in great need of decent and affordable housing, access to fresh food, local shops, playgrounds and activity areas for children and space for public meetings and access to internet connected computers. In order to meet these needs, the community may identify local land, the land upon which they have lived their lives, worshiped, worked and been educated, to set aside as space for housing, farm land, commercial activities, recreational areas and the commons. Residents may determine such land usage will improve their individual and collective lives, allowing them to build a sustainable and thriving community.
Instead, however, the land is converted into high end lofts, a high end art gallery specializing in post-modern impressionistic sculptures and a chain shop offering $5 cups of coffee while pimping the stylistic renderings of white artists providing their own interpretations of Black music genres.
The difference between the vision and the reality is not rooted in best practices, but in the dominance of those who have money—even if they lack good ideas —over those who endure marginalized social and economic real life conditions. This situation—where people with a deep stake in the outcome of their long time neighborhood have less of a voice in how their community is developed than someone who has never visited and whose interests primarily lie in extracting dollars from that community—is an insurmountable contradiction that is incapable of developing human beings and more closely resembles a colonial relationship than a functioning democracy.
Of course, contradictions exist in every system and their existence alone is not necessarily indicative of systemic failure or crisis. Contradictions escalate to the level of crisis not only when the contradiction is sufficiently deep, but when the area of contradiction is central to the survival of the group involved.
For example, a family might be forced to confront the contradictions associated with limited resources and prioritization when, at a particular time on a specific night, the single television set in the home is tasked with the triple functions of simultaneously broadcasting a presidential debate, a high stakes playoff game and a troupe of stuffed animals who sing, dance and recite a series of base-10 integers in correct sequence. While this contradiction is real, it is not rooted in an issue area that is central enough to challenge that family’s very existence in the same way as contradictions over access to food or housing. Therefore, even though contradictions themselves are inherent in any system, the depth and issue areas of those contradictions determine if the situation devolves into full-blown crisis.
During the so called ‘real estate boom,’ from approximately 2003 to 2007, land and housing prices across the country skyrocketed to unprecedented levels at break-neck speeds. While rapidly rising real estate prices resulted in tremendous profits for banks, developers and other speculators, the underbelly of the ‘boom’ was nothing short of devastating for Black communities. Long-time residents—who were only residents because they were segregated into those neighborhoods in the first place—found themselves forced out by a combination of rapidly rising prices, a sudden interest in the government in enforcing housing codes resulting in huge fines, changes in the local support system (cheap corner store replaced with less centrally located and higher priced organic food store) and stepped up harassment by local police interested in protecting the new residents from the natives.
The gentrification and forced displacement of low-income Black communities is always a devastating process, but given the nature of finance capital during the era of neo-liberalism, is a entirely predictable consequence of the predominant land relationships in this society. The preceding outcome in 2007-2008 highlighted to a new generation the way the investment function of houses squeezed out the housing function. This state of affairs exposed the undemocratic nature of housing or community development.
As the real estate boom turned into a bust, middle class whites were, often for the first time, forced to confront the impacts of some of those same contradictions, albeit in entirely different ways. Even as the ‘home’ aspect of millions of houses were undamaged by storms, fires or even the ravages of time, millions of middle class whites lost that home because the ‘investment’ aspect of the house was adversely impacted by the real estate bust.
Even when there was nothing wrong with the ‘home,’ tens of millions of people faced foreclosure related eviction because of the house’s function as an investment. In order to maximize those investments, financial institutions designed and implemented complex and risky financing mechanisms that maximized profit when it worked, but led to a full collapse of the house of cards as foreclosures increased.
Consequently, the number of families without homes, from gentrification and foreclosure, skyrocketed while, simultaneously, the number of vacant houses—each representing a failed investment—also skyrocketed. Due to the risky investment schemes employed, the foreclosures had a multiplier effect, triggering even more investment losses and causing an economic recession.
The only way to prevent a full global economic collapse was to force low and middle class people to use their future earnings to bailout a hand full of financial institutions that made and lost billions by defrauding the same low and middle income people who were now bailing them out.
In order to realize proper levels of profit, big banks and other speculators asserted their right to use the investment function of a house, not just as a priority over the home function of the same house, but at the very expense of that home function.
Equally as bad, house investors, even the demonstrably fraudulent ones, rather than the residents of the house or the impacted communities, had full authority to determine what to do with all of those vacant foreclosed homes as well as the hundreds of billions of dollars the banks received in exchange for them.
In case the point has not been adequately underscored, the contradictions associated with land relationships – particularly how the investment function of a house is incompatible with the housing function of a house – directly causes gentrification and other displacement and has reach full crisis level.
In response to the growing crisis, an aggressive and robust social movement emerged to defend families from forced removal, whether in the form of gentrification or foreclosure related eviction, and redesign the system in order to resolve the underlying contradiction.
One of the early entrants in that movement was Take Back the Land (TBtL), which was formed in Miami, Florida in 2007. Take Back the Land helped create a national, Black-led Land and Housing Action Group (LHAG) in the fall of 2009, that was initiated and anchored by the US Human Rights Network (USHRN), and consisted originally of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), Survivors Village in New Orleans, the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign (CAEC), and Picture the Homeless (PTH), a full two years before Occupy Wall Street (OWS) took over Zuccotti Park in New York City. The Land and Housing Action Group initiated the national Take Back the Land campaign in 2010, which itself became a national network in early 2011.
The national Take Back the Land campaign made at least three major contributions to the burgeoning movement: first, as a Black led and populated organization, it came with a clear line on the importance of Black self-determination, political leadership and perspective on common social issues. Second, the Take Back the Land campaign modeled a form of civil disobedience – called Positive Action (after the theory and practice developed by Kwame Nkrumah and the Convention People’s Party)—that was appropriate for this particular issue and historical moment. And, third, the national Take Back the Land campaign developed a political theory that framed the underlying contradiction as one of land and land relationships, not just gentrification or foreclosures.
The theory and framing proved critical in distinguishing the way in which the Take Back the Land campaign analyzed the underlying contradiction at the root of the crisis.
For example, the primary argument adopted by most organizations engaged in anti-foreclosure work was that foreclosure was caused by high mortgages (the result of the real estate boom) and, therefore, families should benefit by getting new mortgages that reflected the housing prices of the real estate bust, not the boom.
The demand inherently cultivated a base limited by two essential factors: income and status. While a reduced mortgage could prove helpful to an individual family in an ‘underwater’ property—where the amount of the mortgage is greater than the market value of the house—the broader economic recession significantly swelled the ranks of the unemployed. Consequently, dropping the mortgage by $50,000, $100,000 or even $200,000 had little practical value to a family with no income.
Potential movement members were also limited by historic social and economic realities. While roughly 58% of whites live in a family owned home, in the history of the United States, the number of Black people living in a home owned by a family member has never exceeded 49%. For those organizing in Black communities that meant that even if their anti-foreclosure campaign succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations and helped 100% of homeowners, it would still fail to help the majority of Black people.
A movement fighting for the human right to housing cannot be based on economic distinctions such as homeowners, renters, squatters and people without homes.
Additionally, campaigns designed to win mortgage principal reduction for a single homeowner proved too transactional in nature to serve as the basis on which to organize over the long term. Without a broader vision, members left after the ‘victory’ of a new mortgage. The campaign failed to include a mechanism through which members would remain engaged over the long term.
Most importantly, winning a new mortgage, based on the investment function of the market value of a house, did nothing to change the underlying causes of either gentrification or foreclosures. In fact, giving everyone new and lower mortgages only increases the chance that prices will skyrocket again soon, repeating the entire cycle in record time.
So, while most anti-foreclosure campaigns framed the issue of foreclosure in terms of … foreclosure, the limitations of that framing were quickly revealed in practice. Ending foreclosures by only looking at foreclosures was a logical dead end.
Take Back the Land ventured to answer the fundamental question facing all social movements: how do we resolve the underlying contradiction that gave rise to this movement in the first place?
The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) played a central role in organizing the national Take Back the Land campaign and developing the political theory and analysis that informed the movement’s ground breaking work.
While we were clear that the only way to end gentrification and foreclosure related displacement was to look beyond gentrification and foreclosure and fundamentally re-imagine and re-structure land relationships, we struggled to clarify what that meant in terms around which campaigns could be built.
In an early campaign document, Kali Akuno of MXGM argued the recent boom-bust cycle demonstrated the unsustainability, danger and inhumanity of the investment function of housing. Therefore, Akuno argues that housing can only serve a single function: that of a home. In order to advance this bold vision, our general strategy must be to end the investment function of housing by protecting housing from the forces of the market forces. In short, because it is an essential human need, housing cannot be a commodity subject to profiteering.
As long as housing remained a commodity subject to the whims of market forces, we can never realize either the human right to housing or democratic control over resources owned by corporations or individuals. In order to ensure the human right to housing and democratic control over land in our communities, we must ensure that housing is a protected public good, not just another commodity. Akuno called this ‘the decommodification imperative.” From that moment onward, Take Back the Land’s clarion call was the decommodification of land and housing.
In a direct and congruent way, the initiatives of the Land and Housing Action Group and the national Take Back the Land campaign paved the way for the land-centered organizing of Cooperation Jackson. Pursuant to the Jackson-Kush Plan, over the past 3 years, Cooperation Jackson has secured nearly 40 properties in West Jackson, that constitute over 4 non-contiguous acres of land. The land is not individually owned for the purpose of resale at profit, but collectively controlled for the purpose of sustainable development with equitable benefit.
And while the dual crises of gentrification and foreclosures have focused attention on housing, Cooperation Jackson has clearly understood that housing is but one function of land. As such, land has been set aside for farming, commercial space, recreational space, nature conservancy, natural resource exploration, and the development of a new “commons” in Jackson.
At a time when economies of scale are causing the displacement of Black families and communities off of their farms, out of their homes and from their long-standing neighborhoods, Cooperation Jackson’s fulfillment of the decommodification imperative through the collective acquisition of land is protecting those areas from the next round of land speculation because these properties are being held in a community land trust (CLT), dubbed the Fannie Lou Hamer Community Land Trust, and per the organization’s covenant agreements will not and cannot be put up for sale and, therefore, will not be directly subject to market forces.
As decommodified land, those properties are liberated to serve out their more important social functions of housing human beings, growing food and providing common space from which to build community.
Further, organizing those properties democratically- instead of consolidating them in the hands of an individual or family – advances the cause of social transformation by fundamentally redefining the meaning of ownership and power in the tradition and reality of the collective African experience in the South.
In this society, property ownership is an overwhelmingly individualistic concept. A business has at least one owner in whom power is concentrated and profits or rewards disproportionately appropriated. This setup is bad enough in the broader society, but inside an exploited and oppressed Black community, mimicry of structures of power often leads to confusing, if not disastrous, results.
Following the end of legal segregation, Black communities, understandably, rallied behind the idea of building Black owned versions of businesses traditionally dominated by whites, as a means of advancing the race. As Black owned magazines, restaurants, radio stations, cable television stations and even hotels came into their own, the limitations of the ‘Black owned’ version quickly became evident. In spite of the obvious benefit of a business that did not discriminate based on race, the decision making power and the distribution of wealth associated with the business was concentrated in the hands of a few, albeit Black ones. There was little accountability to or broader benefit (aside from racial pride) for the larger Black community.
The results were predictable on a number of levels: first, the campaigns that fought for the Black business were demobilized once the campaigns were successful as there was little else for them to do. The organizing effort dissipated with the victory instead of continued. Second, any wealth generated by the venture was concentrated in the hands of a small number of Black families and individuals, a class which grew increasingly isolated and estranged from and even disdainful of the masses that made their wealth possible in the first place. And third, the conditions of the Black community as a whole did not improve as a result of victories of individual ownership.
Cooperation Jackson, as a Black-led force of human-centered economic development is working diligently to flip this script and create a new paradigm. It is critical that as part of the legacy of the national Take Back the Land Campaign, that the leadership of Cooperation Jackson has internalized the many lessons of the campaign from 2009 through 2013, and applied them in new dynamic ways in a particular grounded context. All those seeking to advance a modern program of decommodification and decolonization would do well to learn from the organizing program and strategies of Cooperation Jackson, as there is plenty to digest and assimilate in our ongoing quest for liberation.