Student Blog | Local Solutions to an International Housing Crisis 

Brick buildings at a urban street corner

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On March 8, the Kalmanovitz Initiative hosted a screening of the documentary PUSH, about the 

commodification of housing, and a panel discussion featuring UC Berkeley professor Desiree Fields, Sofia Lopez of the Action Center on Race and the Economy, and Leone Bicchieri of Chicago-based Working Family Solidarity. The discussion enlightened me not only to the problems facing communities that are being exploited by private equity firms such as The Blackstone Group, but also how to approach solutions to these problems on a local and personal level. 

The first thing I realized after listening to the panel was how desensitized I had become to capitalism and exploitation: when the documentary and panelists referenced the fact that housing is a fundamental right, and not something that should be controlled by the market, that struck me as a radical idea. The general idea of housing as a human right should not be radical, because of course all humans should have access to food, water, and shelter. Some resources are not as scarce as corporations would want you to believe, illustrated by the fact that so many buildings sit empty while people are forced to live on the street. I was surprised to learn that the UN does acknowledge the right to housing, and has people working to enforce this right, perhaps because I have seen the lack of housing so prevalent in DC and many other cities. 

Another thing I learned from PUSH is how housing injustice occurs on a global scale, and is not limited to the United States. A lot of what I’ve learned in my classes here about the dangers of capitalism has only focused on the United States, but PUSH illustrates how the commodification of housing occurs everywhere, and that’s why the UN needs to try to step in and enforce human rights obligations. 

Dr. Fields presented one interesting example of a group that thinks about housing as more than part of capitalism: Moms 4 Housing in Oakland, California. A group of four mothers moved into an empty house owned by Wedgewood Properties and lived there with their families until they were forcefully evicted. They inspired a movement in the Bay Area and now own the same house and use it as transitional housing for homeless mothers. What was particularly interesting was the mothers’ claimed ownership on the basis of “relations of care” – as mothers who needed the house to raise children, instead of a claim based on property rights. Under the normal system, the house would have sat empty before Westwood flipped it for a profit, while the homeless mothers would live without access to shelter for themselves or their children. Their protest raised questions about how a society determines rights of property and where to live.

For generations, community organizers have worked together to build something bigger than anything that developers or real estate interests could plan. Mr. Bicchieri brought up that Blackstone and private equity’s ownership of property, while concerning, is just another manifestation of housing exploitation that poor and working-class residents, who are largely people of color, have faced for generations. This exploitation is hardly new, there is also a long history of activism against such exploitation.

Tying into community organizing, the need for intersectional and inclusive organizing is important because access to affordable housing is fundamentally connected with other needs. It is impossible to advocate for housing justice without also advocating for justice in immigration, civil rights, and criminal justice. Additionally, worker rights are crucial to the housing justice movement because where people live and work are often linked. For example, when Mr. Bicchieri was trying to organize workers in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen, he found that workers stopped showing up to meetings because gentrification and rising home prices had forced them out of the community. Additionally, many of the same shadow companies that own real estate also own the factories or corporations where people work. 

With all the talk of how capitalism made the fundamental right to housing a way to make a profit, one of the largest questions for the panel asked whether to work within the system of capitalism in the short term, or focus on dismembering the system entirely. All three panelists are currently doing a mix of both: doing work that improves the everyday lives of working-class people, while recruiting members for a movement that wants to take capitalism down. As Dr. Fields pointed out, pro-tenant reforms and rent control are both examples of reigning in capitalism instead of taking it down, but they still are very transformative and go a long way in improving people’s day-to-day lives. 

Each panelist also stressed the importance of organizing within the material reality of capitalism, because the need to help people in their daily lives is the most successful way to recruit people and to make an immediate difference. While espousing the end of capitalism has a place, many working-class people don’t have time for more abstract issues – they are more concerned about getting paid for the work they’ve done, and putting meals on the table or paying rent. To get people involved, organizers need to help people in their community meet their more immediate needs. As Ms. Lopez pointed out, one way to get people excited is to work to demystify who the real estate companies are, and it can be gratifying to see the savviness across the housing justice movement to identify the landlords and pension holders owning the buildings where working-class residents are fighting rent increases or efforts to push them out. Finally, when organizing, it is important to be honest about the reality of standing up to these big corporations. If a worker goes on strike, he needs to be aware of the possible consequences of getting fired. But to a lot of people, it will still be worth it to protest their exploitation and try to change their conditions.

Finally, relationships and community building are really important to housing activism. While PUSH referenced the possibility of a global cabal of mayors who would band together to stand up to Blackstone and push them out of their cities, this method of organizing would be just as impersonal as the global corporation. Blackstone treats houses as lines on a spreadsheet, disregarding their local contexts, and to think of housing in quantitative terms is to ignore the local and relational aspects of housing. We need to organize locally through building relationships, and by treating people as humans, rather than numbers, we can address each community’s unique needs. 

Rachel Morkiski is a first-year in the College. She is currently a Research in Action intern with the Kalmanovitz Initiative’s Race and Empowerment Project researching inequality in DC.