Thinking about post capitalist housing

By Kyle Chastain

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, conversing, and reading about housing under capitalism, what post-capitalist housing might look like, collective housing in capitalism with its potentials and short-comings, and some tactics we might consider in trying to form post-capitalist housing (and solutions to the so-called “housing crisis”). This submission is a reflection of these.

In terms of collective housing and potential for relating to unhoused folks, I recently found a collective house near where I live in Everson, Washington, which brings forth an interesting model for fluid-ish housing and the accommodation of new people to an area. After going to open mics hosted by the house, and to one of their house meetings, I realized that the house was functioning as a transitional space for some people. There are three floors in the house – two of which have community space (non-private living quarters) where people may stay for 5 nights a month free, and the rest of the month at $8.00 a day (to contribute to the cost of the space in utilities, house essentials, etc.). At the house meeting that I attended there were at least four people who were there living in community space, new to the area, and looking for housing. While probably not everyone would be comfortable dealing with the fluid nature of a space like this (having new people in and out of community spaces as they transition into longer-term housing) I think that those who can hold down very important spaces with a lot of potential. They are important in that they not only provide relatively inexpensive places to stay for people new to town – but also in that they are social spaces. They host events like the open mic for entertainment and gathering and provide an actual physical location to go to begin building new relationships in a new place. And collective spaces that have meetings to decide together show radical direct democracy in practice and have the potential to introduce new people to these politics in action (which could inspire more action like this i.e. propaganda of the deed)! Furthermore we move around a lot! Some of us for adventure, some of us to find new social relations, some of us are getting away from something unhealthy; there are so many reasons. If we want to live in a world in which this is easier to do whenever we feel compelled to do so we will have to make it so! Let’s make more social centers like this!

Another alternative to capitalist housing that we might continue to mobilize in the future is squatting1 (there was a lot of mobilization around this during Occupy and earlier movements i.e. Organizing For Occupation, Homes Not Jails, Operation Move-In in the 70’s, etc.). Squatting is a term used in various ways with lots of connotations. Here, I use it to mean: squatting because housing is fucking expensive, squatting out of necessity, squatting to collectively resist and create alternatives to the real estate market that turns homes into commodities, squatting because there are empty houses and people who need them so let’s fucking use them. I just recently finished a book by Hannah Dobbz called, “Nine Tenths of the Law: Property and Resistance in the United States” (I highly recommend it)2 which goes through the ins and outs of squatting in the so-called U.S.

I want to bring up a couple of points that Dobbz makes in this book that are important. One is that squatting could become an effective way of coping with so-called housing crisis. Now, I say so-called because Dobbz makes a compelling point that, in the U.S. as a whole, the housing crisis does not stem from a shortage of habitable housing. She cites statistics that show that even if we were to house all houseless people in the U.S. into their own homes that there would still be an enormous amount of housing empty. Rather, housing is seen as as a commodity (a thing to be bought and sold ideally at a profit) and that is what renders housing scarce. We have an artificial crisis. Another is that public support for squatting has fluctuated through time and by region in the U.S. While this is not important if one’s goal in squatting is to secure housing for as long as you can without getting caught, popular opinion is very important if we’re interested in gaining momentum around squatting as an effective means of dealing with “the housing crisis” (a.k.a. peeps trying to make mad profits off of our shelter) and having serious collective support if and when the police come to evict us. We need to “normalize” squatting.

This could also be dangerous. I think we’d have to watch out for profiteers who might take advantage of public support for squatting to gentrify; I think we’d also need to keep in mind a potential for racist outcomes (particularly in this moment of heightened xenophobia). That is, given the histories and continued institutional racism in the U.S. I think we would need to keep an eye to make sure that we mobilize public support around people of color and LGBTQ folks squatting in particular (this could open up a whole conversation around community self-defense). Maybe some consciousness raising tactics (conversations, reading, demonstrations, etc.) around squatting might be a good place to start?

Lastly, in theorizing post-capitalist housing, and really “ownership”, Dobbz suggests stewardship as a concept of ownership rooted primarily in the use and care of a space as a viable replacement for ownership based on title. In the U.S. the “ownership” of a space is based on legal title. Thus a person may have legal title to a space, regardless of whether they use or care for the space in anyway, and often can leverage legal title (though mostly this means force which is not always legal) to remove people from a place where they have the title even when the folks in the place have been stewards to it (Lower Eastside Squats, actions of settlers in colonizing the U.S., Zuccotti Park during Occupy).

If we could collectively shift to an understanding of ownership based on care, rather than on title, perhaps we could lessen the effects of careless landowning (derelict properties, gentrification, redevelopment with no concern for social equity or ecology, etc.). A non-profit called Land Action in Oakland is beginning some of this work. Land Action has engaged in multiple forms of struggle to create a new form of ownership including: squatting and going to court to gain ownership of property through adverse possession3 and fundraising to buy public lands for urban farming/land stewardship space. I think that this multi-pronged approach to creating decommodified space is very important. Sadly not everyone is down with squatting as a way to acquire lands and housing and this approach currently rubs a lot of folks the wrong way. See their website @ www.landaction.org. There is a video from CNN in which a reporter calls Steve DeCaprio’s actions and attempts at adverse possession “morally yucky.” However another guest on the show, a legislator, backs Steve up about his claims that this kind of caretaking squatting is good for the community and local ecology. According to their website Land Action has also fundraised to create urban farms in Oakland. Their goal is to create 100+ “microfarms” within the next five years which will take these lands out of the speculative land/housing market for good. Land Action is using direct action to counter gentrification which in turn is also raising awareness around squatting, land stewardship, and alternatives to capitalist housing.

In conclusion, perhaps based on the model utilized by groups like Land Action, we should attempt a multi-pronged approach to blow up capitalist housing for good. I think that squatting will remain an essential tactic – both for survival in the now, and for making moves to take care of spaces, and cultivate the kinds of communities we want to live in. I also think that taking a fundraising approach will be good for consciousness raising about both capitalist housing and what that really is, who benefits, etc., and the alternatives that we can use to create housing that benefits more of us in enriching social and ecologically mindful ways.

Editor’s note: We are overjoyed to announce that Alameda County recently dropped squatting-related charges against 4 Land Action organizers after a 2 year legal battle!

 

 

3. Adverse possession is a legal principle through which squatters may be able to legally “own” properties after certain amounts of time, or after making improvements to the property or paying the property taxes. Rules around adverse possession vary across the so-called U.S.