Upon entering Gallatin’s Jerry H. Lebowitz theatre on a cloudy March 28 night, attendees of the Urban Democracy Lab’s (UDL) panel discussion, “Thinking Beyond the Market: Housing Alternatives from the People” were greeted with silky jazz tunes. These were pleasant, but did not emotionally prepare us for the gut wrenching, stimulating, and inspiring conversation that followed.
UDL director Professor Gianpaolo Baiocchi greeted us with questions that would shape the discussion: What are non-market housing alternatives? What does it mean to think beyond the market? Can alternatives, as they currently exist, be truly inclusive? How can we build wealth and intergenerational stability in a way that makes non-market housing attractive? Professor Baiocchi introduced the panelists: Valerio “Val” Orselli , Monique “Mo” George, and Anya Irons.
Tom Angotti, the self-proclaimed “not so moderate moderator” noted that Margaret Thatcher once declared that “there is no alternative” to the market economy; a sentiment which has seemingly had generational ideological repercussions and is exactly why it is so important to have discussions about what viable alternatives already exist. It’s heartless to wait for the market to fix this problem when many New Yorkers spend more than 50% of their household income on rent.
So instead of sitting back and anticipating the supposed omnipotent market’s solution, what can we do? Well, for starters, we have to stop looking through the lens of the American dream for policy change. As Professor Angotti so astutely pointed out, this dream was built by stealing land and labor so we have to abandon it. Instead of promoting the-impossibly unrealistic-dream of private land ownership, we need to pivot our imaginations and policy goals to community lands. Angotti concluded his introduction with the assertion that the land markets, as they currently exist, make housing unaffordable to the vast majority of people and is one of the foundations for racial exclusion in the suburbs. He contents that our three options are to 1) organize 2) organize 3) organize.
The panelists then introduced themselves and their work beginning with Anya Irons, the Director of Operations at UHAB, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. UHAB began in 1974 as a way to connect and train individuals to take over, repair, and ultimately reside in abandoned housing. This process led to co-op communities. UHAB currently works in partnership with they city and offers various trainings, loans and outreach to provide tenants with solutions to housing dilemmas. The overarching idea is to empower the community through education and control over housing situations. Instead of taking over buildings, UHAB now works to squeeze co-ops into the city and focuses on providing tenants affordable choices. Their future work will focus on preserving affordable housing by converting rentals into co-ops.
Valerio “Val” Orselli, the Project Director of the Cooper Square Community Land Trust (CSCLT), then discussed the work he’s doing to help communities get and retain ownership of land. CSCLT works to fight plans that, if fulfilled, would displace low-income residents in New York City. Through intensive organizing with community planners they work against luxury developments and ensure that low-income housing options still exist. His past organization, the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association (MHA), a 21-building scatter-site nonprofit cooperative that disperses cost among residents, was created to keep housing affordable. CCST is continuously fighting with city to establish long-term affordable housing through the creation of community land trusts. Community retention of the ownership of land promotes social equity and creates a program that benefits the many, not the few, for many generations to come.
Monique “Mo” George currently serves as the Executive Director of Picture the Homeless and works to reframe the narrative around homelessness. They work to fight being told what homelessness is. They also work to shift people to permanent housing and call out those who are profiting off of homelessness since that money should, and can, be put to more productive uses. Picture the Homeless worked to count the number of vacant lots and housing units and discovered that – sadly, not surprisingly – there is more than enough space and built units to get every single homeless person into permanent housing… FIVE times over!!
So, why are people on the streets and in shelters when there is more than enough housing for everyone? Is this what a working market looks like? Hey Ms. Thatcher, why isn’t the market fixing this? Professor Angotti pointed out that housing currently acts as a vertical cash register and is a marketable commodity that has become financialized. There are so many people on the streets because in this “working market” profits are valued over people. Unfortunately this story of profits over people isn’t a novel one, and every day it becomes more evident the market is the problem, not the solution, and we need to work to force the government to play a more active role to provide appropriate housing for everyone.
Mo then pointed out that the administration of the City of New York needs to decide if they are in the business of housing people or if they are in the business of homelessness. She then gave an example of a woman who can’t afford housing but the city places her in a hotel for $7,000 a month!! Possibly just as abhorrent is the fact that only 47% of the new luxury buildings in Downtown Brooklyn are occupied. Homelessness, disturbingly, is a business that both the real estate and hotel industries profit off of.
Sadly, the current gears of public policy shift to push community housing to the market and private ownership. In this current environment, housing alternatives (like co-ops) have numerous built in stresses because they don’t have support from policy officials. Professor Angotti pointed out that there needs to be a right to housing that surpasses private ownership. But, we’re at the mercy of the policy that’s already in place and, as a result, the current alternatives tend to be complex and cumbersome. What was most frustrating was that the conversation became increasingly complex, when ideally an issue like housing should be simple. Of course this is to not the fault of the panelists since the fight for equality is rooted in these nearly impossible to understand, hierarchical systems, thus making the alternatives cumbersome. It should be an undisputed fact that we all deserve a comfortable home and the market shouldn’t get to decide who has a bed to sleep in at night.
Boil this conversation down to the composing problems and we’re left with a reduction that is ultimately about control and ownership over our own lives, cities, and the spaces we occupy. How do we take back control? We start by letting those in power know that we do not accept their choice to make homelessness a business and we organize, organize, organize.
I left feeling angry and frustrated, yet hopeful. With people like this on our side, the fight is ours to win, but we need your help. Please use the resources below to learn more about how you can get involved making New York a city that works for everyone.