Right to Rent!

for rent

Last week, the New York Times published an article with the headline: “As Renters Move In, Some Homeowners Fret.” The 1,300 word piece very nearly blames renters for most neighborhood/community problems, while letting big banks and investment companies entirely off the hook. “The decline in homeownership is also changing many neighborhoods in profound ways,” the article says, “including reduced home values, lower voter turnout and political influence, less social stability, and higher crime.”

Okay, correlation does not equal causation; there are many, many other factors that could contribute to neighborhood destabilization, like widespread unemployment, stagnant wages, an ongoing foreclosure plague, and deepening inequality, to name just a few. But the NY Times not-so-subtly paints renters as drug dealers, pimps, meth addicts, and violent criminals:

A neighbor, a renter, left a dog chained to a stop sign in the heat. She was already in trouble, he said, for breaking into an empty house on the block. Another neighborhood resident mentioned a couple meth houses and one that had been used as a brothel. All were rentals.

As Emily Badger notes in a response to this same NY Times article at The Atlantic Cities: “As long as we’re constructing trends with random examples, I’d like to counter that I know a lot of renters, and none of them are prostitutes, murders, or dog abusers.”

To be fair, on the last page the author mentions one “good renter”; the quality that makes him a good renter is that he hates other renters also, and would rather be a homeowner.

In general, America hates renters. Or rather, America loves home-ownership and doesn’t trust people who rent as a result. From America’s very earliest years as a country the right to participate in civil society has been closely tied to property ownership. This thread of home-ownership as paramount to personhood has been woven through all eras of United States history, from the Industrial Revolution to post WWII suburbanization to the Civil Rights era, up to the massive housing boom of the early 2000s. And then, up to the housing crash in 2007.

Many describe home-ownership as an expression of a national character based on individualism and self-sufficiency: the “American Dream.” But another explanation is that the drive for home-ownership is one that has been both created and marketed successfully by a powerful coalition of capitalist interests. As Laura Gottesdiener summarizes in “A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for A Place to Call Home:”

As early as the 1930s, a coalition of industries – including real estate, insurance, timber, manufacturing, auto, oil, and finance – coalesced into a powerful lobbying force. Its goal: the expansion of a homeownership-based private housing industry…The government helped ideologically. For example, Herbert Hoover partnered with the real estate industry’s lobbyist to create a pro-homeownership advertising “nonprofit,” Better Homes America, Inc., that marketed the home as the symbol of the American dream.

The largest industries and the federal government continued to aggressively push home-ownership through the mid-2000s, and everybody knows the result: tens of millions of Americans have been evicted from their homes through foreclosure. The crisis isn’t over yet. According to the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, in New York City 12,850 foreclosures commenced in 2012, a 5.3% increase from 2011.

As organizers, we’ve fought alongside residents against displacement, predatory lending, and foreclosure since 2008. We don’t believe that renting is inherently bad, and it may make sense for many people. Moreover, as New Yorkers, we know another world is possible: one in which many people are renters, tenants are seen as essentially equal to homeowners, and the problems of tenants actually matter to elected officials. As polemical as it sounds, after the past 5 years it’s a lot easier to believe that home-ownership is a scheme designed to hurt working people of color than it is to believe that renters are a pox on society, predestined to undermine community and neighborhood stability.

The pervasive home-ownership ideology pits owners against renters and is one of many things that prevents working and middle class people from joining together to dismantle a highly unequal system. Many people become homeowners because they are seeking freedom from landlords and control over their housing. And who could really blame them, given the landlords that exist in this city? But when people are unfairly saddled with mortgage debt far larger than what their home is worth, is that really free?* To borrow from David Graeber, who is writing about the attack on organized labor but I think the sentiment applies to housing as well:

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. You can see it when the New York Times whips up resentment against renters for destabilizing neighborhoods during a mass foreclosure crisis.

*This article doesn’t touch on the immense psychological warfare that has surely taken place when dream = home-ownership = subprime mortgage fraud = foreclosure = eviction = theft of dream. For more on that, be sure to read A Dream Foreclosed.

N.B. We don’t think all forms of ownership are bad. In fact, we very strongly believe in collective ownership, limited equity cooperatives, and mutual housing. More on those models, which protect community interests over Wall Street, give residents control in decision-making in their homes, and maintain long term affordable housing, at another time.

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