The early 1800’s were terrible times to be a British peasant. Parliament had been steadily granting landlords’ requests for enclosure since the 1500s, fencing off common land used by peasants for communal subsistence gardening. The landlords got a great deal; the newly vacant land could be used to produce more commodifiable goods (usually wool, but also minerals). The peasants were not as lucky. Stripped of their homes, communities, and food, the dispossessed were forced to sell themselves for subsistence. Many showed up starving and desperate for wages on the streets of the booming industrial and port towns.

British cities at the time were not healthy places. Laborers as young as five, working nearly 3,600 hours per year by 1840 (compared with 1,440 in the 1300s), faced severe injury or death working 16-hour days in the factories. The average life expectancy in towns like Manchester was 20 to 30 years lower than the countryside.

Faced with sudden explosions in homelessness and debt, Parliament responded with a militarized criminalization of poverty. Countless people were swept off the streets and impressed into the British Navy. Others were shipped around the world to the American and Australian penal colonies, themselves nearly purged of their large indigenous populations by British and European imperialists.

The working class had little political recourse. Standing or voting for Parliament was restricted to landowning men–the very people responsible for so much working-class misery. Around 98% of the population was completely excluded from the political process. The world was being radically reshaped by the world’s richest with no concern for those at the margins.

Manchester, the “Cottonopolis” and most heavily industrialized city in the world in the mid-1800s. (Edward Goodall, Wikimedia Commons)

Fast forward to Seattle in 2018 and we have the same problems: an exploding homeless population that regularly endures forced eviction, powerful corporate developers vacuuming up city blocks and public land, entire communities being displaced, a global environmental crisis, and governments that remain unresponsive to the most marginalized communities’ needs.

If we are to address these problems in a meaningful way, we must first recognize that these problems are neither unique nor isolated. Rather, the conjunction of massive racial and economic inequality, global climate breakdown, and widespread housing crises are all parts of the structural crisis of globalized neoliberal capitalism. The system isn’t failing; it’s operating exactly as designed.

Supply or Demand?

Take housing. In King County, the unhoused and housing insecure population is over 10,000 strong. According to market logic, this must signify an absolute housing shortage. In fact, the opposite is the case–as of December 2016, there were over 200,000 empty bedrooms in King County. Most of these are in single-family homes in outlying areas far from job markets and without good transit (by design), but many are not–Capitol Hill’s echo-y mansions could easily fit more people. Amid this flush supply of empty bedrooms, prices for even leaky century-old houses with lead pipes are skyrocketing.

Of course, this argument is not complete. The market-based argument counters with some variation of “people want to live in vibrant places,” which is true, but generally contradicts market theory. The physical demand for housing is most acute for the 51% of Seattle tax filers who earn under $50,000 per year, yet the only housing being built is structurally unaffordable. Existing housing prices are kept massively inflated by speculation. And the strongest defense of the current system is, essentially, “rich people have high demand for culture”.

That culture is usually created by people who need cheap housing–people of color, queer communities, artists, writers, students, etc. Gentrification can be interpreted as commodification and extraction of that culture, to be accumulated by landowners in the form of exorbitant rent. Often this process includes displacement of those low-income, cultural communities, leaving only token allusions to the former residents–like rainbow sidewalks or indigenous placenames. Under contemporary late capitalism, living in “the gay neighborhood” or “historic neighborhoods” is another wealth signifier magically worth an extra $500 in rent or $50,000 in house value, not unlike the garish and confusing features of your average McMansion. And that doesn’t even touch the rooftop barbecues.

Housing is a Structural Crisis of Market Capitalism and Landlords Like It That Way

Inflated housing value would be bad enough if it were isolated to small, individually- or family-owned structures like detached houses. Land consolidation by corporate developers is much more pressing. Take Roosevelt Station, scheduled to open in 2021. The City has been allowing large companies to purchase entire blocks near the station–often a dozen individual lots or more–to construct single buildings on the newly huge plats. Most of the housing in the station’s walkshed–a few thousand units, at least–is owned by a small handful of investment firms.

Thirteen lots packed together for a single apartment block, “Iron Flats Seattle”. Despite being a quarter mile from the future Roosevelt Station, the building will have 139 parking stalls for its 231 units. (King County)

This pattern is nightmarish–and not just because tower- and block-scale construction may not even lead to appreciable walkability or density. Instead, it is a large-scale concentration of power and land ownership in a time of skyrocketing inequality.

Just like the Industrial Revolution-era British landlords, Seattle real estate investors are primarily interested in making lots of money. Renters’ and landlords’ interests are diametrically opposed–renters want cheap rent with the opportunity of ownership (i.e., a path to not paying rent at all); landlords want permanent rent-paying tenants who will pay ever-growing rents. In this sense, housing is an extractive industry like fossil fuels or old growth logging–only the resource being extracted is our financial livelihood.

Housing is also a growing battleground in modern class conflict. Seattle is quickly becoming a town of perpetually impoverished renters subjugated to a rentier class that owns a growing share of the city’s land and housing. Meanwhile, housing insecurity is feeding the ballooning unhoused population that faces arbitrary forced eviction by the police state and slashed social services.

At the base of the housing debates in Seattle, we must recognize that this land was all violently stolen from indigenous people by an earlier generation of extractors. Today Seattle has a large population of indigenous people who are disproportionately unhoused. In other words, the ancestral stewards of this land are more likely to be kicked around by “private owners” whose only attachment to the land is value extraction.

Talking Solutions

Any sustainable urban policy–housing, transportation, food production–is doomed to fail without a robust human rights agenda. This cannot be done without challenging the market system and the commodification of essential human rights–both inside and outside formal political institutions.

The biggest obstacle to solving this crisis is breaking through the narrow logic of market capitalism. Under this regime, housing and land are commodities to be traded on the global speculative market. As is the case in Seattle, this often has little bearing in the real economy. Housing is seen as a financial investment to maximize profit (extracted in the form of rent) from as many housing units on as much land as possible. This type of logic is blind to issues of land use, pollution, and human or environmental suffering. Forgoing the twisted profit imperative–and challenging the concept of ownership itself, to the point of “rebuilding the commons”–opens up a wider set of options.

Two promising structurally affordable housing models are gaining in popularity: limited equity housing cooperatives and community land trusts. Both models are based in collectively owning and/or managing housing and land. In the cooperative model members own all property collectively and individually have the right to occupy their unit (typically in a building). Community land trusts own land in common and own their individual unit (typically a house) separately. In both models, the sale prices of units are controlled in some way to ensure continued affordability over time.

The unifying features of these models are collective ownership, stewardship, and direct democracy. In effect, this allows for residents to share housing costs and takes housing off the speculative market. More importantly they offer affordable long-term housing options, a supportive community, and meaningful decision-making power. To challenge the power of extractive landlords, we must build collective power to take control of our own land and housing.

These cooperative, community-owned institutions are already in place throughout the region – and the work they are doing is far beyond the scope of investment firms. A favorite is the Lopez Community Land Trust on Lopez Island. They have constructed six housing projects on Lopez Island–most are net-zero energy and include permaculture gardens, all at relatively low cost. How many Vulcan buildings are net-negative energy permaculture structures?

A Lopez Community Land Trust development. (Lopez CLT)

Challenges and Potential

Barriers to widespread cooperative housing remain. The largest is financial; despite the growing number of Seattle rental cooperatives (where the house/structure is owned by a landlord), piecing together enough money for buyouts is difficult.

Most community land trusts rely on long fundraising campaigns and financial partnerships with other organizations, much like the Africatown/Forterra project announced last year. Individual organizations get creative–Lopez CLT often draws skilled community members to volunteer labor, for example. Some generous folks have even donated houses to land trusts for almost nothing. And local credit unions, such as Verity, have begun discussing loan options to cooperative and community-owned projects. Still, the financial difficulties are pressing.

The work of building resilient social infrastructure is nearly as tough. Functioning cooperatives are built on social cohesion and trust–two things that get short shrift in America. Building small ‘D’ democratic structures and sharing arrangements can be tricky, as anyone who has ever had an argument over dishwashing knows. Luckily, there are plenty of cooperative veterans and resources centers (like the Northwest Cooperative Development Center) eager to share knowledge.

The work is rewarding, though, particularly for those traditionally disempowered by the racist global market economy that exploits indigenous people and communities of color. Cooperative ownership can allow folks to build wealth–in the economic and social sense–while reconnecting to each other and the land. It’s not inconceivable for such community-owned projects to be key parts of reparations for Indigenous and African-American groups. Indeed, these cooperative economies are thriving in places as disparate as Chiapas, Mexico and Emilia-Romagna, Italy.

Taking the Right to the City around the world

Of course, none of these patterns are new. Displacement and rebuilding of the city has been used as a tool by the powerful for centuries, much like the 1800’s British landlords. The popular phrase “the Right to the City” captures the fierce resistance to gentrification; first coined by sociologist Henri Lefebvre in 1968, it has been put by anthropologist David Harvey as “far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.” It is a fundamental challenge to the status quo political economy of a city by and for technocrats and the global ultra-rich; it is a cry for collective self-determination by the most disenfranchised being taken up around the world.

Barcelona faces many similar problems as Seattle. Barcelonans endure crushing rents and endless waves of exploitative tourism—another form of gentrification. The radical grassroots movement Barcelona en Comu swept into the city government in 2015, less than a year after its founding, capturing 25% of the city council and putting housing organizer Ada Colau in the Mayor’s office. The party’s core is radical participatory democracy and rebuilding the public sphere after decades of privatization, including expanding public housing and the region’s thriving network of cooperatives.

Cooperation Jackson has similarly reshaped Jackson, Mississippi. The organization is a wide network of housing, food, and worker cooperatives built on social and environmental justice principles–a tall order in the Deep South. A prominent organizer with the organization–Chokwe Antar Lumumba–was overwhelmingly elected to the mayor’s office last year.

At home in Seattle we have seen an explosion of groups fighting for these same principles. The prominent Housing For All Coalition has secured a string of political victories since kicking off last year. And at the City’s latest hearing on the Fort Lawton redevelopment, hundreds representing organizations from the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America to tech solidarity organizations came out to push for affordable housing. Our own Right to the City movement is taking off in front of our eyes.

The main lesson from these movements is that rights to housing, to the city, to a healthy community and environment are won through major grassroots mobilizations and deliberately building resilient social infrastructures. When we realize our collective power, we can change the world for ourselves and our communities. Given the scale of suffering caused by this structural crisis of capitalism, we must build and wield that power–because billions of lives depend upon it.

Bob Kaminski is an organizer with the Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition.

Further Reading:

The Right to the City: A Verso Report by various authors (Verso Books, 2017)

Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi by Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya (Daraja Press, 2017)

Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action by Elinor Ostrom (Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed. 2015)

Ostrom in the City: Design Principles for the Urban Commons by Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione (The Nature of Cities, 2017)

Social Ecology: Communalism Against Climate Chaos by Brian Tokar (ROAR Magazine, 2017)

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider supporting our work. The Urbanist is a nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

15 COMMENTS

  1. What’s the problem with Iron Flats having lots of parking stalls. From a financial perspective for a residential building it is a source of revenue to charge for spaces, so it makes perfect sense. As somebody who works in this market, most newcomers to Seattle from other areas are demanding one and many times spaces for two cars. They don’t understand our lack of infrastructure for that due to geography, etc. but developers do their best to respond in kind.

    • Maybe the problem with excess parking stalls (which are mandated by zoning, in many cases) is that revenue from leasing those parking spaces cannot possibly pay for the cost of constructing and maintaining them.

      Just this week, the Seattle City Council was given an estimated cost in new construction of $35K per parking space, with operating costs of $300 per month. A quick online check of current monthly parking rates around downtown Seattle …

      (https://www.mobile.bestparking.com/?name=seattle&locType=monthly-parkin)

      shows that monthly parking across Central Seattle typically costs around $200-$350. In other words, leasing excess parking, even in the densest areas with the highest demand, would barely pay back operating costs, much less pay for construction.

      So what does all this have to do with “Late Capitalism”? For a moment, I thought I was reading The Stranger!

      I remember from my own undergraduate days that the phrase “Late Capitalism” was invented during the post-Marx, pre-Bolshevism era (1883-1917) when Marxism was first coming to terms with the failure in advanced countries of the proletarian revolution once predicted as inevitable by Marx and Engels. Capitalism has been “late” for a long, long time, at least since 1902 when Werner Sombart first used that phrase.

      I thought that Capitalism was supposed to involve turning everything into a commodity with a price? Robert Kaminski, you are really onto something big here!

      It seems the ruling classes don’t want their own housing, or even housing constructed nearby, turned into a commodity. Capitalism is unpopular with the ruling classes, once they’ve got it made, so they pass laws that actually hinder further development. Keep these icky poor people out of our neighborhoods. Make them pay extra for parking spaces they don’t need!

      • I would say that “late capitalism” is exactly what you described, “unpopular with the ruling classes, once they’ve got it made, so they pass laws that actually hinder further development”. Basically that “crony capitalism” is a feature, not a bug.

    • There are lots of problems — I’ll summarize a few here:

      1) The projects mentioned here are within 1/4 mile of a $1billion light rail station. Currently there almost more proposed parking spaces than housing units — a terrible waste of space for something within walking distance of a brand-new subway.

      2) As a friend of mine who was until very recently living in a tent near I-5 put it, “why do people care so much about build space to park cars when there are 10,000 people sleeping on the street?”

      3) The gas-powered automobile is in the top 3 most environmentally destructive things in all of human history. About half of Seattle’s carbon footprint comes from driving — and according to the world’s climate scientists, we have 3 years to start drastically cutting fossil fuel use or the earth will be literally uninhabitable by 2100. This development — and others like it — will expand the amount of cars and car trips (thus carbon emissions) taken from that piece of land by 6-10 times. Totally opposite direction we need to go in to stop climate change.

  2. If I were the developer, I’d try like crazy to design the parking floors so a portion is above ground with 9′ ceilings and could be converted to apartments when parking needs are proved to be less than the initial renters or financiers require. I am sure there are lots of challenges to that long term thinking but oh well.

    • Under capitalism, the future doesn’t matter. Long-term thinking doesn’t exist, because their imperative is “maximize profit NOW.”

      If any capitalists — particularly housing contractors — cared about the future, they wouldn’t be building car infrastructure, especially next to a billion-dollar subway terminal. Or anywhere in Miami, for that matter, since that entire city will be literally underwater in the next 30-40 years. Yet that place is flush with billions of dollars of projects.

      • /future does not matter/ — what exactly do you mean with this? I know there are 30 and 40year bonds on the market. For me it sounds both like “future” and like “capitalism”.

        • I mean exactly what it says. Capitalism has no interest in the actual, physical future — or the present, for that matter.

          The existence — or financial value — of long-term bonds is irrelevant. What matters is physical reality. For instance, the fossil fuel economy still has financial value, despite the fact that the global economy needs to be totally decarbonized by 2040 in order to not completely destroy the global climate system — and by extension, organized human society.

          Financial value — i.e. exchange value — has no bearing in reality.

          • Hmm… Your example about the price of fossil fuel economy… For me it looks more like a proof that the present (or not-too-distant-future) matters too, not that more distant future does not matter. There are a lot of things of substantial value today that will be worthless in 20 years. Our present day smartphones will be all but gone by then…

            You are perhaps thinking about longer-term investments into fossil fuel economy, say building a power plant with expected lifetime of 75 years or so?

  3. This article strives to oversimplify the world to match an anti-capitalist script and does its best to demonize people building housing in the city. Comparing our current moment to the loss of the British common through the enclosure movement and the hellish child labor filled mills of the industrial revolution seems like so much hyperbole. Full disclosure, I’m an architect (corporate shill) that works for developers (vile capitalist scum) designing housing (rat cages for the exploited masses). And I agree with much of the author’s premiss. This land is tragically stolen indigenous land. Wealth inequality is destroying this county. Our city is losing low income people, and artist and people of color due to rising costs. There is no excuse for the number of homeless people in this city. And we are in a housing crisis. A housing crisis that the market cannot solve alone… but nor can government, and that’s where we diverge. We need responsible developer to build more housing, which they are doing, to help meet the demand for work force, middle class and upper income housing. There is no viable way out of the problem that does not include private developers. But the writer seems more concerned about demonizing capitalism and developers than providing understanding of the complex reality behind the serious issue of housing affordability. Let’s consider a few statements shall we:

    “The physical demand for housing is most acute for the 51% of Seattle tax filers who earn under $50,000 per year, yet the only housing being built is structurally unaffordable.” This is a true statement but in the context of an article painting people who build housing as the enemy this is also a vast over simplification. Seattle has some of the highest land cost and construction labor costs in the country. It also has a highly regulated and very slow permitting process which adds further cost. My clients wish they could build housing that could be rented for less (out a purely capitalist impulse – that is so many more potential renters). They try to by using the MFTE tax credits, building smaller units and forgoing parking where they can which allows them to charge less rent. But costs are costs. If you want to vilify the developers, you should add to it the cement truck drivers that just struck for more money (understandably) and every one else from the property owners to the framers to the painters who are all charging more (justifiably) which all makes is very hard to build housing for those who make under $50,000 without government support.

    “Existing housing prices are kept massively inflated by speculation.” – There is little to no evidence of this. There is however census data that shows Seattle as growing by 10 – 15,000 people per year which mean more demand. And many of those people make a lot of money which means they can bid up prices. But I suppose it easier to blame the Chinese or Wall Street or AirBNB or any other buggy man.

    “The City has been allowing large companies to purchase entire blocks near the station–often a dozen individual lots or more–to construct single buildings on the newly huge plats.” – The city is letting individuals sell their land to whoever they want (as the constitution allows) which happens to be developers who are building housing to help meet the city’s demand. The writer makes it sound like some evil plot.

    “This pattern is nightmarish–and not just because tower- and block-scale construction may not even lead to appreciable walkability or density.” – Nightmarish? Really? Have they been to Roosevelt? The city actually has whole piles of code to make sure what is being build is creating a walkable environment and what is being built is a lot closer to Union City or the Upper East Side that Corbusian towers. Rosevelt is far more dense with the new development than it was before and in most cases more pedestrian oriented as well. I agree with the article from strongtowns.org the writer cites, it’s just we aren’t building Miami’s Brickell neighborhood and the city won’t allow much of what exists in the upper east side to be built (though I would love to advocate for legalizing it!).

    “Housing is an extractive industry like fossil fuels or old growth logging–only the resource being extracted is our financial livelihood.” – Or is it more like farming, people trying to provide a necessity at the lowest price possible. Which if you take the analogy farther, do we deal with hunger by blaming farmers or by trying to provide food (via food stamps or cash transfers) for the hungry?

    And finally, from the comments: “Under capitalism, the future doesn’t matter. Long-term thinking doesn’t exist, because their imperative is “maximize profit NOW.” – Many if not most of our clients are long term owners. Even if they sell the project, it is a major investment that is expected to last for decades. We will be dead and most of these building will still have people living in them. Our office tried to build to passive haus standards (super energy efficient) and failed. There was no possible way to charge enough rent to cover the extra cost and no bank would loan enough money. It is more complex than “maximize profits not.”

    As I said at the beginning, the author and I agree on many of the issues facing our city. But if we are to solve our housing crisis than turning housing builders into a straw-man villains and housing affordability into an over simplified black and white, good versus evil problem is not a productive way to go. To build a more affordable and livable city for all people we need to build all kinds of housing in all parts of the city including public housing, co-op housing, non-profit housing, private housing, townhouses, rowhouses, micro-housing, highrise apartments, and on and on. I hope we can stop blaming home builders instead work to build more affordable housing.

    • Hi Patrick, thanks for your comment. I’ll keep this short because I would actually rather meet and talk with you about these issues in person!

      I actually live very close to Roosevelt — I can see those construction cranes outside my window right now, and I walk around there every day scoffing at missed opportunities.

      I am very much in agreement with you about the restrictiveness of local zoning laws and other related policies; I wanted to touch on them in this piece but it was already getting very long without it.

      I hear you in that building super-energy efficient structures is not funded by banks, but that reinforces my points IMO.

      You mention the Constitution protects individuals selling land. The Constitution originally also protected people owning slaves, restricted women from voting, etc.

      Housing is very much an extractive industry. Industrial Agriculture is the literal definition of extractive industry. It is Big Ag that is responsible for most of the world’s biodiversity loss — rainforest deforestation, poisoning of soil and watersheds with neurotoxins/fertiliziers/pesticides, etc., in order to produce commodities, not to balance food production and ecological health like organic farming. (Indeed, it’s been shown that small organic/agroecology farms produce 20 times the amount of food as monocropped fields.)

      To my point about capitalism not caring about the future, I have yet to have anyone offer a convincing explanation how capitalism cares about the short-, medium-, or long-term future of human society yet has pushed for continued growth of the fossil economy that will literally end human society by 2100. For example, US oil production is expected to blow past 10 million barrels per day in 2018 — 50% over what it was just a few years ago. When I say “the future”, I don’t just mean “5-20 years”, I mean “5-20 generations”, or 150-600 years.

      Anyway, I am sorry that I came off as “anti-homebuilders”. That wasn’t my intention; I intended to illustrate the fundamental contradictions of the current macro socioeconomic/political system and how they manifest in our home region. That is, I meant to show that the *funders*, not the people performing the actual work — architects, carpenters, masons, electricians, etc — are the problem. We have the solutions to these problems; we’ve always had them. The problem is that our solutions fly in the face of the capitalism’s priorities; and since capitalists control so much of the world’s resources and governments, we’ve got to think outside the box to challenge their power.

      Core to these solutions have to be challenging the entire institution/structure of “ownership” and the extreme power hierarchy that comes along with it.

      Anyway, please get in touch if you see this as I would love to grab lunch sometime, my email address is robert.kaminski91@gmail.com.

  4. Homestead Community Land Trust in Seattle has 214 homes in its portfolio, and is working with the Africatown/Forterra partnership to support their goals of affordable homeownership. Homestead is also working with neighborhoods at risk of displacement to build capacity and help them create the types of housing solutions that meet their local needs.

    • Thanks, that’s the kind of thing I expected to read about, as an example of the “explosion of groups fighting for these same principles”, which I took to mean alternatives to market capitalism. Public housing, of course, is one of those alternatives, but far from the most interesting one.

Comments are closed.