De-Commodifying Housing for Fun (and Zero Profit)

I recently discovered this youtube channel that uses cities:skylines to explore the politics of planning. It’s pretty great. This one video in particular I think says a lot of important things about housing and gentrification, so I took notes. The notes are on the second half of the video, not because the first half isn’t good but because it goes over concepts I’m already familiar with. Everything below should be taken as basically a transcription of the ideas outlined in the video, i.e. I don’t own anything and if you find this useful you should consider kicking a few bucks his way.

so here we go:

Conventional methods of fighting gentrification:

More housing (YIMBY)
-YIMBYists are ragtag groups, varies wildly in quality (internet urbanists, development shills, actual anti-poverty activists), east coast groups generally more friendly to tenant rights

-Some nuances on luxury vs affordable housing:

-“luxury” is an advertising term, it basically means granite countertops, hardwood flooring, in house laundry, maybe a doorman. But the only real difference between luxury and affordable units is the rent.
 -The floor area is generally the same, because of minimum requirements, and the fact that shoebox apartments are generally illegal.
 -Luxury housing costing more (DESPITE BEING BASICALLY THE SAME) means higher ROI and less risk.

-“filtering” – some argue that luxury housing of today becomes affordable stock of tomorrow. This is basically trickle down economics, and even if by some miracle it works that way, at best it will take 20 years and buildings generally don’t last much longer than that (citation needed).

-older, worse buildings for poor people also means higher risk of displacement due to construction.

-land value tends to be higher where higher density is. We can argue cause and effect, but NYC and Hong Kong are both extremely built up and dense, but you don’t see units decreasing in price.

-Usually done through downzoning broad swathes of a neighbourhood (medium/high density to low density, meaning that new apartments won’t get approved) – but illegal conversions will still remain a thing as well as conversions made before downzoning

-Downzoning only serves to stave off problem of rising rents, it doesn’t change the fact that richer people want to move into the neighbourhood and are willing to pay a premium to do so. In addition, it means new units are limited in number. The community may have more control over the rate at which rent rises, but the problem still persists.

-zoning also obviously doesn’t cover renovations, so landlords can still renovate cheap units into expensive ones, which means that displacement of current residents will still happen.

Opposition of Neighbourhood Improvements

-opposing bike lanes, transit improvements, sidewalk improvements, etc.

-the idea is that even if the neighbourhood lands a good employer, it’s not likely that current residents would get the jobs there. Therefore improvements that might improve mobility/attract employers are generally opposed.

-following this line of logic, there will never be housing that is both good and cheap.

In general…

Yimbys and anti-gentrification activists are answering two different questions. Yimbys are asking “how do we fit everyone in?” Anti-gentrification activists are asking “how can we keep everyone already there in their houses?”

The truth isn’t in the middle (this isn’t south park). There is a pressing and urgent need for more housing in lots of cities, but those same cities are also going through eviction crises and mass displacement owing to the development of those desperately needed housing units.

The Actual Real Solution: The De-commodification of Housing

Housing needs to become just housing, and not also the default investment vehicle for large swathes of the population. Socialists talk a lot about this and tend to get patronizing responses like “haha, wow, everything’s possible after the revolution, right comrade?” but there are genuine actionable strategies to make this happen piecemeal in the current capitalistic political environment.

We can’t just pass a law that says “housing is de-commodified now, guys,” but anything that reduces the ability for landlords to extract rents from their tenants, or otherwise reduces their power over them, is de-commodification. Anything that provides housing at below market-prices, competing with the current profit-seeking model, is de-commodification. Policies that help homeowners afford foreclosure insurance, or otherwise support them when they are underwater on their mortgage, is de-commodification. Policy examples:

Co-operative ownership of apartment buildings.
 -A board elected by the tenants oversees the building(s) and makes decisions about maintenance and finances.
 -Plenty of these exist already, but mostly for the well off (baugruppe with private mini units and collective unschooling for the kids!!!!!)
 -Encouraging co-op housing would go a long way towards reducing the power of landlords.

Rent control.
 -limits rent increases per year to reasonable levels, or stops them entirely sometimes.

Guaranteed legal counsel in tenant-landlord court.

Improved and expanded tenant rights.

Community land trusts.
 -civic organizations that own and manage land and the buildings on them in a community.
 -they are organized by members of that community
 -they keep rents just high enough for maintenance purposes but lower than a for-profit entity would.

Increased availability of quality public housing.
 -you want make public housing cheaper than the market rate, and you want to open it to everyone and not just poor people. You have to build a lot of it and you have to make it accessible to jobs and services. Be as appealing, if not more appealing, than private sector alternatives.

Right of first refusal laws.
 -Already a thing in Washington DC (TOPA)
 -If an owner sells an apartment building, the tenants of that apartment building have the right to form a tenant association and purchase the building from the landlord, rather than the person the landlord is trying to sell it to.
 -In DC this generally requires the association to partner w another development firm to finance the purchase, but it still means that the tenants have more leverage to stay in the apartments, or to receive hefty buy-outs to leave.
 -Can also be applied to factories and manufacturers – workers get the option to buy the equipment and the factory and continue as a worker co-op
Vacancy taxes.
 -if an apartment or condo is vacant you have to pay an extra tax. Same goes for if you’re airbnbing it out.

Tenancy unions.

“Good-cause” eviction laws.
 -laws that impose major restrictions on what can result in a tenant’s eviction.

Stricter licensing requirements for landlords and stiffer penalties for failure to keep apartments in good condition.
 -Landlords sometimes let the building they own rot so tenants are forced to move out, and then turn around and sell it to a developer – who was going to demolish it and build new housing on top anyways.
 -Better monitoring and implementing actual consequences for illegal conversions, slumlords

So all of this would work towards making it much harder to make money off of housing. It curbs speculation and decreases profit possible from rent-seeking. Effectively, the idea is to make housing useless as an investment, and therefore only to put people in. Now obviously this makes it less financially viable for the private sector to build housing, since the profits from speculation and rent-seeking would disappear, or be significantly reduced. But it wouldn’t be impossible. The value of housing would simply be based on its usefulness as a house, rather than as an investment vehicle.

All the policies mentioned above have been implemented in at least one or two cities, but having these policies work together and full de-commodification would have to go further. We also don’t really know what that might look like. People’s retirement savings are tied to their houses and huge parts of our economy are based on appreciation of real estate holdings. Policies that de-commodify housing will hurt the economy as we know it, pretty significantly. But if we want to live in a world without rent or landlords or homelessness or gentrification, it’s a risk we’ll have to be willing to take.

Review: Time Will Run Back


Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Capitalism

[epistemic status: I haven’t actually stopped worrying, but I am ever so slightly more receptive to the idea of capitalism]

I’ve been reading some stuff from the 50s lately, and I think it’s the first time that I’ve seriously engaged with works from the era. And the first thing that I want to say about them is that I’m frankly flummoxed by the lack of hypervisible left- or right-coded ideology in these texts. Take Barthes as an example: Barthes uses Marxist language very liberally in his text (terms like bourgeois, proletarian, etc), but does not write like how you would expect a Marxist to write. He doesn’t bash capitalism every second sentence, and how much he buys into Marxist ideology is actually left very ambiguous in the text. He simply saw some terms from Marxist theory that were useful, and used them.

To be honest, I’m kind of jealous that he can get away with that. There’s a subtle but profound difference between “rich” and “bourgeoisie” (for example, famous actors and athletes are rich, but they are not members of the bourgeoisie), and similarly between “working class” and “proletariat”, and sometimes I feel like I have to basically write around these Marxist terms lest people disregard my writing as Marxist propaganda.

But I guess this lack of political ideology makes sense, because postmodern theory (bringing with it things like intersectional feminism, post-structuralism, post-colonial theory, respect for indigenous knowledge, and all the rest of the foundations of Good Discourse) was still in gestation and everyone still thought that you can find “the universal truth” using these things called “facts” and “logic”. Speaking from the post-truth (ugh) world of 2018, this is adorably/horrifically naive, but I have to admit that the resulting straightforwardness of the arguments render them much more digestible. It’s so digestible, I finally understand capitalism. And I know that that’s a pretty bold claim, so let me explain where I’m coming from. 

Some Ramblings to Establish Context

All the modern-ish books that I’ve read about economic systems can be sorted roughly into one of two categories.

Category 1: “It’s bad that society focuses so much on productivity, when we produce more than enough already and unfair distribution (e.g. along ethnic, class, gendered, or border lines) is the actual problem. Everyone who says anything different is an evil selfish capitalist who is exploiting other people, or an unenlightened drone who needs to awaken from false consciousness.”

Category 2: “Under communism we all share one toothbrush, and no one is incentivized to become a doctor because you can get the same amount of rich by being a janitor. These are bad things. Capitalism is the opposite of communism. QED capitalism is a good thing. Something about reducing market inefficiencies by getting rid of minimum wage and going back on the gold standard. Something about why it’s good when there’s no environmental regulation and we plunder the global south.”

Okay, so admittedly I’ve not engaged with too many things in that second category. But what I want to point out is this: these categories confront each other on an abstract, ideological playing field, with absolutely nothing said on the topic of implementation. And I didn’t realize that anything was wrong with that, until I read Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back. In it, Hazlitt posits a theory that is very applied: If capitalism did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. 

So let’s talk about Time Will Run Back: a fictional account of how capitalism was invented piecemeal in a nation called Wonworld (think Oceania in 1984). Hazlitt does a really good job of making the mechanism of capitalism sound intrinsically good, and convincing you that the usage of it is inevitable if the state wants to know anything about its economy. 

(If you’re intrigued but don’t have the time/energy/interest needed to read the whole thing, I highly suggest that you read Chapter 25, which is when things really start ramping up. It starts on page 203 in this PDF version online. It’s relatively self-contained, and very, very delightful.)

A selective summary

So consider even a rudimentary thing, like “how many chairs is this chair factory producing per month?” States in general don’t have enough manpower to actually check every factory every month forever, and especially when you’re a corrupt totalitarian state, factories have incentives to overstate their productivity.

 As a state, if you want to actually have your finger on the pulse of your economy, you must use a system that incentivizes truth-telling and punishes lying – and preferably in a way that doesn’t require too much of your own manpower.

Now consider, “how many chairs does a family need per year, taking into account things like wear and tear?” This turns out to be very hard to figure out when there’s no market in place to indicate demand for any given product, making the state blind to if they’re producing too little or too much of any commodity.

Or, “how can we get this factory to make their chairs better quality, so they’re not breaking every 6 months?” All factories will of course pay lip service to quality, but how can a state actually make their factories turn out good quality chairs, given the lack of unlimited manpower and the corruption of basically all your civil servants?

The answer to all these questions, according to Hazlitt, is a system with markets. And once you have a market, other things will inevitably follow: the need for competition, brokers who take care of arbitrage and bring prices down to parity, currency inflation, speculation, and so on and so forth. But it’s distinct from modern-day capitalism in a very important way: the system described optimizes for human quality of life, not profit. Under Wonworld’s new economic policy, people work the same amount, it’s just that things are allocated much better. I was tempted at first to say that this is a lobotomized form of capitalism, but upon further consideration, I don’t think that’s true.

Also included in the book, but honestly just distracting from the fun: some murder plots, a sexy spy, treason, and some angst about Disappointing Your Father. Honestly when those things start to happen I recommend skipping forward to when people start talking about markets again. [author’s note: please read that last sentence in a wry enough tone that I come off sounding cool and self aware instead of like the utter dweeb I am, thanks]

Past, Present, Future

Time Will Run Back is a product of its time – a time when capitalism was kinder, and profit optimization had not yet overtaken things like family wages (to clarify, this is not the same thing as a living wage – living wages support solely the earner, family wages enables earners to support a family), rewarding employee loyalty, and strong unions enforcing 8-hour days for their members. (Obligatory all of these were really only in place for privileged white/male folk etc etc.)

But the capitalism of the 50s wasn’t lobotomized, it was just in its infancy. As it matured over the decades, it stripped away worker’s rights, environmental protections, and trade barriers, until we got to where we are now. And there’s nothing guaranteeing that the capitalism of Wonworld wouldn’t eventually do the same.

Another thing of note is that the book only really deals with the “demand” side of the marketplace, and not the “supply”, and all the ugly things that happens on the supply side. Work hours were not extended and wages were not cut in Wonworld, and Wonworld’s poorer neighbours remain unplundered. Instead, Hazlitt assumes that the increased effectiveness in gauging demand and the increased efficiency of distribution just makes everything substantially better, full stop no further questions.

Still, I think this book is a great read, and asks a question that is sorely neglected on the modern political left: how exactly would central planning work efficiently without markets?

My joking answer has always been “benevolent AI overlord,” but Hazlitt has got me thinking that that might not actually be enough, or that there might be an even better, more efficient way that would not require every citizen to hand over oodles of personal information to the state (or the megacorp running it). And that’s a pretty important thing to think about, especially considering that I’m, uh, studying to be a central planner.

Final score: 9/10, the content is mostly just okay, but it’s content that you can engage with without getting your hackles up no matter what your ideological background is, and that’s worth quite a lot in my books. Also, it’s less hamfisted than 1984, which isn’t saying much in my opinion, but everyone seems to think that Orwell was a brilliant novelist, so.

Canada’s Broken Prison System

From Vicky Mochama and Ishmael Daro’s excellent podcast, Safe Space.

Anna Mehler Paperny (Reuters investigative reporter)
Sharmeen Khan (activist w End Immigration Detention Network)

What is Canada’s prison system like? Who does it disproportionately hurt? What can alternatives look like? Although we heard more about prisons during Harper’s years as part of his platform was being tough on crime, nothing has changed since 2014.

Ivan Zinger report of national prison system

  • solitary confinement is overused
  • few mental health resources for inmates-no resources for integration of prisoners after incarceration
  • overrepresentation of indigenous people behind bars is “deeply entrenched”: despite only making up 5% of the population of Canada, they make up around ¼th of all inmates in Canada. And it’s worse for women
  • black inmates are fastest growing popn – 69% growth in black inmates from 05-16 in federal system

Common misconceptions:

  • most people behind bars have done something bad. Truth: in provincial jails, a significant portion are not charged, and are merely waiting for their day in court.
  • there are limits to how long you can put someone in solitary confinement for. Truth: as of now, any prisoner could be placed in SC for any length of time.
  • criminal justice system is impartial, benevolent and fair. Truth: there are systemic structures embedded within it that lead to people/groups being incarcerated. eg. the school to prison pipeline
  • indefinite immigration detention isn’t a thing in Canada. Truth: there are people in max security that haven’t been charged because they overstayed their visas/are here illegally – for years upon years with no movement in justice system. One man stayed in jail for 13 years before being allowed to return to Jamaica

“Administrative Segregation”

  • What Canada calls solitary confinement
    • you’re not there to be punished, and you haven’t even done anything wrong, it’s for your own safety and the safety of others
  • United Nations: 15 days is the most you can do, is considered torture beyond that. People deteriorate rapidly in solitary
  • Language makes it sounds more necessary, gives it distance from what it does. It makes it sound bloodless.
  • “Disciplinary segregation: is actually for punishment, but vast majority are in administrative segregation
  • 2016: first nations man held in solitary confinement in Ontario for 4 years and lost his speech. No substantive change since then. Howard Sapers, Ombudsman, has recommended systemic reviews, stricter rules around SC, prohibition on placement of people with mental illnesses (currently, many are put in because of their mental illness, which makes them difficult to deal with)

Canada’s prisons are the "new residential schools”

When a large amount of a certain community is incarcerated, that community starts to function differently. Adults can’t find jobs, pay rent, or keep custody of their kids (which is especially awful because of a historical loss of custody on a large scale). Because of this huge disparity in who we’re locking up, courts should take into account circumstances and try their very best to divert indigenous from the prison system. Gladue reports exist, but they don’t seem to be available at the right time. They should be available when they’re at the bail hearing stage (when you might be locked up to await trial), not at sentencing.

Other Systemic Issues

Nonviolent drug crime convictions are majorily POC, but white hipsters can smoke a joint no problem. There’s a perception that POC commit more crime, but a large factor is the more intense surveillance that goes on in their communities. This increased surveillance also makes it harder to get bail – harder to get surety since less people have been not involved with the justice system. So then more people in these communities “have to” go to jail – meaning losing housing, losing jobs, losing custody.

More people awaiting sentencing than actually serving sentences in jail. During 2015-16, 15,000 adults were in remand and 10,000 in custody.

  • those 15,000 people are still legally innocent
  • justices are terrified to appear soft on criminals, so risk is over-estimated in population awaiting trial
  • getting out on bail depends on who you know, and what assets/resources they have. even though criminal code hasn’t changed, and still says that bail should be default unless there is a perception of high risk.
  • Ontario: 67% of people can’t get bail, country average is 60%.
  • The US has a cash bail system, which is unfair against poor. In Canada, essentially you need to have another person vouch for you (surety) with an amount of money that they can pledge (isn’t given away, but needs to demonstrate that they have that amount) to give if you breach bail. But they have to have time to spend in court, have a house for you to sleep in for like months, etc. It’s a very high burden on social networks to ask for these commitments.
  • the supreme court has said that these expectations are onerous and shouldnt be the norm.

re:prison abolition, we will need to destroy poverty first

  • after white feminists campaigned for cracking down on domestic abuse, many communities were destroyed.
  • prisons didn’t make women safer, didn’t impact rates of abuse and assault-so now we look at transformative solutions, because using the court systems hurt the community more.
  • women who don’t want to go to the police for domestic abuse because their status is tied to their husbands, for ex, could really benefit from alternative approaches
  • looking at this from my own personal perspective, the idea of letting domestic abusers go is really, really distasteful to think about. But we need to think about this. Our sense of justice can’t blind us here.

thinking about rehabilitation is a method towards prison abolition

  • Sweden started closing down jails because they had no more prisoners
  • Always going to be child molesters and serial murders, but the vast majority people are there for nonviolent crimes. 
  • communities should talk about practising self-determination, what to do with people who harm, and how to heal from that.
  • In Canada, more indigenous communities should be empowered to create and run healing circles.

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