Articles of Interest, June-July 2019

Articles of Interest is a bi-monthly retrospective on the five or so most interesting things I’ve read during the titular two-month period. The intent is for there to be a few weeks of “lag” time between when I first read the articles and when I curate this collection, so that my selection isn’t biased by ongoing hype or sensationalism. The articles aren’t necessarily published during this period, although many of them are – I choose my collection from what I’ve bookmarked over the two months. Here are my picks for June and July:

The Privilege of Property (Kondo and the Bibliophibans, Part 2a) (archive)

(The other parts of the sequence are also very worth reading; they are linked at the top of the post.)

We don’t suddenly now have “maker spaces” because people are suddenly more interested in making things. I promise you that is not the case. We have “maker spaces” because makers need space – both space to work, and space for their works, and their tools and materials – and don’t have it in their homes any more. Indeed, I’d go so far as to float the hypothesis that the very reason we have seen the rise of the weird idiom of “maker” in the last two decades is because prior that, somebody who made things was not particularly remarkable such that we needed a term for it, but as urban living quarters became smaller, we needed a term for all these people of disparate avocations that required they have more space than presumed-normal people required. We needed a marked term for these weirdoes that needed some place to put their band saws and sewing machines and welding torches and curing lumber and four-heddle looms and capacitor collections.

This piece gave me a lot of feelings. In the beginning was the especially ugly type of anger that comes from feeling entitled to something you’ll never have. From knowing that twenty years ago, people who were making less than you got away with having expensive hobbies that you can’t afford and living in spacious homes in the middle of dense, lively American cities, and that you’ll never, ever be able to do that, so you were being cheated in some way.

And after that burnt away I was left with a lot of sadness and resignation. This thing that was good for us was taken away for some incredibly shit reasons, and there’s no way of talking about it that makes me not come off as a spoiled, entitled millennial, that allows me to be taken seriously. I feel like this is a thing that more people should know about because not knowing your history means that you have a worse grasp on what’s possible to change. But fat chance of that happening on a large scale, yeah?

But it also left me kind of hopeful? To know that this kind of lifestyle was possible at all, as recently as the nineties. It’s not a pipe dream.

Brought to mind a professors’ lecture tangent, about how if Japanese couples were able to raise a family in cramped Tokyo one-bedrooms then we should re-examine our desire for large amounts of space, because maybe it was just some American extravagance that has no place in a warming planet. Suddenly that doesn’t sound like the entirely correct reasoning. Smaller spaces won’t give you enough room to build a more self-sufficient, sustainable lifestyle and a community. Space is necessary for us to plan and prepare. Space is necessary for us to thrive.

“The Minnesota Diet” (archive)

There’s a new etiquette, which spreads via people’s Savants and Flings. Don’t talk about food in front of other people. But if someone else talks about food in front of you, don’t lose your shit at them. Don’t try to make anyone watch a movie, or Virtual Immersive Scenario, in which people are eating. Talk quietly, and above all don’t yell. Don’t be fatalistic. Don’t proclaim false hope, or insist that everything is going to be fine. Don’t judge other people’s weird food rituals: the way they hold food in their mouths for a long time before swallowing, mix it with water, or even cradle a piece of food in their arms like a baby. Don’t blame your partner(s) for lacking sex drive, or for being uninterested in romance. If people need to be alone, leave them alone. Most of all, don’t judge people for listlessness or apathy, or the inability to get out of bed—but do try to keep other people moving, at least enough to avoid muscle atrophy.

A short story about a food shortage in a post-scarcity smart city. I haven’t really gotten the hang of summarizing fiction pieces yet, but I really liked it. It got me thinking about how like, the word “hunger” has a place in our vocabulary still, right? But when was the last time that you’ve seen it to mean the actual, bodily sensation of starvation, instead of some dumb “be wanting things” precariat/consumerist slogan? The story hangs in an interesting space, in the space of the nine meals that it takes for society to collapse.

Why Privilege Discourse Predominates (archive)

Today, privilege discourse is the dominant framework for discussing racism. It’s a multi-million dollar industry, as universities, corporations, and the US military institute privilege courses. The dominant position this discourse occupies—especially its patronage by white supremacist institutions like the military and big business—indicates that large segments of the ruling class find the overwhelming focus on privilege discourse to not only be non-threatening, but valuable.

A good piece from 2016 that outlines where the Social Justice Brigade is probably heading in the next decade.

The Phantom Men-ness (archive)

Most men have an inarticulate understanding, way down in their guts, that this is how things work for them. I think most women don’t. Just as it’s hard to really get the feeling of being constantly objectified, when you’re not, it’s hard for a valued person to get the feeling of being completely disposable.A man can do things to make himself valuable.  He can become strong, wise, rich, accomplished, creative, charming, lots of options.  He can fill any of a thousand roles.  But doing so will always require talent or effort or luck or some combination of the above.  And it’s always very, very contingent on demonstrated success.  It is not a default.  It cannot be a default.

And a man who can’t call upon a substantial degree of excellence, in something, is worthless. There’s nothing he can offer. There’s no role for him to play. There’s no real reason for anyone to show him any respect. If you want to get anything at all out of this life, you have to earn it, you have to carve it out for yourself. No one will love you, or even pity you, just for being yourself.

A man can do things to make himself valuable.  He can become strong, wise, rich, accomplished, creative, charming, lots of options.  He can fill any of a thousand roles.  But doing so will always require talent or effort or luck or some combination of the above.  And it’s always very, very contingent on demonstrated success.  It is not a default.  It cannot be a default.

The opposite of objectification is subjectification, the idea that you alone are responsible for every single thing in your life. This is an interesting dive into how that feels, and as someone who is AFAB, it sounds frankly terrifying.

The Show Horse and the Work Horse (archive)

At a comfortable distance from the country club set and elegant homes on leafy hillsides there’s a working class town where I accidentally stumbled on a flea market the day before. It’s composed of an old asphalt parking lot, tents, and portable shipping containers. There isn’t anything about the place that cost much to build or maintain yet it functions like a traditional human scaled Main Street lined with mom and pop shops.

Granola Shotgun does really great photo essays about urbanism for the non-yuppie set. E and I had an interesting discussion over whether or not Johnny was right about why cities don’t encourage these sorts of flea markets more (not enough tax revenue for city hall even if it’s good for city citizens), but as usual, we got sidetracked and started talking about Seeing Like a State instead.

Interestingly enough, although I’ve bookmarked maybe three times the amount of content than usual during these two months, I didn’t really have a harder time picking out my faves, nor do I feel like the overall quality of these links are higher than previous links posts. I think some of this comes down to the fact that this bookmarking increase is more “bookmarking a greater % of what I’ve read” than “reading a greater number of things than usual”, although that happened too.

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.
 
Downzoning

-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.