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Decommodify This!

Expanding the horizons of the housing movement

At the end of this year’s legislative session, Good Cause Eviction yet again failed to pass in New York State, as it did in 2019 and 2021. It wasn’t voted down: it wasn’t voted on at all. The bill would have capped market rate rental increases at 3 percent and compelled landlords to justify bigger hikes or any decision not to renew a lease in court, mitigating the disastrous effects of soaring rents across the state but especially in the city, where average monthly rent in Manhattan recently surpassed $5,000 for the first time ever. Meanwhile, the state legislature’s Democratic supermajority in Albany simply let the clock run out, despite pressure from the state’s tenants’ movement. It’s an election year, after all.

Where the tenants’ movement writ large fails to meet its immediate goals, it is certainly not for lack of vision, insight, or hard work. Rather, nonprofit imperatives and the frequent lack of an “or else” present a hurdle in the face of developers with deep political ties and boundless money. Political leverage often falls short against such entrenched forces—but such leverage need not remain constrained in the way it is now.

A common rallying cry is that we must “decommodify” housing, defined broadly as the gradual inoculation of housing prices from the horror show speculations of the rental market. Social housing, as apart from the dominant model of public housing employed in the United States, and exemplified somewhat in European social democratic economies such as Germany and Spain—as well as less frequently acknowledged variations in Uruguay, Argentina, and elsewhere—is frequently cited as an end goal: the ultimate horizon for equitable housing. Other crucial iterations include policy initiatives like rent control, where rents are partially detangled from market fluctuations through caps on rental increases, as well as projects like Community Land Trusts, wherein a nonprofit entity takes ownership of the land on which people have their homes and uses alternative financial models to determine what people pay.

What if we were to turn the goal of decommodification somewhat sideways and come back with an invigorated “or else,” a more compelling horizon of action?

It’s somewhat obvious to say that system-wide rent control would be wonderful—a truly vital medium-term goal!—but that anything short of communism is simply not going to cut it. Plenty of tenant organizers would be quick to say the same. The question is whether a more explicit rejection of capitalism and allegiance to broader struggle would further short-term housing justice goals and inspire more widespread support for both the tenants’ movement and other liberatory political projects. The answer is a resounding yes. To that end, what if we were to turn the goal of decommodification somewhat sideways, interrogate the nature of commodities and non-commodities, and come back with an invigorated “or else”—a more compelling horizon of action?

To be sure, this is far from the first such engagement with this fraught question, as others have repeatedly pushed for more radical bases of action in these movements. As noted by members of Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED) in the Brooklyn Rail, both in February 2022 and more recently in July, the nonprofit-led tenant movement in New York City faces repeated shortcomings of its own making by virtue of being beholden to boards of directors, politicians, and legality and sacrificing long-term liberatory visions for incremental victories. “The role of a movement program is not to achieve whatever ‘deliverable’ is determined by policy wonks and board members to be most achievable,” they write. “Rather, a program should both respond to and further the base’s calls; it should, particularly if led by socialists, push the boundaries of the possible and cultivate the base’s revolutionary imagination and potential.”

Beyond New York, Julian Francis Park argues in Radical Housing Journal that “to decommodify, housing would need not only to cease being rented to tenants as a commodity but also cease being sold to social landlords as a commodity and thus no longer produced and maintained by a capitalist production process . . . All this would be a desirable achievement but nonetheless exceeds the immediate horizon of most tenant struggles.” While Park argues that “it’s a mistake for . . . the tenants’ movement to focus on the commodity-form” due to the aforementioned tensions that necessarily arise from “decommodify housing” as a slogan, in fact, this is precisely why the commodity form in tenant organizing deserves further contemplation. At base, the problem is not that housing is a commodity; the problem is that anything is. And the difference between the gradual, isolated slog of decommodifying housing and the urgent necessity to decommodify everything, including housing, truly and completely, is precisely the difference between where the tenants’ movement is and where it should be.

The commodity is, of course, fundamental to the capitalist mode of production. While housing is, strictly speaking, not exactly a commodity like any other, its basic functioning on the market renders the distinction relatively insignificant in terms of considering tenant movement strategy. We can see that “decommodification” as we understand it in housing terms is very much not the same thing as making-non-commodity, even at its idealized end stage. Housing as non-commodity doesn’t cost anything, does not rely on waged labor for upkeep, does not rest wholly on state benevolence, and generally does not conform to even the most distant possibilities of capitalist incorporation.

This gap between decommodification—a grueling, protracted process which can never be fully completed under capitalism—and the end, anti-capitalist goal of something not being a commodity is crucial. If we turn our thinking toward this space between the decommodification of housing as a process—rather than a singular goal—and the thing’s being not a commodity, we get something of a clearer picture of the question’s true stakes. If the decommodification of housing occurs as housing prices become gradually insulated from the forces of the speculative market, it becomes clear that this process is just as present in homeownership or long-term market rate tenancy (presuming only minimal rent increases) as it is in “affordable” housing. Even as rent control is crucial in detaching rents from the volatility of the wage, homeowners generally also pay fixed rate mortgages. Rightfully, neither market-rate tenancy nor commercially brokered home ownership call for uncorking the champagne.

In “Red Vienna, Class, and the Common,” Kimberly DeFazio reminds us of Friedrich Engels’ underlying philosophy stemming from the experiences of the famed times of Red Vienna, when, from 1918 to 1934, Austria’s capital was controlled by the Workers’ Party:

Housing demands and reforms must be situated in terms of the broader struggle against capital. [Engels] offers an explanation of why the treatment of housing as either separate from or as a substitute for the struggle to abolish the relations of exploitation cannot—whether in the context of Red Vienna or in the contemporary moment—provide a basis for meaningful social change.

If we understand the commodity form as central to these relations of exploitation, we can see how a different philosophical orientation towards it can open up new possibilities for work toward housing justice as necessarily part and parcel of the struggle to abolish those relations writ large. This necessarily involves, as Park emphasizes, not only the gradual, murky campaign to decommodify housing, but straight-up abolishing rent. The true decommodification of housing can only occur in a wholly non-capitalist context—and that is what precisely tenant organizing should be fighting for.

In some ways and places, comparable actions are already happening. Important examples include Moms 4 Housing and Reclaiming Our Homes in California, where homeless families are expropriating empty properties. These efforts, noteworthy in part for how public facing they have been, manage to both house individuals in need and keep private equity speculators at bay. In Minneapolis, ground zero of the George Floyd uprising, the Sheraton Midtown Hotel was occupied in 2020 to create the Sanctuary Hotel, providing free shelter to homeless people and highlighting that the relationship between housing and profits exists as well beyond the sphere of rented apartments and purchased homes. Elsewhere, rent strikes took shape early in the pandemic before they were largely folded into government protections and nonprofit-led campaigns. One of the first to gain traction was at 1234 Pacific Street in Brooklyn; others emerged elsewhere in New York City, Washington, D.C., among other cities—an immediate reaction to the unfolding crisis which, although some elements lacked stamina, revealed a popular willingness to confront the violence of rent head-on.

There’s also the rise of militant eviction defense à la BED, where on-call community members respond to illegal evictions in Brooklyn at a moment’s notice to keep neighbors in their homes—and their landlords out—via immediate means, including physical numbers, as well as replacing removed possessions and unchanging changed locks, rather than slogging through the “proper” channels to challenge the landlords’ actions.

The decommodification of housing sought by advocates must be understood not as a goal, but as what it truly is—a compromise.

Although the full force of anti-commodification has still yet to be realized in many of these gestures, if only by virtue of their primary significance as localized reactions, they remain crucial interventions into the realm of the possible for tenant justice, which, again, expands well beyond the sphere of policy-oriented advocacy and narrow procedural victories celebrated only for their contribution to an amorphous “decommodification.” Such efforts illustrate that creativity, militancy, and urgency have the potential to yield not only long-term enthusiasm but immediate, even if sometimes short-lived, results.

Amid all of this, it remains crucial to acknowledge the considerable gains that the institutional housing justice movement has already made in the legislative sphere. In New York, the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act passed in 2019 thanks to the work of activists, and the bill’s enactment has since succeeded in preventing some rent hikes for rent-stabilized tenants, compelling landlords to return security deposits within fourteen days of tenants moving out, and other mitigatory measures against the state’s landlords. While some of the legislation’s other intentions have folded under pressure from the landlord lobby and ambiguous wording—broker’s fees, for instance, were outlawed at first and then reinstated by the court after a lawsuit by the Real Estate Board of New York; and the formal prohibition on the tenant blacklist remains nearly unenforceable in practice—it was a massive victory for the movement. It should be celebrated for what it is, along with plenty of others like it, even as we consider further political horizons.

But what is the threat of the tenants’ movement? What will we do if and when, for instance, Good Cause Eviction fails again? The decommodification of housing sought by advocates must be understood not as a goal, but as what it truly is—a compromise. The end game is not affordable housing but true rent abolition, housing as non-commodity. The fact that this project is distinct from decommodification is crucial in that the conflation of process and goal means nothing is at stake, leaving the space for an “or else” effectively blank. While already implicit, a belief held by many housing activists from the jump, the assertion that rent should not exist should be made explicit, shouted from the rooftops.

In the absence of capitulation to these interim demands, then, we should be prepared and indeed eager to go further. While nonprofit enterprises pushing for Good Cause Eviction legislation in New York were quick to emphasize that the bill would be not a silver bullet but rather an opportunity to expand tenant organizing, the specifics were always a bit murkier—organizing for what? How? The explicit rejection of the commodity form provides, or at least gestures toward, a potential, more powerful answer.