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Members and supporters of the Hillside Villa Tenants Association in Chinatown, Los Angeles, protest the expiration of the covenant regulating rents in their “affordable housing,” March 2019.

“AFFORDABLE HOUSING” IS A SCAM!

By the “Affordable Housing” is a Scam! affinity group

ABSTRACT

We need housing that is affordable and accessible for all. But there is a significant difference between housing that working-class households can afford and what is called “Affordable Housing.” The urgent need for housing access has been co-opted to support “Affordable Housing” policies that contribute to more housing precarity, more displacement, and more social cleansing (i.e. gentrification). The crisis of housing access is driven by the commodification of housing, which increases real estate investment value through planned scarcity, waste, and monopoly ownership. We must turn our search for housing solutions away from a market-based model of “Affordable Housing.” Drawing on real world situations encountered in the organizing work of L.A. Tenants Union, the authors detail some of the limitations that come with “Affordable Housing” policies and the history of “Affordable Housing” as a combination of policies and political assumptions. The essay ends with an analysis of alternatives that seek to guarantee housing as a human right and a challenge to action for the tenant power movement.

* * * * * * * * * *

We need more affordable housing. This demand concludes every story about rising rents, gentrification, and homelessness. Increasingly clear, however, is the vast difference between truly affordable housing — housing that supports the lives of working tenants — and that housing which results from “Affordable Housing” policy. This rhetorical sleight of hand allows the urgent demand for housing affordability to be co-opted in support of policies which, as we will show, serve to increase rather than alleviate housing insecurity, displacement, and social cleansing.

We want to be clear that we are not calling for an end to public support for housing. Conservatives and progressives alike make such demands in their own proposals for solving the housing question. We flatly reject such demands, having a fundamentally different understanding of the common good. Instead, we understand housing as a human need, and thus we advocate for housing as a human right. Working towards that goal — as we do daily in the L.A. Tenants Union (LATU) — demands that we unravel the catch-all phrase of “affordable housing.”[1]

In this text, we will lay out the specific history and consequences of “Affordable Housing,” in which “affordable” became the term by which city officials promise housing for the poor and working people and, by those very same housing schemes, take it away. It is for this reason that we refer to “Affordable Housing” as a scam. We will tell the stories of LATU members living in “Affordable Housing” to underscore the failures of this dominant policy. Then, on the basis of both efficacy and ethics, we will argue that we must make alternative demands, not for “Affordable Housing,” but for public- and community-owned housing, re-imagining the housing system we would need to provide for the needs of all.

1. WANT HOUSING AFFORDABILITY? SAY NO TO “AFFORDABLE HOUSING”

In December of 2018, the residents of the Hillside Villa Apartments woke up to devastating news from their landlord.[2] On June 1 of 2019, in just six months, the building’s “Affordable” status would expire, and the cost of rent would increase to match market prices in their rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

Some tenants would see their rent go from $850 to $2,500 per month — an increase of 200%. Many residents had lived in this building for thirty years. They were families with children, elderly couples or siblings, and disabled folks living on fixed incomes. Many of the tenants had immigrated to the U.S. from East Asia or Central America and spoke exclusively Mandarin or Spanish. They could not afford the increases, and they had no where else to go.

The construction of “Affordable Housing” developments is subsidized by public funds; in exchange, rents are regulated by covenants, which carry an expiration date. Hillside Villa, a 124-unit building, received $5.5 million of city and federal funding; its covenant was set for thirty years. Once a covenant expires, a building’s owner is not required to pay back any public funds; rather, he is freed from all regulations which kept rents down, able to extract and hoard all future profits. In Hillside Villa’s case, owner Thomas Botz — a wealthy, white resident of Malibu with multiple investment properties across Los Angeles — could force the displacement of dozens of Chinese-American and Latinx families.

Hillside Villa is not alone in facing a central failure of “Affordable Housing:” “Affordable Housing” expires. Most covenants last for 15, 30, or 50 years. In the City of Los Angeles alone, there are an estimated 11,771 “Affordable Housing” units which will convert to market-rate within the next five years.[3] Seventy-one percent of these units are owned by for-profit landlords.[4] Across the country, over the next ten years, we will see more than one million withdrawn from the programs that keep them “affordable.”[5][6] In the hands of private owners, the stability of neighborhoods and the communities who make them what they are will be under constant threat.

But Hillside Villa has organized and fought back. With support from LATU and Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, the tenants formed the Hillside Villa Tenants Association, meeting weekly to strategize and share information, with simultaneous interpretation occurring in three different languages at once (Spanish, English, and Mandarin). Escalating their struggle, they occupied the offices of their City Councilmember and held a protest at their landlord’s mansion.

Through-out their struggle to defend their community, the Hillside Villa tenants made another failure of “Affordable Housing” clear: “Affordable Housing” is Privately-Owned, Publicly-Subsidized Housing (POSH); its incentives of both profit and public good are fundamentally misaligned. The requirement to keep rents down did not prevent Botz from charging exorbitant fees for parking and pets; he didn’t allow children to play in the courtyard; he let his building fall into disrepair.[7] More, Botz has been double-dipping in public subsidies, by filling his apartments constructed on the public’s dime with tenants who currently receive Section 8 subsidies. As this demonstrates, “Affordable Housing” enables a transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector, draining public resources for private gain. It relies zero-interest construction loans, enormous tax-breaks, density bonuses, as well as the sale of bargain-priced, once-publicly-owned land. But the policy provides no way for cities to recapture the value of these giveaways. The social benefit is temporary. The private benefit is permanent.

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Tenants from the Kingswood Apartments in Los Angeles formed a tenants association to push back against unaffordable rent increases in their “affordable housing” building in East Hollywood, July 31, 2019.

“Affordable Housing” Is Expensive Housing

The situation at the Kingswood Apartments in East Hollywood illustrates other limitations of so-called “Affordable Housing,” namely: “Affordable Housing” most helps the least in need. In late 2018, the low- and fixed-income tenants living at the corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Kingsly Dr. received notices from their building’s new management company about a rent increase. When increase notices went out again in the spring of 2019, the tenants realized rents would be above what any of them could afford.

Forming the Kingswood Apartments Tenants Association, the residents, supported by LATU, began researching the covenant which regulated rents in their building. Unlike Hillside Villa, Kingswood rents were tied to “Area Median Income” (AMI), a number set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD). Since AMI is adjusted upward every year, the managers of their building, The Michaels Organization, one of the largest owners of “Affordable Housing” in the entire country,[8] had the legal right to raise rents, regardless of tenants’ ability to pay. For years, the previous managers had elected not to go forward with an increase, knowing that to do so would displace the tenants, many of whom are elderly and have physical or mental disabilities. The Michael Organization felt no such obligation.[9]

The current struggle of the Kingswood tenants underscores how AMI, the basis for calculating the affordability of “Affordable Housing,” serves to exclude the poor. Area Median Income is calculated by HUD as the median income of an entire County. In Los Angeles, the County includes the city of Beverly Hills (median income $96,312) as well as neighborhoods like Bel Air ($207,938) and Pacific Palisades ($168,008). By contrast, in a neighborhood like Westlake the median income is $26,757.[10]

In an “Affordable Housing” development, or in a market-rate development with a few designated “Affordable” apartments, units are offered to tenants whose incomes match particular percentages of AMI. Under this federal rubric, “low income” tenants are those who earn up to 80% of AMI; “very low income” tenants earn up to 50% of AMI, and “extremely low income” tenants earn up to 30% of AMI. In Los Angeles County, a family of four making up to $83,500 per year may qualify as “low-income” and is eligible for “Affordable Housing.” Numbers from the Los Angeles City Planning department show that 40% of “affordable” units created by L.A.’s Transit Oriented Communities program have been offered to tenants in this income bracket.[11]

The “very low income” bracket includes families[12] making up to $52,200, and even the “extremely low income” bracket includes families earning up to $31,300 — significantly more money than the median household in many gentrifying neighborhoods like Chinatown, Pico-Union, South Central, and East Hollywood. In Los Angeles County, over one-fifth of households (699,328 total) have incomes below $25,000,[13] meaning they would very likely not be served by most “Affordable Housing.”

Given the competition for affordable apartments with waitlists that turn “Affordable Housing” into lottery housing, landlords have no incentive to offer “affordable” apartments to anyone except those highest earners within an income bracket. By its design, the poorest households will be largely shut out, most benefiting the least in need.[14]

“Affordable Housing” Is Gentrifying Housing

Thus, “Affordable Housing” contributes to the very processes it claims to alleviate. “Affordable” apartments are often built in neighborhoods from which resources have been historically divested, where land values are lower, and future returns more promising to private investors. In most cases, long-term residents receive no preferential access to “Affordable Housing” in the neighborhoods they for decades have called home. Applicants are subjected to discrimination based on invasive criminal background checks and reviews of their immigration status — which, in any other circumstances, are illegal in the State of California.[15] More, as argued above, they can’t afford the “Affordable Housing” on offer. The County-wide AMI standard, combined with the policy’s outcome of producing the most housing for the highest-earning “low-income” category, forces long-term residents of low-income communities into a losing competition with higher-earning residents from elsewhere in the county. As “Affordable Housing” Developments introduce higher-income populations into historically poor neighborhoods, they contribute to the displacement of long-term, low-income residents, inviting price-gouging, harassment, evictions, and the flipping of amenities throughout the neighborhood.

Certainly, developers have come to rely on “Affordable Housing” to grease the wheels of the planning process and take advantage of tax breaks and subsidies. A recent proposal for a 300-unit market-rate building bordering L.A.’s Skid Row, for example, earmarks thirty-two units for families within the “moderate income” bracket — a bracket which includes tenants who earn up to $125,000 per year.[16] By setting aside a tiny number of “affordable” apartments within a new market-rate development project, real estate developers have appropriated “Affordable Housing” policy for their own ends. Thus, “Affordable Housing” not only fails to meet its stated goals of housing provision for those who need it, but has also become a tool by which housing becomes less affordable for all.

“Affordable Housing” is often invoked to privatize once-public housing resources, and to skirt rent control regulations. Both for-profit and nonprofit developers as well as city and federal governments use “Affordable Housing” as a tool to remove the poor. The nonprofit developer Abode Communities, for example, plans to destroy thirty-six rent-controlled units in Westlake / MacArthur Park,[17] a majority Latinx neighborhood where the median household income is $26,000. Their replacement “Affordable Housing” project will house families earning up to $50,000. According to Abode’s policies, undocumented immigrants will not be eligible.[18]

Under the Clinton Administration’s HOPE VI Program, twelve hundred public apartments were demolished from Boyle Heights in the 1990s. In the place of what had been the largest public housing complex west of the Mississippi are now a few “Affordable” developments, ninety-three for-sale market-rate homes, and just 300 units of public housing.[19] The beneficiaries of the demolition were obviously not community residents, most of whom were displaced. Instead, its beneficiaries are real estate investors and private owners. One of the “Affordable Housing” developments, Pueblo Del Sol, was built and financed in part by Related Companies,[20] a real estate firm owned by billionaire — and prominent Trump supporter — Stephen Ross. Related Companies is currently involved in the planned demolition-and-redevelopment of the 100-unit public housing complex Rose Hill Courts,[21] in addition to benefiting from $198 million of public money for a massive luxury development in Downtown. These examples are not exceptions but the rule of “Affordable Housing:” “Affordable Housing” is Bait-and-Switch Housing (BASH), used as an excuse to demolish rent-controlled and public housing.

The lived reality of tenants living in “Affordable Housing” reveal the falsity of the promises made by its advocates. With all its limitations, the benefits of “Affordable Housing” to landlords and real estate developers do not match the benefits they provide to tenants, which are short-lived, misdirected, and over-priced. Replacing rent-control or public housing with the privately-owned programs of “Affordable Housing” prioritizes private interests over public good. Indeed, as a policy “Affordable Housing” reflects a broad political project of privatization and decades-long attack on socialized alternatives. This becomes all the more apparent when we understand the history of “Affordable Housing” in the context of what it was intended to replace: public housing.

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The Pico–Aliso Housing Project at the time of the demolition. (Courtesy Ultra-red, 1998)

2. THE HISTORY OF “AFFORDABLE HOUSING”

The term “Affordable Housing” first came into use in the 1970s as U.S. federal housing policy shifted from direct provision of public housing to subsidizing housing for low-income tenants built and owned by private developers. This history illustrates the strategic utility of “Affordable Housing” appropriated by capitalist interests, and simultaneously points to a radical vision for the future, as we will discuss in section four of this text.

The first U.S. government housing programs focused on slum clearance, ostensibly aimed at demolishing substandard housing, and building a supply of safe and sanitary dwellings for the poor. Federal public housing programs began with the Housing Act of 1937 (Wagner-Steagall), after decades of agitation from organized labor, civil rights groups, and women’s organizations. Though its architects imagined public housing as an option for tenants of every income, its compromised implementation was directed only at the poor.

The Housing Act of 1937 subsidized the construction of public housing by local housing authorities, establishing the local managerial system still in use. Importantly, the Act also capped rents for public housing at 20% of tenants’ income and allowed for building of racially segregated projects. In many cities, such as Los Angeles, officials used racially segregated public housing as a way to divide the labor force and guarantee property values by racially segregating neighborhoods.

Under intense pressure from the private real estate and builders’ lobby, Wagner-Steagall established strict maximum cost ceilings that produced highly standardized, minimal public housing, often stigmatized by its appearance. More, as the federal government provided billions of dollars for the creation of segregated white suburbs, public housing increasingly became seen as the housing-of-last-resort for the racially stigmatized inner-city poor.[22]

Over the next thirty years, public housing construction was often paired with slum clearance and “urban renewal” schemes. Across the country, urban renewal — nicknamed by the civil rights movement, “negro removal” — displaced entire communities, particularly low-income people of color, as a way of enabling private development in central business districts. Despite the history of these federal housing programs, public housing provided shelter to hundreds of thousands of families who would otherwise have been ruthlessly exploited by private landlords.

The privatization of public housing began in the 1960s, as policymakers moved away from constructing large, publicly-owned and operated housing projects and toward partnerships with private landlords and developers, enabled by new legislation and funding mechanisms. In 1973, the real estate class scored a major victory when President Richard Nixon declared a moratorium on constructing federally-funded housing, effectively terminating the project-based phase of public housing.

The 1970s saw the architecting of “Affordable Housing” as a policy tool designed to replace public provision with private ownership, socialization with market mechanisms, and human rights with the profit motive. The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, signed into law by Republican President Gerald Ford, created what became the Section 8 or Housing Choice Voucher program, which gives low-income tenants portable housing certificates, as well as the Community Development Block Grant program, subsidies to private builders for new construction.

Under President Ronald Reagan, the privatization of subsidized housing gained a new tool in the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) created by the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which enabled developers to use private activity bonds for housing finance. While LIHTC has been responsible for creating the largest number of “affordable” units out of all these programs, investigations have revealed it to be rife with corruption,[23] and 81% of all LIHTC units are owned by for-profit entities.[24]

With the passage of the Cranston-Gonzales National Affordable Housing Act of 1990 (NAHA), “affordability” became the watchword of a privatized federal housing policy. NAHA launched the HOME housing block grant for affordable housing for rent or homeownership, often built in partnership with nonprofit developers, and direct rental assistance to low-income people.

In the 1990s, HUD’s HOPE VI program (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) initiated a redevelopment program to demolish and replace public housing with low-rise, mixed-income housing, and a separate demolish-only program to solve the supposed physical and social ills of public housing. HOPE VI sponsored public-private partnerships to remake neighborhoods, encourage private ownership of public housing, and substitute housing vouchers for demolished units. A centerpiece in the Clinton Administration’s housing policy, HOPE VI depleted the stock of public housing by more than 157,000 units and displaced at least a quarter of a million tenants.[25]

Another program, Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), initiated under the Obama administration, continued the trajectory of privatization by allowing private companies to rehabilitate and manage public housing in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. The Trump administration has dramatically expanded this program; it is now at work in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities. Under RAD, 455,000 units, or 38 percent of public housing, have been authorized for transfer to the private sector.[26]

The assault on public housing — which began even at its origins — has resulted in the proliferation of “Affordable Housing” programs that give federal and local subsidies to private and nonprofit developers. Now, U.S. housing policy has become a market-driven, mixed-income program of “Affordable Housing” for carefully selected, mostly middle-income tenants, largely excluding the very poor.

3. PUBLIC HOUSING FOR THE 21st CENTURY

What does the history of U.S. public housing look like without urban renewal, without marginalization, without segregation? What if governments had simply built new housing in populated areas and allocated enough funds for proper upkeep? What if well-funded schools and stable jobs weren’t directed away from that housing? What if housing was understood as such a necessity that governments had treated public housing with the same respect given to freeways, bridges, transit systems, stadiums, and airports? What if the demolition of architect Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt–Igoe public housing in St. Louis (the largest in the country) was as prominent in the U.S. national memory as that of his World Trade Center towers?

As we critique the system of “Affordable Housing” that we have, and as we examine the capitalist, classist, racist forces that destroyed the public housing we had, we illuminate the need to re-imagine public housing for the future. We begin locally with the laws and policies most immediately affecting Angelenos, knowing that initial steps are just that. Nothing we currently have matches what we need, yet there are paths to consider as we go forward with the task of demanding housing as a human right.

The Hillside Villa tenants are taking an initial step with the extension of their “Affordable Housing” covenant period, which means that their building will remain within the HUD-determined AMI system to calculate rents (instead of becoming market rate). While an achievement only possible through dedicated organizing, continuing this system will only exacerbate the existing problems we described above. Ten years from now the currently-gentrifying Chinatown may be an even more threatening place to be “thrown” into when the building flips to market rate. Ultimately, this only slows down the landlord’s speculation project rather than eliminating it.

Tenants of Hillside Villa also demanded that the City of Los Angeles use power of eminent domain to purchase the building from the landlord and keep the building within the “Affordable Housing” system permanently.[27] While the landlord would receive fair-market rate payment for the building, it would end any further speculation around the building. More importantly, such a move would have the potential to establish a precedent citywide, prompting the tenants of those 11,771 units with expiring covenants to insist that the city do the same for their buildings. To date, the city has not acted.[28]

Along similar lines, tenant organizers across the world have demanded local governments expropriate properties to take them off the speculative real estate market. Seizing private property for the public interest is a meaningful, aggressive way to fight back against slumlords, speculators, and scofflaws. For example, if the Los Angeles Housing Department receives more than a certain number of complaints and cites an owner with more than a number of code violations, then the city should move to take possession of that building and convert it to public housing. If someone’s privilege to drive a car or practice law can be taken away, why can’t their involvement in real estate speculation be rescinded as well?

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Flyer by the Hillside Villa Tenants Association, January 2020. Part of a campaign led by the Tenants Association and a coalition of groups—including L.A. Tenants Union and Chinatown Community for Equitable Development—to pressure the L.A. City Council to use eminent domain to expropriate the apartments rather than allow the affordable housing building to fall out of covenant and revert to market rate.

The city of Berlin, Germany, recently repurchased 694 apartments on Karl Marx Allee, a rapidly-gentrifying area. The units — built as social housing but privatized in 2004 — were about to be sold to a corporate landlord, Deutsche Wohnen, and many residents rightly assumed that rents would rise and displacement would be rampant. As Berlin has begun to face the same eviction pressures as Los Angeles, the local government decided to pay 90–100 million euros to make Karl Marx Allee publicly owned again, greatly increasing the likelihood that tenants in other neighborhoods and other German cities will demand the same. There is even discussion of banning housing profiteers like Deutsche Wohnen from the city of Berlin, and the local government is also considering implementing a hard rent cap to curb speculation.[29]

Social Democrat Housing

“Public” or “social” housing doesn’t carry the same overwhelming stigma in other cities around the world that it does in the U.S., the product of racist stigmatization and sensationalized media coverage, usually in furtherance of real estate interests, over decades.

In the city of Vienna, Austria — always high ranking on lists of “best” and “happiest” cities in the world — 62% percent of residents (almost 1.2 million people) live in public housing. These tenants pay a maximum of 20–25% of their incomes in rent. If a person earns €3,300 a month or less, they are eligible to apply for a public housing unit. Residents are never required to move out, even if their income increases. The local government adds 5,000 new units annually in areas all around the city. Planners work with architects producing new models and ensuring that public housing is never isolated from the rest of Vienna. About 200,000 units are owned outright by the city and 220,000 units are public-private.[30] In the case of the latter, the city purchases land and solicits proposals from developers who then build and own the units (after a collaborative process with designers and community members). The private developers work with the stipulation that half (not mere fractions, as in Los Angeles) of the apartments are rented by the city as public housing to low-income tenants. The other half go to middle-income tenants for higher rents, but still fall under the public housing rubric and are subject to rigid oversight. Such a system appears completely incredible when compared to the U.S. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to note that the Vienna model still makes room for housing to be treated as a commodity, allowing for private profit from the housing its citizenry.

Public housing has been absolutely integral to the development of the wealthy city-state of Singapore since its founding in 1965. Over 80% of the housing stock is public, built by the government’s Housing and Development Board and home to approximately 3.2 million people.[31] Primarily built for ownership rather than renting[32][33] — and thus described even by corporate media like Bloomberg as the “envy of [the] world” — the system increasingly operates alongside a growing private market, which then impacts homeowners’ equity and a unit’s value and/or desirability. After publicly funded construction, units are bought, sold, valued, and profited from, thus creating some commonality between Singapore’s model and the preeminence of “property values” that have myopically guided U.S. planning housing policies to the detriment of our public housing.

Both Vienna’s and Singapore’s public housing practices nonetheless create new and enduring neighborhoods among adjoining residences, free from the gentrification tormenting Los Angeles. In the case of Singapore’s estates, each becomes a multicultural[35] complex with markets and hawker centers; however, community self-determination is not a factor beyond the appointment of Town Councils to act similarly to homeowners associations. At their core, both cities’ models are still hierarchical.

Socialized Housing

An example more in line with the grassroots organizing and demands of the L.A. Tenants Union is found throughout the entire country of Venezuela, where the government housing model remains entirely outside of the private profit system. The government’s La Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela (Great Housing Mission) has mandated the construction of 5 million homes around the country by 2025.[36] Since the plan’s commencement in 2011, following an initial plan to build emergency housing for flood victims, over 2.8 million homes have been constructed to provide housing for around one-third of the population,[37] over 300,000 in 2019 alone.[38] Either the state constructs the units and opens them to the poor (asking only a very low, income-based payment), or they provide materials and land for people — organized into officially recognized autonomous comunas — to build themselves.

The Venezuelan model thus does not offer public housing for rent or for sale from the top-down. Instead, the purpose of public housing is to stimulate self-governing settlements through public investment. The comunas are recognized within the Venezuelan constitution, with over 3,000 such groups registered. Each comuna elects delegates to state-level confederations with their own parliaments — a network of true bottom-up organizing supported by a government that emphasizes full ownership by working-class people and their corresponding empowerment. About 72% of inhabitants possess a title to their homes.[39] But unlike ownership in Singapore, there is no concern for a local housing market: Venezuela hands land and titles to the comunas to encourage their functioning as independent small towns. Each comuna hosts a number of cooperative, community-focused businesses and enterprises operated by residents, such as bakeries. In 2018 alone, 93,898 land titles were given away,[40] allowing residents and comunas to move toward true autonomy, rather than only stability. Despite economic attacks through U.S. sanctions, Venezuela continues to prioritize and subsidize new construction.

Housing as a human right requires that we turn our search for solutions far away from market-based models and toward tenant-centered ones.

4. CONCLUSION: FROM “AFFORDABLE HOUSING” TO HOUSING IS A HUMAN RIGHT

Writing about the rise of homelessness in the 1980s, progressive social critic Jonathan Kozol cited a HUD deputy assistant secretary in the Reagan administration as saying, “We’re getting out of the housing business, Period.” This led Kozol to famously conclude, “The cause of homelessness is lack of housing.”[41]

Thirty years later, the inaccessibility of housing has dramatically worsened, but not for the lack of development. Today, the U.N. estimates that 60% of all global investments are in real estate and 75% of that number is in housing.[42] In cities around the world, downtown skylines are a forest of construction cranes. Single-family neighborhoods are now dotted with small-lot developments and generic luxury apartment buildings. Investors stealthily convert rent-controlled apartment buildings in historic neighborhoods into boutique hotels and short-term rentals for tech-industry contract workers. And the process of social cleansing follows everywhere nearly the same templates engineered for upzoning, upscaling, and uprooting.

The crisis of housing access is driven by the commodification of housing, which we define as the need to increase real estate investment value through planned scarcity, waste, and monopoly ownership. For all the promises of “opportunity” and “improvement” that accompany gentrification, the result for tenants is rent-gouging and social cleansing. “Affordable Housing,” while held out as the solution to the affordability crisis caused by real estate speculation, only further accelerates the crisis of displacement in the ways we’ve outlined.

The history of “Affordable Housing” is part of a decades-long assault on non-capitalist housing alternatives illuminates where our debates about housing solutions should begin. We need to start the conversation at a different place than that of housing supply, especially when the actual meaning of “Affordable Housing” is predetermined to serve the interests of a for-profit housing system (even in those instances where the “Affordable Housing” developer is part of the nonprofit housing developer industry). The failure of “Affordable Housing” has been carefully detailed here in terms of affordability covenants that expire, AMI income categories that exclude the poor, and the use of “Affordable Housing” to privatize public housing, remove rent controls, and accelerate both real estate speculation and displacement.

To build tenant power, we believe we must articulate a different vision. For that reason, we put forward three challenges to our movement:

  1. We challenge the tenant movement to center discussions around public housing in its analysis and demands. Let’s have lively debates about what public housing can mean and be, learning from the past while holding onto what we’re imagining as a movement today.
  2. We challenge the tenant movement to reject the slippery language of “Affordable Housing” and to openly demand social housing solutions outside of the market. The commodification of housing is fundamentally incompatible with the human right to housing. There can be no reconciliation of the two.
  3. Finally, activists must demand housing solutions that build on the political vision already manifest in the autonomous tenant power movement, pushing for housing that supports local autonomy. L.A. Tenants Union organizes collective struggles at the level of apartment buildings and neighborhoods. Our housing should support neighbors working together to build community.

Since the founding of the L.A. Tenants Union in 2015, members have argued that ours is not a housing movement but a movement of tenants — empowering tenants in the fullness of our lives, not just around housing. Thus, we need a housing system that encourages autonomous collective ownership of public apartment buildings, that channels resources to tenants to build and maintain their own housing as a social context for autonomous collective action at the level of the social, political, cultural, and economic. And we need to see social housing as part of all aspects of our lives. “Supportive housing” should be a universal concept integrating medical care, childcare, education, cultural expression, cooperative economic endeavors, environmental justice, food justice, and justice in terms of race, gender, sexuality, class, and immigration justice.

A primary component of the commodification of housing is to alienate our need for accommodations from the fullness of our lives. A radical housing vision rejects that separation and restores to our notion of housing the experience of social life. We propose this is the vision of the future whose seeds already exist in spaces where LATU members organize mutual support and put community into practice through tenants associations and local neighborhood chapters.

Why demand “Affordable Housing,” when we could demand the whole city?

__________

This essay is written by the “Affordable Housing” is a Scam! affinity group made up of members of the L.A. Tenants Union. The essay is intended to promote critical debate as our movement advances the larger struggles for housing justice and tenant power. Anthony Carfello (L.A. Tenants Union Media Committee), Patricia Morton (Media and Cultural Studies Department, University of California, Riverside), Dont Rhine (L.A. Tenants Union Hollywood Local), Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal (L.A. Tenants Union Vermont y Beverly Local), and Jacob Woocher (L.A. Tenants Union).

NOTES

  1. All housing is affordable to someone, even luxury mansions.
  2. Jacob Woocher, “As LA’s Chinatown gentrifies, hundreds of tenants at the Hillside Villa Apartments face massive rent increases,” https://knock-la.com/as-las-chinatown-gentrifies-hundreds-of-tenants-at-the-hillside-villa-apartments-face-eviction-4c98ee23b8d2 (February 28, 2019).
  3. Housing and Community Investment Department of Los Angeles and Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, “City of Los Angeles Joint Assessment of Fair Housing: Goals and Strategies Section,” http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2016/16-0647_misc_09-26-2017.pdf (September 26, 2017).
  4. Housing and Community Investment Department of Los Angeles, “Council Report Back: The Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department’s report regarding research into efforts undertaken by other cities to preserve or extend expiring affordable housing covenants,” http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2016/16-1443_rpt_HCI_02-15-2018.pdf (February 15, 2018).
  5. Even the “permanent supportive housing” slated to be built for unhoused residents under L.A.’s voter-approved Measure HHH isn’t permanent. Although advocates promoted the measure as a fix for the city’s homelessness crisis, HHH’s “supportive housing” follows the dominant model: HHH projects are privately owned and most are regulated by covenants of fifty five years.
  6. Vincent Reina, “The Preservation of Subsidized Housing: What We Know and Need to Know,” Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, https://www.lincolninst.edu/sites/default/files/pubfiles/reina_wp18vr1.pdf (November 2018).
  7. Jacob Woocher, “Tom Botz and his daughter Chloe have a cruel history of anti-children building management,” https://knock-la.com/tom-botz-landlord-and-his-daughter-chloe-have-a-cruel-history-of-anti-children-building-c662ca2b850 (April 9, 2019).
  8. Affordable Housing Finance, “Top 50 Affordable Housing Owners of 2018,” https://www.housingfinance.com/management-operations/top-50-affordable-housing-owners-of-2018_o (2018).
  9. Based in New Jersey, The Michaels Organization, is ranked as one of the top developers and owners of “private-sector affordable housing” in the country. The Michaels Organization was also a major beneficiary of the Federal government’s HOPE VI scheme to demolish, rebuild at a smaller scale, and privatize public housing. See, “The Michaels Development Co. Names New President,” Affordable Housing Finance, http://www.housingfinance.com/news/the-michaels-development-co-names-new-president_o (December 18, 2012).
  10. For the city of Los Angeles neighborhood median incomes, see L.A. Times data map, see https://maps.latimes.com/neighborhoods/income/median/neighborhood/list/.
  11. In November 2016, Los Angeles voters approved Measure JJJ, instituting the Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) scheme, otherwise known as Transit Oriented Development (TOD). The TOC scheme codifies a number of development incentives in return for the construction of a percentage of “Affordable Housing” units, such as upzoning, density bonuses, and stream-lined approvals, with the intention of building up density around major transit corridors — buses and train lines. The reality of Transit Oriented Communities has been the opposite: rent-spikes, mass evictions, the destruction of neighborhood businesses, the demolition of rent-controlled housing and greater housing precarity, resulting in plummeting public transit usage. It was for these reasons that the L.A. Tenants Union opposed Measure JJJ, taking a controversial position that put the union in conflict with much of the nonprofit corporate and community-based organization sector. For a recent critique of Transit Oriented Communities, see Dick Platkin, “Curious Facts Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in Los Angeles Uncovered by CSUN Planning Students,” http://citywatchla.com/index.php/2016-01-01-13-17-00/los-angeles/16890-curious-facts-about-transit-oriented-development-tod-in-los-angeles-uncovered-by-csun-planning-students (January 10, 2019).
  12. HUD references a family of four as the median when it sets the AMI brackets. See, The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, “FY 2019 Income Limits Documentation System,” https://www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/il/il2019/2019summary.odn.
  13. This statistic is from the 2017 American Community Survey (ACS).
  14. Importantly, The problem is not that middle-class renters are getting support — everyone deserves housing they can afford. The problem is that those who need it most do not benefit from “Affordable Housing” policy. For contrast, in public housing in the City of Los Angeles, the average household has an income of just $16,885. Human Impact Partners, “The Rental Assistance Demonstration Project,” https://hiasociety.org/resources/Documents/Rental-Assistance-Demo-Final.pdf (February 2012).
  15. See, for example, the policies of Abode Communities, one of the major “Affordable Housing” developers in Los Angeles: http://home.hacla.org/Portals/0/xBlog/uploads/2017/8/29/Camino-Vista-Lease-Up-Presentation_20170822.pdf.
  16. Bianca Barragan, “City commission OKs big Flower Market redevelopment,” https://la.curbed.com/2019/8/12/20802676/southern-california-flower-market-redevelopment-approval-commission (August 12, 2019).
  17. Dakota Smith, “Plan to demolish rent-controlled units for affordable housing in Westlake sparks backlash,” https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-westlake-prop-hhh-20180813-story.html (August 13, 2018).
  18. Abode was also involved in the “redevelopment” of the Dana Strand public housing complex in Wilmington, destroying almost 400 units of public housing and replacing them with privately owned “Affordable Housing,” priced again for families making up to $50,000 (50% of the AMI). Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, “Grand Opening of Camino del Mar and Vista del Mar in Wilmington,” http://home.hacla.org/news/ArticleID/204/Grand-Opening-of-Camino-del-Mar-and-Vista-del-Mar-in-Wilmington (September 24, 2018).
  19. Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, “The Short History of a Long Struggle,” http://alianzacontraartwashing.org/en/coalition-statements/bhaaad-the-short-history-of-a-long-struggle/ (July 2016). See also Jacqueline Leavitt, “A Public-Housing Policy That Says Fewer Units Is More,” The Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1998-oct-25-op-35915-story.html (October 25, 1998).
  20. Urban Land Institute, “Pueblo Del Sol,” https://casestudies.uli.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Pueblo-del-sol.pdf (June 2016).
  21. Stephen Sharp, “Rose Hill Courts Redevelopment Moves Forward,” https://urbanize.la/post/rose-hill-courts-redevelopment-moves-forward (October 2, 2018).
  22. Joseph Heathcott, “The Strange Career of Public Housing,” Journal of the American Planning Association, 78:4 (2012), 360–375; DOI: 10.1080/01944363.2012.740296.
  23. Laura Sullivan, “Affordable Housing Program Costs More, Shelters Fewer,” https://www.npr.org/2017/05/09/527046451/affordable-housing-program-costs-more-shelters-less (May 9, 2017).
  24. Andrew Aurand, Dan Emmanuel, Keely Stater, and Kelly McElwain, “Balancing Priorities: Preservation and Neighborhood Opportunity in the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program Beyond Year 30.” National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Public and Affordable Housing Research Corporation, https://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/Balancing-Priorities.pdf (October 2018).
  25. In Los Angeles, the tenants’ rights movement has its roots in the struggle against HOPE VI conversions. In 1996, the Union de Vecinos was formed by residents of the Pico Aliso public housing to fight against HOPE VI and the plan to reduce 1,200 units of public housing to 300. While Union de Vecinos was unsuccessful in stopping the demolition, it did secure guaranteed housing in the redeveloped Pico Aliso for all its members. Today, the members of Union de Vecinos are members of the L.A. Tenants Union through the joint Union de Vecinos/Eastside Local.
  26. Novogradac, “$1.3 Trillion Omnibus Bill Would Increase HUD Funding by nearly $5 billion, Expand RAD Program,” https://www.novoco.com/news/13-trillion-omnibus-bill-would-increase-hud-funding-nearly-5-billion-expand-rad-program (March 22, 2018).
  27. Zoie Matthew, “Should the City Use Eminent Domain to Keep Housing Affordable?” https://www.lamag.com/citythinkblog/chinatown-tenants-hillside-villa/ (May 21, 2019).
  28. For an examination of Los Angeles’ failure to act to protect these tenants, see Jacob Woocher, “As Affordable Housing Units Expire, Los Angeles Lags in Preservation Efforts,” https://shelterforce.org/2019/09/12/as-affordable-housing-units-expire-los-angeles-lags-in-preservation-efforts/ (September 12, 2019).
  29. Feargus O’Sullivan, “Berlin Builds an Arsenal of Ideas to Stage a Housing Revolution,” https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/02/berlin-germany-housing-rent-how-much-price-landlord-policies/582898/ (February 21, 2019).
  30. PD&R Edge, “Vienna’s Unique Social Housing Program,” HUDuser.gov, https://www.huduser.gov/portal/pdredge/pdr_edge_featd_article_011314.html (n.d.).
  31. Housing and Development Board, “Key Statistics 2017/2018,” http://www10.hdb.gov.sg/ebook/AR2018/key-statistics.html (2018)
  32. Residents purchase a 99-year lease on a unit, https://www.gov.sg/factually/content/do-hdb-flat-buyers-own-their-flat.
  33. The Housing and Development Board offers mortgage loans, as do private banks. See https://www.hdb.gov.sg/cs/infoweb/residential/financing-a-flat-purchase/housing-loan-from-hdb.
  34. Sarah Keating, “Can Singapore’s social housing keep up with changing times?” https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20181210-can-singapores-social-housing-keep-up-with-changing-times (July 22, 2019); Pooja Thakur Mahrotri, “Singapore’s Public Housing, Envy of World, Hits Rough Patch,” https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-25/singapore-s-public-housing-envy-of-the-world-hits-rough-patch (October 25, 2018).
  35. The government maintains a quota system in HDB estates. See “Ethnic Integration Policy and SPR Quota,” https://www.hdb.gov.sg/cs/infoweb/residential/buying-a-flat/resale/ethnic-integration-policy-and-spr-quota.
  36. Our reflections on the comunas in Venezuela were informed in part by conversations with L.A. Tenants Union member Elizabeth Blaney who participated in a solidarity delegation to Venezuela representing Union de Vecinos Eastside Local in early 2019.
  37. Ministerio del Poder Popular para Hábitat y Vivienda, http://www.minhvi.gob.ve/.
  38. TeleSUR English, “Venezuelan Housing Mission Passes ‘Milestone’ with 2.5M Homes,” https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/14198 (January 2, 2019).
  39. Venezolana de Televisión, “Cerca del 72% de los habitantes de la Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela poseen título de propiedad,” https://www.vtv.gob.ve/gran-mision-vivienda-venezuela-titulo-propiedad/ (June 10, 2019).
  40. Orinoco Tribune, “Venezuelan Government Reached a Milestone of 2,500,000 Homes Built,” https://orinocotribune.com/venezuelan-government-reached-a-milestone-of-2500000-homes-build (December 27, 2018).
  41. Jonathan Kozol, Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America (NY: Three Rivers Press, 1988), pgs. 14–15.
  42. Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context,” United Nations Human Rights Council, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G17/009/56/PDF/G1700956.pdf?OpenElement (January 18, 2017).

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