The Inconsistency of Private Housing Development

How could a person such as myself organize in support of privately owned, built, and operated housing while still identifying as a Socialist?

This question was asked of me at a recent meeting of the East Bay DSA; here I expand on my answer and repeat it for others to read.

The MacArthur Mammoth was approved at the Oakland Planning Commission and subsequently at City Council in early 2017. It brought over 400 homes, nearly 50 of which subsidized affordable, to an empty dirt pit next door to an urban BART station that was previously a parking lot for many years.

Like all housing in the bay area, it did not happen without community support. Through East Bay Forward, the housing abundance organization I co-founded, I was able to help mobilize significant support for the project. This support came in the form of letter writing, turning out for public comment, and attending community meetings.

The MacArthur Mammoth is indeed privately funded housing. No specre of a doubt about that, nor do I intend to argue otherwise. Private investors enter a corporation into private ownership of land, and proceed to build privately owned housing on the land, followed by entering into contract with a private housing management corporation employed in the operation of collecting rent from renters in need of housing.

This construction of relations — designed by Capital, in fact — is the only outcome you can arrive at given the current legal environment around land use. To elaborate:

  • The Oakland City Budget allocates 53% of our expenditures to “Public Safety”, meaning funding for affordable housing is incredibly scarce.
  • The Oakland Planning code indicates this parcel of land is zoned S-15, “Transit-Oriented Development Commercial Zone”, which defined its approval process.
  • The original Environmental Impact Report (EIR) as certified in 2008 for the MacArthur Transit Village, cost millions of dollars and several years to produce, which defined how difficult changing the process is.

The way these circumstances interacted produced the MacArthur Mammoth.

When funding for affordable housing is scarce, the answer is to move city money from the “Public Safety” line into the “Housing” line. The second best answer is to work with what tools are available; in this case, the developer is subsidizing the affordable units with a portion of the rents the market rate tenants pay. In the end, we get some affordable housing without stretching our already thin housing budget; its just funded with private money.

The approval process includes a number of ways for any well-funded NIMBY to derail the whole thing, potentially for another 7 years. When anyone can delay turning an empty dirt pit into housing — including affordable housing — that we absolutely need, the answer to that is to change the process. The answer that Capitalism provides is less attractive: have enough money that you can wait out the 7 years.

Boston Properties has more money than god and is able to do that. Smaller local Oakland developers that would focus less on profit do not; especially not the non-profit developers that are capable of building 100% subsidized affordable housing. In the end, we find that a heavily capitalized private corporation is able to break this very expensive procedural logjam.

Of course, none of what happened addresses the fact that it will still take another 3–4 years to break ground due to building codes, signing contracts, securing investors, hiring labor, materials, more permits, etc.

To summarize, approval of the MacArthur Mammoth brings us:

  • Affordable housing near the sorta-wealthy neighborhood of Temescal
  • Market rate housing near the less-wealthy neighborhood of Longfellow
  • Another 3–4 years of looking at a dirt pit while the project finalizes all the details you’d expect of a 22 story tower in a seismically active region.

How do I, a socialist support this outcome?

For one, it brings affordable housing to a dirt pit, where there is currently none. That is certainly worth celebrating.

For another, we don’t have a practical alternative to high-rent private housing. Yes, as a socialist, I too demand the abolition of rent and land ownership. In lieu of that, cheap rent and public ownership is good too. And if even that is too much to ask — as it is in Oakland today — I will still fight for our small scraps of affordable housing paid for by private capital, while keeping an eye on more lofty goals.

Our housing crisis will not be solved one housing project at a time. Supporting or opposing individual projects misses the forest for the trees. The fact that we even have the necessity to argue that two units of subsidized housing makes all the difference in the world (as in the case with 2109 Adeline in Berkeley) shows what capitalism has driven us to: petty fights using land stolen from indigenous people as a proxy for the very real fights against capitalist profits, gentrification and displacement, and imaginary national (or neighborhood) borders drawn on symbolic maps.

Socialism does not say anything about these project-by-project arguments, because there is nothing socialist about the outcome of an undemocratic, capital-driven process. If Socialists wish to tackle the housing question, we will need to step back and consider the bigger picture about cities themselves. What does Socialism say about access to health services? Food? Education? These issues and more will provide us with guidance in regards to democratic governance over the built environment’s design.

I supported the MacArthur Mammoth because it was the least awful decision made available, as given for by the process chosen long before the present. A Socialist alternative cannot be applied to a process designed by capitalism; such a process only provides for capitalist answers. For a true Socialist answer to the housing question, our very system of governing land use must be rejected and replaced. I call for an abolition of the Planning Code, the only thing standing between us and true democratic control of the commons.