Land No Lords
by Katie Boone
According to the latest count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, about 52,765 individuals and families in Los Angeles County are currently without a home. Many others are facing skyrocketing rents, evictions, and substandard living conditions. Solutions offered by the city’s political leaders have been fundamentally ill-equipped to tackle this massive housing crisis, as they fail to address the reasons for which tens of thousands of people fell homeless to begin with. In order to redress the the homelessness and increasing housing precarity that so many in LA are experiencing, we must be willing to take an honest look at the inherently exploitative way in which housing is distributed.
The most recent policy attempts to mitigate homelessness include measures H and HHH, which have provided increased funding for outreach teams, transitional shelters, job training and other supportive services, and the construction of 10,000 new permanent supportive housing units for people with disabilities over the next ten years. While the units and services provided by these measures are desperately needed, the unfortunate reality is that they will never come close to ending LA’s housing crisis. 10,000 new supportive housing units won’t impact the lives of the over 40,000 homeless people who won’t receive them. Job training won’t resolve housing insecurity when many who already work full-time cannot afford to pay their rent. For many in LA, amplifying the instability of their housing are wages that, for decades, have not risen with the cost of living. While rent control is able to cushion the impacts of stagnant wages for some, the majority of renters remain unprotected. A recent attempt was made to expand rent control to a larger portion of the state through Proposition 10, but real estate companies and other opponents eliminated any chance of it passing by spending colossal amounts of money campaigning against it.
Such solutions to rectify the housing crisis fall short because they are sought within the framework of the housing market, ignoring that it is the housing market itself that has created the crisis. Measures like H and HHH are born out of the supposition that a lack of property, rather than an ineffective and unjust method of property distribution, lies at the root of the problem. The intrinsic exploitation of the housing market and private property are ignored, while desperate attempts are made to mitigate their most disastrous impacts on human life.
Even when achieved, regulations on the housing market are precarious by nature. The slightest shifts in political power can put tenants at risk of losing long and hard-fought policy gains. Still, let's suppose that a policy could be passed to expand rent control throughout the entire country. Even in such a case, renters would ultimately remain exploited as long they are paying any portion at all of their income to a landlord. At first glance, one may reflexively object to such a statement. This is a reasonable response, as the necessity of landlords is a concept that, for many, is taken for granted. Upon further exploration of the role of landlords, however, it becomes clear that they occupy a needless, opportunistic position within our current housing system.
This system treats a basic human need as a commodity, and allows landlords to profit off of the demand for it. The right of landlords to own as many properties as they desire is accepted as necessary to ensure liberty and freedom for all, while the right to be safely sheltered is not. This right to own benefits a small minority of people and is ensured at the expense of the vast majority, who will never be privileged enough to belong to the owning class. Irrelevant is the fact that a landlord will never live in the properties they own, or have much of a stake in the state of them. They are granted the freedom to own that property, while renters are granted the “freedom” (are forced) to sell their labor just to be allowed to exist in it.
Extortion via rent is not the only problematic aspect of third-party property ownership. Having one’s property owned by another person or company results in less than ideal living conditions for many tenants. Because a landlord’s only function in owning the property is to generate a profit, they are incentivized to utilize the cheapest possible methods of property maintenance. This, all too often, leads to corners being cut when it comes to ensuring that a unit is safe and habitable. It is not profitable for a landlord to purchase mold remediation or extermination services, or to renovate a building that fails to meet fire safety requirements. This universal tendency of landlords to chose profit over tenants’ safety forces many to live in unsanitary and dangerous conditions. In plenty of especially tragic cases, it has cost tenants their lives.
Whenever the provision of a basic human need occurs within a profit-motivated framework, large segments of the population will be denied access to it. In recent years, most Americans have come to wholly accept this within the context of healthcare. Polls show that around 70% of Americans are now in favor of replacing our current system with one in which healthcare would not be treated as a commodity. Similarly, it is becoming less convincing to workers that housing should exist as a product in the marketplace.
Direct actions being taken against some of the most nefarious private property owners in Los Angeles are on the rise. Central to many of these actions is the LA Tenants Union. The LATU has been using education, advocacy, rent strikes and other strategies to successfully build tenant power and fight for the human right to housing. While it is important and necessary to engage in these direct actions, it must be simultaneously recognized that the root of housing inequality runs much deeper than a handful of particularly unscrupulous landlords.
When the system as is leaves us with more vacant homes than homeless people, our only hope for housing justice lies in a solution that takes place outside of, and ultimately dismantles, the housing market entirely. The inspiring actions of groups like the LA Tenants Union are building the foundation of what must become a movement to replace the current structure of property ownership with one in which land is owned collectively by the communities that live on it.
This story appeared in the Spring 2019 edition of Salvo. Print subscriptions to the paper are available for $4-10 a year. Sign up at www.patreon.org/salvopaper