What will the future of housing policy look like?

This article was prepared in collaboration with After the Storm Magazine

Founder and co-editor Alex Mell-Taylor of After the Storm magazine chats with Katlyn Cotton, a DSA activist and tenant rights organizer. The two of them chat about some problems with current housing policy, why cat people have special problems, some of their favorite pieces of media, and the future of housing policy in both the greater Metro DC area and the United States.

The problem with "affordable" housing

Alex Mell-Taylor: Hello, my name is Alex from After the Storm magazine. So you're a tenant rights activist in the DC area. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

Katlyn Cotton: Sure, I am Katlyn Cotton. I use she/her pronouns. I live in Alexandria, Virginia, and I'm a Stomp Out Slumlords organizer and a member of MDC DSA's NoVA Branch Tenant Organizing Working Group. I got involved in tenant organizing at the beginning of the pandemic when sporadically a lot of tenants all had the same problem of not being able to pay their rent at the same time.

So, it was around that time that I helped form the NoVA Tenant Organizing Working Group back in 2020. I'm drawn to tenant organizing because, well, I've been a tenant for most of my life. I grew up in apartment buildings during the formative periods of junior high and high school. So I tell lots of stories to tenants about that experience. 

The thing I like about tenant organizing is it's an intensely personal and very vulnerable way to organize as you talk about your feelings and tell stories about yourself and get other people to talk about their feelings, their fears, and their hopes. You have to show up, and be really genuine about why you, as a socialist, want them to do this scary thing of forming a tenant union. 

So all that stuff is pretty scary, but it's very rewarding and you get to do that thing that we all want to do, which is organize the working class. Like literally meet them where they are, as in their homes, where they experience capitalism in a very acute way. So where they are, but also as who they are, because you're meeting so many different people, and they have such different life experiences. Different backgrounds. Different politics. Not even just different from my politics but sometimes even different within themselves. You know, like people are fascinating. 

Alex: So we have this need that you've described with housing policy and what you're doing, I want to define the problem. What would you say are some of the core problems with housing? Both in the area that you are organizing in, but also more broadly in this country?

KC: People are very quick to say we have an affordable housing crisis. Which, sure, we do. But the core problem is that housing is traded for profit and housing is commodified. There's no affordable housing problem without capitalism. So an acute way people experience that is getting evicted. If they catch covid and miss two weeks of work, then they get evicted. That is more than just an affordability problem.

The landlord, specifically in the building where we organize, will have a very low barrier to entry to rent for new immigrants or people who don't have a rental history, but then really exploit them once they're in and paying rent. So there may be a low barrier to entry, but the landlord never fixes anything. They will let them live with rats or mold. The conditions within their apartment, like maintenance issues or the way they're treated by management, are all symptoms of the core problem, which is that we treat housing as a profit vehicle. 

Alex: Let's dive a little bit more into that. Pretend I don’t understand this. Suppose I say, well some of my best friends are landlords. My aunt is renting out houses. It seems like a good way for her to make money. Why, specifically, is housing as a commodity a problem? Why does it inevitably lead to these terrible conditions that you've seen on the ground?

KC: Sure. I also have a friend who rents out the carriage house in the back of their house. They're like, “Oh, it just helps me pay for my house.” I like talking to them about it because it helps me practice fleshing these issues out. Like, “wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t need a second income stream to afford your house?” I think inevitably when housing is considered a product it can be withheld because someone cannot afford said housing, especially if you're in a market like DC, where incomes are very high. 

Treating housing as a commodity lets you talk in very simplistic terms of supply and demand. That’s huge in Northern Virginia, where the conversation is all about “missing middle housing.” I don't buy the supply side argument because I don't think that's our problem. I think our problem is that all of the power to determine the price and condition of our housing rests with landlords, owners, and developers, and they are solely driven by increasing their own profits. This results in housing that is both expensive and often in bad condition. My favorite question to ask tenants when they get a rent increase is “what did you get for the extra money you are paying?”  The answer is always nothing--not better maintenance or new appliances or new services. Adding more supply to that equation only adds more expensive housing, it doesn’t change the power formula. 

Alex: If I were coming from a liberal or neoliberal angle-- and to give anyone who's reading this some perspective, neoliberal basically means that you want the market to dictate all human interaction (e.g., more privatization such as government-private partnerships, etc.)-- or even a progressive angle, I might say: “Yes, these rentals are squalid. They’re living in terrible conditions. So what we need are very robust protections to stop these market abuses from happening.” What would you say in response to that justification?

KC: A liberal housing advocate would probably argue for something like affordable housing incentives or affordable housing requirements as you said, and like I said,I struggle with “affordable housing” as a term. Affordable housing sounds like such a public good. Who would be opposed to an affordable housing incentive or a density bonus for affordable housing, or attack  a tax credit for affordable housing? 

But very specifically, what liberals mean when they say “affordable housing” is privately-owned, publicly-subsidized housing, which is again a market tweak to try to make the market, which does not want to provide affordable housing, provide that. There are the issues that we see on the ground with this approach. Even in subsidized housing, in low-income housing, or in tax credit housing projects, that affordability is impermanent [because the subsidy will eventually end]. It becomes a bank account for that investor to park their money tax-free for a little while with the promise that, eventually, when whatever requirement is put on the affordable units expires, [they can up rents]. Because it's never permanent. It's just a comfy place for their investment for a few years. 

And in this area, the AMI requirements are so skewed...

Alex: To jump in really quickly. AMI stands for Area Median Income. Could you explain that for someone that doesn't know the term? 

KC: Well, so it's a metric that affordable housing providers use to determine the rent range. So the Area Median Income would basically be the middle income or the income situated at the midpoint of all incomes throughout the area. So a 100% AMI would be the midpoint of all the incomes in the area. And normally, affordable housing schemes would say: “Okay, we're gonna make these units available to people making 60% of that area median income or 30% of that area median income.” 

Alex: If I'm listening right, we’re basically expecting the people who have an incentive to keep poor people out to want to provide that housing...

KC: Exactly. Again, affordable housing [read: privately owned, publicly subsidized housing] is usually not permanent and not even that affordable. AND it's not usually well-built or well-maintained. We've seen that in buildings that Stomp Out Slumlords has organized. Some have been brand new buildings that are “affordable;” these housing developments that were lauded as success stories, which took advantage of some of these incentives, and very soon after the building opened, the conditions went downhill.

By 2020, the tenants who were living in Park 7, which opened in 2016, were dealing with mold and roaches. Because even though it's an affordable housing development, they're still trying to make money--there’s little incentive to maintain the building, especially if they have to spend money on a major improvement. 

There is absolutely an Affordable Housing Industrial Complex where there's still a profit economy in affordable housing development and these incentives ensure they still make a “reasonable profit.” Then the buildings get sold as a success story, and everyone pats themselves on the back, but inevitably, their conditions are still really bad even though it's supposed to be a “good developer” and a “good landlord” and a public good. There are material consequences for the tenants who have to live in them, and a liberal affordable housing approach is failing them.

Alex: A parallel I might make is how in the environmental movement, there's this term called greenwashing, where corporations take on the aesthetic and the language of sustainability and reform but don’t push for them. It sounds like your frustration with affordability is almost the same thing. It’s this language that sounds good on paper, but like with greenwashing, these targets are not being met, right? It's not actually providing housing for people that need it.

KC: Exactly. It's hard to argue against it because it is couched in such nice language. Who's gonna argue against that, and say we shouldn't have more affordable housing? Or that we shouldn’t introduce a density bonus for a developer who includes lower income units? How could we argue that that’snot a good thing? But we’ve just seen time and again that these “affordable housing” approaches aren’t meeting the need and aren’t changing the power dynamics that keep people in unlivable conditions or on the edge of eviction. 

What will a leftist housing victory look like?

Alex: That's the dilemma, and that's what we're gonna talk about now. Because they have their framing. What is our framing? I want to do a thought exercise. Let's say that, for whatever reason, the Left has won. I don't want to get into the specifics, but pretend there are no lobbyists. There are no more centrists or moderate politicians stopping your work. What does this world look like? Where you don't have to worry about the framing of affordability. Walk me through that. What would my housing look like?

KC: Let’s see, I would hope that we have a mix of old and new units. I think there's a good argument to be made that we shouldn't just tear down a lot of housing that's already built. It should be well maintained but maintained by a collective.

So, here's my answer because I think a lot of times when we talk about the social housing that we want in the future, we may still only think of it in terms of publicly subsidized and publicly owned. I would hope that housing also has good social control. It's not just the fact that it's owned and maintained and funded by a government that's good, but I would also hope that there's still good tenant power, the word tenant broadly construed here. Like maybe the people who do live in this housing--maybe we're in a world past tenancy-- have democratic control over the space that they live in. So whether that's how maintenance funds are directed or just upkeep decisions, but just in general, I think the future still has to be a place where people have power over where they live.

Alex: So would I own the property? Would I still be paying rent? What does that look like? You're talking about democratic control, but in your ideal, just your vision, what does this concept of ownership look like?

KC: I mean, in my perfect world, you're not paying rent. Space is communal. You're not having to work to earn this space. This space is yours. We all contribute to its maintenance, upkeep, and beautification. I don't know what that scheme looks like on the ground, but ideally, I think it's ours because everyone needs a home, and therefore, they can have the home, and our only obligation is that we're all taking care of it and each other. We are contributing to everyone's safety. Contributing to everyone's sustenance. 

Alex: Would I be helping sweep the hallway of the apartment building? Or would I have a shift every two weeks to repair an aspect of the building or something like that?

KC: It's funny because we've talked about that with some of our tenants, too. A hurdle in our organizing right now is that if your landlord doesn't fix things in your unit in Virginia, it's not legal to withhold rent. However, it is legal in Virginia to pay your rent into an escrow account at the courthouse and use that money to fix things ourselves. The landlord is not fixing things. We're not living in habitable conditions. How could we build our own sort of network of mutual aid and self-care and do things for each other? 

We have a guy who knows how to fix pipes, and he does it for himself frequently in his apartment, even though it should be the landlord's responsibility. Like, would he be someone who's interested in helping other people? We have someone who's good at pest control and worked in pest control for many years. We really like that idea of doing this for ourselves. Again, the landlord is not gonna do it and we want to use that idea of collective care to inspire people to move towards some version of rent withholding, which is very scary in Virginia because there are no circumstances where it's legal and not scary.

Alex: That makes sense. I like that idea of everyone's pulling their resources together, not just money, but life skills. I want to use this to talk about space. Right now, with housing, everyone is trying to replicate the same thing. Everyone has a living room. Everyone has a kitchen. How do you imagine the literal spaces that people live in transforming as we move away from this neoliberal paradigm?

KC: That's an interesting question. I think most buildings, most places would benefit from more social spaces, even just wider halls and more places to interact and do things together. We have many tenant meetings in hallways, it would be nice if they were more comfortable and sociable! The gym is a good place for interaction, but more than that, we need places to work towards common goals. So meeting rooms, community gardens, that would be so lovely. I don't think everyone needs their own kitchen. What else could we add here? A movie room? A theater?

Alex: Oh, I love that. We're talking specifically about apartment complexes but it sounds like the space itself would be built more to be like a tiny little village almost.

KC: I think that would be interesting and cute.  I'm not married to the idea that anything about the way our apartments or our houses are now oriented inherently leads to isolation, but I do think I live in a multi-family building and like seeing my neighbors in the hallway. There are very few other opportunities for us to interact outside of the hallway. Maybe the walking of our dogs?

Alex: That's fair, and if you're a cat person, then you're out of luck.

KC: Mm-hmm. Yeah, exactly. You never meet your neighbors.

Alex: Poor cat people. Anyway, I want to continue this conversation of space, but I want to take it outside. Typically, you have to travel very far to go places, right? So, when we talk about housing, would this change spaces? What does housing look like outside of your room and building? 

KC: Do you mean like specifically as we're getting into single-family dwellings and more suburban areas?

Alex: Oh, there's no wrong way we can explore. And yeah, we can talk about suburban areas. Does suburbia even survive in this future?

KC: I don't know. It's such an interesting question. So outside of being a tenant organizer, my day job is, I work in historic preservation, right? Like the classic NIMBY stereototype, save the old buildings, yada yada. And that's a huge question for the future of existing neighborhoods, right? Neighborhoods with huge lots relative to the size of the houses. This is a place where I'm especially on board with the densification argument for just sustainability purposes and for more efficient use of transportation. I think in our socialist future, we can make suburbia a little bit denser. Dense in housing but also more uses, you know, living in a suburb without access to a neighborhood bar is just not good for the socialist future either.

Alex: So bars are essential.

KC: Vital.

Alex: What other buildings and services would you like to see more of? They don't have to be ones that exist now. They could be completely new.

KC: I want to see more circular use of everything, such as building materials, appliances, clothing. I love those types of community workshops where you can take things to be repaired. Your vacuum breaks, and you don't know how to fix a vacuum. They're not built to be fixed. They're built to be thrown away in a landfill, and I love the idea of taking my stuff somewhere and fixing it with my friends and not having to throw things away. So more of that. I guess it's the same concept as a brake light repair or a bike repair clinic--an opportunity for community empowerment, cohesion, and education.

Alex: Community repair shops!

KC: Yes, where you can go and mend your clothes, mend your appliances. Things that you would normally throw away because who in God's name knows how to repair, like, I don't know, a toaster. So more of that because that's both community building and, hopefully at that point our economy is not designed so that things are made to be used once and thrown away. So it would be more than a nice social activity, but a responsibility we all share to have a circular economy and not create so much waste. And hopefully we create new things that are easily repairable. That we build in a better, long term way. We would think of the things we produce in 100-year spans and not one-year spans, but even then, being able to not throw so much away. 

I'm trying to think of what else I want in my utopia. I mean, there are the essential things like better mental health services and no police. Those types of things are what I want to see in my utopian housing community.

Alex: That's a great place to jump off. So what I’m hearing is that in these housing communities, many things are not going to be as individualized. Even if you have your own property, there are more connection points for the community and a greater pooling of community resources.

KC: Right.

Alex: Say, in the socialist apartment building, we've already mapped out, there's a disturbance, right? Someone is enacting violence of some sort. How does this socialist apartment building complex police itself?

KC: I think it should be like a recent social housing bill coming out of Seattle, where they have a board. It's essentially a restorative justice board. So the body is made up of both the tenants and the “landlord”. In this case, the landlord is the city, but it can be owner versus tenant grievances but also cross-community grievances. It would be some sort of justice system like that. One that is not punitive but focuses on restoring the peace or addressing the harm in ways that do not require putting anyone behind bars.

Alex: I hear you. So, there's this restorative board which I think is a great idea, and this grievance process. Let's assume the worst. Someone has done something, and they are not cooperating with the grievance process. How does that work? 

KC: I mean, there has to be some sort of consequence.  I don't know what that penalty looks like. Maybe you don't get to participate in this joyous community that we've built to as full of an extent anymore. It's kind of punitive, but if you're threatening the collective, maybe you could have less access to the collective and the collective benefits. I don't know what that would look like, but it seems better than putting someone in a prison cell and taking away all of their rights. Maybe your community garden card gets revoked or something like that. 

Alex: Would the community be able to exile people via collective voting? If they perceive someone as perpetuating harm and the grievance process has broken down, what are your thoughts on that scenario?

KC: I guess that depends on what the rest of the world looks like. Right now, I've been watching the Last of Us, where people are not in utopian communities [because, zombie apocalypse], but they are like the only communities that exist, and so it's funny to think of exile in that sense where you’d be dooming them. I don't want to doom anyone.

I mean, on what grounds does someone get expelled from DSA? I don't know.

How do we get there?

Alex: I want to pull back from this futuristic exercise and talk about this picture of this possible future we have painted; how do we reach it? We’ve mentioned certain solutions, but what are policies that people can engage in the here-and-now as well as over the next five years to start moving towards this more communal housing policy?

KC: Well, I think our tenant unions need to start winning and there are tenant unions around the country that are having big wins. DC has won a bunch of recent TOPA fights. We only have TOPA because of tenant activists, winning their fights back in the ‘70s. Do I need to explain what TOPA is for readers? 

Alex: Yes, can you elaborate on TOPA, and also about what a tenant union is?

KC: So a tenant union is not a legally protected entity the way a labor union is, maybe in New York City or in LA, but in Virginia, the law is not on our side. A tenant union is a group of tenants acting together, saying we are a union, collectively. We have power that we would not have individually against our landlord because we can make demands as a group. We can withhold rent. We can show up in space together on behalf of one or all of us. So that's a tenant union in the simplest of turns. It is not a legally protected or recognized body. 

In DC, in the ‘70s, there was a wave of tenant activism, and a couple of big policy things happened that have shaped the tenant organizing landscape to this day. One of those was a legal precedent for withholding your rent over unlivable conditions. It’s almost a market-based argument. It’s saying, “Hey, we have a deal. I pay you money in exchange for a habitable space, and you're not holding up your end of the deal, so I don't have to give you rent.”  That policy is really useful for a rent strike. 

The other big thing is the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA). It's essentially a first right of refusal for tenants in affordable housing and subsidized housing to maintain that affordability should the buildings sell. So if a landlord sells the building, they have to give notice to the city and to the tenants, and the tenants get a certain amount of time to form a tenant association and try to buy the building with some assistance from the city. The ultimate happy outcome from that would be that the tenants purchase the building and establish a limited equity co-op and maintain the building’s affordably forever.

Alex: Okay, I'm gonna ask you to define another term. What is an equity co-op?

KC: It basically means they own it collectively. And there's a limit to how much they can sell for. They're set up differently, depending on each co-op. The members of the co-op commit to resell their share based on a certain formula that will keep it affordable. 

So as a happy outcome, the Buena Vista Tenants Union in DC, just officially bought their building after going on rent strike for two years and going through all this crazy stuff and living through these terrible conditions. One thing is for sure, if the landlord wants you out so they can flip the building and get higher rents, they will let you live with the most insane conditions to force you to move. But these tenants stuck with it, and now they're gonna buy their building, and they're gonna invest in the building to fix it up; it's amazing. So that's the happy outcome. 

Another still happy outcome is, in some TOPA cases, the landlord can buy the tenants out, basically buy their TOPA rights from them to be able to sell the building or not have to deal with the TOPA process. And so, in some buildings, it makes sense for them to do that, especially if it's a bunch of studio apartments. So a couple of buildings in DC have also done that. But that's basically TOPA.

Alex: So a rent strike in the building and tenant organizing. Are there any other solutions that our readers should be aware of?

KC: Is that how we got on this? How did I start talking about TOPA? I feel like I can talk about it forever.

Alex: No, nerd out. Yes, how else do we get to the future we described?

KC: Absolutely, so in DC, it's interesting because having that TOPA roadmap, so many buildings in DC go the TOPA route because it's an established, prescribed path with fairly predictable outcomes. In a lot of other places, you have to try uncharted things. Like in LA, they pressured the city into using the power of eminent domain to take the building from the landlord and then maintain it as permanently affordable housing. That's the future I want to see, I want to see us just taking properties from landlords and maintaining them as permanently affordable housing.

Alex: It's sounding like if you win your local city council, you have this huge power of eminent domain that you can use for a lot of things.

KC: Well, absolutely, it never hurts. I do not know what the Council's makeup was like in Los Angeles or what specific pressures they applied, whether it was just militant tenant protesting for so long, but eventually, the city council had to give in to the tenants’ demands. I know having Janeese Lewis George in DC has been really impactful in getting DC’s version of a social housing bill proposed. That's an exciting thing, the Green New Deal for Housing.

In Alexandria or all of Virginia, I would love to start with rent control. Or with enshrining the right for tenants to organize. Something like TOPA would be cool. On the other hand, because we don’t have an existing policy like TOPA in Virginia, we’ll just have to try bold things. There is no safety net of regulation, like tenant-friendly protections that DC has. That would be nice, don't get me wrong, but militant organizing is what led to a lot of the good protections that do exist in other countries or other cities. So militant tenant organizing is our only hope right now.

Alex: This has been a fantastic conversation. I want to bring things to a close by asking you for media recommendations. If someone wants to learn more about housing policy, what piece of media would you recommend? It could be a book, a poem, a song, a video game or anything. 

KC: I have it right here. It's called Capital City by Sam Stein. It's not universally acclaimed by tenant organizers, but it is really good. It's written by a city planner. He does a good job of illustrating the ways that, like the state and the real estate industrial complex, feed each other and support each other. Then the other thing I would recommend is The Dig podcast came out with an episode interviewing tenant organizers. They've got lots to say. 

Alex: Wonderful, so the other piece of media that I want to get your brain is for this sort of futurist, forwarding type of society building we did today. What is a piece of futurist media that you would recommend to people?

KC: This is a good question. I haven't allowed myself to really enjoy that side of things and I want to do more now. A book I read and enjoyed is called Radical Suburbs by Amanda Kolson Hurley. It looks at communes, intentional communities, planned communities etc. in American suburbs. She looked at two in the DC area: Greenbelt MD and Reston VA! It’s not exactly futurist, but I’m a historian--I think there may be some good blueprints in things that we’ve already tried! 

Alex: Last question is, do you have anything that you want to plug?

KC: Oh, I mean, I'll always plug people to join Stomp Out Slumlords or the NoVA Tenant Organizing Working Group because it's a very cool way to organize in your community and really organize your neighbors.Oh, I mean, I'll always plug people to join Stomp Out Slumlords or the NoVA Tenant Organizing Working Group because it's a very cool way to organize in your community and really organize your neighbors.

Alex: Yay, and you can find us at afterthestormmagazine.com or we are also on Medium, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Okay. Thank you for joining us!

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