New report: What is social housing and why is grassroots support growing?

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED the concept of ‘social housing’ when Metro DC DSA member/housing wonk Saoirse Gowan and American Prospect journalist Ryan Cooper released their “Plan to Solve the Housing Crisis Through Social Housing” in April 2018. By that point, I’d already been advocating for equitable land use and urban planning policy to the DC Council with comrades in DSA for over a year, and the plain and clear language in their plan was revelatory. Everything in DC is obfuscated as much as possible when it comes to land use, zoning and the city’s Comprehensive Plan—a deceptively simple name for a 2000-page legal behemoth that was either the bible or worthless depending on who you asked. In contrast, Gowan and Cooper clarified the link between the US’s unusually anemic public housing sector, the expanding private market rental crisis touching just about 100% of DSA’s members, and how other cities around the world have avoided these traps. The stigma and disappearance of public housing from much of American life had by that point become so naturalized that many of us without direct experience simply could not conceive of the outsized role that publicly owned housing once had in our nation’s housing strategy. But with Gowan and Cooper’s plan, as if at once and with simple intuition, it became clear What Was To Be Done.

In 2017, when I joined DSA and started organizing around the Comprehensive Plan, it was a given for most housing and community advocates that public housing would never come back and that the best we could hope for was a ‘trickle-down’ housing policy that unleashed as much development as possible for the highest end of the rental market. (Although this policy has been frequently billed as new, it has more or less been official DC policy since Anthony Williams was mayor.) 

The housing policy debate continues to rage today, and much progress has been made in plotting an alternative housing policy rooted in trickle-up, rising tide economics that prioritizes those who have always been most impacted by America’s permanent tenancy crisis. I am now co-chair of MDC DSA’s social housing working group, advocating for the signature Green New Deal legislation of our chapter’s signature champion Janeese Lewis George on the DC Council alongside a coalition of community groups aligned around a common vision of infusing new vigor into public housing. This scenario was and still is unthinkable to the neoliberal coalition of the last 50 years that formed around valorizing privately owned housing as a combination of wealth-generating asset, reward for the virtuous or deserving poor, and/or refuge of the family and patriarchy from the unruly and possibly Woke public.

I am just one of hundreds of organizers across the country now making the direct case for social housing to local, state and federal officials and the broader public, a landscape ably documented in the new report Building Our Future: Grassroots Reflections on Social Housing. The report delves into the urgent need for social housing as a radical, transformative, and common-sense solution to our housing crisis. A growing movement of organizers is advocating for permanently and deeply affordable social housing, that is publicly, collectively or non-profit owned and under democratic resident or community control. The bulk of the report gives space to organizers across the country to reflect on what social housing campaigns have meant and looked like. Organizers in 6 localities, 6 states, 1 city-state (that’s us), and at the national level all weigh in, fodder for both the casual and seasoned eye on housing policy to compare, contrast and critique. Winning and to-be-won campaigns nationally are diverse in strategies and targets, from setting up a Social Housing Developer in Seattle, winning a Mansion Tax in LA, or securing a affordable housing bond in Kansas City – there is a lot here to snip, clip and post to your social feed or group chat for discussion. 

There is also immediately useful information for  those new to the concept of social housing, found upfront in “The Case for Social Housing” and “Visioning Social Housing: The Commons” sections. Fully illustrated pages that answer questions like “What is Social Housing?” with 4 key bullet points or that depict a fictional social housing development ideal sit alongside accessible historical and technical information, tracing the history of public investment in housing from the 1930s to the present with pop out boxes explaining key concepts and linking to further information. Whether you prefer to learn by diving into the deep end of government housing acronyms (if you know what CLT, LEHC, HOPE VI, RAD, LIHTC and HCVP stand for already, your doctor needs you to schedule that screening ASAP), or would rather learn visually or narratively from folks doing the work, there is something here for everyone. 

The report lives on the website of the Climate and Community Project, a ‘progressive climate policy think tank developing cutting-edge research at the climate and inequality nexus’, but was a joint production of 10 nationally focused organizations, with contributions from another 10 local and state organizations in coalitions like ours in DC. The report production team makes clear their intent is to use this report as a rallying cry and blueprint for transformational housing futures. When I think of this goal I think back to the beginning of my social housing advocacy journey in 2017 and how much conventional wisdom has been unsettled since then. 

What more needs to become unstuck in our collective imagination to advance a housing landscape with public options for everyone? Much can change quickly. I also think back on the timeline of more than a century of public housing in America, from the flowering of it during the Great Depression to the privatization and elimination of it over the last 40 years. How long does poorly maintained housing last before it becomes unusable? Is it about the same amount of time we’ve been killing our future by failing to produce enough publicly accessible housing? Much can change even more slowly than we can perceive. 

The ending of the report expresses an ambition to see all organizers involved continue building networks of solidarity and strengthen our capacity to confront profiteering and financialization in the housing market. Most importantly, the report’s closing reminds us that there is a diversity of arenas where the social housing movement is operating, including ballot initiatives, legislative policy campaigns, and of course grassroots tenant organizing — really the beating heart of the movement. Developing the political conditions to enable a range of social housing interventions means constructing power building vehicles and formations to win these changes in multiple arenas. The future of our movement links seamlessly between the local initiative and the national, all the way from supporting your local rent strike to passing legislation to invest more than $1 trillion into 12 million new permanently affordable homes. 

Together, a combination of grassroots organizing, electoral, legislative and ballot measures are pushing the boundaries of our collective imagination and paving the way toward a flourishing multiracial movement for social housing across the country. 

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