TOM ANGOTTI teaches at Hunter College, where he directs the Center for Community Planning & Development (CCPD). His recent book, Zoned Out, outlines gentrification and displacement of low-income communities of color across New York City, and seeks to resist these inequalities through authentic community-based planning. This is an excerpt from a longer conversation.
What do you do?
My starting point is with housing as a human right. That’s a very general principle that everybody would agree with. Now, what does that really mean? It’s juxtaposed with the real housing system that we face every day, in which housing is a commodity: it is a product that is bought and sold on the market, it has a price, and the price very consistently shapes how it is used, how it is distributed.
In today’s discussion on housing, it’s often about getting government out of the housing market so that the market forces can magically stabilize the situation and produce more housing. This is rooted in the phony notion that greater supply will meet the greater demand. The laws of supply and demand presumably will fix all ills in the housing market. That just has never worked. In fact, wherever housing is regulated the least, and government has the least intervention in the housing market, there are the most problems.
The United States is the only major nation in the world that does not officially recognize housing as a human right. It’s no accident that we have such a large homeless population, and so many people living in poor housing conditions when we are one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
What about the phrase ‘affordable’?
The rise of affordable housing as the dominant myth in housing policy is traced to the decline of New Deal social welfare policies in the 1960s and 1970s and the ushering in of the new Neo-Liberal Era. When President Ronald Reagan decided to cut off all funding for new public housing development, that was the beginning of the end of the welfare state for housing. What replaced this concept of public responsibility was ‘affordable housing.’ At first it was a clearly muddled term, but now it has clearly been defined as public assistance to private developers to satisfy a portion of the housing needs not met by high value new construction. To put it succinctly, middle-class housing. Affordable housing is a very vague term, but in practice, it really is middle-income housing…which is needed of course, and public subsidy is needed to get middle-income housing. But what it does not do is provide housing for people in the lowest-income brackets, people who are the most vulnerable to eviction and homelessness, the people who should be getting, as a priority, the public subsidies. Affordable housing is subsidized, but the subsidies are going to the middle sector, not to the people who need it the most.
Are you trying to redirect the conversation towards more active government intervention? Or is that too unrealistic?
I don’t think the current administration will be convinced to go anywhere other than towards greater privatization and less public intervention. What I proposed in Zoned Out is what I call ‘housing in the public domain.’ The idea is that all housing is housing in the public domain. All housing is subsidized, either by tax benefits or tax deductions or direct infrastructure subsidies. It’s a conceptual shift away from the so-called American Dream of a single family privately owned home, which is a myth established in the 19th century when the nation was mostly rural and rapidly expanding, to a new urban concept of housing as a human right and a subject for public intervention across the board.
Is it important to change this ‘American Dream’? What about the fact that people are wedded to that dream?
The dream has become more of a crutch for the privatizers and those who are advancing the neoliberal agenda. As you know, more and more people are becoming renters and are not buying. It’s really a matter of financial expediency, given the opportunities people find in the towns and cities where they live. If they were presented with decent options for renting, if they were presented with decent options for living in a home that was part of a land trust in which equity would be limited but tenure would be guaranteed (they couldn’t be evicted)—I think people make these very pragmatic and practical choices.
The dream is sustained by those who do not want to have any significant public intervention. And in the United States, this is a bipartisan dream. Both Republican and Democratic parties have premised their housing policies on the American Dream. They’re very textually wedded to this idea of homeownership as the key to building wealth and progress in the United States.
Does the initial premise of homeownership need reconsidering? Should we be focusing on making it more accessible?
Homeownership is bound up with the whole creation of the settler economy, by settlers from Europe who came and took land from Native Americans, and who developed privately owned property to stake a claim on land, a vast amount of land, that had been held in stewardship by Native Americans. Second, at the creation of America as an independent nation, homeownership was available only to white males. For at least a century, it was difficult for even women to own homes, African-Americans did not have access for a much longer time. Homeownership has always been conditioned by class and race and by the colonial mentality, which includes a very instrumental view of the relationship of people to land.
How can a community resist unsustainable increases in land value while improving public services, whose funding comes in large part from property taxes?
Local governments control and pay for education and many other services. The question must go back to the original sin of federalism in the United States. The US Constitution does not guarantee housing as a right, and it doesn’t guarantee healthcare or education as a right, unlike many developed countries. The states and local governments are supposed to provide these services. Since the grand move towards suburbanization of the 20th century, there has been a growing population divide between central cities and suburban regions. The exclusion of minorities from the suburbs is entirely entwined with the local government’s power of taxation. In order to provide bigger revenues that provide better school systems, they structure their land use rules around promoting highest value new construction. Originally of course, it was one and two family homes. Now it’s even McMansions. The greater the value the better. It provides more money for better schools, while guaranteeing that the local population will remain relatively low, exclusive and relatively white. There’s your problem. It’s not just a matter of property ownership, it is intertwined with the exclusionary character of US democratic development.
What is your attitude towards the existing city fabric? Where are the financial opportunities for an increased interest in reuse and re-appropriation?
The economy that revolves around the commodification of land and housing winds up producing the kind of urban fabric we currently have. There is a problem that everything depends on the ability to make money through the buying and selling of land, buildings, and housing. New things always sell for higher prices and the higher prices jack up rents and land values in the surrounding areas.
One of the problems is that all of our professions—architects, designers, planners—were created hundreds of years ago (planners 150), at a very different time when cities were starting to be built, and the majority of the world’s population lived in rural areas. The architects were servants of the feudal monarchies and some became servants of the state, but by and large, these professions grew with the vast transformation of the world from a rural to an urban one. Now that it’s mostly urban, urbanization continues, but it’s time to ask the other question: what kind of professionals are needed to turn existing cities into decent living environments? How can we help make housing a human right?