On the morning of December 3rd, 2016, the deadly effects of the affordable housing crisis became clear. If housing were treated as a human right, if artists were supported by the cities and developers that profit off their creativity, the loss of 36 lives in Oakland, California in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire could have been prevented. This was the horrifying result of prioritizing profit over people.
After decades of deregulating public housing, refusing to invest in affordable homes for all and refusing to regulate rents in the private market, after the recent past of gambling on housing with mortgage-backed securities, selling foreclosed homes at bargain rates to Wall Street to turn around and rent to former homeowners, and the influx of venture capital and international real-estate investors into big cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and New York, we have created a perfect storm of mass homelessness, a mental and physical health epidemic, and created the breeding ground for tragedies like Ghost Ship.
When Decent Housing Is Out of Reach
Being a tenant used to be a transitional state of housing for the middle class. Now, homeownership is out of reach for most. The conditions that artists lived in at Ghost Ship were an outlier in the community of underground live/work spaces. But living in uninhabitable conditions has long been all too common for poor and low-income families. In Sociologist Matthew Desmond’s recent book, Evicted, living in substandard conditions is often seen as a trade-off for low rents. Complain, and you get evicted. Complain, and your landlord will no longer look the other way when you’re late on rent.
We have looked the other way when these problems primarily affect the poor. So, we have let the root of the problem fester: The private housing market doesn’t magically work to the benefit of all.
Cities Must Lead the Way
There is a way to make renting better, and there are alternative models of ownership. Dozens of majority-renter cities in California have been leading the way on passing regulations to curb rent increases, evictions and to make city code enforcement departments work for renters.
The cities of Richmond and Mountain View passed rent control and just cause for eviction protections this November. Fresno has been pushing for a routine inspection program to fight back against slumlords. And Santa Ana residents want their city to invest in community land trusts. A dozen cities in California have had rent control and just cause on their books for decades. Most tenants in the United States rent in the private market, and fair regulation will protect lives.
Cities can and must support a code enforcement department that does no harm, and works in the best interest of residents. There are programs in cities where tenants can pay a reduced rent to the city instead if a landlord does not correct a violation, providing incentive to make repairs. There are code enforcement departments that hire local community members and tenant advocates, helping to provide better community oversight and protections against retaliation.
If a building must be red-tagged, cities can provide or incentivize temporary housing and ensure a right-to-return for tenants temporarily displaced. Code enforcement departments must use red-tagging as a last resort, doing everything they can first to legalize units if they are habitable or could easily be made habitable.
The private housing market doesn’t magically work to the benefit of all.”
Artists and community members should not be punished with crackdowns on underground spaces and evictions. Instead, development of city-owned property could be prioritized to support the arts. And the city could do more to support land trusts as a model for long-term affordability and community ownership. The city planning department can put a priority on bringing buildings up to code, without eviction.
Lack of leadership by cities is already fueling a wave of artist displacement in Los Angeles and Baltimore. The City of Oakland has lost much already with the warehouse fire. “Cracking down” and punishing residents is a horrifying response to this loss. Instead of helping to drive artists out of the community, it could support artists by developing communal art spaces that are safe and deeply affordable. Oakland and other cities in California must pursue solutions to bring the community together over this tragedy, not tear it apart.
Real solutions to the housing crisis are needed now. We are living in overcrowded, uninhabitable conditions and are paying more than half their income in rent. Meanwhile cities primarily produce luxury market-rate housing (if they produce any at all), lack strong anti-displacement policies, and code enforcement departments don’t prioritize the needs of tenants.
Priorities That Put People First
We need to change our priorities to protect people first, not profits. Instead of housing policy for the few, we propose these guiding principles to inform state and local legislative solutions:
- Does the proposed solution focus the state’s limited resources on meeting the most-pressing housing needs, i.e. people who don’t have a home or low and moderate income families paying an astronomical portion of their income for housing?
- Does the proposed solution support creation of jobs paying family-supporting wages?
- Does the proposed solution require all communities to take responsibility for making their housing accessible to people at various income levels, especially local workers?
- Does the proposed solution protect the state’s natural beauty and support its climate change goals?
- Does the proposed solution support existing and long term residents to remain in their community?
These principles were endorsed in December 2016 by a broad coalition of labor, environment, tenant and community organizations in California:
There is also a petition to sign on to this platform.