Housing is always more than just housing. But contemporary debates do not reckon with residential oppression and emancipation. Housing needs to be repoliticized. What we have been calling the political side of housing needs to be brought back into public discussions.
In practice, housing’s political consequences are rarely clear-cut. Dwellings can be both oppressive and liberating at the same time. And because profits and power do not define all of life, oppression in housing can also hurt those who benefit it. Even those who directly profit from the residential oppression of others can be harmed by those same conditions: their residential environments become guarded enclaves, their range of contacts and experiences is diminished, their self-perception is distorted. And to the extent that housing is used to bolster a political economic system that is crisis-prone and environmentally suicidal, residential oppression affects everyone.
The contradictions of residential politics stem from the contradictions of contemporary society. The situation can only be understood by exposing the process by which oppression in housing occurs, the people and interests that bring it about, the sources of resistance to it, and the liberating potential that lies within it. The fundamental questions about housing today are not about height restrictions or zoning changes, important as these questions can be. The core issues are what and whom housing is for, whom it oppresses, and whom it empowers.
beyond “affordable housing”:
In a world where the dignity of working-class and poor people is under attack and where poor people’s housing is so often a source of alienation, the idea of universal access to home as a place of dignity has radical potential…
For centuries, architects and utopians have pursued the idea that housing can provide the basis for a humane society. Such projects return again and again to the same themes: decommodification, collective amenities, social spaces, democratic self-management, and engagement with the political and cultural life of residents. Many proposals along these lines appeared only as unbuilt plans or incomplete prototypes … But some were built and served as actually existing experiments in emancipatory dwelling…
Today monuments to alternative dwelling like Karl Marx Hof or the Bronx co-ops might seem like artifacts from another civilization. But many of their ideas have filtered into the contemporary housing system. Gated communities carry echoes of the experimental utopian enclave. Luxury apartment towers provide shared spaces for consumption. Elements of radical housing experiments persist today, but often in privatized and commodified form.
There are good reasons to be skeptical of utopian housing experiments. Human relationships cannot be confined to the boundaries of a housing estate. It is not possible to insulate a small group from what goes on in society as a whole; any such group is likely to be shaped by broader patterns of oppressive relationships. And islands of residential liberation will have limited impact in a sea of housing oppression and commodification.
But experimental dwellings and emancipatory movements have wider significance as living demonstrations of housing’s potential. They should be seen as beacons pointing towards a broader possibility that housing might support non-oppressive social relations, not in some utopian realm but in everyday life.
Residential liberation has a much deeper content than simply making housing more affordable or accessible. Affordable housing is not a challenge to the ruling class. It can be provided in the name of social stability, as New Dealers like Langdon Post understood. The challenge today is to imagine a housing system that enables residents to confront power, social inequality, and structural violence in a more significant way.
—> Jumping off points for further reading / reflection:
- Affordable housing as a means to social stability … connect w/ ideas from Frances Fox Piven’s Regulating the Poor (which I don’t think talks much about housing)
- How do these arguments compare with Engels’ in The Housing Question?