Housing is a Right
This year’s Martin Luther King Day report from United for a Fair Economy critiques U.S. housing policy, which has always been geared towards individual family home ownership. In recent decades, as Wall Street consolidated its political and economic dominance, government policy has been to treat housing as an asset whose value is to be constantly boosted; that is, housing as a wealth-building mechanism. It is a policy that ultimately serves the financial capitalists—a class that produces nothing, but grows more and more wealthy by manipulating the value of assets ever upward. Artificially inflating the price of housing also creates value against which homeowners can borrow—which is great for the banks but creates artificial bubbles in the economy that finally burst with catastrophic consequences.
In all of this mad, artificial wealth and bubble building, the very notion that housing should be affordable to all—much less that housing is a right—has all but disappeared from major party political discourse. United for a Fair Economy’s report, “State of the Dream 2013: A Long Way From Home,” puts housing policy at the center of what’s wrong with economic policy. Author Tim Sullivan says the steady “hemorrhaging of wealth in communities of color stems largely from treating housing policy as an asset-building policy.” Home ownership accounts for roughly half the total wealth of Black and Latino families, “but only 28 percent for white families,” who have other sources of wealth. The report urges that the government invest “in affordable housing and policies that reach people for whom homeownership is not the best or most viable option”—that is, renters, or forms of community-owned housing. Housing should be treated as a right, and housing policies must be informed by the realities of race.
If anything, the report is understated. In a pervasively racist society like the United States, race becomes an overwhelming factor. Race has shaped the social geography of the United States—and, therefore, the geography of wealth—as in no other modern society. Just as Black life is devalued in the criminal justice system, so the very presence of Blacks devalues the surrounding land and structures, in terms of market price. Race—and by that, I mean white racism—distorts and deforms this country’s market system, lowering the value of assets based on their proximity to concentrations of Black people, and artificially boosting the value of land and buildings that are located at a distance from Black neighborhoods.
Informal racial redlining remains probably the most powerful pricing mechanism in the American real estate market. One can cross an invisible line from a largely Black and brown city to a mostly white town, and the property values immediately soar upward, regardless of the quality of the actual houses. Urban development schemes pre-suppose the breaking up or clearing out of Black population concentrations before any economic revitalization is even attempted. Public housing has been marked for extinction, based, at root, on the assumption that concentrations of Black people are bad for business and for society. These facts of American life require that Blacks demand that affordable housing be provided as a right, not as something that trickles down. Otherwise, African Americans will remain marginalized people living on marginalized properties.
—Black Agenda Report, January 22, 2013