Newsletter #57: Housing Organizing Is Worker Organizing, with Rene Moya, Tracy Rosenthal, Shanti Singh, and Cea Weaver

by Maia Silber

In 1975, a group of radical “urbanologists” met at the New School for Social Research to discuss how to understand the era’s housing crisis from a Marxist perspective. The urban thinkers expressed frustration with both a liberal tradition of urban sociology that attributed spatial segregation to natural variations in land use and a leftist tradition that struggled to theorize how capital’s power manifested off the factory floor. In an edited volume titled Marxism and the Metropolis, the urbanologists posited a new framework that identified residential space as a key site of class struggle.

But while they argued that the pursuit of profit caused the housing crisis, the urbanologists struggled to identify how to address the crisis. A second volume of Marxism and the Metropolis tried to fill in the gap, but even a long essay on the history of tenant organizing expressed skepticism that rent strikes could make more than a “small dent” in the power of landlords and developers. After all, Marxists had long expressed skepticism about workers’ capacity to organize outside of the realm of production. Even Friedrich Engels’s canonical essay series on the “housing question” in 1870s England concluded that workers had leverage only where they produced value, in the workplace.

We’ve come a long way since the 1870s, and even the 1970s. Thanks to scholars such as Gail Radford and Edward Goetz — whom we’ve hosted on The Dig in recent weeks — housing has moved from the periphery to the center of leftist scholarship. And as Rene Moya, Tracy Rosenthal, Shanti Singh, and Cea Weaver argue in our most recent episode, a growing grassroots movement has shown that organizing tenants is key to addressing not only the permanent housing crisis but multiple, connected crises of labor, health, and the environment. This week’s guests make a case that despite persistent skepticism about their potential and a nearly complete lack of legal protections for their efforts, tenant organizers can pose a formidable challenge not only to landlords but also to the capitalist system more broadly.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

Among the many reasons why tenant organizing is so crucial to workers’ broader struggle, here are two. First, employers and landlords rely on each other’s power. As this week’s guests point out, they’re often one and the same: New York University, for instance, is both a major employer and an owner of a significant portion of residential property in Manhattan. More broadly, housing precarity disciplines workers as employees while labor precarity disciplines workers as tenants. You are less likely to organize your workplace if you’re afraid a strike means you won’t be able to make your rent, and you’re less likely to organize your building if you’re afraid an eviction will make it impossible to hold down your job. (This is also a fundamentally feminist insight: power in the workplace always depends on power in the home, and vice versa. Women are at the forefront of the tenant movement — and always have been — because their unpaid labor enables landlords to keep tenants’ housing in minimally survivable condition, as it enables employers to pay workers minimally survivable wages.)

Second, as this week’s guests argue, tenant organizing isn’t only about seizing the right to safe and affordable housing but also about seizing the right to land. That’s why tenant organizers are now targeting investors and property developers as well as landlords. Indeed, we can understand evictions, foreclosures, and slum clearance as part of a long process of land theft and dispossession that has pushed workers — especially workers of color — out of their communities of support and into an exploitative labor market whose terms they have little ability, on their own, to contest. This is the process, of course, that created and continues to create capitalism itself. I came away from this week’s episode thinking that fighting evictions and rising rents is only the beginning of a much broader struggle to reclaim space for workers’ own control.

Further Reading: Two works of history have shaped my own understanding of housing as an issue of land ownership and dispossession: Elizabeth Blackmar’s Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850, about the formation of New York City’s private housing market in the nineteenth century, and Alison Isenberg’s Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay about postwar fights over land ownership and stewardship. And Rhonda Williams’s The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality has influenced my thinking about housing inequality as a feminist issue.