The housing crisis and the case for expropriation

By Ivan Stoiljkovic, Doug Yearwood and Romy Sugden 

The defeat of the Soviet Union caused misery and death to millions of Soviet people and ushered in the increased immiseration of the working class in capitalist countries. Without the threat of a workers’ superpower, Western capitalist powers quickly set out to dismantle social provisions and squeeze as much profit as possible from the working class. 

Governments at all levels stopped building social housing and eliminated funding for investing and maintaining it. They scrapped rent controls and transformed rental tribunals into instruments that are inaccessible to the tenants and function as eviction factories for landlords. More people are now living on the street, while others are forced to navigate very complicated and stressful situations with people often being forced to remain in abusive relationships in order to keep a roof over their and their kids’ heads. Housing became fully commodified.

Governments have responded to the housing crisis with promises to increase the housing supply, transferring billions of dollars into the pockets of the large landlords and developers under the pretext that this will naturally create affordably priced rental units. In Kingston, Ontario, city officials concluded that building more housing “at all levels of affordability” would create enough affordable housing to house everyone at their own level of affordability. However, despite increased vacancy rates over the past two years, rents in the city continue to climb. 

The federal National Housing Strategy Program transfers billions of public dollars to enrich private developers who often receive still more subsidies, such as tax forgiveness, through municipalities. 

“Existing strategies have failed, and we now need “innovative” solutions to the housing crisis…” This sentence appears at the beginning of almost every policy and city staff report. These “solutions” vary from band-aid approaches (sleeping pods and containers for homeless people, encouraging homeowners to allow people to camp in their backyards or making it easier for homeowners to rent out every inch of their property and living space) to home ownership schemes that would help people who are already (or nearly) able to buy a home. Rent-subsidy programs which flourish under widespread “housing first” strategies give landlords money that used to go to public housing and shelters. 

The result of this “innovation” is that landlords and developers get richer while the wages of working-class tenants are squeezed and siphoned back to the capitalists through rent extraction. 

The good news is that there are signs of a powerful countermovement appearing all over the world. Some bright news has come out of Germany, with the recent overwhelming vote for expropriation of large landlords in Berlin. This victory is the result of a long struggle by local activists, which continues as they work to ensure implementation of the demand by more than a million people to shift to socialized housing.

Specifically, the referendum called to expropriate 240,000 apartments owned by some of the regions’ largest corporate landlords. While the current model of privatized housing concerns itself primarily with providing a hefty return on investment, activists involved in this referendum seek to establish a public agency that would be banned from realizing profits and democratically run by the tenants. Indeed, the wording of the referendum question ensures that the former landlords will not be receiving market value for their seized assets.  

A recent study written for the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations (FMTA) shows how expropriation could be accomplished in Canada. Focusing on Toronto, author Grayson Alabiso-Cahill points out that there is an unresolvable contradiction in a commodified housing market, with the competing interests of the landlord (“to squeeze money out of every square foot of the units they own”) and the tenant (“to live with security and stability”). Under capitalism, the interests of the landlord – specifically of the corporate landlords and Real Estate Income Trusts (REITs) which currently own over a fifth of rental units and homes – takes precedence. This causes a collective power shift in favour of the corporations when it comes to public policy. 

But Alabiso-Cahill claims this can be reversed with a targeted expropriation of the largest landlords, using tools available to municipal governments. He proposes four measures:  1) expropriation in lieu of inclusionary zoning, in which new privately-owned residential buildings can be made to include a certain percentage of affordable units; 2) expropriation of buildings with repeated health and safety violations; 3) expropriation of abandoned buildings, including those which landlords are waiting to appreciate in value and 4) expropriation of large landlords such as REITs. The last measure would involve setting a limit on how many units a single landlord can own, which Alabiso-Cahill and FMTA propose should be 1000 units.  

These measures are not revolutionary – neither the Berlin referendum nor the FMTA proposals call for complete elimination of landlords. They are strong reforms and a welcome intervention into the landscape of a housing crisis which reached those proportions partly because the “solutions” on offer have been far less ambitious and threatening to landlords and their bourgeois-politician friends.  

Reforms can serve as important rallying cries in building class power but should not be sought as an end in and of themselves. It is very important not to be satisfied with reforms and allow them to become “the solutions” (that is, to become reformist). Reforms are only concessions by the ruling class and, as we’ve seen very clearly with housing over the long history of capitalism, they get reversed as soon as the balance of class forces is altered. 

The only thing that has ever done anything for workers is organizing. The working-class revolutions of the 20th century paved the way for massive social housing construction programs in non-revolutionary Western countries. In the 1960s and 70s, working-class and organized tenants across Canada mobilized to demand rent controls and co-operative housing, which resulted in huge campaigns that built hundreds of thousands of affordable rental units in this country. 

Over the past few years, tenants in Ontario have resisted the capitalist government’s agenda by participating in rent strikes, clogging up the Landlord Tenant Board, supporting encampments and more. Governments at all levels have supported home ownership and suburbanization as a means of downloading fiscal responsibility for housing onto individuals rather than the state. Home ownership and landlordism can be considered as a part of a powerful private interest agenda whose resolution can only be provided through working class-led public ownership of housing, which needs to be treated as a human right and not a commodity. 

It is time again for tenants and organized labour to stand up for housing. Today we need to use expropriation as a means of resolving the crisis. 

[Photo: Housing advocates in Berlin march in support of expropriation]

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