The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed longstanding contradictions in the housing market, opening them up to politicization. With US capital moving back into urban cores, wages have rarely kept pace with, let alone matched, the cost of housing in these areas. Now, with massive economic turbulence catalyzed by state-mandated shutdowns, many are forced into untenable situations. In other words, COVID-19 has accelerated problems inherent to the housing market, throwing contradictions into sharp relief for working class people.
Under these intensified conditions, the feasibility of building militant mass organization and initiating militant action on the terrain of housing is ripe. But as Machiavelli famously argued, historical winds that suddenly bring about crises must be prepared for in advance. Only the forces of reaction can make do without intentional preparation. From the police, to the legal system, down to the particularities of contracts like tenant lease agreements, the status quo provides necessary materials for ensuring capitalist stability under any economic and social conditions.
Capitalist domination is rarely only a matter of simple economic exploitation. It’s also centered on alienating the working class from organizational forms that can countervail capitalist forces and recompose the balance of power between classes. If bourgeois ideology demands that working class people set aside a “rainy day” fund, a proletarian response builds structures necessary to transform turbulent economic “weather” into cover for defense and attack. Some have started this difficult work, as tenant organizations focused on base-building continue to demonstrate their relevance. But these organizations are likely too young and too few to force through significant concessions, nor realize a wholesale reconfiguration of the balance of class forces once this crisis passes.
Despite this preparatory work, we are not ready for yet another historic crisis. Unfortunate as it may be, it’s worth inquiring into why the left has been largely caught off guard. Looking over the typical strategic visions employed by left-wing housing groups, two dominant forms of strategic thought appear. Both have impeded the difficult work of founding organizations capable of taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis. On one side stands a politics of advocacy that focuses on accessing state power in order to bring about structural transformation through policy work. On the other stands a politics of service that relinquishes state power in order to engage working class people who are experiencing the brunt of the housing market. Despite seeming mutually distinct, these twin strategic visions share a serious misunderstanding of the state and its relation to class. This leads to a serious misassessment of political power today, which has disastrous strategic consequences.
Class Struggle, Sublimated
Unfortunately, in the world of housing, the prevailing concern is often not centered on working class power as it relates to the capitalist housing market. Discussions of state policies or service activities can easily take up all the organizational air. This can be frustrating, of course, for those whose interest lies in class struggle, a socio-political process that sits awkwardly next to policy proposals and undercapitalized service work. But this problem is not extraneous to the overall question concerning socialist practice and the strategic status of housing under capitalism.
The problem of conceptualizing how class struggle relates, and does not relate, to the capitalist housing market, is a byproduct of the historical retreat from strategic commitments centered on a fundamental and revolutionary break with capitalist social realities. This theoretical and practical dilemma for how organizing can happen on the terrain of the housing market is a kind of high-water mark of the counterrevolutionary intrusions into working class practice staged since at least the 1970s. And, though some might be happy to accede to these forms of practical thought—particularly those who view labor as the exclusive site of class struggle—framing this issue differently can help us perceive the problem more clearly. Instead of a politics of power and revolutionary rupture, deliberations around housing often become stuck in the political mode of non-profit organizations, which tend to oscillate between practices of advocacy and of service.
Advocacy, which has all the markings of a rational, empirical approach to the housing question, attempts to see housing market problems through the “objective” lens of state planning and regulation. Indeed, grand policy declarations and positions, such as “affordable” housing schemes or the dream of social housing, appear to take seriously the immense power of today’s state apparatus. Yet behind the advocacy mode of thinking is a quixotic theory of power, one often centered on rational persuasion and electoralism. Those in office should be persuaded of the relevance of bold policy proposals, which are seductive because they might garner favorable outcomes for the working class. And while an imagined carrot is extended outwards, it is backed up by the spectral stick of the electorate. There, voters are imagined as punishing policy makers if they do not make good on obviously popular and rational approaches to housing policy. However practical this imagined politics may seem, it militates against the idea that class struggle leads the way.
This is not only because the advocacy orientation seriously underestimates the political power necessary to realize its goals. A perfunctory look at our current situation shows that even modest reforms—such as the repeal of California’s anti-rent control law Costa-Hawkins—are extremely difficult to achieve. Worse still, class configurations and their relative organizational statuses are not taken into consideration. Rather than an analysis of local and regional class structures that are shot through with mechanisms of cross-class collaboration, we are left with a highly economistic understanding of a majority of working class voters who will ostensibly pursue their class interests.
Stalled and held back by the immense political power of ruling class factions for whom concerns of asset values reign supreme, an opposite political orientation can often take root that centers on a politics of service, like legal counsel and food distribution programs. This form of service work is advocacy’s humanistic counterpart, a political style whose concern is always focused on harm reduction.
A tacit implication of the service mode of politics is that the underlying structures which give rise to today’s acute housing crisis cannot be directly addressed. From this view, service work around housing market contradictions appear all the more rational: better to try to attenuate the worst excesses since it is impossible to challenge the system at the structural level. A principal problem, though, is that the state is all too happy to step back and allow its subjects to engage in undercapitalized self-help. Service, however useful for the community, can be understood as the product of diminished political expectations. Rather than a process of collective power that forces concessions to appear, we have a model that attempts to fly under the political radar. Here we arrive at another dead-end, except this time the ironclad mechanisms of the market remain unaddressed, as the work itself can only realistically occur within the interstices of a housing market deemed unstoppable.
While these two tendencies appear as opposites, they share a flattened view of the relationship between class and state. On the advocacy side, willful human activity is considered to be the animating force of the state, and we are invited to imagine the implementation of restructuring policies from its heights. On the service side, we have a wholesale relinquishing of all foreseeable agency around the state structure. Here our practical activity is geared towards stop-gap measures that, though helpful, can sometimes too easily accommodate the housing market at the systemic level. Either human agency is switched “on” and we are allowed to transform society by fiat, or else agency is switched “off,” which is to say that there is no ability to transform housing at a structural level. Implied in this dichotomy is the absolute removal of class struggle; there is no room for learning from proletarian action, no place for reassessing the relative balance of class forces, nor sufficient space for laying foundations for a new sequence of struggle.
In all fairness, part of the reason for the stagnation of strategic thought is the level of class organization today. It is difficult to construct a strategy around an analysis of the balance of class forces when, by and large, organized institutions of the working class have been largely liquidated. Marx famously described 19thcentury French peasants as a “sack of potatoes,” and perhaps, from the point of view of organization at least, the US working class is closer to this condition than ever before. In other words, the working class lacks collective organizational capacity. And, under conditions like these, the political field is easily led by well-heeled non-profit organizations whose funding can act as a stand-in for a meaningful relationship to an organized working class.
Unfortunately, though, socialists can easily accommodate themselves to these stunted visions. Persistent working class under-organization has certainly groomed bad habits in many. Worse, absent meaningful mass organizations, the class standpoint can become easily reduced to an amalgam of individual interests whose imagined perceptions of the world are constructed through a highly economistic lens. It’s not until an emergency situation that these typical mechanisms for addressing the housing market become visibly deficient.
Housing Organizing Amid Pandemic Conditions
While many have been mired in the strategic modes of advocacy and service, there has been an increase in activity around the formation of tenant unions with divergent strategic visions. Typically oriented towards base-building, and usually associated with the Autonomous Tenants’ Union Network (ATUN), these groups have begun the long and difficult work of forming proletarian tenants’ unions that aspire to become mass organizations. There are a few relatively mature groups within ATUN, such as the Philly Tenants’ Union and the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), both of which have been important beacons of inspiration for militant organizers elsewhere. And though most other organizations appear underdeveloped, even the most advanced are still not yet mass organizations by any meaningful measure.
Nevertheless, these groups have grown considerably during the Covid-19 pandemic and have become de facto leaders in tenant organizing. The sudden economic crisis associated with Covid-19 threw millions into unemployment, many of which were (and still remain) unsure about their eligibility for payment relief. Unsurprisingly, the state and the federal governments have both responded to this crisis with a remarkable silence on matters concerning tenants. Well-established groups that might otherwise appear poised to successfully advocate for rent cancellation have not had any reasonable success. The truth is that such advocacy organizations lack the power to get policymakers to accede. It seems obvious enough that if policymakers eventually go in this direction, it will be capitalist accumulation that will move them there. Likewise, mutual aid and service groups, while extremely helpful in distributing food and masks in local settings, are clearly unable to shore up the massive amounts of resources needed for working class people to pay their rent and live. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that the aforementioned strategic viewpoints are unable to rise to the challenge.
Existing base-building groups have seen surges in membership and organizing activity. This is true both for established groups, like the LATU, as well as for newer ATUN affiliates, such as the San Francisco Bay Area’s Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC), an organization to which I belong. TANC, for example, has seen its membership quintuple since March, and LATU has witnessed a comparable surge. Growth is clearly not everything, but it does signal a relatability of the base-building model for working class tenants. In TANC’s case, growth has been the natural byproduct of a model for organization that remains attentive to the contours of the current situation.
TANC’s success in outreach during the pandemic lies in targeting specific fractions of the working class. One of the organization’s first pushes responses was to reach out to a sector of labor that was clearly affected by the shutdown: workers in the service sector. Service work is a large majority of the employment share in the Bay Area and beyond. TANC distributed agitation materials tailored specifically for service workers, and even called them out directly. For example, one mass distributed flier stated:
BAY AREA SERVICE WORKERS! Worried you can’t afford rent during the pandemic? Let’s talk!
Here, a simple message connects the universal experience of anxiety and precariousness to the particular situation of service workers, many of whom were laid off abruptly due to the shutdown. The request is concrete and achievable: speak with us about your situation. Since many tenants are not accustomed to tenant organizing, nor exactly ready to face up to their landlords, this initial step served as a gateway for further agitation through exposure of others who are in their same situation. This form of outreach to different working class constituencies has continued, with a current focus on unemployed hotel workers and low-income parents with the help of union K-12 teachers.
The objective, of course, is not only to agitate, but to produce collective power through increasing the density of class organizations—in this case, tenants’ councils. TANC has been actively onboarding new members, exposing them to the argument that commodified housing must be abolished, and integrating them into organizing processes that allow for support and training. As of writing, hundreds of tenants have been organized into nascent tenants’ councils in Oakland alone. Some councils are smaller and rely on TANC for extra pressure, while others such as the SMC Tenant Council are composed of hundreds of members. This organizational activity is currently in flux and the results thus far are mixed. Some have won rent cancellation already, and many more are still attempting to force negotiations to occur. And while it is impossible to predict the future, the possibility that a shift in the balance of forces could change at the local and regional levels.
Strictly speaking, none of the organizing that has happened was automatic. Nor has it been easy. Budding organizational activity today is the product of TANC’s well-thought out strategic positions and organizational constructions that had taken place over the last two years. There have been ups, and there have been downs. But a dedication to strategic thought, and a willingness for accommodating the shifting political landscape has helped TANC and other ATUN tenants’ unions speak and act in this dangerous moment.
Tenant Power Beyond Covid
Although the base-building organizations have been well-positioned to speak to the situation, their small size will likely mean that they too will be unable to win massive concessions for now. Only time will tell if they become viable tools for the working class. Here we arrive at a significant problem facing base-building organizations, tenant or otherwise. On the one side, they need to be large to become successful; on the other, they need to achieve concrete victories before they can become large.
At first, this seems to be a rather banal collective action problem. But in truth, the issue is less abstract than contextual. The problem is related to the thoroughgoing diminution of working class organization in the US, and to the steep decline in civic associationism in general. From a broad view, base-building groups face the uphill battle of historical precedent. Their attempt to set down roots and grow into mass formations moves against the historical winds, as trends of proletarian association seem to move in the opposite direction.
To be clear, though, this does not prove that base-building is strategically misguided. What it does imply is that base-builders move against today’s current of history, not only by defying dominant non-profit modes of politics, but also by attempting to construct proletarian collectivities in an age of class decomposition. But if we are to imagine that the working class can one day actualize rent cancellation, not to mention enforce housing decommodification, then we must find a way to move against dominant trends that do not reinforce and legitimize the current state of things.