How community control of housing and land can help solve the housing crisis

Communities are turning to land trusts and real estate cooperatives as possible solutions.

 

In March 2019, 30 Indigenous sovereignty, housing justice and food justice organizers, including the Sustainable Economies Law Center, gathered on the territory of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria to imagine a future Bay Area rooted in Indigenous governance.

In hot housing markets across the West, people are purchasing homes with cash. It’s another sign of growing inequality in an economy where housing is an especially lucrative commodity. Private equity firms and multinational companies are buying up affordable single-family homes, mobile home parks and entire apartment buildings as investments, while a rising number of people struggle to meet skyrocketing rents. For many, the idea of owning a home — that American symbol of success and stability — is increasingly out of reach.

But Westerners are challenging that power dynamic through community-ownership models, including community land trusts and real estate cooperatives. These organizations remove land from the speculative market through purchases and donations. They are focused on meeting their communities’ needs like keeping housing affordable and preserving important commercial spaces. 

One such organization is the Sustainable Economies Law Center, based in Oakland, California. The nonprofit has been around for more than a decade, providing legal tools to worker and housing cooperatives in the region, among other initiatives. 

High Country News recently spoke with Chris Tittle, the center’s director of land and housing justice, and Dorian Payán, co-director of the Radical Real Estate Law School, about their work, and about the possible housing and land futures that can exist under these alternative models.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

High Country News: A core belief of the Sustainable Economies Law Center is that land should not be treated as a commodity. Would you explain what that means?

land-commodity-1-jpg
Chris Tittle, the the Sustainable Economies Law Center director of land and housing justice.
Courtesy of Sustainable Economies Law Center

Chris Tittle: During the pandemic, as the federal government put in place eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, we’ve realized that houselessness and that vicious cycle of eviction are political choices that we’ve been making all along. Our housing system is designed to generate profit, not to provide shelter and safety and community for people.

Land is a web of life. It’s not a thing, but a very complex set of organisms that make life possible on Earth. It’s only when we've abstracted concepts like land, housing and development, and enshrined them in our legal and economic systems that it makes it possible to imagine people living without shelter on a massive scale, like hundreds of thousands of people do in this country.

What we are doing is working in community and in solidarity and in the footsteps of many before us — Indigenous communities, Black and POC communities, who are saying that land is life and a source of power as well as a source of culture.

How do we design legal, governance and financial models that are embedded in that worldview, and that enable people to live together and to meet needs collectively in an ecological way?

HCN: How might we conceptualize what these alternative models look like? 

Dorian Payán, co-director of the Radical Real Estate Law School.
Courtesy of Sustainable Economies Law Center

Dorian Payán: It’s difficult to realize a future that has better outcomes for us without addressing the harm that has been done first. A lot of the work that we’re doing is to make sure that the way we relate to land is informed by a concept called rematriation, which centers the way that people have been relating to land here for hundreds and thousands of years.

The wealth of Black, Indigenous and people of color communities has been extracted, and a lot of it is being held in the form of land. We’re both toggling with the idea of land as wealth, but also that land is not wealth that can be transferred back exclusively. 

We want to make sure that land returns into a relationship with people, but then also make sure that it’s not just changing property names. Ultimately, what we’re trying to do away with is this system of private property as we know it.

HCN: What is the argument for doing away with private property?

Tittle: For several generations now, it’s been a national political priority that private single-family homeownership is the path both to intergenerational wealth creation and to security in our old age. That, through owning a home, we’ll have a place to retire and grow old, or to sell and live off of.

It speaks to the impoverishment of our imaginations to think that it’s only through selling a thing that I’ll be able to meet my needs as a whole human being over the course of my life. That way of understanding the world is really pretty new in terms of industrial capitalism, and there are still many places where that is not the way that people are cared for. There’s a framework of social housing that has a long history in many European countries and in Latin America, in particular, where there’s a diversity of ways to meet our housing needs. Private single-family ownership is only one very small way of doing that. 

While single-family homeownership has been a main source of long-term security for white people, on the whole it has been a way of extracting wealth from Black, brown and Indigenous communities. This is backed up statistically: A home in a majority-Black neighborhood is worth, on average, half the price of the same home in an all-white neighborhood. And while the white homeownership rate has hovered around 70%, for many decades, it’s never surpassed 50% for Black people in this country. Historically, Black people were owned as property themselves. Even today, a majority of Black people are renters which means their money is going to primarily white homeowners.

We have to recognize that the foundational sins of this country — the theft of land and the theft of labor — continue on in very banal ways. This is expressed in the way our lives are structured, the way that we own a home, the things that our retirement accounts, if we’re lucky and privileged enough to have them, are invested in. These further and build on foundational forms of violence.

Alternatives are out there, but we have to recognize how difficult it is to see them because of many generations now of both public policy and the commodification of everyday life.

Thanks to a new California state law, SB 1079, Jocelyn Foreman purchased a home in Pinole, California, that she had been renting until it was put up for auction. SB 1079 was designed to reduce land grabs resulting from foreclosure auctions that were accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Sustainable Economies Law Center and other partners helped to make Foreman’s purchase possible.

HCN: What might an alternative model look like in practice? 

Tittle: The East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EB PREC) is one organization that we’ve helped to incubate. It’s part of a broader movement that’s looking at how communities can control housing together, rather than relying on individuals to come up with the money on their own. In collectively owning that housing, we take it out of the speculative marketplace and guarantee that it will stay in community control. It’s about exercising collective control over what we want our housing futures to look like.

EB PREC is unique in that it’s also set up as a multi-stakeholder cooperative, meaning that we’re bringing together people who need housing and people who are invested in their neighbors’ housing security. Maybe they have housing themselves, but they actually want to invest in the real estate cooperative by putting a little bit of their money behind the idea that their neighbors should have permanently affordable housing, too, and explicitly doing that as part of a broader movement to decommodify housing. In EB PREC’s case, it’s still a young organization, but it has already helped to purchase one multi-unit building where the previous owner was going to sell and therefore very likely to displace all the tenants. In working with those tenants to buy back that building, we were able to keep people in place and build a collective resource. In addition to that, they’ve received some housing gifts. There is a growing movement of people who have wealth or housing, and who recognize that the ways they’ve acquired it are not equally accessible or are furthering racial harm and injustice. And they want to give it back.

“We’re bringing together people who need housing and people who are invested in their neighbors’ housing security.”

Payán: A project that I am really excited about doesn’t directly relate to housing, but rather to changing what we’ve known as land management. We have a collective where the clients have acquired 900 acres of forestland for active land management. It’s about the fact that land isn’t a thing to store away your wealth in, but is actually a relationship to tend. It’s bringing back the idea that what made the landscapes that we love so beautiful — from the national parks to the other federal lands that we’ve known — is the Indigenous stewardship that we’ve had for millennia.

This collective is made up of people who are queer and trans, Black, Indigenous and people of color, and who want to make sure that the forest gets tended in the way that it did before. They are amazing people, and their facilitators are trained in forestry as well. They aren’t treating this as a potential development site; this is actually a place that deserves its own autonomy and deserves to be stewarded. They’re looking at it through professional forestry eyes and making sure that it gets all the care that it needs to be ready for fire season and making a more resilient forest.

It’s been a beautiful project, but it’s not a commune. Many people might confuse it with this bucolic idea of “going back to the forest,” but this is different. This is a responsibility. In a sense, it’s active climate mitigation, and it’s also creating a standard for how to relate to the land differently.

HCN: Are we in a moment where this sort of radical rethinking of land is possible?

Tittle: How governments and capitalists have responded to the pandemic reveals the inherent brutality of a system organized around profit rather than health and well-being. Despite the eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, researchers have found that thousands of people died because they were evicted during this public health crisis. Housing is health care.

It’s also no surprise that we see the emergence of this movement for the abolition of police and prisons that is also fundamentally about reimagining community health and safety. It is not more militarized police that keep us safe; it is not more private ownership of housing that keeps us safe. It is community control and community self-determination.

The wave of mutual aid groups during the pandemic were efforts born out of necessity, out of the failures of systems of provisioning. But they also point the way towards other ways of organizing our communities that are centered on relationships, care and solidarity.

The question is: What will we do now? Will the relationships forged in these moments of crisis and survival continue to point the way to reorganizing how we live? Or will we be happy to go back to the pre-pandemic status quo because it is what we've known for so long?

We’re very interested in resisting that return to the status quo. Other worlds are possible. They exist. We just have to know what to look for.

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. We welcome reader letters. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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