Is it time to decolonize the housing market?

In California, COVID-19 is exacerbating housing inequities. Indigenous activist Jackie Fielder believes she has a solution.


In mid-December, a federal survey found that more than 1.5 million Californians were behind on rent, while more than 2.5 million had little to no confidence that they’d be able to make their rent in January. The Biden administration extended a federal eviction moratorium through March, but tenants across the West are bracing for eviction when that moratorium ends.

According to Jackie Fielder (Two Kettle Lakota and Hidatsa), who is queer, Latina and a former candidate for the California State Senate in San Francisco, the cause of California’s housing inequities is far bigger than COVID-19. It stretches back to colonization, when, she said, “the commodification of housing — the idea that one should only be housed if one has enough resources to pay for it — began to take hold on this land.” Instead, Fielder proposes a housing market based on need, not profit.

Even before the pandemic, approximately 53% of California renters spent more than a third of their household income on rent, with about a quarter spending more than half on it. People of color and working-class renters are particularly likely to face this hardship. Meanwhile, California’s intense real estate speculation only increases gentrification and displacement.

Lauren Crow/High Country News

In 2020, Fielder campaigned on the need for radical change in the for-profit housing system. High Country News recently spoke with her about California’s housing crisis, its roots in settler colonialism, and the future of tenant rights. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: What is the housing crisis in California?

Jackie Fielder: The crisis is that most renters are what we call “rent burdened,” which means that they’re paying more than 30% of their income on rent — and that was before the pandemic. Now we have thousands of people who are facing eviction, and also the daunting responsibility of paying all the rent that they may have missed in the months of the pandemic (during) which they were not employed.

Gentrification, in some areas, is (also) the housing crisis. That’s been the case for low-income communities of color here in San Francisco and across California. Gentrification is basically the process of low-income, working-class people being forced to move anywhere cheaper than their current communities, which are then exploited by real estate developers to sell to newer, wealthier, largely whiter classes of professionals.

If we continue to ignore the realities that gentrification and displacement have caused, we’re not going to be able to reach our goals of affordable housing for everyone.

HCN: What is causing this housing crisis?

JF: It’s a problem of disinvestment from the federal and state governments in developing truly affordable housing.

We’ve entrusted the development of housing to the private markets, which (are) largely Wall Street-backed, and we have a glut of luxury homes — thousands of vacant units across the state — where we need thousands of affordable units.

(Housing) also faces the challenge of remaining affordable. If, for example, a private equity group on Wall Street decides to purchase a building, it will be long lost to the private market, instead of being maintained at affordable prices.

HCN: You see the nation’s housing crisis as a problem that is not new to the United States, but instead is rooted in its founding. What can history teach us about the current moment we’re in now in terms of housing equity?

JF: I always tell people, before there were skyscrapers in San Francisco, before there were paved roads and this whole infrastructure — before, really, settler colonialism — there was an entire existing society here. There were more than 15 million people here before any settler set foot on this continent. In the time leading up to settler (colonialism), there was an entire society of people who understood how to allocate resources in a way where everyone had housing, and health care was a guarantee, as long as every individual to their ability contributed to society.

Before there were skyscrapers in San Francisco, before there were paved roads and this whole infrastructure — before, really, settler colonialism — there was an entire existing society here.

To me, housing has been and is a guaranteed right, especially when we’re talking about Indigenous cultures. But that’s not guaranteed in this current economic system, because it is a vehicle for profit maximization and speculation.

HCN: When running for California State Senate, you campaigned on moving to a housing system based on need, not profit. Can you explain the difference between a market-based and a need-based housing system?

JF: Market-based housing is what we have now, where each person is allocated housing according to what they can afford, not necessarily what they need. Here in the Bay Area, that means that there are thousands of people that go without shelter and many that go without stable, adequate housing in the most basic sense.

(Housing) according to need would be a system in which the government could fund, guarantee and coordinate the allocation of housing, no matter what anyone could afford. 

HCN: What are the drawbacks of a need-based housing system?

JF: I don’t see any. In my opinion, if housing is a human right, it needs the protection of the federal government and the state government to make it so.

HCN: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has extended the eviction moratorium. After that, many renters across the country may owe months of rent and face eviction. How will this further exacerbate our housing crisis? 

JF: In a pandemic — where we’re seeing thousands of people being evicted because they cannot afford to pay rent, either because they’re unemployed or someone in their household has lost employment — if we don’t cancel rent, if we don’t add a gigantic stimulus in the realm of hundreds of billions of dollars to renters, we’re going to see an explosion of homelessness. We’re going to see more cases of coronavirus because people are jam-packed in households. That’s the harsh reality, and I don’t think that we’ve seen the worst of it. I think it’s going to be a long time until we see the actual devastating effects of this economic downturn.

Until (politicians) reject that kind of money, they’re not going to be in a position to negotiate on behalf of everyday people.

HCN: Why haven’t elected politicians done more to address the housing crisis in California? 

JF: For people who actually have the power, I don’t think that they could care any less. They accept money from the real estate lobbies, and those real estate lobbies are really pushing to make sure that they have power to evict people — even in a pandemic, even without a just cause.

Until (politicians) reject that kind of money, they’re not going to be in a position to negotiate on behalf of everyday people. I don’t care what political party any elected official is in, if they’re not advocating for canceling rent or mortgages, they’re leaving everyone else to hang in the dust. I actually do think people will be left to languish in the streets unless there’s some gigantic protest movement. But I don’t know if that will materialize.

HCN: On your campaign website, you wrote that “decades of exclusionary zoning since the days of redlining and white flight have allowed the wealthiest cities and suburbs to neglect their responsibilities in building housing while reaping the benefits of tremendous economic growth throughout the region.” How is this history playing out in California?

JF: The housing system prioritizes housing the wealthiest people first, and everyone else, largely low-income people of color, gets pushed around to wherever. They are the last to get housed, because they can least afford to decide where to live. There is no freedom of being able to live wherever you want to, it’s whatever you can afford to pay. Because wealth is so extremely linked with race, we have a racialized and classist housing system.

HCN: How might we transition to a need-based housing system?

JF: We have to find the funding. This election cycle, San Francisco passed a ballot measure that increased (how much) the city (could) tax the sale of properties worth over $10 million. This will provide funding for rent relief, and affordable housing for low- and middle-income people. That’s just one such mechanism to do so.

I am part of a wave around the nation of politicos and organizers calling for housing to be recognized as a human right and invested in as such. That means committing serious investments to make sure that everyone, not just the wealthy, has decent, safe, affordable housing.

The least we can do, the bare minimum, is ensure a legal right to representation for anyone facing eviction. Another one would be a landlord-licensing system to ensure that tenants have access to as much information about landlords as possible, where they decide to pay their income to and live.

I think that will take time. It will take organizing. It will take much more than just one person getting elected to office. But even informing people and educating them that this is not the only system to live by is a crucial aspect of making those big ideas practical.   

Jessica Douglas is an editorial fellow at  High Country News  and a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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