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The Urban Housing Problem: Marxist Theory and Community Organizing

Authors:

Abstract

Rental housing is both a market commodity and an investment of capital. Under conditions of income inequality, extensive poverty, and residen tial segregation based on income, housing deterioration is a natural and even pro fitable consequence of the rental housing market. Changes in the relative posi tion of housing within the market cause buildings to lose exchange value though their use value remains the same. An owner then has a strong incentive to recap ture the investment, the exchange value, through allowing the building to deteri orate, thus diminishing or destroying the use value.
http://rrp.sagepub.com
Review of Radical Political Economics
DOI: 10.1177/048661347700900402
1977; 9; 16 Review of Radical Political Economics
Stephen E. Barton and Stephen E. Barton The Urban Housing Problem: Marxist Theory and Community Organizing
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16
The
Urban
Housing
Problem:
Marxist
Theory
and
Community
Organizing
Stephen
E.
Barton*
ABSTRACT:
Rental
housing
is
both
a
market
commodity
and
an
investment
of
capital.
Under
conditions
of
income
inequality,
extensive
poverty,
and
residen-
tial
segregation
based
on
income,
housing
deterioration
is
a
natural
and
even
pro-
fitable
consequence
of
the
rental
housing
market.
Changes
in
the
relative
posi-
tion
of
housing
within
the
market
cause
buildings
to
lose
exchange
value
though
their
use
value
remains
the
same.
An
owner
then
has
a
strong
incentive
to
recap-
ture
the
investment,
the
exchange
value,
through
allowing
the
building
to
deteri-
orate,
thus
diminishing
or
destroying
the
use
value.
Housing
is
part
of
a
productive
community
social
process
which
is
only
partly
located
within
the
market
economy
and
in
which
forms
of
ownership
and
control
are
as
important
as
the
physical
quality
of
the
housing.
This
social
pro-
cess
is
impaired
by
the
status
of
housing
as
capital
controlled
by
the
market.
Democratic
ownership
and
control
of
housing
is
a
necessary
part
of
a
real
solu-
tion
to
the
housing
problem,
and
it
is
also
a
necessary
goal
for
effective
organi-
zing.
Orthodox
Marxist
criticisms
of
self-help
and
co-operative
housing
programs
neglect
their
importance
in
developing
the
social
and
moral
basis
for
a
movement
for
change.
INTRODUCTION
This
paper
presents
an
analysis
of
the
effects
of
capitalist
social
relations
as
they
control
a
particular
commodity,
rental
housing.
Beyond
that
it
tries
to
be
an
example
of
how
insights
of
socialist
feminism
can
enrich
Marxist
analysis
even
in
discussion
of
social
problems
such
as
housing,
which
are
apparently
of
a
strictly
economic
nature.
Most
Marxist
analyses
situate
housing
within
the
overall
political
economy
of
capitalism.
This
provides
a
splendid
critique
of
capitalism,
such
as
that
of
Engels
in
The
Housing
Question,
but
helps
not
at
all
in
learning
how
to
build
a
movement
or
how
to
recognize
and
nurture
the
seeds
of
a
new
society
amidst
the
oppression
of
the
old.
Rather
than
placing
housing
within
a
national
or
world
system,
an
important
enterprise
in
which
others
have
made
excellent
progress,
I
will
try
to
situate
hous-
ing
within
the
human
relationships
which
affect
it
and
are
affected
by
it:
relations
between
landlords,
tenants,
homeowners,
neighbors,
bank
lending
officers,
etc.’
*The
work
for
this
paper
was
partially
funded
by
the
Tenant
Move-
ment
Study,
a
research
project
funded
by
the
National
Institute
of
Mental
Health
and
conducted
through
the
Center
for
Policy
Re-
search.
I
would
also
like
to
thank
the
following
people
whose
com-
ments
and
assistance
made
this
paper
possible:
Ron
Lawson,
Reuben
Johnson,
Phil
Wertzman,
Flora
Davidson,
Ann
Markusen,
and
Robert
Schur.
The
author
was
co-chair
of
the
945-947
Amsterdam
Ave
Tenants
Union,
an
organization
of
squatters
and
original
tenants
who
saved
two
buildings
m
New
York
City
from
abandonment
m
1975
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17
The
first
section
shows
the
strength
of
a
Marxist
analysis
of
the
housing
problem
in
comparison
with
the
explanations
of
both
liberal
and
conservative
bourgeois
economists.
It
then
reviews
the
conclusions
for
organizing
which
have
been
drawn
from
this
anal-
ysis ;
that
tenants,
as
consumers
rather
than
producers,
do
not
provide
a
basis
on
which
a
movement
can
be
built.
The
second
section
attempts
to
demonstrate
that
tenants,
as
members
of
a
&dquo;community,&dquo;
can
be
part
of
productive,
non-capitalist
social
processes,
which
lay
the
basis
for
a
collective
consciousness
and
a
co-
operative
ethic.
The
Appendix
gives
some
basic
information
on
the
economics
of
housing
for
those
who
are
unfamiliar
with
it.
PART
I.
WHY
DOES
HOUSING
DETERIORATE?
Age
The
common
explanation
for
housing
deteriora-
tion
is
that
it
is
the
result
of
the &dquo;aging&dquo;
process.
This
rests
on
a
false
biological
analogy,
since
housing
struc-
tures
are
part
of
a
process
in
which
time
alone
plays
only
a
small
part.
A
house
or
apartment
building,
if
structurally
sound
when
built,
may
last
for
generations.
Repair
and
replacements
can
remedy
whatever
deterioration
in
materials
may
occur
and
may
even
forestall
market
obsolescence
2
The
truth
of
this
is
underscored
by
experience.
For
example,
in
the
United
States,
...
from
1950
to
1956,
approximately
5,000,000
occupied
units
were
elevated
from
a
substandard
to
a
standard
level,
whereas
only
2,250,000
moved
in
the
opposite
direction.3
3
The
explanation
for
this
lies
in
the
complexity
of
housing.
The
various
systems
and
parts
of
systems -
plumbing,
heating,
electrical,
etc.
-
are
separable
and
can
be
replaced.
The
aging
process
of
a
building
really
depends
primarily
on
the
treatment
it
receives
from
its
tenants
and
its
owners.4
4
Poverty
Poverty,
a
simple
inability
to
pay
enough
to
main-
tain
housing
in
decent
condition,
is
an
obvious
reason
for
deterioration,
although
it
is
often
minimized
or
overlooked.
Kristof,
for
example,
in
his
attack
on
rent
controls
in
New
York
City
found
that
in
1968
about
570,000
households
were
paying
less
than
the
amount
required
for
proper
operation
of
their
rent
controlled
buildings,
thus
leading
to
undermaintenance,
deterioration,
and
abandonment -
a
fact
he
blamed
primarily
on
rent
control.
He
also
found
that
[a]
substantial
number
and
proportion
of
the
city’s
population
have
incomes
below
that
nec-
essary
to
pay
rents
that
would
lead
property
owners
to
maintain
such
housing
satisfactorily
in
a
free
market.5
Estimating
that
some
500,000
households
are
in
this
category,
he
concluded
that
...
it
is
obvious
that
no
proposal
to
deal
with
the
housing
problem
caused
by
rent
control
can
be
seriously
considered
until
some
means
of
dealing
with
the
income
deficit
of
families
who
required
decent
housing
is
found
simultaneously.6
6
Indeed,
from
his
own
figures
it
is
apparent
that
low
income
is
a
much
larger
part
of
the
problem
than
rent
control.
Linton,
Mields,
and
Coston,
after
a
similar
finding
on
the
effects
of
poverty
on
housing
came
to
the
ironic
conclusion
that
the
loosening
of
housing
discrimina-
tion
in
the
mid-sixties
contributed
to
&dquo;concentrated
and
contagious
abandonment&dquo;
when &dquo;area-wide
housing
market
conditions
enabled
moderate
income
families,
particularly
black
families,
to
leave
the
older
deteriorated
areas ...
&dquo;’
The
importance
of
sheer
poverty
is
further
under-
scored
by
the
experience
of
public
housing,
where
neither
the
capital
costs
of
construction
nor
any
taxes
are
charged
to
the
Housing
Authority
rent
roll
and
&dquo;modernization
funds&dquo;
are
contributed
by
the
Federal
Government
to
cover
periodic
major
repair
and
renova-
tion
work.
Maintenance,
operation,
and
administra-
tion
are
all
the
tenants
pay
for
and
the
Housing
Authorities
still
require
subsidies
in
order
to
keep
the
rents
of
the
poorest
tenants
down
to
the
maximum
of
twenty-five
per
cent
of
income
required
by
law.
There
are
limits
to
the
amount
of
housing
deterioration
that
poverty
alone
can
explain.
Only
a
fraction
of
the
poor
are
so
very
poor
that
they
do
not
pay
enough
to
cover
the
operating
and
maintainance
costs
of
their
homes.
This
is
only
about
a
quarter
of
the
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18
ongoing
costs
of
housing
(see
Appendix).
Taxes,
profit,
and
debt
service,
make
up
the
rest.
Indeed,
a
number
of
studies
have
found
that
the
poor
pay
comparatively
high
rents
considering
the
quality
of
their
housing.8
People
with
low
incomes
have
relatively
little
flexibility
regarding
the
amount
of
money
they
can
spend
on
housing.
They
will
tend
to
seek
inexpensive
housing,
and
the
cost
of
that
housing
will
be
a
more
important
consideration
to
them
than
the
condition
of
the
housing.
Hence
a
demand
is
created
which
is
satisfied
by
slum
housing -
low
cost
deteriorated
or
dilapidated
dwellings.
However,
because
of
the
limited
amount
of
housing
available
at
relatively
low
prices,
and
because
of
the
large
number
of
people
who
must,
because
of
their
income
inflexibility,
bid
for
that
low
cost
housing,
the
price
of
the
housing
tends
to
be
pushed
up
to
the
highest
feasible
level.
A
tenant
living
in
the
slum
is
paying
not
only
as
much
as
he
is
willing
to
pay,
he
is
probably
paying
as
much
as
he
can
pay.9
In
New
York
City,
according
to
the
1970
census
figures,
the
gross
median
rent
paid
by
households
hav-
ing
incomes
of
less
than
$2,000
was
only
nineteen
per-
cent
lower
than
the
rent
paid
by
households
with
in-
comes
from
$7,000
to
$9,999.10
Thus
the
poor
generally
pay
a
much
higher
percentage
of
their
income
for
rent
than
the
rest
of the
population,
often
nearly
as
much
for
slums
as
others
pay
for
decent
housing.&dquo;
Not
only
do
&dquo;the
poor
pay
more&dquo;
but
the
minority
poor
pay
a
discrimination
premium
as
a
result
of
their
diminished
opportunities
which
studies
in
a
number
of
different
cities
found
to
range
between
two
and
eigh-
teen
percent
higher
average
ren t.12
If
the
great
majority
of
those
living
in
substandard
housing
already
pay
rents
sufficient
to
cover
operating
and
maintenance
costs
for
decent
housing,
the
heart
of
the
problem
must
be
elsewhere.
The
low
quality
of
inner
city
housing
is
not
a
function
of
too
little
rent,
but
of
too
much
expenditure.’3
The
rent
money
is
going
somewhere
else
than
to
the
necessary
costs
of
maintenance
and
operation.
To
try
to
find
out
where
that
rent
money
is
going
we
now
turn
to
the
two
mythic
scourges
of
the
inner
city,
the
destructive
tenant
and
the
greedy
slumlord.
Destructive
Tenants
In
our &dquo;free
enterprise&dquo;
society,
the
market
is
one
of
the
main
methods
of
social
control.
Failures,
dis-
orderly
elements,
the
handicapped,
people
likely
to
be
an
embarrassment
oi
a
problem
to
their
neighbors
can
generally
be
screened
out
with
a
high
price
of
admis-
sion.
That
this
also
screens
out
the
rest
of
the
poor
is
considered
a
lesser
evil.
In
effect,
the
poor
neighbor-
hood
becomes
a
social
dumping
ground
for &dquo;undesir-
ables.&dquo;
This
creates
a
severe
&dquo;neighborhood
effect&dquo;
in
what
the
National
Urban
League
has
termed
&dquo;crisis
ghettos.&dquo;
Economic
sorting
intensifies
the
social
prob-
lems
of
the
people
least
able
to
deal
with
them.
Crime
and
vandalism
are
certainly
one
cause
of
in-
creased
costs
for
building
operation
and
maintenance,
and
it
is
a
cause
to
which
landlords
frequently
refer.
Those
who
have
studied
the
economics
of
housing
by
interviewing
only
landlords
give
some
importance
to
it,
but
even
they
consider
it
only
a
contributing
factor. 14
Vandalism
is
done
mostly
by
teenagers
from
other
buildings
and
has
its
most
serious
effects
on
buildings
which
are
already
at
least
partly
abandoned.
The
future
habitability
of
such
buildings
is
often
com-
pletely
destroyed
within
a
few
months
once
there
are
no
longer
tenants
left
inside
to
watch
over
them.
Multiple
dwellings
are
particularly
affected
by
vandal-
ism,
since