The truth is, cities know how to create affordable housing. The simplest, most direct, and cheapest way to do it is to build or acquire public housing, and actually maintain it well. Public housing not only provides affordable homes, but takes land off the speculative market, acting as a bulwark against gentrification.
We also know that rent controls are the most effective strategy for keeping private housing prices down. The strength of rent regulation is its universality: rather than applying to a small percentage of otherwise exorbitant housing, it can keep all rents in check.
New York’s rent laws are filled with loopholes, but those loopholes can be closed as easily as they were created, and tenants around the state are mobilizing for such reforms. The regulatory framework could even be expanded to cover commercial and community spaces, which would go a long way toward broader neighborhood stabilization.
Democratically controlled community land trusts remain the best way forward in today’s context, when government is reluctant to either finance public housing or dramatically expand rent regulations. The model has many variations, but in most cases it pairs a piece of land owned by a nonprofit with a building owned by a mutual housing association, which sells or rents the apartments at low costs and with limited outside management. If people can use these tools to take land off the market and develop permanently affordable alternatives, they can effectively decommodify their housing and reclaim community control.
The solutions are out there, but the political will is not. Inclusionary zoning — a housing policy built on displacement — seems to be the most government is willing to do. And many leaders in the housing movement continue to support it, despite its failures. They argue that some new affordable housing is better than none, and that the program can be tweaked to produce better results.
One group, however, has refused to endorse this policy. Picture the Homeless, an organization of homeless New Yorkers, has consistently challenged policy orthodoxies and pushed the boundaries of debate around housing, property, and land. Their position is that inclusionary zoning will do nothing for those in the shelters and the streets, and cannot possibly solve the city’s housing crises.
Scott Andrew Hutchins, an active member of Picture the Homeless, told me he thought the inclusionary plan was “a very sick joke.” That day, he had gone to apply for a job in the Bronx that paid about $20,800 a year. While he was there, he saw a sign for a new inclusionary development. Its smallest apartments were for people making $28,355.He knows the system is not for him. “Basically all these people are doing is creating more housing for people who don’t live here to move here, and pushing out the people who do live here. It’s creating too much housing we can’t afford.”
Politicians and policymakers treat housing like a puzzle to be solved with the right balance of subsidies and profits. But affordable housing isn’t a mystery, it’s a contradiction: it can’t be done in a way that benefits both capital and workers in equal measure. There are ways to do it well, but they are not profitable. There are ways to do it poorly but profitably, and that’s exactly what inclusionary zoning does.
It’s unfortunate that the article doesn’t state that the person being allowed to interview for jobs that pay only $20,800 has an advanced degree, even if it does make me sound like the only reasonable person in the argument, which of course, I am, except for Tom Angotti.