April 10, 2023
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Excerpted from Poverty & Race, Volume 32, No.1 (Jan – March 2023)
Tara Raghuveer and John Washington
Housing as the Infrastructure of Racial Capitalism
Today’s housing market is a catastrophic failure, shaped by the relentless prioritization of those who profit from our basic need for a home. Millions of tenants are forced to make the choice between paying the rent and feeding their kids. Two years of a pandemic and economic turmoil have inflicted more pain as tenants accrued rental debts, struggled to access inadequate federal assistance, and were evicted from their homes. Rents were up 17.5 percent over the course of 2021, squeezing Black and brown tenants the most.
If it is our goal to solve this crisis, then we have to understand the system that creates it: racial capitalism. Under this system, wealthy people, who are overwhelmingly white, gain profit and power from the exploitation and oppression of working-class and poor people of all colors. Our housing system was designed around an accumulation of capital that depends on severe inequality and, more specifically, on the subjugation of Black tenants.
Housing is the infrastructure of American racial capitalism. America, as we know it today, was built through land theft and chattel slavery. Every level of government was, to some degree, established by white land-owning men for whom the protection of private property was the priority. Property laws, written to favor those who wrote them, maximized their wealth, often at a direct cost to Native communities and Black laborers. This violent legacy shapes our conditions today.
In more recent history, the practice of housing segregation has been a central feature of racial capitalism. For example, an early version of the Federal Housing Administration’s Underwriting Manual determined that the presence of “inharmonious racial groups” should be considered an “adverse influence” on the total mortgage score, limiting the flow of capital to non-white communities. Among many other racist lending practices, this type of policy, bureaucratic but pernicious, meant that FHA would not insure mortgages in Black neighborhoods.
From redlining to blockbusting to exclusionary zoning, housing policies and lending practices have created and maintained racialized hierarchies. The modern housing market, marrying public and private supports to secure mortgages, protects a pathway to wealth-building for those who have been able to access it. As a result, Black incomes are 60 percent of white incomes, but Black families hold just 10 percent as much wealth as white families. Almost every innovation in our housing market has followed principles that deepen this racial wealth gap, disenfranchising one side and enriching the other.
In the past forty years, and especially in the decade since the last financial crisis, profiteers have focused on privatization and deregulation, further intensifying the trappings of racial capitalism that are intrinsic to the American housing system. Institutional investors, many aided by government-backed financing and abetted by a web of state and local subsidies, have bought up the market, inventing financial tools to treat our homes like speculative commodities. In so doing, they have manufactured an economy of precarity for tenants.
On a community-level, this precarity takes shape as gentrification, the process of economic and cultural change in a neighborhood, often the direct result of policies and practices that benefit white, wealthy individuals and communities. The impacts of gentrification tend to include the displacement of long-time residents, which can lead to the erasure of cultural and social networks, as well as the loss of housing and access to essential resources like healthcare and education. When a new coffee shop and a luxury housing development replace the old corner store and a few three-flats, neighbors know what’s coming: rent hikes, evictions, a community replaced. There goes the neighborhood.
Displacement and exploitation have become rampant expressions of racial capitalism, often driven by the interests of developers and investors, and at a disproportionate cost to Black and brown communities. Displacement takes many forms: formal evictions through the court system, informal evictions (like when landlords remove doors or turn off appliances or allow conditions to deteriorate in order to force tenants out), rent increases, and lease non-renewals. Exploitation can look like predatory lending practices, unfair rental agreements, tenant rights violations, poor housing conditions, and intimidation. These practices create cycles of debt and desperation for tenants, who are more likely to be non-white, and these outcomes are not incidental to the property owner’s business models, but rather central to them.
In today’s society, public resources are routinely leveraged to protect private capital, often in direct conflict with the public interest. Eviction normalizes the idea that a person should lose their home because they can’t afford it, and a state-sponsored tangle of courts, clerks, judges, and sheriffs reinforce it, protecting private property by putting poor people out. We accept these conditions as normal, and even cast aspersions on tenants who “fail” to meet their legal obligation to pay the rent. Homelessness persists, and cities criminalize unhoused people through laws against panhandling, loitering, and camping. Elected leaders deploy public resources to sweep encampments, moving the homeless out of sight, often at the encouragement of nearby property owners.
On an individual level, the economy of precarity is particularly acute. Today, housing costs are Americans’ biggest monthly expense. The majority of poor tenant households spend at least half their income on housing. Our rent therefore becomes the most significant determinant of our families’ economic security, and the stability of our communities. Whether we can keep our jobs, sustain our connections to our neighbors, send our kids to school consistently— all of this becomes a question of whether we can pay our rent.
Housing is the infrastructure of racial capitalism, and the landlord-tenant contradiction is where we must locate our efforts to combat it. When we say “landlord-tenant contradiction,” we are referring to the inherent conflict of interests between tenants and the individuals or institutions that own their homes. The tenant’s primary interest is for a safe and secure home, a roof over their head; the landlord’s primary interest is their bottom line. In the contemporary economy, these interests are misaligned more often than not. The landlord-tenant contradiction is not about the goodness or badness of the parties involved, but rather about a system that allows one of our most fundamental needs to become an investment vehicle. And, ultimately, it is about power.
The Promise of the Tenant Union
The tenant union is the necessary intervention in the landlord-tenant contradiction. The basic premise of the union is that there are more of us than there are of them. “Us” represents the tenants, and “them” represents our landlords. But the tenant union cannot be reduced to a simplistic power- in-numbers analysis or practice; the tenant union lives and dies by its ability, not just to build power, but to wield power.
The tenant union is not a new concept. In fact, the union is one of the most intuitive arrangements. Knowing our neighbors, sharing resources with them— this has been a means of survival, across cultures and through time. A tenant union is not quite as basic as knocking on the neighbor’s door for a few eggs, or saying hello to one another from the stoop, but it’s not too much more complicated. The difference is in recognizing our connections to one another, simple as they may be, as the locus of a latent power, the best chance we’ve got to exist in the world on our own terms.
Tenants primarily organize building-level unions, perhaps the most common form, to address material conditions in their homes or on their property. Say the landlord has neglected the common areas, units are infested with bugs, the front door won’t lock, or the property manager refuses to answer the phone— these are issues that tenants might organize to address through a building-level union. This level of organizing also lends itself to the most powerful expression of the union: the rent strike. Should the landlord ignore the tenants’ demands, or should they respond in an unsatisfactory way, the tenants can escalate pressure, eventually deciding together to withhold their rent payments, disrupting the flow of money to the landlord.
The necessary fights can’t always be fought building-by-building; tenants organize neighborhood-level and citywide unions to contest against the bigger forces of capital that shape the places where we live. For example, in Kansas City, leaders in KC Tenants, the citywide tenant union, formed a neighborhood chapter, the Midtown Tenant Union, in 2021. This union meets every Tuesday evening in a church basement, centrally located in the neighborhood. Members of the union—including elders and youth, longtime residents and new Midtowners—carpool together, facilitate the meeting agendas, and watch each other’s kids. Mac Properties, a Chicago-based developer, is their neighborhood’s most notorious gentrifier, charging high rents for shoddy units, marketing to a yuppie crowd through pool parties and hashtags. In early 2022, the Midtown Tenant Union fought a Mac Properties incentive deal for a luxury apartment building, ultimately snatching $10.5 million from the developer and reallocating it to the City’s Housing Trust Fund. The developer tried to sneak by with a different kind of public subsidy for the same project in 2023. Midtown Tenant Union threw down, organizing testimony at public hearings and toxifying the proposal among decision makers, eventually defeating the proposal once more. Between these campaigns, the union has held public teach-ins on development and tax abatements, flyered the neighborhood with critical news, showed solidarity on the strike line with local workers, and conducted internal trainings on organizing skills, like how to have a “one on one,” a conversation to learn about someone’s values, vision, life, and motivations.
Some tenant unions raise money and hire staff. Others function autonomously and without paid organizers. The specific structure of the union matters less than whether it is determined by its members. Preciousness about process can preclude power; tenant organizers must remain diligent about creating structures that allow for democratic decision-making, while also nimble enough to assess, rearrange, discard when something isn’t quite right, or it’s getting in the way of the union exercising power.
The activities of a tenant union should meet the needs of its members. This means that the work of the union is not always about picking a fight at all. Sometimes the union serves its members by creating spaces for the community to gather, to celebrate, to mourn. Tenant unions can provide mutual aid— no-strings-attached material support—to its members. Regular tenant meetings create space for strategy and coherence across the union; they also become venues for forging relationships among members, building skills among the membership, and establishing agreements for how the union will function. No matter the project at hand, the work of the union should be collectively decided and held; no one person calls the shots, no small cohort carries the union on their backs.
Tenants’ ability to wield power as a union is rooted in relationships, to each other and to the places where we live. This introduces one of the biggest challenges of tenant organizing today: capital keeps us moving. Our instability is engineered by institutions that profit from it. When the system traps tenants in survival mode, demanding the majority of their incomes for rents they cannot afford, in housing conditions they cannot endure, organizing seems like a luxury. Who has time to know their neighbors, to attend meetings? Why care about a place when you expect your existence there to be temporary? Poor and working class people are conditioned to put their heads down, keep to themselves. Subverting that conditioning can feel impossible, but it is non-negotiable if tenants stand a chance in the face of their landlords’ power.
The tenant union can combat that alienation, uniting people who were previously strangers around common cause. Take the Louisville Tenant Union in Kentucky. LTU organizes tenants, trailer park dwellers, public housing residents, and Black homeowners. The union creates complex relationships among its members, inviting debate, accountability, appreciation, and joy. Some members are from Louisville and others have arrived more recently, displaced from places like Appalachia, Brooklyn, and Palestine. No matter if they are lifelong residents or newcomers, members share an experience of estrangement from the places where they grew up, places they can’t return, places that don’t exist anymore, at least not as they once did. For some, building relationships with other union members has forged a meaningful connection to Louisville itself. They know a better Louisville is possible, if they are willing to fight for it, and they are willing to fight for it because the union brought them together. A Jay Rock song plays, and the people chant: “You either with me or against me, h*e… Win. Win, win, win, win. F*ck everything else, just win, win, win, win.”
A second major challenge in organizing a tenant union is that, initially, people have no idea what you’re asking them to do: first of all, what is a tenant? And, second, what is the point of a union? People don’t tend to be politicized around their identity as tenants, nor around their biggest bill: the rent. Consider the other ways people relate to each other and to their own political identities—as parents, workers—these identities are usually a source of pride, or at least a primary way of understanding oneself in the world. On the other hand, some people are ashamed to be tenants rather than owners, the product of internalized racial capitalism, and others just don’t think of themselves in terms of where they live and how they live there. When knocking doors to recruit people into a union, an organizer must ask tenants to consider their tenancy— how it has configured their life, what they love about it, what about it makes them angry, what power they have, and what power they could have if they united with their neighbors.
The next project is inviting someone into the tenant union. Very few tenants have experienced collective power, through a union or otherwise. Poor and working class people have been burned by political campaigns and nonprofits, whose approaches tend to be opportunistic, seasonal, transactional, powerless, or all of the above. While some sectors have seen a boom of worker unionization in recent years, these days just 10 percent of Americans are members of a labor union, the lowest rates on record, largely a reflection of concerted attacks against union power through Right to Work laws and more. And those who have been labor union members don’t always view the experience favorably; some workers perceive those structures to be overly bureaucratic, and others see union organizers as more aligned with the bosses than the rank and file. So tenant organizers have some explaining to do.
Or, more compelling than explanation, action; in taking action with the union, people learn the potential of the collective to engage in political struggle, and to improve their material conditions. Imagine losing heat in your home during a freezing weekend. Now imagine that neighbors come by, door-to-door, to distribute warming supplies and collect signatures on a list of demands. Together you escalate on the landlord through public calls-to-action, your citywide union drives hundreds of calls to the landlord’s office line, local media picks up the story, and then the landlord is forced to fix the issue. Tenants feel the power of union in their warm homes. It’s not just a win, it’s a win together, impossible alone. The tenants’ conditions feel within their control, maybe for the first time ever. There is no more compelling case for the tenant union than that.
Today’s tenant struggle is more fraught than ever before, and tenants are up against more potent forces. The level of real estate capital flowing through investment trusts and across oceans has reached a historic scale. The landlord-tenant contradiction is high-pitched and painful. These days, most tenants don’t know their landlords, nameless and faceless, shielded by LLCs and registered agents, only engaging with their tenants through property management companies or, sometimes, just a web portal. The government is in business with our slumlords. When we consider it all together, when we think about what it would take to contend against all this, it’s difficult to avoid despair.
There are actually more of us than there are of them. But that only matters if we are connected to one another, if we break convention to forge deep relationships across the lines that capital uses to divide us, if we contest for democratic control of our homes and the economy. Tenant unions in today’s context must operate with a clear-eyed discipline, committed to a complicated practice of experimentation and refinement. To take on organized capital, the moment calls on us to take big and small actions, and to build durable infrastructure to sustain this struggle through time.
The union invites critical intervention into the landlord-tenant contradiction, a key feature of American racial capitalism. The promise of the union is profound: cross-race, cross-class, collective power. As Olúfémi Táíwò offers in a recent essay on racial capitalism: “If it is true that racism and capitalism are in a mutually supporting relationship, then we should expect that any potentially effective anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles will also be mutually supporting.” It is not a given that the people will prevail against today’s odds, but if we have a chance, the chance lives in the tenant union.
Tara Raghuveer (@taraghuveer / firstname.lastname@example.org) is a tenant organizer based in Kansas City, founder/director with KC Tenants, the citywide tenant union in Kansas City, Missouri. She is also the Homes Guarantee campaign director.
John Washington (email@example.com) is a tenant organizer based in Buffalo and the training lead with the Homes Guarantee campaign.