In New York City, the place I call home, activism and housing are virtually synonymous. It’s not just that our city has a historic tradition of rent strikes and never tore down its public housing. It’s that housing permeates nearly all of our other social movements too.
In contract negotiations, unions frequently cite rising housing costs to demonstrate that their current wages are insufficient. Local land use and zoning fights often come down to arguments about property values and rents, or the amount of affordable housing a new development will include. Even the movement against police brutality also has a housing dimension; at the peak of Commissioner Kelly’s “stop and frisk” program, a huge number of cases came from public housing projects, where police commonly accused residents and visitors of “trespassing.” The civil rights movement was also intimately linked to housing through campaigns against redlining, blockbusting, and segregated projects.
Historically, housing has been a common cause among Jewish feminists. Three Jewish women, Jane Benedict, Frances Goldin, and Esther Rand, were key to the founding of the Metropolitan Council on Housing in 1959, a left organizing project that fights for tougher rent controls and more robust public housing. Katie Goldstein, executive director of Tenants & Neighbors and a former staff and board member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, continues in this tradition today. Of course, many of the landlords these activists battled were also Jewish, but that only added fuel to the fire; the fact that other Jews commit vile acts has always motivated us to action, whether in the story of Hanukkah (where Hellenistic Jews were some of the first targets of Maccabean rage) or among Jewish organizers protesting the actions of the Israeli state.
All of this historic and contemporary activism begs the question: why is this particular form of resistance so central to our collective and individual lives? 142 years ago, Frederick Engels — a friend of the Jews, or at least one of them — wrote convincingly that activists focus too much on the housing, and lose sight of the more basic economic features of capitalism that keeps us enchained. To this day, many activists read Engels’ The Housing Question and agree with its premise; then we go back to fighting over housing. Why?
The easiest answer is the notion that housing is, or should be, a human right. It is one of the necessities of life in the most basic sense — without it, a person might very well die. But there are a lot of things that are necessities for life that neither the government nor the market provides universally. We can look to the recent example of water cutoffs in Detroit for only the most recent example. And while our local constitution requires the government to provide all New Yorkers with “shelter,” shelter and housing — as any homeless or formerly homeless person will attest — are not the same.
The next common explanation is the emotional connection to home. Housing is not just a roof and four walls, but an embodiment of visceral feelings, memories, connections and relationships. For many of us, recalling an old apartment means recalling a different time in our lives, and all the ways things have since changed. Housing, therefore, is also about contact with our pasts and futures. The same could be said, however, for our wardrobes or our musical tastes, and we don’t tend to fight as hard over those.
Finally, housing — apartment blocks, high rises, tenements and town houses — form the physical structure of our city. The vast majority of our buildings are used in whole or in part for housing. The shape and look of our housing is therefore the shape and look of our city. Its design, density and form shape our patterns of consumption, and thus impact our environment and climate. But for most this truth remains an abstraction, not a material presence in our daily life.
All of these common explanations hold grains of truth, but even in combination remain incomplete. I would argue that the reason why housing becomes a focal point of left resistance is that housing is a stand-in for a less tangible concept: access.
Housing is about our ability to be in the city as something other than a worker. It is about our ability to claim a piece of the city as ours — not because we own the land, necessarily, but because we are there and we make claim. It is a platform from which to fight, a “home base” that allows us to argue over other things, from labor to the environment. Housing is a precondition on which all other urban activism rests. Without it, we have no space in the city but our transient workplaces and our modes of transportation.
This is also why the fight for permanent affordable housing remains such a difficult struggle. On one of my first days at work as a tenant organizer several years ago, a prominent housing expert told me, “Real estate in New York is like oil in Texas.” By this he meant not just that it is our city’s most thriving industry, and one with immense political power. He was also telling me that New York, like petro-economies, thrives by selling its own life force. If oil is the blood of Texas soil, buildings are the bones of New York City. The struggle for housing is about access and control of the city’s basic building blocks.
This Hanukkah, we will gather in our homes to light the menorah. When you do, look around and realize the importance that housing and home play in your life. Then light a candle in honor of Jane Benedict, Frances Goldin, Esther Rand and all the other Jewish women who fought — and continue to fight — for our right to the city.
Samuel Stein is a teacher, writer, researcher and organizer living and working in New York. He teaches Geography and Urban Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and CUNY’s Murphy Institute. He is currently helping to convene a January 18 forum about one of the state’s most important and embattled affordable housing programs, “Mitchell Lama: The Past, Present and Future of Affordable Housing in New York City,”, hosted by 596 Acres and the Planners Network NYC at the Queens Museum.
Editor’s note: This is the second article in ZEEK’s Hanukkah Series on Resistance and the Future of the Jewish Left in the US. We made this a broad call, intentionally inviting diverse interpretations of resistance, as well as to different approaches to change in the US. Some of the pieces are about resistance, some are about the left in the US. I hope you’ll see this series as a jumping-off point for discussion.
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