The warmth of summer has left Chicago—and temperatures are steadily dropping as winter intensifies. In a matter of days, the weather will be freezing.
That is a matter of life and death for the tens of thousands of people currently experiencing houslessness in the city.
According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, there were 58,273 unhoused Chicagoans in 2019, and the economic turbulence caused by the ongoing pandemic has probably caused that number to rise. A significant percentage of those without homes are minors. This year, for example, the Chicago Public School system reported serving 10,836 homeless students. And the majority of Chicagoans without housing are people of color; CCH reports that roughly 60 percent of those affected are Black, and 25 percent are Latinx.
Of course, the majority of news articles about housing in Chicago have nothing to do with these perilous conditions or their effect on scores of people in the city. Indeed, a cursory glance at headlines would make you think things are—at least from the point of view of investors, sellers, and landlords—looking better every day. The percentage of commercial spaces in the Loop that sit vacant is recovering after hitting record lows in 2020, residential rents are back to pre-pandemic levels and trending upward, and home values increased by about 9 percent over the course of last year.
So, viewed as an object of speculation, “housing” is heating up in late 2021, even as dangerously frigid winter weather fast approaches.
From the point of view of human need, however, the housing situation in Chicago is dire: tens of thousands of human beings are currently forced to go without stable housing in conditions that will soon become deadly.
This isn’t an accident or simply the result of bad public policy, though there’s plenty of that to go around. Nor is the primary problem, at its root, that there are too few shelters or resources for nonprofit organizations that provide services for the unhoused. There are more homes and apartments currently empty than there are people who need a place to live.
So what is the problem? The commodification of housing.
Instead of using all existing housing stock to meet housing needs, our current system would rather use the coercive power of the state to forcibly remove people from otherwise vacant dwellings or bar them from entering them in the first place.
Why? Because this is essential for housing to be a profitable investment. If speculators didn’t have the right to sit on vacant properties in the hopes of selling at a higher price in the future, then they’d often have to settle for less profit.
The key problem, then, is the fact that our society often treats a place to live as the mere plaything of speculators.
And it’s a rather lucrative plaything. Indeed, this is true not just in Chicago but all over the world. As Samuel Stein points out in Capital City, global real estate, which now makes up 60 percent of the world’s assets, is valued somewhere on the order of $250 trillion—more than thirty-six times the value of all the gold ever mined.
The reasons why real estate has become such a popular place for ruling-class investors to park their capital are complex, but suffice it to say that this speculative regime isn’t about efficiently allocating dwellings to those who need them. That’s clear once we remember that this very regime regularly uses state power to punish and exclude those who lack housing but need it—all for the sake of profit.
Who benefits from this regime? The official story is that everyone benefits, that the rising tide of property values lifts all boats. Those who already own real estate can and should buy more, and those who don’t should save and aspire to acquire property of their own. In short: the justification is that there is a ton of money to be made in real estate right now, and everyone has access to the spoils so long as they gather enough money to buy into the game.
This is a strange justification of a housing policy. It makes no reference whatsoever to the importance for human beings of having stable, safe, quality housing, and it makes no claims at all about how many people will be forced to go without any kind of housing. In short, it says nothing per se about houses or dwellings—it only tells us that we’re locked inside a casino where some people can make money if they have money to play the right game. That game just happens to involve acquiring housing, but it might just as well involve acquiring futures in natural gas.
A better approach would be to first ask what housing needs human beings have, and then determine which housing arrangements best meet those needs. Let’s think things through in this way and see where this line of inquiry leads us.
Chicago is one of the wealthiest cities in one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest country in the world. Scarcity of material resources is not an issue. So, if we begin from the fact that everyone needs a stable, safe, warm place to live, and we add that Chicago possesses more than adequate resources to ensure that this is so, then we seem already forced to conclude that there’s no good reason to deny anyone housing.
But someone might say that commodified housing, though not perfect, is better than any alternative system. Though it produces problems of affordability and houselessness, these problems are outweighed by higher quality housing (in greater supply) than would be available if speculators were prevented from profiting from building and selling and renting real estate.
I find this unpersuasive.
In many large European cities, a significant portion of the housing stock is already publicly owned and de-commodified. And the housing in question is not dingy or dirty—these units are highly coveted. In Vienna, for instance, about a quarter of the city’s housing stock is publicly owned, and another quarter is heavily subsidized. In Berlin, before a wave of neoliberal privatizations sold off huge quantities of housing to speculators in the 2000s, a substantial portion of the city’s apartment buildings were public property. Disillusionment with this change is likely part of what drove the people of Berlin to recently vote in favor of a referendum that proposes to expropriate large, corporate landlords (who own several thousand units) and begin to bring housing back under public control.
It stands to reason that a country like the United States, which has even more resources at its disposal than Austria or Germany, could (if it wanted to), do an even better job of de-commodifying housing and ensuring high-quality and adequate supply. Indeed, there’s no technical reason why we couldn’t have luxurious, spacious, architecturally astounding public housing for everyone.
The only real obstacle is political. This alternative way forward poses an existential threat to those profiting from the existing order: it would mean closing the real estate casino and running the housing system in a different, more democratic way. So, when advocating for a rational housing system we should expect nothing but hostility from real estate speculators and the legions of politicians they’ve purchased.
The example of Berlin is useful for us here in Chicago. Rather than trying to get establishment politicians to “see the light,” housing activists built up organized networks of resistance among those most directly harmed by the status quo. Eventually, legitimate anger at the elevation of profit over people was channeled into decisive political action that landlords couldn’t stop, even though they very much wanted to stop it.