Affordable Housing Crisis Growing Globally

(Reuters/J. Herrmann)
“Commerce alley” and “hawked for $28 million” by property giants: Berlin’s rising rents have many very afraid of affording their rent or losing their homes

Chicago    When affordable housing is in the headlines, it’s a safe bet that it is not prompted by a concern for low-and-moderate income families, but maybe we can take a lemon and make it lemonade, as activists are doing in many cities.

Here’s the context.

  • According to Knight Frank, a London-based real-estate consultancy reported in the Wall Street Journal: “Across 32 major cities around the world, real home prices on average grew 24% over the past five years, while average real income grew by only 8% over the same period.”  Reading between the lines, when home ownership becomes an affordability crisis for middle- and upper-income families, then “Katie bar the door!”
  • Despite governments in Canada and Australia adding taxes aimed at second-home and transient investors, affordability is still out of control. In Sydney, Australia the average price for a home is 12 times the median income for middle-class families.
  • Rent control is gaining ground as families come to terms with elusive home ownership dreams. There are drives in California, Berlin, and London for example and the Swedish election turned on deregulating rents.  Spain’s government recently capped apartment rent increases as well.

Berlin, Germany, might be the sharp point of the spear.  There tenant advocates are collecting signatures for a ballot proposal that would force the city to expropriate all private, for profit landlords that own more than 3000 apartments.  According to reports, the Berlin mayor has also proposed buying around 50,000 apartments from private owners and his party wants to freeze rents over the next five years.  Germany has a unique system of contracting with private landlords to provide housing for lower income families on extensive multi-year contracts rather than building more public housing as sort of a different twist on Section 8 housing subsidies in the United States.  Nonetheless, taking such units over totally would be huge.  Large landlord combines, as we found in Frankfurt several months ago, are often beneficiaries of so-called public-private partnerships which contract with these rental conglomerates in Germany to build and then manage the units making their size and operations increasing controversial.

The lack of a national housing program or much of a local one complicates the response in the United States.  An easily observed irony that is depleting the construction of affordable housing in many cities is the double standard allowed for AirBnb in commercial rental complexes as opposed to neighborhoods, making some condo and luxury apartment construction projects mini-hotels when they are not able to price their units to sell on the market, the AirBnb loopholes balance their books and fuel more of the same faux market-rate development.  This is easily observed in New Orleans and many other cities.

Meanwhile in Germany the effort to collect 170,000 signatures is ongoing.  The ballot initiative would not be binding, but would state public interest clearly, and that is worrying builders and others.  Perhaps this is the kind of message we need to send everywhere in order to finally force some real attention to the issue and programs that deliver mass solutions for affordable and decent housing.

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Bootstrapping Campaigns

graffiti on center wall

Frankfurt     The organizing workshop for more than a half-dozen activists from Frankfurt, Munster, and Bremen was all about the basics in the morning and early afternoon. What is ACORN, and what do we do?  How does the ACORN Model work and what are its elements?  What is the structure of a doorknocking rap or home visit, then some role-playing in teams to become more comfortable, underling the point that practice makes perfect?  All of that was invaluable to the team and engaged them fully.

At one of the breaks one of the folks asked me how many times I had done this workshop?  I didn’t have a quick answer.  They asked if it was thousands?  Certainly not.  Maybe a couple of hundred?  Every time seems different and unique to the people trying to learn, so they don’t fit the memory in the same way.   And, of course there are all of the times other ACORN organizers, leaders, and trainers did the same basic workshop with their own spins and inflections, just as I do mine, which must be thousands.  It was great to hear Robert Maruschke, the community organizing specialist in Germany now working for the left party, Die Linke, tell me that he uses a quote from the ACORN Model about the need for a plan in all of his workshops and training sessions, also helping keep that 46-year old document relevant today with a hard-thumping heartbeat!

After the role-playing and a brief break, then it got more interesting for me as we moved into a long stretch dedicated to various questions they had and some that they had been debating for a while.  Given that English is a mandatory subject in German schools and many of those in the room had also gone to university, they spoke beautifully, so I was surprised when one of the early questions asked me to define the word, “rap,” because many for a long time had thought I was saying “wrap.”  That was the easiest one that came my way, thanks to a generation of rap singers and the worldwide phenomena of that distinctive American-bred musical expression.  Others mentioned weird translations in the documentary, “The Organizer,” where power was often translated as electricity, tipping off because giving a tip, among other moments of hilarity they had discovered.

practicing raps

I got on a tangent as we talked about campaigns.  In several of the cities where they had begun to engage tenants, they had ended up tangling horns with the German housing giant, Vonovia, Germany’s largest residential property company.  These efforts are small and isolated, but at one-point Vonovia had whined publicly about pressure from tenants and others about its work, and threatened to stop investing in housing in Germany and move its developments to Sweden, where they claimed they would be more appreciated.  I gave them examples of bootstrapping very local campaigns nationally, from the early 1970s ACORN campaign to downsize Entergy’s White Bluff coal-fired energy plant by engaging their top investors at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.  Why not reach out to housing and tenant allies in Sweden and have them loudly proclaim that Vonovia was unwelcome there unless it did a better job in Germany?  The same tactic could be used in having organizations in cities declare Amazon as unwelcome based on its bullying in New York City as it tries to extort more tax exemptions.

taking a break

What’s exciting about tactics in big and small campaigns, is the opportunity to bootstrap them wherever needed to turn up the pressure on the target.  It’s always fun to find myself in a conversation that veers in that direction.

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