We Need a World Without Landlords

Recent battles over eviction moratoriums and homeless encampments have shown the depressing limits of our political horizons. We need to envision a radically different system that guarantees everyone the right to decent, stable housing.

Vienna’s Karl Marx-Hof apartments. (Dreizung / Wikimedia).

An estimated 15 million men, women, and children faced eviction last week when Missouri representative Cori Bush launched her protest on the steps of the Capitol. It worked, for now. Joe Biden was pushed to announce a new sixty-day moratorium on evictions (although it’s more limited in scope than the old one).

That’s very good news for the millions of tenants that were at risk of getting thrown onto the streets. Some of them might have ended up sleeping in the kinds of homeless encampments that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has been busy forcibly removing this week. Progressive activists in Los Angeles have vigorously opposed the anti-homeless crackdowns, just as progressives around the country spoke out against letting the eviction moratorium expire.

These are easy calls. The criminalization of desperate people sleeping in parks is an obscenity. So is telling millions of people who are economically struggling but at least have a roof over their head to pack up their things and leave — even if they have nowhere to go.

In both cases, though, the limits of the current housing debate are depressingly apparent. If the Supreme Court allows Biden’s new moratorium to stand, an estimated 6.5 million renters (whose households make up the 15 million people in danger of losing their housing) will face the same problem on October 3. Some will have gotten back on their feet financially by then, and perhaps a few will have managed to pay back their landlords. But many, many others will simply owe two more months in back rent.

On the issue of homeless encampments, it’s certainly true that police crackdowns were the worst possible outcome. But forcing people to live in inhumane conditions is a close second. As left-wing journalist Ana Kasparian has rightly emphasized, the encampments are horror shows of crime, violence, and drug abuse. That’s not the fault of residents themselves, who are victims of a brutal social system. But it is pretty bleak that the comparatively progressive option in the current debate is to let people continue to suffer.

We desperately need a more ambitious vision.

No More Landlords

The Left is far from controlling the levers of the US state. In fact, we control so few that a democratic socialist congresswoman seeking to influence events had to resort to sleeping on the Capitol steps to get the attention of the media and the president. But we should at least have a clear vision of a better alternative going forward. That means explaining what we would do if we were in power.

First, pre-October rent shouldn’t just be postponed but forgiven entirely. Housing owned by landlords who couldn’t take those losses could be bought up on the cheap by the federal government. Any financial contribution tenants are expected to make to their buildings’ upkeep after that should be indexed to income level. An unemployed person shouldn’t be charged anything to stay in their apartment.

All the people sleeping in parks in Los Angeles and other cities should be given normal, permanent housing where they aren’t subjected to degrading rules that require them to leave behind most of their possessions — or even their beloved pets. In quite a few cases, this would also need to be paired with well-funded mental health services and addiction counseling.

In the long term, our goal should be a world where landlords don’t exist. The existence of this class distorts all our debates about housing. The eviction moratorium would never have been in any danger of expiring, for example, if landlords didn’t wield massive political influence.

Landlords typically don’t build the housing they buy and rent out. Some small-scale landlords do upkeep themselves instead of hiring maintenance workers, but that doesn’t make rent their salary for performing this work, any more than the owner of a small restaurant who sweeps the place up himself is a janitor. There’s no reason that apartments can’t be built, or necessary maintenance can’t be done, without landlords taking their cut in the process.

The idea of a socialist vision of housing might conjure up bleak images of concrete apartments in 1970s Moscow where multiple families were forced to share the same kitchen. But we don’t need to limit our imaginations to that model and the dystopian housing system of the United States.

In Vienna right now, 62 percent of the population lives in “social housing” that, depending on the building, is owned either by the city or by nonprofit housing associations. It’s one of the crowning achievements of 1920s and ’30s “Red Vienna,” when Social Democrats ran the city.

Alt-Erlaa, a social housing estate in Vienna. (Dominik “Dome” / Flickr)

Social housing in Vienna consists of attractive single-family apartments. There are strict controls on what can be charged in rent, with the rest of the tab picked up through progressive taxation. Unlike public housing in the United States, it’s not economically segregated. Middle-class tenants are not only permitted to live in social housing but sometimes eager enough to do so that they wait “a year or two” until a spot opens up.

This is an extremely attractive model, but it doesn’t quite get us to a society without landlords. If the only options were buying your own home or living in Red Vienna–style social housing, what about those waiting lists? Would we be back to Soviet-style housing arrangements after all?

It’s easy to say that we would spend so much on building social housing (after nationalizing landlord-owned buildings) that there would never be a lag between housing needs — as people move from place to place, leave old relationships and start new ones, or simply grow up and move out of their parents’ housing — and new units becoming available in the right cities at the right times, but this might not be plausible. Perhaps some privately owned housing responsive to market pressures would be necessary to fill the gap. Even so, there’s no reason this would have to be landlord-owned housing rather than housing owned by associations of tenants using seed money from publicly owned banks.

Why We Need a Positive Vision

Everything I’ve described already exists in the real world. Vienna exists. Tenant-owned housing exists. Public development banks exist. In a fully landlord-less housing system, these elements would simply be combined in a way they haven’t been before.

The point of putting forward this vision isn’t to suggest that it’s the necessary end point. Perhaps an even better housing system will be possible further down the line. Perhaps one day we can de-commodify housing entirely without replicating the problems of previous attempts. I don’t know. My point is simply that, one way or other, we can realistically move past the current system.

As battles over eviction and homeless encampments show, we’re nowhere close to this horizon of socialist housing. But we need to have such an animating vision as we navigate the often-hellish choices of contemporary capitalism. When the alternatives we advocate are only slightly better than the worst-case scenarios — and there are sometimes very real trade-offs in both directions — it’s much harder to get people excited about fighting for (comparatively) progressive outcomes.

We need a vision of a qualitatively better world — one where housing rights reign and landlords are a thing of the past.