The Power to Remake Our Cities: An Interview with Samuel Stein

PEWG Blog is excited to present a conversation between Adam H from Boston DSA Housing Working Group and Samuel Stein, author of “Capital City” (2019, Verso) on the real estate state & capital, gentrification and the housing crisis, tenant organizing, equitable housing and the Green New Deal, and more! Check it out below (the interview has been slightly edited for grammar and style).

Samuel Stein, author of Capital City (Verso, 2019)

Adam H: Why focus on housing and cities? Why is our collective right to a safe and secure home within equitable cities the core around which you are building your activism and your writing?

Samuel Stein: Housing is one of several basic human needs that, if unmet, mean premature death — food, water, clean air, and medical care are a few others. It’s also one of the greatest sites of extraction of money from workers to property owners. Housing and cities bring us all together in a place that we can organize from, for, and around. I care about New York City because I am made by New York City, and I contribute to making it through my labor — both paid and unpaid — every day. Cities are collective creations, which are financed by capital and managed by the state but are built, maintained and reproduced by the working class. As the old song Solidarity Forever states, “All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.” Though “Now we stand outcast and starving ‘mid the wonders we have made,” our movements can bring us to a different place. Housing is a big part of what gives us access to, membership in, and emotional ties to the cities we create.

AH: In Capital City, you describe the ascendancy of real estate capital that has grown to now comprise 60% of all assets worldwide, and you term the subordination of all levels of government to the will of Real Estate Capital, as the ‘real-estate state’. Why is it essential for socialist planners, housing activists and organizers more generally, to note and analyze this new formation of the capitalist class? 

SS: This is our job as socialists: you can’t transform what you don’t understand. So while it can be annoying to dwell in the world of capital and its strategies, we can only defeat it if we know how it works, how it came to be that way, and where its vulnerabilities lie. Though it’s not always easy to see the workings of capital, its concentration into urban real estate affects our daily life, shapes the parameters of our cities’ politics, and robs us monthly of a ridiculous portion of our wages. 

AH: Liberal or ‘Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY)’ housing activists frequently call for more ‘affordable’ housing, which typically sets aside a quota of new developments to be priced at a reduced rate, to curb a so-called ‘affordable housing shortage’. Peter Marcuse and David Madden write that ‘exhorting for-profit real estate companies to act differently in the name of creating a less vicious housing system is pointless’. Do you agree? If so, what are the limits to supply and demand logic for addressing the housing crisis?

SS: This is a big question. It’s also something I’m in the middle of thinking through anew, though I address it plenty in my book. Here’s the thing: building up a ton of luxury development in working class neighborhoods, even if a portion of it is set aside for lower (though usually not low enough) rents, is not going to stop gentrification because it is gentrification. The thing is, not building doesn’t prevent gentrification either, and that’s something the YIMBY types and liberal politicians will always remind us of. Neither upzoning for luxury construction — even if marginally inclusive — nor freezing the zoning that currently exists is a good way to deal with the problem of housing market inflation. Sometimes we on the left get pulled into the latter strategy, though, because we oppose the developers and speculators who want to profit off of our emiseration and displacement. We have to do better. No socialist should ever argue for the preservation of the status quo when it comes to land use and development because, as we should all know, the status quo is awful! It’s exploitative, racist, sexist, anti-ecological, and all the rest. So our task is a difficult and complex one: to show that both of the options usually offered to us — the mind-numbing metaphorical backyard-based binary of YIMBY and NIMBY — are wholly inadequate to the problems we face, and in fact often make them worse. We can try to flip their script and argue for PHIMBY (Public Housing In My Backyard) or something like YITBY (Yes In Their Backyard i.e. if you want to try inclusionary zoning, start in exclusionary rich white homeowner neighborhoods), but I fear that we end up playing into their logic by mimicking their overly-online acronymic catchphrases. The point is to decommodify housing, to end speculation, and to expand the stock of housing permanently affordable to all of us, from those currently homeless to workers paying an exorbitant amount of their monthly paychecks to their landlords or banks.

AH: Like many other socialist housing activists, you recognize that only “a radical tenant movement that threatens the activities of Capital” has the power to profoundly reshape our cities in a more just way. How are socialist planners and tenant organizers working to build that movement, and what remains to be done?

SS: There is radical tenant organizing taking place across this country, fighting both defensive battles against landlords and developers and offensive battles for rent control and social housing. It’s really amazing to see. It’s not new, but it’s bigger and bolder than it has been in years. In every city, there are planners working in city government who are sympathetic to these movements, and there are probably even more trained planners who don’t work for the city who aim to contribute their skills toward the tenant movement’s goals. I’d love to see far more of that, but I believe that it is happening already. More and more planning students graduating now see their goal as to aid in the movements for a radical transformation of our cities, starting with our housing system.

AH: As a tenant organizer yourself, you recognize the potential of organized tenants to unmake the real estate state, writing “The source of tenant’s potential power, however, is not just their numbers, or their structurally significant position within the global value chain, though both of those are crucial factors. As political philosopher and South Bronx Unite co-founder Monxo Lopez argues: The force that motivates tenant movements is their intrinsic relationship to land and home, a personal and collective subjectivity that can transform residents into a formidable force of resistance.” In the last few years, militant independent tenant unions such as the Philadelphia Tenants Union, LA Tenants Union, and Autonomous Tenants Union in Chicago have sprung up across the country. Which strategies, fights, and victories do you look to for guidance and inspiration?

SS: These independent tenant movements are a tremendous inspiration. We’re seeing it in New York too, though more at the neighborhood scale than at the citywide scale. (Hopefully we’ll get there soon.) For example, I take inspiration from the Crown Heights Tenant Movement in central Brooklyn, which has organized both long-term residents and recent arrivals together into a potent force capable of doing eviction defense, direct actions against landlords and luxury developers, and policy reform campaigns, all at the same time. These are the kinds of geographically-grounded independent organizations we need to be building in order to harness our potential power as tenants. That power is meaningless at the individual level, but tremendous at a greater scale.

AH: One such fight may be in New York state, where an organized tenant movement, which you were involved with, recently won a historic expansion of rent control and tenant protections. How have struggles like this, for tenant protections like Universal Rent Control, ‘Just Cause’ eviction protections, or ‘Right to Counsel’ enabled further organizing and fostered a growing radical tenant movement?

SS: The expansion of rent control, as well as the right to counsel, were, explicitly and from the very beginning, never just about limiting rents or providing legal services (though those are two important goals!) but increasing our capacity to organize for much more. If tenants have guaranteed lease renewals, rent caps, and legal aid, they are far freer to confront their landlords about unsafe conditions, unfair charges, and more. We didn’t succeed at achieving truly universal rent control or so-called “just cause” eviction protections (and we have got to find better language than that!), but we achieved the biggest expansion of the rent laws in something like 50 years, and we’ll be fighting for everything else this year.

AH: In The Revolution Will Not be Funded, Paul Kivel writes: “When temporary shelter becomes a substitute for permanent housing … we have shifted our attention from the redistribution of wealth to the temporary provision of social services to keep people alive.” An ecosystem of nonprofits has sprung up to provide desperately needed low-income housing that is not provided by public housing or the housing market. While these nonprofits have charitable intentions, they are ultimately constrained by their dependence on the capitalist economy for funding. How do you envision future socialized planning and tenants movements will overcome these limitations?

SS: I think the independent tenant unions you mentioned earlier are exactly the type of organization we’re going to need to build up, both as an independent counterweight to the non-profits and as a way to push the non-profits to take positions they otherwise never would. I think this is part of the dynamic that took place in New York, where the non-profits took on a campaign (universal rent control) that went far beyond the ordinary repertoire of calls for more minor reforms. As the INCITE book you quoted from details, the non-profits we know today arose through a historical process of state retrenchment and repression. They now perform important functions — including emergency shelter, but also the construction of low-income housing and the sponsorship of community organizing programs — that used to be taken on by either the state or radical political parties. Ultimately, though, non-profits are deeply constrained, both legally and through funding and contracting mechanisms, into a more conservative approach than we need to take on the forces of real estate capital. We need to build up alternative institutions that can take more politically radical positions, while reasserting the role of the state, unions, and cooperative associations in sponsoring social housing production.

AH: In a review of your book in Antipode, Keith Brown writes ‘Stein argues that planners, despite their frequent Left bent as individuals, are structurally pressured to “make capitalist development appear to be in the rational best interest of workers and bosses alike”.’ If your work reveals planners as agents of real estate Capital, how can, or should they also work to support, and not undermine, the nascent radical tenant movement?

SS: Like I say at one point in the book, being a planner can be a really shitty job. There are so many structural constraints on what they can do — not just in the abstract political-economic sense, but in the very way in which their departments are constructed. A lot of what they can and can’t do is dictated by laws and charters they don’t write (not to mention the constitution and its orientation toward property). Nevertheless, they do have agency within their agencies! There is a history of radicals in planning departments doing everything from acting as a left voice initiating demonstration projects to sabotaging and leaking bad information about projects and plans. There is also a history of radical planners acting as resources to radical movements, doing the crucial work of translating planning gibberish into accessible language (and, sometimes, translating movement demands into planning gibberish), navigating activists through systems they were never meant to access, and facilitating the production of alternative plans. Sometimes, however, planners can bring the limitations of their work into movement spaces and accidentally depress people’s militancy. This must be avoided at all costs! Just like movement lawyers, their job shouldn’t be to tell tenants that their visions are too bold, but instead help them in any way they can to realize those visions, or even to think bigger.

AH: One of the most exciting parts in your book is the final chapter which envisions shifting towards socialized planning and radical transformation of our cities. You evoke the capital city of revolutionary Cuba: ‘The revolution did not blow up the colonial city; it took it, retained the beauty it created and transformed the social relations that had produced it’. In building autonomous tenants unions, many socialists see the potential to build radical working class institutions that can contest with Capital for control of urban space. Do you therefore see the kernel of a revolutionary movement in the radical tenants movement? 

SS: Yes! Not in radical tenant movements alone, but in radical tenant movements as a major — sometimes even leading — aspect of a radical movement to remake cities. Tenant struggles have long been dismissed as sort of secondary movements, but the centralization of capital into real estate should help us realize that tenants are, in fact, strategically located to gum up the works of global capitalist accumulation in a dramatic fashion. Basically, a tremendous amount of debt is riding on the fact that our rents will continue to rise, and we will either pay those rents or move out and be replaced with someone else who will. An individual tenant can’t do much but pay or move, but a radical and organized tenant movement can refuse this extortion and throw the system into crisis. We need to be ready for the outcomes of such a monumental confrontation, but if we do then, as they say, we have a world to win.

AH: No discussion of socialist cities is complete without focusing on the impending ecological crisis caused by massive expansion of industrial capitalist economies. How can anti-gentrification and anti-displacement movements grapple with the reality of climate crisis that will result in large migrations of people? Can radical planning incorporate an equitable and just way to handle this issue?

SS: We’re not trying to win a dead world. And we’re also not trying to build fortress cities that offer a liberation only to those lucky enough to be situated on high ground. So yes, radical planning can incorporate climate change and climate migration into its framework; in fact, if it doesn’t, it’s not nearly radical enough. What does this look like? It means a willingness to rethink the shape of our cities, and not fall back on either conservative preservationism or liberal developmentalism (which are the predominant models on offer). It also means a willingness to disregard and dismantle borders. At the end of the book I talk about the importance of regionalism, and undoing the borders (municipal, state, and national) that are reinforced and reproduced by our federalized planning system. Municipalism alone is not enough; the scale of a problem like climate change must inspire even urbanists to think beyond the city and to fight for a vision of planning that is radical, working-class, and thoroughly internationalist.

AH: Is high density urban planning possible in an equitable way? How would that fit into a Green New Deal?

SS: Yes. It’s a mortal error for left urbanists to oppose density as such simply because the current schemes of densification in cities like Boston are premised on displacing working class residents and creating investment opportunities for speculators. (It’s also a mortal error to support those schemes, but I don’t think that’s as much of a threat at the moment — I think we all get why building luxury high-rises in working class neighborhoods is bad for us). As researchers like Daniel Aldana Cohen have shown, density as such does not lead to reduced carbon emissions; there is a class character to environmental catastrophe. Super-dense luxury high-rise neighborhoods and their denizens are terribly polluting; moderate-to-high density working class neighborhoods and their residents, on the other hand, are models of sustainability. The fight against gentrification and climate change, then, can be one and the same if we have the vision, the will, and — most importantly — the power to remake our cities.

AH: Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed responses! 

SS: Thanks for the interview!


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