After a string of seven improbable victories over Wall Street’s banks, Occupy Homes MN is increasingly held up as a national model for the housing rights movement, and for the potential of the Occupy movement to move beyond encampments and begin winning concrete victories for the 99%. The seven victories won so far are giving confidence to more homeowners to join the campaign and fight to save their foreclosed homes.
Yet even as the victories mount, many in the campaign are discussing how to shift gears from small-scale individual wins to broad, collective solutions to the housing crisis. At a recent national conference of housing justice activists held in Minneapolis, many raised the need to publicly challenge the entire for-profit housing industry. But what would a just housing system look like, and how could it be achieved?
Up to now, Occupy Homes MN has primarily focused on calling for principal reduction, demanding that all U.S. mortgages be rewritten to reflect today’s housing values rather than the artificially inflated values of the housing bubble. There is $1.2 trillion of bad debt on the housing market, which is currently being paid off by working families and renters (NY Times, 5/24/12). Principal reduction would shift some, or all, of this debt burden onto the banks, and could represent one of the largest redistributions of wealth in American history.
The Limits of Principal Reduction
Achieving across-the-board principal reduction to current market value would be a profound victory, but it would still leave the housing crisis unresolved for millions. Widespread unemployment, especially in communities of color, has made housing inaccessible, even at reduced prices. eleven percent of African-American and 17% of Latino households are in imminent risk of foreclosure (CNN, 6/21/10). According to the National Council of Jewish Women, African-American women are three times more likely to receive a predatory loan than white males. Half of all home foreclosures are caused by medical expenses, forcing millions of families to choose between a doctor and shelter (Physicians for a National Health Program, 10/8/08).
A narrow focus on principal reduction also risks turning the anti-foreclosure movement into unwitting foot-soldiers for the Democratic Party’s 2012 election juggernaut. Democrats are using principal reduction as a stick with which to beat Edward DeMarco, the chair of Freddie Mac, claiming that conservative ideologues are standing in the way of real relief for homeowners. In reality, only 10% of all underwater homeowners would be eligible for principal reduction under Obama’s newest proposed program, and families already in foreclosure would be excluded (Bloomberg, 5/21/12).
The Wall Street Journal has also come out in favor of limited principal reduction, not because the ruling class started caring about working families, but because they see it as a life support system to save their investments in the housing market. This is also why principal reduction has become a buzzword for liberal politicians. The slogan can garner millions of votes from desperate families while at the same time pleasing the Democrats’ corporate funding base.
Broader Program Needed
We should fight for across-the-board principal reduction, but not in isolation from a broader package of demands that together could truly realize housing justice. As long as profiteers own the banks, they will run them for their own profit-driven needs, resulting in the ruin of millions of families. There is no evidence that the banks’ behavior will change in the future, or that future crises will be avoided. Under these circumstances, asserting public ownership over the banks is not some “pie in the sky” idea, but a concrete necessity for truly realizing the goal of housing justice.
In a sense, public ownership was already achieved when taxpayer money bought the banks for $23 trillion in the form of bailouts (Bloomberg, 8/20/09). However, on a capitalist basis, we do not get any say in the banks’ decisions. The bailouts have been used to protect the investors at the expense of millions of families. If we had a say, and that wealth was democratically controlled on a socialist basis, things would be different.
The $1.2 trillion debt owed by underwater homeowners could be written off in the form of principal reduction overnight, with additional subsidies for families in need. We could fully fund a single-payer health care system to guarantee no one would be forced to choose between health and shelter again. Unemployment could be eliminated by investing in a massive publicly funded green jobs program, training millions into new jobs and refurbishing industry to be sustainable and environmentally friendly to the neighborhoods surrounding it. Investment in social services, schools, and other needed infrastructure – particularly in communities suffering decades of racist neglect – could dramatically improve the lives of millions.
The only vehicle strong enough to assert democratic control over the banks will be powerful mass movements and direct action in the streets, workplaces, schools and communities. But a movement of the 99% cannot be penned in by strictly economic single-issue demands. To complement the movement, we must build a political vehicle that can challenge the corporate parties of the 1% and their dominance over our democracy. Wall Street has two parties; we need one of our own. Such a party could become a platform for groups like Occupy Homes to unite with wider struggles.
Occupy Homes MN has demonstrated the potential of the Occupy movement to unite broader sections of society around issues like housing that directly affect the daily lives of the 99%. But the struggle for housing justice intersects with other inequalities created under capitalism, like unemployment, inadequate health care, racism and sexism. To be successful in building a movement powerful enough to defeat Wall Street, we will need to develop a rounded-out program that can unite all these interrelated struggles and offer a coherent vision to solve the deep problems posed by capitalism itself.