Do Real Estate Markets Make Our Cities Less Livable?

Author Samuel Stein talks about how capitalism shapes housing and what economists have in common with city planners

Economics Editor Aaron Freedman talks to Samuel Stein, a geography PhD candidate at the City University of New York Graduate Center and an Urban Studies instructor at Hunter College, about his new book, Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, to be published by Verso on March 5.

Aaron Freedman: So first, I just want to talk about the overall structure of the book. I loved the title, Capital City. It really gets to the heart of what the book’s about and what’s at stake in the struggle for equity, fairness, and stability in urban housing. You walk through how capital literally shapes the physical spaces we live, work, and spend leisure time in cities. I think that physical dimension of capital, especially financial capital, is easy to forget when you’re looking at this from an economic lens.

Samuel Stein: Yeah, there’s a lot of talk about financialization of the economy, which can describe a very real phenomenon, but then becomes very ethereal very fast because finance itself operates in such ethereal and increasingly digital spaces, whereas real estate is literally concrete. If we’re thinking about the way that cities are changing, real estate and the power of the real estate industry is a very concrete manifestation of those changes. Urban planning is the professional as well as academic way of understanding change in cities—of shaping the changes that we want to take place, and of responding to things that we’re unhappy are happening.

It has developed over time within the context of capitalism in direct relation with real estate. There has always been this back and forth between planning and real estate, between what the public wants the city to be and what the people who own the land want out of the city. What I was trying to show in the book is the increasing power of real estate within that dynamic, in part because of the decline of other sectors of urban economies and the rise of real estate in that wake, but also because of the changes to urban planning that have really facilitated the increasing power of real estate.

Yes, in fact you anticipated my next question. One of the parts of the book I found most interesting was, like you said, how in the industrial era you had industrial capital’s downward pressure on housing prices (to ensure workers can live near factories) balanced by the real estate industry’s upward pressure on housing prices. But, that balance is thrown off with deindustrialization in many large cities in the West, like New York. For economists who study industrial policy, what are the housing factors that are most important to recognize? How do we incorporate housing and physical spaces for people in cities into industrial policy making?

So the United States doesn’t have an industrial policy. People say that it has 50 of them because so much of it is done at the state level, which actually means that urban planners have more of an input because planners tend to have more power and influence at the more local level than the national. I think the relationship between industrial capital and the cost of living, which includes housing but also the price of land and everything on top of it, is an underappreciated element of the way cities have changed over the last 50 or so years. Of course the world is more industrial than ever, and the United States is plenty industrial, but industrial production is located less and less commonly in the heart of cities. It’s more of a geographic shuffling of where industrial production takes place than a decline of the industrial sector.

Geographical relocation has enormous political consequences on cities, on urban development, on urban planning, and as you say, the cost of housing. Housing is important not only because it’s a major cost factor in workers’ lives, but also because it’s what gives people access to everything that a city is: employment, sociability, community, political rights, and everything else. It all comes from housing.

This is an oversimplification, but in general, industrial capital has looked towards city planners to make land cheaper and housing more affordable, not because they’re some sort of friend of the working class. Obviously they’re not, but because they want to pay their workers less, and if housing is cheaper, then there are fewer pressures to raise wages. They want land to be less costly because they see land and buildings mostly as cost factors rather than as revenue sources. The opposite is true of real estate capital. Real estate capital wants to see ever-rising land and property values. It wants to see less affordable housing because housing is their primary commodity. Of all the money that’s invested in real estate in the world, three quarters of it is invested in housing. That’s a real conflict between different kinds of capitalists.

If we’ve seen this geographical reshuffling of industry, then we’ve also seen the rise of real estate’s power to shape the narrative of urban planning. Of course workers, tenants, and residents who aren’t themselves real estate capitalists have a very different way of seeing the city, and try to exert themselves politically, but it was useful in the past when there was a conflict between industrial capital and real estate capital over the cost of the city. In the absence of that conflict, it becomes a much more direct conflict between capital and tenants, which politically might be a good thing, but real estate is so powerful that it has so far tended to overwhelm the demands of tenants on city planners.

Another key idea of the book that is somewhat missing in mainstream discourse is the fact that land is a commodity, and that the real estate market turns land into something that can be bought and sold, traded, and securitized, which is not the way that land—and, by extension, housing—have always existed. In fact, it certainly need not be. What are some of the social and economic consequences of the existence of the real estate market that we don’t often really think about or take for granted? What are the ways in which potentially decommodifying land and housing could have positive effects?

Right. I recently gave a talk to a class in Design and Urban Ecologies at Parsons School of Design, which is a very international program. I said something about land being bought and sold as a commodity, and a couple students raised their hands and were confused by this because in some parts of the world, corporations are not buying and selling land, they’re buying and selling property which they lease from either the state or another land owner. In the United States and in many other countries at this point, land itself is traded. This produces the possibility for a very structural and deep linkage between what urban planners do and how the real estate economy works.

When urban planners create public benefits that are not intended to be any sort of gift toward real estate—things like new parks, new transit lines—they’re also dramatically increasing the value of nearby land. Every time they do something that might be beneficial to the public, they’re also making land more expensive, and therefore the property on top of that land gets more expensive, which is a problem for anyone who can’t afford that cost differential. In the absence of tight rent controls, in the absence of a good quantity of well-funded public housing, the benefits of urban planning are accrued to whoever owns the land, and can become a real threat to people who are struggling to pay monthly rent. Then even good urban planning can become associated with displacement and with gentrification.

What are some of the different policy options available for decommodifying land and housing in cities?

The way I wrote the section of the book on alternatives was by interviewing a number of people who work in city planning in New York City, but think planning should be done dramatically differently. There’s a lot of people with heterodox and radical economic positions who are attracted to the idea of city planning, but then are quite disappointed by what the profession actually is.

There are policies that can be done right now that would frustrate the rise of what I’m calling “the real estate state.” These are policies that try to actually cool the speculative nature of the market, unlike mainstream urban planning practice which stokes speculation in order to bring back some other benefits. I’m saying we need to actually attack speculation. That can be done in a number of ways. By strengthening rent controls, by reinvesting in public housing, by keeping more land in the public domain. That means not privatizing existing public land, but also creating opportunities for a greater stock of public or at least decommodified land.

That can mean “right to buy laws” for tenants who can buy out their landlords. It could also mean “right to sell laws” for people facing foreclosure who want to sell their land or housing to the state, which can then operate it as either public housing or transform it into a community land trust. There’s all sorts of ways we can think about expanding the stock of public land as well as affordable housing.

I also think we need to increase the economic diversity of our cities, which means bringing back industrial production, or at least stopping the rush to push out industrial producers. Not because industrial production is some sort of magic economic pill, but because it would re-stimulate that intra-capitalist feud that I talked about earlier between industrial capital and real estate capital, which can create some better opportunities for urban planning.

We can talk about reshuffling the way that we dole out what are the public benefits of urban planning as well as the risks. In New York City right now, we are upzoning [changing zoning laws to allow for denser building development] working class, majority people of color neighborhoods, while at the same time wealthier, white neighborhoods benefit from very protective zoning. Those priorities need to be reversed. If indeed the city needs growth, that growth should be in low-rise, high-value, transit-oriented neighborhoods that are currently protected by the zoning codes. There are a dozen of these kinds of neighborhoods scattered throughout the city that should be the priority for rezoning, not already affordable neighborhoods occupied by working class people of color.

What about community land trusts (CLTs)? They’re a mechanism for affordable housing and land ownership that’s popular in certain housing advocacy circles, but not well known outside of them. Can you explain how CLTs decommodify land and ensure access to affordable housing?

Community land trusts can be very complicated, technical devices. I think that is one reason why they’re not widely understood. At its most basic, a community land trust is a way of providing affordable housing (or other space) by delinking land ownership from building ownership, and putting tight limits on what can be done with both. In a community land trust, the trust owns the land, and usually a mutual housing association or another form of non-profit, limited equity building ownership owns the buildings on top. By separating those two things, you limit the amount of speculation that’s possible. If the value of the land goes up, the owners of the building can’t take advantage of that increase. That changes people’s relationship to their housing, and also to the land itself.

Atop the land you have a building—usually housing—which is controlled in a way that limits the rise in exchange value over time. If you bought a unit for a certain amount of money, which is usually equivalent to what it actually costs rather than some sort of inflated price, you can sell it whenever you want, but you can only sell it for what you bought it for plus interest. You can’t sell it to make a profit. This is done through a long-term contract or deed.

In the end, what you’ve done is functionally decommodified land and housing in a particular place. It’s still a commodity in the sense that it can be bought and sold, but it doesn’t behave like other commodities because its price doesn’t fluctuate with anything other than the actual cost of operating the building.

Would decommodifying land also require a dramatic expansion of social security, since so many people in the United States use homeownership to fund their retirement?

It’s true that a lot of people have invested their savings into their home, and that becomes a retirement strategy. It is potentially a wealth transfer to future generations. That model, however, which was already deeply racially skewed toward white homeowners, has been challenged in recent years as home ownership rates have been declining. Increasingly it’s absentee investors who are buying up housing. We have record levels of absentee ownership. Private equity firms like Blackstone are now the world’s largest landlord, and own quite a bit of housing in the United States. So that model of housing-as-retirement-savings is becoming increasingly imperiled already.

If we did manage to decommodify housing in this country, I agree that we would need an alternate strategy for retirement. I think government provided pensions and increased social security is a great way to go, especially since there are all sorts of issues with the private pension system, most prominent of which is that fewer and fewer people even have pensions. So yes, that’s an important issue that would need to be confronted, but it’s not insurmountable.

I was really struck by how similar your analysis of urban planners is to INET’s analysis of economists: people who often enter the field with really noble intentions, but find themselves pushed into this narrow way of thinking thanks to perverse incentives, mainly from capital interest that define the profession. They also both have a reputation for being a bit better at theory than practice. What do you think economists and urban planners can learn from each other?

The first thing is to recognize the difference between why we got into these fields and what they actually are. I think you’re absolutely right. Most people become planners (and perhaps economists) because they believe that there’s some social benefit to it. It’s not just personal gain that people are seeking. They think that they can improve the way our cities work in the case of urban planners, or the way our economy functions in the case of economists.

Obviously those two things are closely related. We have to be honest about what these professions actually are under the constraints that we live in. One of the big takeaways that I got from talking to radicals who work in urban planning was the need for organizing. In fact, in New York in the 1960’s there was something called the Planner’s Underground, which was a group of people who were trained professional planners, many of them working for the City of New York, who were basically working with community organizations to subvert the worst things their offices were doing.

They would write anonymous testimony that would say, “I am an employee of city planning. I know what’s going on here. This is messed up, and it should not go forward.” Movements like that can be really inspiring, but they take collective work, they take organizing. That form of organizing can also help people get out of the groupthink and the pressures that are put on working planners to conform to a very pro-real estate mentality. If you’re organizing among radical planners outside of work, you have that space to think differently than what you’re allowed to do when you’re working.

I think economists can do many of these things, and I think INET is an example of this. I know there are a couple other organizations for economists who want to get out of the structural constraints in which they work, like the Union for Radical Political Economics. For planners, the Planners Network acts as a left alternative to the mainstream American Planning Association. Changing the planning or economics is something that can’t be accomplished alone by one planner or one economist, but which collectively can be pushed forward.

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