Books to take us home, past capitalist predation

For most of us, our #1 concern is keeping a roof over our heads. Whether you’re paying a landlord, a hotel or AirBNB, or the bank that owns “your” house, the cost of shelter is often a source of worry and outrage (c.f. “The Rent is Too Damned High”). Meanwhile, with a president who embodies the “real estate” industry, we’ve become numb to those who make millions playing fast and loose with other people’s shelter and to the specific damage inflicted on communities of color.

The nefarious landlord has been a staple of anguish and melodrama for more than a century, but how does the housing crisis fit into the struggle against capitalism? That intersection at the nexus of shelter—between capital, financialization, and racism—sparked an invaluable crop of new books in 2019. Some narrate its evolution in sharp journalistic detail; others zoom out for a more big-picture, explicitly socialist analysis. Together, they offer a vivid portrayal of suffering and present strategies for organizing.

CAPITAL CITY: Gentrification and the Real Estate State Many DSAers started their year’s reading with Sam Stein’s big-picture analysis that places much blame on urban planners,”who enacted ‘urban renewal’ plans in cities across the country, which displaced hundreds of  thousands of people by demolishing long-standing working class and industrial neighborhoods.” Stein then described “the force underlying [planners’]…work as a ‘police power.’”


RACE FOR PROFIT: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor interrogates how more traditional forms of racist exclusion, such as discrimination against nonwhite tenants and redlining, gave way to what she calls “predatory inclusion,” setting up African Americans on the road to foreclosure and solidifying racist stereotypes while refusing to truly enforce the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Narrating the story of a sea-change in housing policy and its dire impact on African Americans, Race for Profit reveals how the urban core was transformed into a new frontier of cynical extraction. Taylor’s narrative largely ends with the 1980s and the Reagan administration, with acknowledgment that “predatory inclusion” continues.


HOMEWRECKERS: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream Aaron Glantz’s story starts where Taylor’s leaves off, with mid-1980s changes that made mortgage debt a plaything for capital markets. “In 1986, President Reagan signed an overhaul of the American tax system, containing a provision allowing bond traders who bought and sold mortgage-backed securities to cut their large single bundles into tranches,” slices that could promise greater revenue for investors like the “Homewreckers” of the book’s title. Glantz’s true-crime saga includes current power players, like Steve Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross, and lesser-known rogues, many of whom founded companies that became landlords to the former homeowners. “The rise of these corporate landlords drove a generational transfer of wealth from hundreds of thousands of individual homeowners to a handful of well-heeled bankers and titans of private equity.”


URBAN WARFARE: Housing Under the Empire of Finance, by Raquel Rolnik shows us how global the disease has become. “This housing finance: It looks like a political drug,” she quotes a European economist. Describing its effects from Boston to Bangalore, Rolnik sees the crisis as “the expression and result of a long process of deconstruction of housing as a social good and its transformation into a commodity and financial asset,” aided by a conservative political vision in which “citizens are replaced by consumers and players and capital markets.” See also the analysis featured recently in Democratic Left Online, via a sharp review by James Neimester.

All of these books are calls to action toward a future that values shelter as a social good, inviting organizers and thinkers to work toward that future. They serve as fuel for the struggle.