Community Solutions to Capital Urbanization

I do not think the measure of a civilization is how tall its buildings are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man.
~ Sun Bear of the Chippewa

As our human population relentlessly increases, more people are moving to cities, and cities continue to spread outward and upward. Rapid urbanization is often argued as necessary based on scales of supply and demand. This is sometimes true, but such growth engines are designed rarely for public accommodation and far more often for the purpose of generating vast sums of wealth for a select few individuals. As previously covered on Rebel Metropolis, the mechanisms of urban development are obedient to the ownership class, the wealthy, the economically privileged – not the working class, the poor, or the disenfranchised. City governments function as real estate enterprises to further enrich the developers that finance political aspirations.

Recently, Portland’s own mayor Charlie Hales has come under fire for remarks viewed as intolerant and uncaring of our city’s houseless population, as well as those who could be priced out of their homes by waves of new high-end apartment construction. When questioned about expanding the community operated ‘Dignity Village‘, Hales quipped “it’s hard to find land.” When asked if he would support a ‘Homeless Bill of Rights‘, he replied “Haven’t seen it.” The much criticized mayor also expressed his ambivalence to practices of housing displacement. Hales claimed gentrification isn’t all bad if it means the city becomes more prosperous, “I’d rather grapple with the problems of success than the problems of disinvestment.” Ostensibly, ‘success’ is being cynically defined here as only pertaining to those capitalizing on development, and not those suffering from gentrification.

Those cheerleading new development use cleverly crafted language, advocating market-based methods of achieving so-called ‘affordable’ housing. They’ll insist that tweaking systems of capital is the only realistic solution to furnish our housing needs. They’ll claim if we don’t increase density, we’re only encouraging more sprawl. This is a false dichotomy, as the issue in question isn’t increasing density, it’s how we’re increasing density.

If we want to preserve our sprawl-preventing Urban Growth Boundary (UGB), then yes, we’ll likely need to increase density. But if we only build housing that a professional class can afford, we will eventually push working class families out of the city center, and the UGB will be busted anyway. We will also be increasing blue collar dependence on motorized vehicles, as they will be forced farther from centrally located jobs to the outskirts of Portland where public transit languishes. That is a situation no urban planner wants to be accountable for.

I have many friends who function in the city planner/livable streets realm. I also have numerous friends in Portland’s housing justice community. Rarely have I seen people from both spheres in the same room together. However, in conversations I’ve had about issues of urban land use, complete streets, and gentrification, I’ve found far more recognition of the importance of ‘livable streets’ within the housing justice community than of the importance of housing justice within the ‘livable street’ scene. During a recent conversation with a colleague associated with the group Housing Is for Everyone (HIFE), my friend expressed to me how the need for more walkable, bikeable streets is important for everyone, “We want these things. We want safer streets for cycling and walking. But we want to ensure their design is guided by the community. We don’t want them to be a means for development that pushes us out of our homes.”

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35489_348979391832827_1490132298_nReclaiming Alicia Jackson’s house, May Day, 2012.

HIFE is a new splinter group of We Are Oregon, a leader in the fight for safe, affordable housing, especially for families of color. From their website, “HIFE is a network of organizations and individuals launched on May Day 2013 as a grouping of community members and activists that have been working on separate but related housing justice projects over the past two years. Now, those diverse groups, organizations, and communities are uniting to continue the fight for housing justice and community control of land and resources through neighborhood organizing and direct action.

These groups have worked hard to keep people in their homes, despite city and county law enforcement, as well as bank-hired armed guards attempting to enforce immoral and often illegal foreclosure notices. The call of ‘Don’t Move Out!’ has been central in the national housing justice movement. Advocates for resisting forced eviction are essentially telling people to stay put, don’t leave your home, and if you’ve already left, break back in. This is direct action. This is squatting. This is a tactic being used  to resist a capitalized system of housing across the globe.

In the heart of downtown Caracas, Venezuela there rises the Centro Financiero Confinanzas, a massive 45 story high-rise tower. Constructed in the mid-90s, the monolithic structure was never finished – a financial collapse ceased the project. Now, the tower is occupied by hundreds of low income families, all living for free. Some 2,500 squatters have created their own ‘urban ecosystem’ that facilitates sanitation, retail, electrical, and recreational needs. They even have their own building security. If you’re of the developer mindset, you’d probably look at this act of adaptive urbanism and complain that such trespass is illegal and deride Centro as a ‘vertical slum‘. However, if you’re the sort who believes housing is a human right, or even more-so that charging rent itself constitutes theft, you’d likely see this form of community based problem solving as a creative victory.

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Centro Financiero Confinanzas was built to house the very financial industries that profit from exploitation of the planet and the people who inhabit her. The economic collapse that halted its construction would undoubtedly be defined by Charlie Hales as a lack of ‘success’. Hales and other developers fetishize building big and building expensive. The goal is profit, not housing. But when the aims of money-hungry investors reaches too far, markets will collapse. Despite legions of law enforcement tasked with kicking people out of homes occupied unlawfully, there are simply too many humans living without housing to keep them all out.

torre-david-1 Inside Centro Financiero Confinanzas.

There is growing opposition to the cruelty of this profit-driven housing market. There are twenty-four empty homes for every houseless person in the United States. Communities are organizing, they are fighting back. Does Portland need more ‘density’, more homes for influxes of residents? Certainly. But if Portland continues in the direction of becoming a developer’s utopia, resistance will intensify in response. Whether organized under a banner like HIFE, or whether carried out by entirely autonomous individuals, people are going to assert their human rights to housing, unjust laws be damned.

We can, and we must build livable streets alongside homes for the working and underclasses. What is needed are not more condos and luxury apartments. Portland doesn’t need more real estate speculation inflating the cost of housing, it needs community control of urban territory.  We can be a city for everyone, but only if we choose to make it so.

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11 comments

  1. Thoughtful article. We shouldn’t be so quick to kick people out of their homes!

    So you are saying that we should focus more on local neighborhoods to make their own decisions about their neighborhoods?

    Should affordable housing be THE priority when it comes to building cities?

    Let’s say we do focus on building smaller, cheaper units in Portland. Could it be that the demand for housing is so high that the smaller units will be quickly priced out?

    1. The demand for affordable housing has far less to do with supply and far more to do with what people can afford. Paying people a living wage would solve this problem overnight. There’s plenty of available housing in this city, the problem nobody making less than $30k a year can afford it.

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