Landed property and the housing crisis
In its Dec. 5, 2014, editorial, the San José Mercury News commented on the city of San José’s heartless move to close down once and for all a homeless camp. “The dismantling of San Jose’s Story Road homeless encampment known as the Jungle has drawn national attention,” the Mercury News noted. “Once again, it’s those crazy Californians—in the middle of one of the wealthiest regions in the United States, they managed to amass what may well have been the country’s largest homeless encampment, with estimates as high as 300 residents.”
The Mercury News went on to observe: “The ranks of the homeless increased dramatically during and since the recession because so many individuals and families lost jobs and homes. Then, when the economy picked up, rents quickly soared—but many of the jobless had to re-enter the workforce at lower pay.”
The closing of San Jose’s “Jungle” encampment is part of a much larger housing crisis many workers and even middle-class people are feeling. For many workers, the crisis takes the form of rapidly rising apartment rents, which force workers to move to distant suburbs, perhaps a hundred or more kilometers from their places of work. In the worse cases, workers like unfortunate former residents of San José’s “Jungle” are facing complete homelessness.
Nor are the homeless necessarily among the unemployed. (1) Low-wage workers are often unable to afford the rent on even substandard apartments. Some are forced to live in their cars, which end up serving the dual use values as means of transportation and means of shelter. Or low-paid workers are forced to divide up their apartments with other low-paid workers. It’s either that, their automobile—if they have one—or the street.
Frederick Engels on the ‘housing question’
In the early 1870s, articles appeared in the press of the German Social Democratic Party claiming that the relationship between house owners and tenants was analogous to the relationship between industrial workers who sell their labor power and industrial capitalists who buy it. According to these articles, the key to the “social question” was workers’ ownership, whether individual or collective, of their own housing.
Karl Marx’s co-worker Fredrick Engels sounded the alarm and wrote his booklet “The Housing Question” to refute this view. Engels’ basic point was that the key to the “social problem”—the evils caused by the capitalist mode of production including the lack of housing—is to be found not in the ownership of the means of shelter but in the ownership of the means of production.
In his booklet, Engels gave many examples of the housing crisis of the 19th century. A lot of this material is necessarily dated and largely of historical interest. But there is still much in the booklet that is all too familiar for today’s workers. Once again, the housing question is growing acute with rising homelessness, unaffordable house rents and “gentrification.”