New York Times best-selling author and sociologist Matthew Desmond caused a stir on Friday when he provided a glowing quote about the housing policies of Michael Bloomberg, stating that “Mike Bloomberg has a plan to address this crisis that would help millions of families. Mike’s plan will give families across the country greater economic security and the stability they need to thrive.”
Desmond, the author of Evicted, a book that has garnered praise from liberal readers as well as some socialists, should know better. Putting aside Bloomberg’s record of supporting racist policing policies, downzoning segregated white areas while concentrating development in gentrifying working-class communities, and providing huge subsidies to corporate developers, and his status as a billionaire seeking to buy the presidency, his actual housing policy agenda is a disaster.
Desmond is someone who kind of gets it. His book is mostly a stellar description of a serious and ongoing crisis of eviction in the United States. Yet Desmond stumbles when he gets to his policy recommendations, which center around providing Section 8 vouchers to everyone who meets an area-based means test. Despite the merits of the rest of the work, it’s a fix that falls far short of what’s needed.
Desmond’s focus on this one policy is possibly why he is so enthusiastic about Bloomberg — whose platform also includes the pledge to guarantee a means-tested Section 8 voucher to renters who earn less than 30 percent of the area median income. These vouchers give tenants (at least those who can find an apartment to rent in a market characterized by often legal and always pervasive discrimination against voucher holders) a subsidy paid to their landlord, which ensures that the rent they pay does not exceed 30 percent of their monthly income.
However, in the absence of strong rent controls, vouchers are a direct subsidy to landlords. Since tenants have no incentive to move based on the costs, and the government would have to regularly evict Section 8 tenants in order to obtain the best market value, it simply gives the landlords of these properties an incentive to continually increase rent.
This is why countries that have relied on a means-tested, tenant-based subsidy to private landlords as an entitlement, to the exclusion of rent control and the construction of social housing, have seen spiraling increases in cost to the government. The end result is always the same: a program which was introduced as a universal, generous benefit becomes an albatross, and right-wing governments increasingly scale it back, reduce benefits, and cut out people who need it.
This is exactly what happened in the United Kingdom, which replaced social housing with subsidies under Thatcher, only to see initially small costs spiral out of control leading a government to cut the subsidies drastically in the last decade, causing spikes in homelessness and housing-related poverty.
This does not mean that there is not a need to ban discrimination in the voucher system. A reasonable case can be made that it provides a stopgap of affordability in a system that prevents cost spirals through rent control and which is transitioning to a social housing system. Bernie Sanders, for instance, supports banning discrimination and even more generous vouchers in the interim period.
But Bloomberg does not support either federal rent control or a major social house-building program, and his policy to address discrimination is not to prohibit it, but to give greater “incentives” to “recruit” discriminatory slumlords into the voucher program — as if massive financial subsidies weren’t incentive enough.
Bloomberg’s housing policies reiterate a goal of the Bush administration’s “ownership society” using a neoliberal gloss — he wishes to provide assistance to create a million black homeowners. Certainly, it is true that after the Second World War, redlining and segregation excluded millions of black Americans from the individual wealth-building of homeownership on which the “American Dream” was based. These policies caused permanent harm to black people and effectively damaged solidarity between black and white workers through providing a financial stake in capitalism to the latter, and these harms must be repaired.
But they cannot be mended through the recuperation of a section of the black community into financialized American capitalism. The solution to racial injustice in housing is to attack the root of the problem — the treatment of housing as a generator of wealth in the first place, while uplifting the need for stability and security which is the driver of so many people’s demands for homeownership.
This is why Bernie Sanders’s plan to create a million homes in Community Land Trusts (CLTs) is far superior — it allows people who want to hold a title to their homes to purchase one, but limits the financial equity which is obtained by the individual to ensure that the primary purpose of homes on CLT land remains housing rather than investment. His plan also attacks financialization by supporting punitive taxes on house flipping and vacant homes (including the 25 percent of new luxury homes in New York City which sit empty).
It is not surprising that the document contains quotes from two of Bloomberg’s most prominent endorsers — Mayors London Breed of San Francisco and Muriel Bowser of Washington, DC. Both administrations are very much in the Bloomberg mold — speaking of homelessness as a serious social issue while brutally enforcing sweeps of homeless encampments and refusing to tax the wealthy to provide permanent shelter.
Breed and her supporters’ opposition to Proposition C, a 2018 ballot measure that sought to impose a gross receipts tax on the largest companies in San Francisco to fund permanent housing for homeless people, was almost certainly responsible for the measure passing by less than a two-thirds majority. This left the result in a legal grey area that has seen the funding tied up in an extended court battle, while the mayor’s police continue to terrorize the unhoused population, destroying encampments and stealing people’s possessions.
Meanwhile, in DC, the rapid rehousing schemes lauded by Bloomberg have been used on a vast scale by Bowser’s administration to fudge the numbers and make it appear like the administration is providing assistance to the people whose tents it violently clears out from under railways and bridges. The program provides a temporary voucher to a homeless person, who pays 60 percent of their income to a private landlord while the government covers the rest — but only for one year. Once the subsidies expire or taper off, people are left to cover inflated rents they cannot afford and are evicted or have their utilities cut off.
At the same time, Bowser is seeking to privatize much of the city’s public housing stock, which has indeed seen decades of deliberate neglect and underinvestment. But the tenants in that housing do not see a transfer to private management under the Rental Assistance Demonstration (a policy Bloomberg wants to “supercharge” by removing its modest limitations) as a solution to their problems. Tenants in houses privatized through RAD have often found themselves evicted and displaced and replaced by wealthier, whiter clientele once the homes are repaired. Bloomberg aims to “streamline” this process, making it even easier to ensure working-class tenants fall through the cracks.
It is unsurprising that Breed and Bowser support Bloomberg. Their housing policies are based on the same principle: deliver profits to landlords and real estate capitalists and affordability and safety to comfortable white professionals; by forcibly removing undesirables from their neighborhoods, whether it be homeless people, public housing tenants, or working-class communities.
But Bernie Sanders offers another alternative — ending homelessness and passing a Green New Deal for public housing which would protect and repair existing homes like the ones Bloomberg and Bowser want to privatize, and expand access to safe, sustainable, and permanently affordable homes.
The tenants whose struggles Desmond describes deserve better than Michael Bloomberg, and they deserve much better than the credibility he built with many social reformers through his depiction of their lives and struggles being used to provide cover to a billionaire politician whose track record, ideology, and policies all point toward his administration being a nuclear gentrification bomb.
The alternative is simple: we need a Homes Guarantee. The only presidential candidate who has signed up to this vision is Bernie Sanders, though he is joined by over a hundred down-ballot candidates around the country. The pledges which Sanders has taken commit him to supporting policies that would move housing from a commodity to a human right. It commits him to ending homelessness fully and permanently in America, not just halving it (as Bloomberg claims to support). It commits him to building millions of units of public and social housing, to supporting universal national rent control and good cause eviction — measures which would drastically reduce the eviction rate, as we have seen since the strengthening of New York’s rent laws — and to design housing policies that address racial injustice and the climate crisis.
Sanders also explicitly supports creating legal rights and protections for tenants’ unions, creating grassroots power that can fight back against abuses. His program sees tenants as agents of their own destiny who can organize for power themselves. Desmond’s book humanizes tenants facing eviction, but Bloomberg’s plan does not recognize their human capacity to struggle, instead treating them as passive subjects to be handled by a technocracy.
Legislation is already being prepared: a “People’s Housing Platform” was recently introduced by a coalition of representatives including Progressive Caucus cochair Pramila Jayapal and socialist favorites Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, which would begin to move the country toward a Homes Guarantee. A major fight over housing is increasingly looking like a priority issue for socialists and progressives on the federal level, and it is most likely to succeed under an administration that is already committed to these principles.
A Bloomberg administration would instead keep us on the defensive: possibly repealing some of the most openly cruel and mindless policies of the Trump administration while keeping its privatization efforts, deregulatory mania, and obsession with promoting financialized homeownership.
Tenants at risk of eviction should consider Bloomberg an enemy. It is unacceptable for Desmond to use his credibility to confuse the stakes in this election by praising those we should be exposing as enemies of working-class tenants while ignoring the most visionary housing platform in the field — the Homes Guarantee supported by Bernie Sanders.