By Joel Rothschild of the Ecovillagers Alliance
This is the third and final part of a Green Horizon series focusing on innovative ways to foster places of equity, integrity, and sustainability. It appeared in Green Horizon issue #39 (Fall 2019).
HOUSING IS THEFT. LONG LIVE COMMUNITY LAND!
The year is 1650, nearly two centuries before the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon will cry “Property is Theft!” Amidst a civil war among different landowning elites, new communities sprout across England in defiance of the very idea of landowning. Radicals known as the Diggers, squatting on vacant tracts, tear down fences to build common houses and vegetable plantings. They give free food to anyone willing to join this collective act of cultivation.
Believing in a connection between social, spiritual, and ecological well-being, the Diggers declare that “true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth.” In this understanding, to “commune with nature” and to “commune” with each other are, together, what make a place home and make a person whole.
The Diggers’ Shire-like communes are, of course, broken up violently by the landowning classes, but not only by those most powerful. Much as in later chapters of history, even property owners at the bottom of that pecking order take up arms against the threat of egalitarian ideas.
Capitalism is on the rise. Many are choosing a new system of private property over the old system of serfdom. Many more find this choice is made for them. While the Triangle Trade makes entire communities of kidnapped Africans into the property of plantation owners, fences slice across England’s old Commons and entire communities of subsistence agrarians are forced from ancestral lands into cities. There they encounter a “freedom” that appears not to lie in the use of the earth. It is the freedom to make money — by, for instance, laboring 80-hour weeks weaving textiles from slave-grown cotton. This freedom has some allure because money can theoretically be exchanged for anything. However, without the old Commons, one’s money is most likely needed for food, no longer grown by the community one no longer has, and for a strange new commodity called housing.
The Diggers didn’t have housing. The countless villages lost with enclosure of the Commons didn’t have housing either. They had houses. Housing is a byproduct of private land plus capitalist labor markets, wherein the bodies of workers (whether rented or stolen) need to be housed when they’re not working. It happens this makes an irresistibly profitable business for the minority who own all that private land. Migrants always need somewhere to live, and who wouldn’t fight for the right to sell a product everybody needs?
Thus begins centuries of struggle over housing. Subsidized housing, public housing, company housing, affordable housing, redlined housing, substandard housing, a housing crisis. When we speak of “housing,” we refer always to the storage of people displaced involuntarily — by war, enslavement, enclosure, poverty, ecological destruction, or persecution — and dispossessed from their ancestral community’s land. We don’t speak of “housing” for capitalism’s upper castes, because they don’t need housing. They’re the ones still with land.
The Diggers were not utopians, they were conservationists. They saw the destruction of the kind of place that had nourished and preserved human community for thousands of years — the kind of place where sustenance and shelter were secured through a sustainable web of relationships, lifeways, and collective wisdom grounded in shared habitat.
The Diggers saw the pathology of privatization, poised as it was to colonize the earth: that though it may offer housing of every shape and size, it can do so only by removing community from the land. To choose private ownership of land is thus to choose for community not to exist as it did for our ancestors. The subsequent centuries of mass displacement confirm this grim prediction thoroughly.
So if “housing” is part and parcel of the system that brought us slumlords and climate change, why bother with housing at all? How can we reclaim community land? How can we become the ancestors the Diggers tried to be for us?
DIVEST, REINVEST, SOLIDARITY
It’s crucial to respect the awesome power standing against community land. The capitalist conception of property, designed for dispossession and accumulation, fills our laws, our institutions, and our minds. Nowhere on Earth is beyond its influence. This anti-communal power must be purposefully diminished, and a broad base of pro-communal power must be built, if we want community land to flourish and survive.
To be effective, we should follow the lead of today’s climate organizers, themselves following the Civil Rights and Labor movements, and commit to taking three steps together:
Step 1: Withdraw the power we give to anti-communal forces.
Step 2: Find the contributions we each can make to foster the re-establishment of community land.
Step 3: Build pro-communal power with other movements aligned against our common oppression.
Divest, reinvest, solidarity. All three are strategically key, yet the first is rarely addressed by advocates of community land. How can you divest from anti-communal forces?
For starters, quit using communes as a punch line. Certainly, the history of communes offers cautionary tales about abusive power, race and class privilege, and poor living conditions. To identify these ills with communes, though, is to feed the myth that private land solves any of them. Privatization hides harms, it doesn’t heal them. Furthermore, we should acknowledge that successful, mature communes such as Acorn and Twin Oaks provide their members with enviable food, shelter, physical and mental health, livelihoods, and support for children, at a fraction of the cost and environmental impact of any neighborhood yet devised by capitalism. Writing them off is a great service to the mythology of private land.
If you have wealth, remove it from private land and its institutions. Don’t hang on to stock in businesses that use your money to take land and mine, cut, drill, or otherwise extract its riches. But, also, don’t give your money to banks that use it to finance private land and its exploitation. It’s the same system!
The toughest and perhaps most important divestment we must make is from our own privately-held land and buildings. For many, this property is home. For many it is also our single greatest gift to the system of real estate capitalism. If you own your home, try asking yourself: would I feel 100% comfortable selling my house for less than market rate, for no reason except to not raise the cost of housing for others? If the answer is no, then the system has you right where it wants you.
RESISTANCE AND RESILIENCE FROM THE LAND UP
The good news is, divestment is liberating. The “American Dream” of homeownership asks individuals to take most or all of our liquid assets to become amateur real estate speculators and property managers, with decades of interest to pay. What a burden just for secure shelter!
As we discussed in Part 2, being a renter has many advantages, foremost flexibility and sharing property management’s risks and responsibilities. Tenancy is all the more beneficial when one’s “landlord” is a Community Land Co-op (“CLC”) wherein each member can own as much or as little equity as they choose, while voting equally on decisions impacting the neighborhood.
For those who already own real estate, that asset could be a profound contribution to the re-establishment of community land. Let’s say I own my home or place of business, I trade it to a CLC for its value in equity shares, then I rent that very same place back from the CLC. Even if the rent I pay, offset by the dividend owed to me from the co-op, is equal to what I paid before in mortgage, taxes, and maintenance — so no one has moved and the cost is the same and it looks like nothing has changed at all — still, I have radically advanced the cause.
Now other co-op members can buy the equity formerly owned by my bank. Landscaping, planting, water management, an electric microgrid, high-speed internet, and more can be integrated across my old property line. Fences can come down. The CLC’s local democracy for budgeting, development, and land use decisions can include one more piece of the neighborhood, in perpetuity.
Part of what I pay for my place now helps maintain the neighborhood’s Commons- — the shared commercial kitchen and banquet hall, guest rooms, dance and yoga space, theater, library, kid’s den, storage, free store and so on that make it possible to live very well on a smaller individual footprint. Part of what I pay for my place also feeds the CLC’s Resilience Fund, giving our co-op the means to keep neighbors in their homes during hardship, and to ensure old heating and cooling equipment is replaced with the green alternatives that may cost more up front but serve us all better over time.
Most importantly, as a Community Land Co-op gains ownership of land, its neighborhood gains security as a place for community. CLC holdings won’t be sold to speculators, developers, or gentrifiers. They won’t be “flipped,” or suddenly cost double the price. Household and business equity in the neighborhood will naturally tend toward more equitable distribution among members, without recourse to paternalistic state or philanthropic programs, and market shocks like the Great Recession won’t periodically liquidate the neighborhood’s real estate for the easy picking of outside investors.
Democratic ownership of land such as a CLC provides every party to a neighborhood with different ways to reinvest in community. A neighborhood resident who owns private land can trade that property into the co-op. A resident who rents from the co-op can pay a little extra or trade “sweat equity” to gradually build their investment. A neighborhood business can contribute in the very same ways. Non-residents who become co-op members can contribute as “social investors,” reducing the community’s dependence on outside lenders. Community and family foundations can do the same, contributing through program-related investment.
Traditional housing co-ops rely on most of real estate capitalism’s conventions. Units are bought and sold and typically financed with bank debt. They also focus narrowly on housing, rarely bringing together the commercial and residential constituents that add up to a neighborhood, and rarely bringing together residents with the non-residents whose wealth is needed to provision adequate real estate. We can be more inclusive, more relationship-based, and more resilient.
By moving away from capitalist institutions and including a greater diversity of members, we can use Community Land Co-ops to restore power to the web of relationship- — that is, to community itself. Community land isn’t waiting for a state policy, or an angel funder, or an NGO it can rely on. It’s merely waiting for us to rely on each other.
REPARATIONS THROUGH COMMUNITY LAND
I am frequently privileged to connect with other social movements’ organizers. What they see in the movement for democratic community land is most often a way to make housing more affordable and to stabilize it against gentrification. In short, they see a way to prevent previously displaced people from being displaced yet again. It is clear that continued displacement harms the communities and even the ecosystems that most social movements aim to heal.
Now what if democratizing community land could be a healing process in and of itself? To make this personal, I am Jewish. Our community is one of few to have received Reparations, specifically state and corporate reparations paid to Germany’s victims in the Sho’ah (Holocaust). With tensions rising sharply between Jewish and European communities today, it’s debatable how much those billions of euros produced real healing between the descendants of fascists and the descendants of their victims. Meanwhile, there is an opportunity for Jewish participation in a more relationship-grounded sort of reparations that could perhaps feel more meaningful in the long run.
My ancestors were chronically displaced for centuries. Then in the US something strange occurred. American Jews found ourselves bumped one rung up from the bottom of the racial hierarchy. We went from being denied any place to live but the “ghetto” (Italian for Jewish housing) to being permitted not only to live there but to own property there too. Then we were even allowed to move out into some “nice neighborhoods” while keeping those old “inner-city” properties as rentals. The upshot today is descendants of the chronically displaced American Jews owning many of the homes of the chronically displaced Black and Latinx Americans. In many cities, like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and most famously Brooklyn, these neighborhoods are gentrifying rapidly. As the old landlords sell out to developers, residents are ever more vulnerable to displacement.
What if we came together right now and stopped history from repeating? Every party to this scenario comes from a long history of displacement! Community land could be a deeply felt common cause. It could be healing for everyone involved, and it could forge relationships of durable solidarity between victims of common struggle.
Social movement organizations already exist to hold ally-ship between American Jews and people of color. The movement for community land should be helping those organizations facilitate the conversion of Jewish-owned rental properties into Community Land Co-ops, so the residents can become part owners and resist displacement. Where these CLCs can also incorporate neighboring commercial and industrial properties, residents would finally have a direct democratic voice in land use decisions for neighborhood polluters, and environmental injustices could be addressed as well.
That is merely one example. The truth is, most communities today live in exile from community land. We have each played roles in each other’s harm, roles assigned to us by the racial, sexual, gender, and class divisions fueling capitalism. We have, therefore, a great abundance of opportunity for healing relationships in collaboration to re-establish community land.
HOUSING IS THEFT. LONG LIVE COMMUNITY LAND CO-OPS!
The year is 2019, four centuries into the privatization madness resisted by the Diggers. And we are still resisting.
After years of research and planning, the Community Land Co-op is more than a theory. Where I live, in the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we have a few homes purchased and a founding CLC membership of tenant-owners and non-tenant-owners making democratic decisions together, guiding the present and future of our land and buildings. Equity purchasers are earning dividends and aspiring equity purchasers are making agreements with other co-op members to acquire equity of their own. Renters on the block are talking with their landlords about incorporating their homes, and co-op members are talking to owner-occupants on the block about incorporating their homes.
A business plan is forming for our CLC to acquire an old industrial building and make a Common House. The commercial kitchen would help community food entrepreneurs develop their businesses during the hours when we aren’t making family-style neighborhood dinners, and the community guest rooms would be run as B&Bs by tenant-owners looking to offset their rent. The makeshift theater in one house’s living room, the self-serve speakeasy and lounge in another’s basement, and the tool library and kids’ den in another’s garage — all amenities we’re sharing across the block — could find more comfortable quarters and be more cooperatively managed.
To gain efficiency in our accounting, property management, and other business functions, as well as to ensure liquidity for co-op equity holders when they need cash, our Community Land Co-op would be better off in a peer network of CLCs across the region. As it happens the CLC in Lancaster is only the first in this movement. Neighborhood organizers are rallying people and identifying land and buildings. Brooklyn, central New Jersey, or Philadelphia could be next.
Everything we’re doing is open source and meant to be replicable wherever people want to organize democratic community land. We started an organizing nonprofit, called the Ecovillagers Alliance, to provide free online learning and a legal brain trust, and to work with local groups forming study circles. When enough study circles have formed across the region, we will hold the first Mid-Atlantic Assembly for Community Land Co-ops.
With the plight of the Diggers in mind, we are proceeding with equal parts caution and audacity as we develop inside and outside ways of relating to capitalist power. Inside the co-op, we can work with local restorative justice facilitators to implement harm-reducing and healing approaches to safety and conflict resolution. Perhaps I will see a day when no one on my block ever feels a need to call the police!
Outside the co-op, we are all owner-operators of a private business, the business that owns our community’s land and buildings. Outside the co-op, that is to say, we are the capitalist legal regime’s most protected class.
Inside the co-op, we are all members who vote equally and trade equity and earn dividends. No individual member owns the land, the co-op does, therefore no one can preempt anyone’s voice or confiscate anyone’s home. Inside the co-op, that is to say, we at long last have democratic community land.
Building and sustaining this protective container calls on each of us to divest our wealth, our skills, and our minds from an ever-harmful system, and to bring them into an intentional, cooperative web of relationship. Some can contribute property, some can commit to being wonderful long-term neighbors. Some have great community businesses, some have great social networks. Some can crunch spreadsheets, some can knock doors. What are your gifts?
To reiterate our debt to the prophetic Audre Lorde, the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house. But with genuinely democratic tools, the master’s house could be reclaimed as a fine Commons for all of our children. It’s time to create this legacy together.