Blog #60 Toward a Housing Strategy for New York 1

Notes Towards a Housing Strategy for New York City

That there Is a housing crisis in New York City for the majority of its residents, and particularly severe for lower income and “discriminated-against minority groups,” hardly requires further documentation.[1] And there is an emerging consensus amongst housing advocacy groups and community-based and progressive political groups that strong measures, from administrative changes to even radical legislation, are needed to remedy the situation. It may be useful to try to put together what a comprehensive agenda for legal, political, and administrative change might look like, on whose substance common agreement might be developed. And the language with which we discuss urban issues needs to be looked at carefully, for the implicit bias much of it contains.

A. sets forth the premises of the strategy.
B. lists some of the concrete programs that might be foregrounded as demands.
C. lists some of the words that are often mischievously used in housing discussions.

A. The strategy accepts the following premises:

1. That there is indeed a crisis in housing, that it inequitably negatively affects particularly low-income and discriminated-against minority groups and inequitably favors higher income groups and profit-motivated suppliers of housing in the housing industry.
2. That the market, given the gross and inequitable inequalities of income reflects these inequalities, and cannot be expected to be a tool to end this crisis; its natural tendency is indeed to exacerbate it, and it requires radical control from government to act otherwise.
3. That community-based decision-making, accepting broadly-defined principles of justice, non-discrimination, and participation, is an essential element in developing a housing system that is equitable and free of crisis.
4. That, while some reforms may meet general approval and be win-win measures, any serious attempt to resolve the housing crisis will involve sharp conflicts of real interests, both material and ideological, and full consensus of serious reform is not to be expect. Rather, conflicts, in which grass-roots organizations and social movements need to play a critical role, are inevitable, and must be anticipated and planned for.
5. That the very words used in debates about housing policy can operate to vitiate meaningful research and be used as tools to influence the outcomes of conflicts over policy.

B. In outline, then, the measures that together might implement a serous strategy [3] addressing the housing crisis might include [2]:

2. Adopting public policies that predictably serve to reduce discrimination, reinforce equity, and help end the housing crisis, including :

a. Ending upmarket rezoning, which produces displacement, discriminates against the interests of those most in need of housing, and produces exclusionary communities.
b. Participatory budgeting, allocating significant sums for housing programs expanding options for affordable housing.[4]
c. Reinterpreting ULURP to required 4/5 majority of City Planning Commission and city Council votes to override a CB vote, thus reversing an opinion of the Planning commission’s counsel that the Charter Revision creating the Community Boards did not give their votes any legal force or effect. [5]
d. Revising City procedures for the handling of properties whose future use is within its power to influence, to give priority to uses expanding housing opportunities for lower-income households and development, to promote ownership and/or management by non-profits in the form of non-profit coops or condos or community land trusts or mutual housing associations community-based non-profit non-governmental organizations.
e. Amending the real estate tax system to serve social policy purposes as well as raise revenue, by increasing taxes for underused and speculatively-held vacant properties, imposing a speculation tax on the profit from rapid turnover of properties acquired for resale.
f. Requiring a registry of residential properties (lots, buildings, units) held vacant for over 3 months and imposing significant fees for late registration or failure to register, steeply increase with time, and authorizing filing of a lien.
g. Rent control, with limits pegged at the lower of tenant affordability and landlord break-even in the aggregate. Eliminating vacancy decontrol.
h. Public housing support and new construction, with continuing occupancy at proportionately increased rent if income increases over limits for entry.
i. Minimum wage and pro-labor organizing measures, with the understanding that they ameliorate the housing crisis, but do not establish an equitable housing system, and are ineffective unless coupled with rent and price controls. (Likewise, health insurance, unemployment compensation, and parallel measures).

C. In research and advocacy, avoiding language that cloaks serious issues or act as euphemisms for actions that would be recognized as undesirable if properly named.[6] Such terms, which often reflect implicit but heavily
Ideologically biased concepts, include:

a. Density, when put forward as if increasing density is per se a suitable goal for a housing policy, or as a simple way to produce affordable housing
b. Affordable housing, when used without recognizing that the definition of what is affordable must take into account that the need for housing becomes greater as incomes decline.
c. Market, when only the private profit-driven market in meant, rather than a system of shaping the distribution of goods and serves, and of public policies, to reflect varying individual and social preferences.
d. Up-zoning, rather than upmarket zoning
e. Wealth creation, if seen as a goal of housing policy for home owners, treating housing, not as a necessity of life valued for its use, but rather as a commodity invested in for it the profit to be derived from it
f. Government intervention, if suggesting there is a “natural” private housing system not fully dependent from the outset on governmental action.
g. Diversity, if used to encourage introduction of higher income or higher status households into lower income communities or communities of color.
h. Color blindness, if used to preclude examination of patterns that my reflect discrimination on the basis of color.
i. Environmentally Sustainable, when excluding the consideration of the social environment.
j. Displacement, when limited to the immediate eviction of households, excluding 1) precautionary or “voluntary” displacement undertaken ahead of but because of the immanence of rising unaffordable rents/costs or foreclosure actions, excluding 2) secondary displacement resulting from price changes in areas outside the immediate area of a given change but required because of it, and excluding 3) excluding prospective displacement, the prevention of households moving into -moving into a neighborhood desired by and otherwise affordable for them because of rising prices. [7]
k. Gentrification, when used as synonymous with neighborhood improvement, rather than its accurate definition as in-movement of higher income households into a neighborhood displacing lower-income households.
l. Integration, desegregation, mixed income, when used to support-movement of a white non-Hispanic population into a community displacing lower income and/or minority households. [8]
m. Growth, when used as a self-evident goal of public policy per se, neglecting what is to be grown and for whom, the relation between the various forms and directions of growth and social justice .
n. Competitiveness, when used as a desirable goal of city policy per se, neglecting questions of the net social desirability of aiding the competitive position of a given city against other cities in terms of the impact on social justice and the differential impact of economic competiveness on different economic and ethnic and racial goops.
o. City, as in ”the city,” when used to suggest that the city is an organic entity in which a benefit to any one part is a benefit to all, avoiding acknowledgement of the multiple conflicting interests in the city and the recognition that benefits for some, most frequently the upper income and elite, is likely to be at the expense of others, most likely the poor and minorities, e.g. wage levels.
p. Filtering, the assumption, contrary to fact, that benefits at the top of the income social, ethnic and racial ladder will filter down and benefit those below as well. As their higher-income residents move in, the tendency is rather to displace than to benefit lower-income ones. [9]
q. Transformative, unless used to separate radical from reformist proposals or policies. [10]

1. See, for instance, the several excellent studies of the Furman Center for Real Estate at New York University, the trenchant studies of many
3.For the distinctions between reformist and transformative proposals, see, “Blog #30 – Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas”
4. See Marcuse, Peter. 2014. “Participatory Budgeting–Expansion.” In City Limits web site,
5. A vote of the City Council, or even a new Charter Revision may be necessary for this purpose, and might expand the Board’s access to information and revise Board procedures improving the availability of technical assistance outside of city government if needed.
6. Marcuse, Peter, 2006. Expert Report, In Mhany Management Inc., And New York Communities For Change Vs. Incorporated Village Of Garden City and Garden City Board Of Trustees, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York Case 2:05-cv-02301-ADS-WDW Document 413 Filed 12/06/13 Page 1 of 65 PageID #: 10601, cited at page 41.
7.For a fuller discussion, see Marcuse, Peter, “Gentrification, Abandonment, and Displacement: Connections, Causes, and Policy Responses in New York City,” Journal of Urban and Contemporary Law, Vol. 28, 1985, reprinted in revised form as “Abandonment, Gentrification and Displacement: The Linkages in Nw York City” in Neil Smith and Peter Williams, eds., Gentrification of the City, Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986, pp. 153-177, and in Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly, eds. The Gentrification Reader, 2010, London, Routledge, pp. 333-348.
8.As a sample of the mischievous use of the term: a chair of the New York City Planning commission argued: “gentrification is merely a pejorative term for necessary growth.. “ “Improvement of neighborhoods – some people call it gentrification – provides more jobs, provides housing, much of it affordable, and private investment, which is tax revenue for the city,” she said.
9. Leo Goldberg’s draft for his research spells this out.
10. See, Blog #11, Reforms, Radical Reforms, and Transformative Claims.


Blog #38 – Community Land Trusts: Empty, Moderate, and Full-bodied.

Community Land Trusts – Empty, Moderate, or Full-bodied?

Community land trusts,[1] as a legal form of ownership of land, can come in three different forms: empty – available to any group for any purpose; moderate – to deal with serious but limited problems for a limited group, or full-bodied – handling both immediate problems but with a broad social justice perspective pushing transformative content and actions.

The differences are significant. Community land trusts can simply be an expanded form of co-operative ownership used by those protecting an already strong position in the housing market, insulating its members from outside influences by exclusion. The legal form of land trust is available to all, and ”community” can be interpreted restrictively by the well-to-do as easily as broadly by less well-off users. Thus, community land trusts as an empty form.

At the other extreme on a scale of social justice, community land trusts have the potential to play a transformative role in our housing systems, favoring lower-income households and all those ill served by existing markets, including poor households, the homeless, African-Americans and ethnic minorities, many women, households diverse by gender relations, age, and background.  -justice focused community land trusts can whittle away at the dominance of the private market as a method of allocating housing. Community land trusts can be models of democratic governance, both internally and at a larger scale of governance. And they can help in the political processes by which public resources are allocated to establish and implement a meaningful right to housing for all. Thus, necessarily, full=bodied community land trusts .

Community land trusts may also be transformative in a quite different context: achieving effective grass-roots democracy. If extended, community land trusts may be seen as a form of neighborhood self-government, in fact controlling land uses and what goes with them in an unquestionably powerful manner, viz. having legal title to the land. But such a potential for community land trusts is not at this point seriously in the picture. The tie-in with other social movements pressing for democratization of land use controls and the planning function of government should not be ignored, however.

In between these two extremes lie a wide variety of variations in form and content. The exclusionary use of community land trusts would presumably be rejected by most. There is a danger of co-optation by interests posing community land trusts  as an alternative to public housing or rent regulation or subsidies or favorable tax treatment for those in need. Presumably, also, a formal commitment to principles of social justice and serving those in need would be part of any mainstream moderate position. But how sharply to focus their immediate goals, how widely or narrowly to devote their energies, how to use limited resources, with whom to ally and who to confront in adversarial fashion, how far and in what manner to be politically engaged, are all matters in which strategy as well as principle. Compromises will be inevitable. Thus, moderate community land trusts.

Where in this spectrum of possible community land trusts  a given effort stands seems to me to depend on three factors.

  1. How seriously is “community” taken? Community land trusts can be simply a legal form of holding title, used for tax and financing purposes, but in daily use essentially a management company, negotiating with utilities, contractors, maintenance staff, etc. Or it can be seen as a part of an effort for form and maintain a communal level of social interaction, involving not only collective democratic decision-making but a sharing of activities, of information, of social responsibilities, of political involvement. It can affirmatively work on positive relationships with its outside neighboring community, having not only neighborhood representatives on it boards but helping integrate its residents in its community, more widely defined, sharing facilities, activities, information, as circumstances suggest. Likewise, it can affirmatively look to achieve and make use of a diversity of residents, including both levels of recognition and of assimilation comfortable to each.
  2. How, and how clearly, is the constituency of the community land trust understood? A community land trust has control over who its members are, can have processes similar to those of cooperatives in interviewing potential new members. But there are general principles that must be established, and they will influence not only who is in the community land trust but what its relations with its outside community and government will be. Specifically, income levels and household composition can be defined as criteria.
  3.  If the principles of social justice are followed, it also becomes more likely that the community land trust will operate as a full-bodied trust.
  4. How does the community land trust see its political role? Every community land trust except an exclusionary one of the well-to-do faces the reality that many to whom it would like to be open cannot afford even the non-profit real costs of decent housing. The need may go from an immediate need for help even with basic costs or special needs to an on-going concern about rising costs or changed incomes limiting what a household can afford.  That inevitably means a concern with governmental subsidies, levels of taxation, utility costs, building codes, public services, public facilities. But the problems community land trusts  face are shared by a large part of the population as a whole. If the community land trust sees itself as part of a broader movement to achieve social justice in the provision of housing, perhaps as part of a broad right to housing movement, it will be more and more a full-bodied community land trust both in its inception and its ongoing daily activities.

A note on the ideological and economic aspects of community land trusts:

The idea of community land trusts resonates with an old theme in economics: that of land as a common natural resource, one not the product of human efforts, and therefore not to be appropriated by individuals for their private use, but to be shared among all. Community land trusts can be seen as an implementation of that view, at least on a small scale: no individual has the legal right to dispose of his or her interest in a community land trust for personal gain. Yet, theoretically, the ability to sell an interest in a building built on land in a community land trust at a price for that building fixed in a private market will take into account that that interest is made more attractive by its ground lease. Thus a likely profit can in fact ensue to the seller of a community land trust unit, amounting to an ability to make a private profit from a natural resource,. The market value of a building or unit in a community land trust building is technically the price of a commodity.. The land itself may be decommodified, but the right to use it is valuable, and could be realized by a sale of what is on the land and benefits a private owner from its common ownership. The land is decommodified, but not necessarily the building on it, to which the value of participation in the community land trust accrues.

What makes the typical community land trust radical is not the separation of land from building and its character as natural resource, but rather the restrictions that the classic community land trust, moderate to full-bodied, imposes on those leasing the right to occupy from the trust. Those restrictions typically regulate the price at which a housing unit in a community land trust can be sold. In these community land trusts , the leases to occupant members either prohibits the occupant from selling the unit except at a price established by the board of the trust, or gives the trust itself the right to buy at a fixed and limited price if the unit is put up for sale. . In this way community land trusts operate as would a limited equity co-op; the separation out of land ownership is simply another way of controlling collectively the price of units in it, as well usually as the characteristics of new buyer occupants. It is the restrictions in the permitted sales of units in a community land trust which make it an ideologically radical idea, and the terms of that restriction set the extent of the radicalism. If limited to an original price, originally set not aiming at a profit, and usually increasing only to the extent of the occupants own investment of money or labor in the unit, that makes it radical, for it effectively takes the unit out of the housing market and eliminates its use as a provider of private profit. A resident of a classic community land trust has virtually all the rights of a home owner, except the right to sell at a profit.  It turns housing into a set of use values, rather than of exchange values.[2]

Community land trusts may also be transformative in a quite different context: achieving effective grass-roots democracy. If extended, community land trusts may be seen as a form of neighborhood self-government, in fact controlling land uses and what goes with them in an unquestionably powerful manner, viz.having legal title to the land. But such a potential for community land trusts is not at this point seriously in the picture. The tie-in with other social movements pressing for democratization of land use controls and the planning function of government should not be ignored, however.

All this has two implications. One is that such a community land trust cannot be seen as a “creator of wealth.” The opportunity to benefit from a speculative increase in the value of land is denied the owner. That may make a community land trust less attractive to some, but may be welcomed by others, and should in any event be clear in the use of the community land trust form of ownership. The other implication is the need for thoughtful consideration of how permitted sale prices are established. While the principle of non-speculation is clear, its definition is not quite. Specifically: typically, the seller is allowed to recover his or her purchase price plus investments. But usually that purchase price is adjusted by some formulae, such as changes in the cost of living, benchmarked to some measure of the rate of inflation, at least on the up side. That means it has some characteristics of an investment that does have market advantages: it is protected from erosion by inflation. It has the additional market advantage, the more full-bodied the community land trust is, of having collective backing against personal misfortune; foreclosure is technically impossible and eviction for non-payment of rent is handled more humanely than it is in the market, again to varying degrees. That benefit is of course realized to some extent in directly market terms when it comes to financing; a bank is likely to recognize the stability provided by the collective responsibilities and spread out risk inherent in the community land trust form as opposed to conventional single-family home ownership.

So “decommodification”  is not complete, but is certainly ideologically challenged by the use of the community land trust form, and its extent will vary with the details of the trust instrument and the leases given pursuant to it.

And if the above economic analysis is right, it provides some solace for potential participants in a community land trust that, while they may not accumulate speculatively-driven wealth by participation, they do achieve definite economic advantages in terms of security, both of occupancy and of return of original investment.

My own take, again if the above analysis is correct, on implications for community land trust practitioners:

Be clear who your constituency is. (Point 1 above.)

  1. Stress the “community” in community land trusts when presenting them. (Point 2
  2. Be clear and up front where you stand on the importance of social justice in the spectrum between moderate and full-bodied community land trust.  (point 3)
  3. Be politically active in coalition formation with other social justice oriented organizations and actors, and join with them both in obtaining the necessary support and subsidies for community land trusts  and in supporting other housing rights organizations program proposals for governmental action in the housing field, particularly on financing and rent regulation and affirmative non-discrimination. (Point 4.)
  4. Be up front about community land trusts’ impacts on wealth accumulation (minimal) and its other economic advantages: security of tenure and investment.  (Note on ideological and economic aspects.)  Blog#38.

[1] A community land trust is a legal form in which the ownership of land is held in the form of a trust and separated from the ownership of any structures that may be on it, which are privately (often in the form of a co-op or mutual housing association) built, occupied, and managed, subject to the term of a land lease from the trust. The trust is typically controlled by a board in which the actual users of the buildings on it are the primary members, together usually with representatives of the neighboring community and/or relevant government representatives. The leaseold interest with the users of the building have can be sold  subject to the provisions of the lease from the trust, which typically limits its resale price and must approve the buyer. An excellent fact sheet,  which also contains further useful links,.is at,,

[2] The myth that home ownership per se is a reliable way to accumulate needs to be dispelled. Home owners accumulate wealth only through two aspects of home ownership: one is savings, the other is speculation. The savings are essentially the forced setting aside of money to pay off a loan, the mortgage. Alternate investments of savings might do even better, and be subject to less risk. The other source of additional wealth creation from home ownership lies in the possibility of capturing the increase in the value of the house, which is fundamentally of the location on it is built, for the physical building itself depreciates. Again, that’s a speculative investment, and not always a safe one, as today’s economy shows. And see the historical experience recounted in Sclar, Elliott, Matthew Edel. and Daniel Luria. 1984. Shaky Palaces: Home ownership and Social Mobility in Boston’s Suburbanization.  New York Columbia University Press 1984.