Private profiteers have concentrated their grip over real estate to such an extent that virtually every American lives in a company town now. Unions from all sectors need to wage campaigns for housing policies that break the vise grip of real-estate elites.

A new luxury condo building goes up in New York, the most rent-burdened city in the United States. (Angus Mordant / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

We all know how bad the housing crisis is. Rising rents, rampant speculation, and skyrocketing eviction and homelessness rates paint a grim picture. Beneath the surface is a more malignant driver of this crisis: the speculative private market, which has concentrated its grip over real estate to such an extent that virtually every American lives in a company town now.

As educators, we have witnessed this housing crisis not only be a source of stress and instability for ourselves and our coworkers, but also uproot our students from schools — away from their friends, teachers, counselors, and neighborhood communities. The root of this injustice is the private market’s monopoly on housing construction and ownership. Unions from all sectors — education, service, manufacturing, and especially the building trades — need to unite and campaign for housing policies that break the monopoly of the private market.

Modern Company Towns

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, company towns were areas where workers from one or a handful of companies lived in housing owned and operated by those companies. The result was that companies wielded exorbitant power over their workers, as they controlled not only their wages but their homes.

Today, the power of the real-estate industry has grown so vast that most Americans have extremely little control over their housing. As Fran Quigley points out, “Institutional owners — corporations or limited liability companies — now own the majority of all US rental units and over 80 percent of the properties with twenty-five or more units.” Since 2009, Wall Street firms have converted hundreds of thousands of homes into rentals, increasing rental and home-buying prices. This extreme concentration of property in the hands of a few real-estate tycoons compounds with the national housing shortage. The effect is striking: the majority of Americans, even those lucky enough to own homes, face a housing market rife with speculation and concentration that produces a feedback loop of ever-increasing costs.

Meanwhile the National Multifamily Housing Council — supported by the likes of billionaire real-estate investor Harlan Crow, whose father was America’s biggest landlord and who carries on the tradition — ruthlessly interferes with even modest efforts to curb the market’s power, such as rent control and stronger eviction protections. By using housing as a speculative investment, the private market has created an entrenched system that enriches the few while creating precarity for the many.

To ensure their members have roofs over their heads, and to build long-term political power, unions must join the fight to solve the housing crisis.

Many of those who experience precarity are union members, including hotel staff, construction workers, paraprofessionals, and teachers. To ensure their members have roofs over their heads, and to build long-term political power, unions must join the fight to solve the housing crisis.

There Is Power in a Union

Unions can stand together against the crisis created by the private market — and in the past, they have. In the early twentieth century, the labor movement and the New Deal coalition set a precedent for unions leading fights for housing justice. In New York City, members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America raised money from union members, community allies, and even union-owned banks to finance and maintain limited-profit housing cooperatives. From 1926 to 1974, roughly 40,000 affordable units of housing were produced thanks to this effort.

During the New Deal, leaders like Catherine Baeur brought together the American Federation of Hosier Workers, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and other unions to form the Labor Housing Conference. This alliance advocated for New Deal funding to create mixed-income, perpetually affordable public housing modeled after Vienna’s social housing. Ultimately, these efforts were never embraced by a majority of the labor movement, and their effects were limited. Still, this past provides a template that can inspire the present.

Today, some unions are rising up to tackle the housing crisis through bargaining contracts, supporting legislation and ballot initiatives, and going on strike. The Seattle Teachers Union recently backed a ballot initiative to create a city-owned social housing developer that will construct permanently affordable, environmentally sustainable, union-built, and tenant-governed mixed-income social housing. A broad coalition of unions supported the initiative, and it passed overwhelmingly.

Oakland teachers went on strike in April, and ultimately won an agreement for the school district to use vacant land to construct affordable housing for students, families, and staff. Striking UNITE HERE Local 11 hotel workers in Los Angeles are demanding hotels publicly support a ballot measure on affordable housing — and implement a surcharge on hotel meals to create revenue to fund affordable housing construction for union members. Meanwhile, the Boston Teachers Union and Chicago Teachers Union have established housing justice committees that partner with community organizations and fight for rent control and social housing.

Unions of all kinds — from education to service work to building trades — should bargain, strike over, and importantly create cross-union efforts for housing justice. They can begin by uniting over ballot questions and legislative campaigns for housing cooperatives and social housing.

Other policies, like affordable housing and rent control, are also worth fighting for. But social housing is open to much larger parts of the population than traditional affordable housing, and rent control is illegal in many states. There are generally no laws prohibiting states and cities from building social housing. Social housing creates an entrenched constituency by serving both the lower and middle classes. And, in removing swathes of land from the private market, social housing challenges the monopoly of the market.

By bargaining, organizing, and even striking for tenant-governed, mixed-income, perpetually affordable social housing, unions can be leaders in breaking the company town model and ensuring that ordinary people govern both their workplaces and their homes.

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