Thursday, January 3, 2019

Living Room Elephant

It's a new year, and I for one am going to start it out by talking about the elephant in the living room. What's that, you wonder? Well let's see, if we turn on the news we'll hear a lot about the government shutdown, the tear-gassing of refugees on the border, Trump's demand for a wall, partisan conflict, Trump's racism and xenophobia, the volatility of the stock market, the possible candidacy of Senator Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 presidential race, the trade war with China, and the withdrawal of US troops from Syria.

What you'll hear so little about are the things that affect most of us here the most, which have almost complete bipartisan support among our political elite. Such as our military budget, which is just about as big as the rest of the world's combined. And such as the cost of housing, which has been steadily rising throughout the country under both Republican and Democratic rule for decades – more so in Senator Warren's Massachusetts than almost anywhere.

Where I live, in the biggest city in the formerly official white homeland state of Oregon, the Exclusion Laws successfully kept the state very white for a very long time. But starting in the 1940's, Oregon developed a small but growing African-American community, centered around the northern and northeastern parts of the state's only major city, Portland.

In between the last two censuses, between 2000 and 2010, Portland lost half of its Black population. Did Trump's racism do that? Did xenophobia do that? How about sexism or transphobia? Maybe the proliferation of guns? Police brutality perhaps? The Tea Party? The Republicans? Not to belittle any other important social issues, but no, none of these things.

What is ethnically cleansing Portland – and cleansing it of its working class and artist population generally -- is the uncontrolled rise in the cost of housing. And only regulation of the market in the form of strict rent control and other legal measures can begin to stop this trend, let alone reverse it. But such policies have been opposed by the leadership of both parties. We're told rent control doesn't work, though they never explain why, and they disregard all the countries in Europe where it works great. This isn't Europe, I'm told, when I bring up Europe. I don't know what they mean by that, other than the obvious question of geography, and neither do they.

Beginning in January of 2019, the state of Oregon has a Democratic super-majority. For all you foreigners listening, that means the Democratic Party politicians in the legislature have total control over the legislature. Their party's politics are all that matters, there is no meaningful opposition. If the Democratic Party represents the interests of the working class, then the new Democratic legislature will immediately pass the nation's strictest rent control laws to deal with what they themselves have declared is a housing emergency, though so far their only suggestions for dealing with it have been the social equivalent of a new paint job on a rotting structure.

Gentrification is genocide is what it used to say all over New York City in the Eighties. It was a mantra of the squatters movement. It was a familiar concept for lots of the locals who weren't squatters, too, many of whom at that time in the Lower East Side were from the Dominican Republic.

I remember a squatter explaining it to me. “Our strategy,” he said, “is to make sure we have strong enough defenses to keep the cops out for an hour. That's how long it takes for folks in the neighborhood to hear about what's going on. Then the cops worry there'll be a real riot, and they retreat.”

The concept of cops retreating was such a heady idea, I could barely believe it at the time. Then the police department got a sort of tank with a battering ram attached to it, and this was a problem.

As these battles were taking place in New York City, most of the rest of the country, one state at a time, was abolishing the practice of rent control. That is, state after state was taking the right away from city governments to have any control over what landlords charge their tenants. 48 out of 50 state legislatures were all saying to their elected municipal and county leaders, you may not have any democratic control over the most basic economic relationship in our society – that between landlord and tenant.

By the time the urban cores of so many once-abandoned cities became popular to live in again, it was too late. Rent control was not an obstacle, and landlords made trillions from just raising the rent – whatever the market will bear is their motto. In the two-bedroom apartment where I am now raising three children, the rent has more than doubled since I moved in 11 years ago. That's why we're still in a two-bedroom. The same is true of many of our neighbors.

Most of the artists that once gave the city its reputation have long since been priced out of town, but the real estate developers do their best to maintain the facade. They seem to be the only ones remaining who would bother putting a “keep Portland weird” bumper sticker on their vehicles. But the stickers just look oddly out of place on a recent-model Mercedes.

The elephant in the living room is the living room itself.

NPR reported recently that the cost of the average new home has risen by 50% since 2012. The constant rise in the cost of housing has been an unmitigated success on the part of capitalists that support both parties. But the costs are mighty. We are a far more economically divided society than we have been for well over a century, since long before any of the New Deal reforms came into effect. We are dying younger, and suicides linked to housing insecurity are skyrocketing. The impossibly high cost of housing is not just immoral and unjust, it is killing us.

Meanwhile, the rich are getting richer than ever. And they're doing it on purpose, profiting from our misery, passing laws to make it easier for them to do so. My prediction: when the Yellow Vest movement comes to the United States, it will be about the cost of housing. In the cities of the US, renters now outnumber homeowners.

Someday soon, the rent may be due for the billionaires, too.

Letter to My Landlord
I'm writing you this letter 'cause among the choices
It's probably better than listening to voices
Raging in my head, saying point and shoot
Then after you're dead, your face meets my boot
I don't know your name, it's better that way
'Cause I can't play this game, who knows what I'll say
I feel like I'm burning, I've had it up to here
Time that you were learning the meaning of fear

I live in these apartments – they're your private property
Among your residents, most of us agree
That you're a piece of shit – how does that make you feel
We don't like you one bit – that's for real
We think you're a thief, that you don't care
Seems your one belief is whatever the market will bear
Whatever you can get away with, what you can make us pay
If we ever get justice, you should fear that day 

But it's not just you – it's all your kin
The things you do caused the state we're in
You bribed the politicians so they'd let you off-lead
Now the legal situation's just the one you need
For you to make millions, for profits to be high
Even billions won't be with you when you die
I hope you find the death you seek, meet the devil that you serve
If you live another week that's more life than you deserve 

In the class war you are waging there's no question who is winning
But if there's any justice, this is only the beginning
The next act in this play will be written by the tenants
And until your dying day, you'll be paying penance
Your assets will be seized, that's a fucking given
You profiteers of misery will start spending time in prison
Then you can get a job – figure out what you do best
You can keep the house you live in – but we're taking all the rest 


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