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This Land Is Our Land

Suddenly—finally—everyone seems to be questioning the American Dream.

Just a few years ago the miraculous power of homeownership was one of the few truly bipartisan issues, agreed upon by liberal community organizers and suspicious neighborhood associations, bootstrappers and civil rights advocates, Democrats and Republicans alike.

During the end of the 20th century, appreciating home values were what generated wealth for most middle-class whites. This was an intergenerational thing—just as I got my down payment from my parents, my parents got their down payment from my grandparents, who earned it at least partially pre–Civil Rights era. People of color, even when their incomes had caught up, had not yet reached a level playing field asset-wise. This crucial observation, made by Melvin Oliver in his 1996 book Black Wealth/White Wealth combined with this country’s existing predisposition toward venerating property ownership to generate an incredible obsession with home ownership for everyone.

Often it worked. As I’ve said before, it wasn’t the programs to make reasonable loans more accessible and less discriminatory that caused the mess we’re in. But the mess does highlight some critiques that were being made all along, but weren’t getting a lot of air time: Home ownership has its distinct downsides. Housing doesn’t always appreciate, especially housing that lower income folk can afford to buy. Repairs and maintenance cost money and are unpredictable, which can be dangerous for those on the financial margin. Owning your home decreases mobility and therefore job prospects.

I don’t think the affordable housing movement is going to abandon the quest for fair lending and affordable homeownership, and nor should it, but it is nice to think that a silver lining of this crisis will be well-deserved increased attention to the provision of a variety of housing options and helping people pick the ones that truly match their circumstances and desires.

Beyond that, though, all this scrutiny of homeownership has also made me think about what the benefits of ownership actually are. Property ownership can mean a lot more than asset accumulation and having a stake in your neighborhood. It also means control. (Not absolute control, obviously, but a lot more.) Especially when we move beyond individual homeownership to group endeavors like co-ops, schools, gardens, small businesses, collective art spaces and the like, property ownership offers an impressive kind of staying power, a way to participate in the ever-continuous creation of a city (or a rural landscape) from a position of strength rather than always fighting for a seat at the table.

The stories of dispossession of informal collective endeavors are legion: Community gardens evicted from city (nonprofit) land once it became worth something to develop. Skittish landlords canceling leases for controversial groups or opportunistically raising rents. It is the archetypical narrative of neighborhood change, in fact, that the artists and activists and urban pioneers who make an area “cool” never get to stay.

But it’s not quite never. Stories of successful community ownership exist too. Houses in community land trusts all over the country have survived the past few years with super low foreclosure rates that Wall Street would give up its vacation homes for. A contra dance group owns the local grange hall in Greenfield, Mass. The Trust for Public Land rescued many of New York City’s gardens and the transitioned them to local land trusts to maintain them.

Owning the school building (as well as enough of the residential buildings surrounding it to offer housing to unpaid or low-paid interns) is one of the secrets to the longevity of Albany’s Free School, for example, allowing it to become a center of gravity for many other large and small collective projects from the long-lived Family Life Center to the recent communal outdoor bread oven.

ABC No Rio, a “collectively-run center for art and activism . . . known internationally as a venue for oppositional culture,” on the Lower East Side in New York City started as a squat. In 2006, they took ownership of the decrepit building and now are embarking on a project to build a new, sustainable one that will include, among other things, some of the original graffiti from the old.

Locally, the Honest Weight Food Co-op is looking to follow suit with its plans for a new building that it will own.

The current economic climate makes developing this kind of ownership hard too, of course. People have less to donate to building funds; credit is tight.

But in the long run, I can’t help but wonder as we talk about how to create sustainable, healthy, appealing communities, if stable shared institutions like these might be as important, if not more so, as the rate of individual homeownership in a given neighborhood. Perhaps we oughtn’t to abandon that American Dream quite yet.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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