Land Is Our Land
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
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
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
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
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.