Renters vs. Owners, Etc.

by John Spritzler

I live in Brighton, which is a neighborhood of Boston, MA adjacent to the nearby Allston neighborhood. Recently people here created a new organization called the Brighton Allston Community Coalition (BACC). This organization's mission is admirable: to unite all the residents of Brighton/Allston for great goals, including most importantly, ensuring adequate affordable housing for the current residents, ending gentrification (i.e., the removal of poorer long time residents who can no longer afford the rising rents or property taxes and their replacement by wealthier people), and improving public transportation to meet the needs of all residents, not just the wealthier ones.

There are essentially three categories of residents in Brighton/Allston: 1. people who own their own home or condominium and in some cases also own one or a small number of other rental units; 2. people (non-students) who rent their housing; 3. students (there are lots of them because Boston College and Boston University are nearby), many of whom live off-campus as renters.

A fourth important category is the non-residents who own rental property in our neighborhood. An alarming proportion of our housing is owned by such people, who are often very wealthy real estate investors who view our neighborhood purely in terms of how much profit they can make from it rather than how to make it a good place for the residents to live. 

This article is about whether it makes sense for an organization such as the BACC to try to unite all three categories of residents. I think it does make very good sense, but a very well-known neighborhood activist named Eva recently wrote (to our neighborhood email groups) why she thinks it does not make sense. I will copy her words (extracted from her longer email) here first, and then say why I think her point of view does indeed make sense if one accepts as permanent our current class inequality, but does not make sense if one adopts the aim of advocating what the vast majority of people actually want, which is to remove the rich from power to have real, not fake, democracy with no rich and no poor.

Eva wrote (January 30, 2019):

"BACC is well-intentioned, of course, but sooner or later I think it will encounter the reality that trying to unite people who have different visions and goals for the neighborhood, different levels of understanding of what is going on, and different levels of personal investment in the area (some a lot, some none) — just for the sake of having a high number of members — cannot produce a well-focused and effective force.

 

"Philosophical differences may be swept under the rug for some time, for the sake of superficial unity, but they will resurface sooner or later, as members realize that their leaders only advance whatever they happen to care about (it’s always the case, it’s unavoidable — that is the main problem in many volunteer organizations).

 

"Additionally, the politicians know that the more diverse and inclusive a group is, the less likely it is to agree on key issues, or to vote as a block — since people’s perspectives, needs, desires and beliefs are different.  It may be easier to make a difference if you work within a smaller group of like-minded, philosophically-aligned people than trying to persuade all kinds of people that they all have the same goal, when deep down they know it’s not the case."

According to Eva, owners and renters and students not only have a) "different levels of understanding of what is going on, and different levels of personal investment in the area" but also, far more importantly, b) "different visions and goals for the neighborhood" or, as she puts it, "philosophical differences."

 

The obstacle to unity is clearly the latter, not the former, differences. This is because as long as people share the same goal, they can unite for it even if some understand what's going on more than others, and even if some have more of a personal investment in achieving the goal than others.

 

The problem then is those "philosophical" differences. So let's see what they are, and see whether they make unity possible or impossible.

Eva doesn't spell out what exactly these philosophical differences are; perhaps she thinks it is already obvious to everybody and thus there is no need to state them explicitly. But sometimes that which goes without saying goes better said. Eva apparently thinks these philosophical differences entail conflicting goals. What might those conflicting goals be? (In what follows, I am referring only to the three categories of residents and ignoring non-residents of our neighborhood.)

One could argue that a (resident) owner and their tenant have conflicting goals; the former would like high rents and the latter low rents.

 

One could also argue that (resident) long-term owners and long term (non-student) renters share a goal that conflicts with the goal of students; the former want property taxes (which renters also pay indirectly) to be sufficient to pay for things such as good schools and playgrounds and parks for children, whereas students who have no intention of remaining in the neighborhood and raising a family after graduating and who are deep in student loan debt and need the cheapest housing possible want property taxes (and the part they pay indirectly as rent) to be kept at a low level that is inadequate to pay for good schools and playgrounds and parks.

I'm sure that readers of this article can come up with other arguments to demonstrate that there are fundamentally conflicting goals between the three categories of residents.

But note that these arguments all rest on two implicit assumptions. They assume, first, that people's goals are determined by narrow self-interest. Secondly, they assume that these narrow self-interests are determined by the current social arrangement, i.e., by class inequality. By class inequality I mean that our society is structured so that there will be a few haves with enormous wealth and hence power, and the rest of us--the have-nots--will be treated by the haves as merely the "hired help," employed to work for the haves, and treated like dirt by them in a fake democracy that is actually a dictatorship of the rich

In our society based on class inequality, we the have-nots (regardless of which category of resident we are) are made to abide by the "rules of the game" that are designed to benefit the rich. Because of this, people who may have the same philosophical goals are pitted against each other with respect to their narrow self-interest. In a society without class inequality, what I call an egalitarian society, with no rich and no poor, these same people would not be pitted against each other this way, as I will illustrate below.

 

For example, in our present class inequality society, an owner of rental property, just in order to stay afloat economically and have some financial security for their old age and possibly big medical needs, must collect rent from tenants who only pay it grudgingly. In an egalitarian society this same person who owns rental property today would enjoy economic security not by collecting rent but by taking--for free--from the economy the products and services that he/she needed or reasonably desired (with scarce things equitably rationed according to need) as his/her right if he/she contributes reasonably to the economy according to ability (or did so before reaching retirement age) as discussed further here. Who determines what is "reasonable"? Click here to read about who.

Housing in an egalitarian economy is not based on a division between owners and renters. There is no rent at all. The egalitarian laws about squatting (click here) and gentrification (click here) illustrate why there need not be any owner/renter conflict if we abolish class inequality and have no rich and no poor.

I think that readers can see how the other similar "philosophical differences" that Eva has in mind likewise stem from our society being based on class inequality, and not from any inherent conflict of values or goals among the three categories of residents of our neighborhood.

Furthermore, the vast majority of all three categories of residents would LOVE to remove the rich from power to have real, not fake, democracy with no rich and no poor. Watch this video of random people on the streets of Boston (including Brighton) telling me so, here.

 

Students, for example, in an egalitarian society, would not be deep in student loan debt. They would not pay anything for their education. Studying and doing well in school would be their "payment." They would be considered to be contributing to the economy reasonably by virtue of doing satisfactorily in school and would be able to take--for free--products and services from the economy according to need or reasonable desire with scarce things equitably rationed according to need. Students would love this. They would also want neighborhoods--in general, not just the one where their school is located--to have good schools and playgrounds and parks for the same reasons that all other decent people want them. This conflict between students and non-student residents would vanish.

(Click here to read about the fundamentally shared aims of small business owners and wage/salary workers.)

THE FUNDAMENTAL UNITY AMONG ALL RESIDENTS IS THE SHARED DESIRE TO REMOVE THE RICH FROM POWER TO HAVE REAL, NOT FAKE, DEMOCRACY, WITH NO RICH AND NO POOR

If and when the BACC explicitly aims not only to win the excellent reforms in its current mission but ALSO to remove the rich from power to have real, not fake, democracy with no rich and no poor (a.k.a. abolish class inequality), then it will be able to fully unite all Brighton Allston residents. Until then, unfortunately, the problems that Eva alludes to will be real problems.

 

Additionally, the current reforms that BACC aims for will never be adequately achieved as long as the rich remain in power. The extreme frustration experienced by people who have been fighting for these reforms for decades is due to the fact that we live in a fake democracy that is really a dictatorship of the rich, and the rich treat us like dirt to make us know our place is at the bottom of a very unequal society. The rich don't want us to win the reforms we're aiming for, and they use their power to ensure that we don't.

I know that many BACC members may believe that it would be a mistake for the BACC to explicitly advocate abolishing class inequality, on the grounds that doing so would reduce public support for the organization. The truth, however, is the opposite; it would INCREASE public support for the BACC. Evidence for this claim is in this video showing random people on the streets of Boston telling me that they would support an organization MORE, not less, if it sincerely advocated removing the rich from power to have real, not fake, democracy with no rich and no poor. 

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