The hottest up-and-coming neighborhoods in Northern Virginia
Photo via Northern Virginia Magazine

Safe, comfortable and dignified housing should be seen, and fought for, as a right for all working class families.  But in capitalist countries, such housing is denied to many workers and their family members. This is especially the case in the United States.  Especially, too, it affects lower income and minority workers who are not in a position to buy their own homes, and then must rent from a landlord, either individual or corporate.

Though various states and other jurisdictions have enacted laws which are supposed to protect the rights of tenants/renters, they are not strong enough, because they do not prevent or control the ability of landlords to raise the rents when the lease is up, or indeed oust all their tenants when the opportunity to bring in more income from their property arises.  In a few communities around the country there is a thing called “rent control” which has literally saved the lives of long term tenants by forbidding landlords from jacking up the rent.  But when the tenant of a rent controlled home dies or leaves, the dynamic of sharply rising rents may resume. 

The DC Metro area is one of the places in the United States where skyrocketing rents have reached a crisis point.   In the Virginia suburbs of DC, this is particularly evident.  In Arlington, Alexandria, Prince William the problem is acute.  According to officials in the city of Alexandria, a renter has to have an income of at least $68,320 per year in order to be able to rent an apartment there.  The Community Foundation of Northern Virginia states that two thirds of low income people are “severely burdened” by the cost of housing “the highest such rate among all large metropolitan areas in the United States.  Families with incomes of less than $50,000 per annum have to spend half or more of their income on housing costs. 

Moreover there is a strong racial or racist element in the distribution of housing costs.  In Northern Virginia 57% of the households “severely burdened” by housing costs are “non white” (POC).  Immigrants are hit hard:  47% of “severely burdened” families have adults who were born outside the United States. 

The planned development of Amazon’s HQ 2 in Arlington and Alexandria is likely to greatly accelerate the dynamic of gentrification and displacement, according to analyses by Tenants and Workers United, New Virginia Majority and the Urban Institute.  The studies focus on the immediate area, Alexandria and Arlington, but the impact on housing, especially for low income, minority and non-citizen families, is certain to be region wide in the DC Metro area.

I live in Woodbridge in Prince William County Virginia.  I live there because it is the closest place I can be with access to Washington DC where I can minimally afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment.  Although Prince William County has many wealthy areas, my actual neighbors are not wealthy; they are struggling working class families.  The overwhelming majority are either African-American or Central American, from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.  Many of them are “essential workers”. Many breadwinners have lost their jobs because of the Covid 19 Pandemic.  Others have continued to go to work, having no other option.

For a full year the streets around my area have been filled with the sounds of ambulances. 

Right now there is a limited moratorium on evictions imposed by the Center for Disease Control. It is due to expire on June 30, but this past week a federal judge ruled that it is illegal, that the CDC had no right to impose it.  Up to 10 million people nationwide could end up in the street if the government’s appeal of the court ruling should fail.  Some states have also enacted temporary moratoria, but these too will also expire.  Beyond those who would be evicted for non-payment of rent, there will be millions more who will be forced to cut back on other essentials in order to avoid eviction.  Other government responses do little or nothing to deal with the underlying, pre-pandemic housing crisis caused by speculative investment in real estate, gentrification and wholesale displacement of low to middle income renters, especially minority families.

What is the correct communist, Marxist-Leninist approach to the issue of housing?  Note that it is a matter of class struggle, of the working class producers against the capitalist exploiters.  The CPUSA Program, approved at our national convention in Chicago in 2019, emphasizes that class  struggle pervades all the institutions of capitalist society, not just the workplace.  Health care, schooling and education and housing are all battlegrounds in the class struggle on which we have to fight. 

The housing struggle is not new.  In the 1870s, Engels wrote about this.  He criticized the idea of  the utopian socialist/anarchist Proudhon that the solution was that a future socialist system should buy houses from the rich and give them to   the workers as individual property.  This, thought Engels, would reinforce petit-bourgeois ideology, and we certainly  see this with the Levittown and  bedroom suburb phenomenon today, wherein collective solidarity on class  lines is eroded by the issue of house as a retirement investment  and worry about “declining property values” leading to divisiveness and exclusiveness, including on issues of race and residential segregation.

Engels thought that Germany, Europe and the world would become  socialist much earlier than what we understand now, yet the direction his thinking was going still has lessons for the working class today: collective solutions based on collective working class ownership of housing under democratic management of the working class residents.


WHAT  WE SHOULD BE FIGHTING FOR

Let’s start a discussion regionally and nationwide about the direction that the struggle for housing should take.  I make the following suggestions to get that discussion going.  There is no time to be lost.

*Great expansion of housing available to working class people, especially those who earn less.

*End to de facto racial and class segregation in housing, including zoning policies which make such  segregation possible.  No housing discrimination based on citizenship or immigration status.

*Make sure  that in the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill, housing for  working class families is a major part.  It is there, but it may be bargained away in the legislative process.  Encourage and support new legislation on housing such as Ilhan Omar’s “Homes for All” bill in the 2019-2020 Congress.

*Emphasize collective ownership and management of residential housing, including housing co-ops , in general and specifically in housing projects undertaken under the Biden infrastructure proposals . Do not hand  over the money to greedy corporate landlords who will continue the practice of jacking up rents as part of the gentrification/displacement dynamic.

*Battle things like the Amazon HQ 2 project with all our might. 

*We should take into consideration that in sectors of the working class, owning one’s own home is not just a matter of having a place to live, but  is considered a vital part of planning for one’s retirement and inability to work because of sickness (and the absurd cost of health care in this country).  This is a source of anxiety for such working class homeowners because pensions and Social Security retirement  and disability payments are far too low.  Moreover, private pensions negotiated between unions and employers can be erased by a flick of a bankruptcy court’s pen.  This state of affairs contributes, along with racism, to the phenomenon of not wanting renters in one’s neighborhood because they’ll “lower the property values”.  This issue must be attacked also by fighting to greatly strengthen the social safety net for all working people.


WHERE TO START?

In the DC metro area and beyond, there are tenants’ and housing rights organizations already working on this.  Before the pandemic partly shut things down, a coalition was already being formed in response to the Amazon HQ 2 threat.  This could be broadened or expanded by bringing in many other tenants’, labor, community, ethnic and religious organizations which represent populations negatively affected by the phenomenon of increasing housing costs, gentrification and mass displacement of lower income and especially minority working class populations.

We should use our press and online/social media communications capacity to  expand this coalition building effort region wide.  It is vital to link up with like minded people and organizations in DC and in Suburban Maryland to cover the issue, posting on Peoples World and Virginia  district internet websites, and then distribute this material massively through social media. 

We must push local, state and national legislators to work to correct this situation.  We should insert the issue into electoral debates and discussions in the 2021 state elections in Virginia and beyond.  Virginia has state elections this year.  The candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and the 100 member House of Delegates must be pressed on this issue. I have not seen much about this being said in the debates; we should try to get it raised in every forum.

Finally, the issue of rising rents is not confined to Northern Virginia.  There are similar crises brewing or fully underway in Norfolk, Richmond, and even Appalachia.  We should raise the issue of a statewide coalition for housing action.

Emile Schepers
District Organizer
VACPUSA