After posting our Points of Unity on Instagram, BED received a critique regarding our second point from our comrades at the Reverie Tenants Union in Indianapolis. BED’s Point #2 reads: “Our definition of a tenant is anyone who does not control their own housing. This includes our unhoused neighbors, our neighbors on leases and subleases, incarcerated people, and our neighbors (who aren’t landlords) paying rent to the banks in the form of a mortgage.”.
What follows is a response to one facet of the critique, addressing the issue of mortgage-payers; another letter, by another comrade, addresses the issue of incarceration and tenancy.
Comrade from the Reverie Tenants Union writes:
A much larger error is including people who pay a mortgage into the definition of “tenant”. The class character of homeowners and tenants is wildly different and presents an extremely thin basis for unity. It makes sense to link the tenant struggle with the fight against deed theft, but it does not make sense to link it with people paying too much to a bank. They are building equity and ownership in the property and typically pay far less than what they would in rent, while tenants are far more exploited and do not have any ownership over their own homes.
Our operating definition of tenant—the program that guides those included within its bounds—is simple: all those who do not control their housing. Which, though (or because of being) simple, requires some degree of clarification and nuancing, and even (this organizer thinks) a small amendment; this before considering the organization’s historical protagonist—working class tenants—as a significant nuance regarding the above critique.
First, a proposed necessary amendment to this definition: all those who control neither their housing nor that of anyone else. This is then a sort of synthesis or elaboration of the LATU definition with TANC’s.
This amendment necessarily responds to actual organizing dilemmas. We, previously, have engaged with tenants facing some degree of harassment and/or attempts at dispossession but who, we eventually discover, also own and rent out property. We have, thus far, dealt with these situations on a case by case basis through an ad-hoc system relying on individual organizers’ discretion (i.e. vibes!!!). With the amendment above, we can more assuredly navigate this dynamic with principle.
Between control, own, and power there is significant generative and not mere-semantic distinction—this space will also offer me the opportunity to engage the question of bank tenants. I advocate for control because of our organizational program and horizon. That is, the understanding that the horizon of actual (universal) working class community control of housing—which is to say communism—is the condition in which tenancy as an articulable formation dissolves. Though I understand private property to be an informing, requisite and reifying logic of capitalism, I also understand that ownership—particularly with regard to housing—is not, at our historical juncture, a monolithic nor necessarily coherent relation. That is to say, the current state of ownership is subject to enough necessary qualifications and nuances that, to my analysis, control (and the lack of it) is a more appropriate term to describe the precarity into which we intervene. Ownership has been, or always was, stretched and thinned out—in a sense, ownership has been dispossessed of some of its more monolithic attributes in order to more so facilitate accumulation—through, among other structures, settler colonialism, racialization, and financialization. That is to say:
The settler colonialism project includes the production of property logics through the (recursive) theft of that which becomes property. This is the way in which property relations, that is ownership, were ascribed to Indigenous people only after that which is being subject to ownership—their land—had already transferred ownership! That is to say it is only through theft that ownership becomes legible; this original sin of settler colonialism, in conjunction with the historical legacy of Indigenous dispossession forces us to understand ownership as historically circumscribed and striated, as unevenly wieldable and unevenly applied, from the jump.
The antiblackness that has informed, reified, and always existed beside and between capital has also convoluted ownership. The lineage here is as long as capital’s list of violences: that is from the antiblack contradictions—chattel slavery—that defined early U.S. property relations (and in fact the history of mortgages in this country begins with financing the slave trade) to redlining and the post-WWII allotment of veteran housing, to the organized abandonment of public housing and the 2008 mortgage crisis, to the local (Brooklyn) epidemic of deed-theft–notions of ownership within the US imperial core have always been complicated by antiblackness.
Finally, the financialization of housing—which can be understood as the forceful integration (the hyper-integration) of homes, the people who live in them and their ways of living, into not only global economies dominated by financial firms, but into the untethered realm of fictitious capital and speculation—has complicated the material reality of homeownership to a significant point of precarity.
When swaths of‘homeowners’ become renters because of predatory mortgages and subprime lending–both features of the financialization of housing–then we know to understand that not all ‘homeowners’ are foreign to the precarity that defines tenancy. The 2008 housing crisis expressed quite perfectly the structural implications of housing financialization on our understanding of ownership; as in, we can understand housing financialization (with systematic predatory mortgages as one of its articulations) and the global financial bloodlines that give these systems life, to be a transporting/dispossessing force, compelling homeowners into renters into houseless folks. The movement along these lines composes my understanding of tenant.
The processes and structures that caused that crisis, and that dispossessed millions, are not historical artifacts but in fact active and operating (though of course evolved and mutated) structures. The epidemic of deed theft in Crown Heights, Brooklyn is a stark reminder of this.
With these important considerations, I advocate for an understanding of tenancy centered around control: the (in)ability of a community to express control over how and where we live. ‘Control’ here allows us organizationally to struggle—with quickness, with principle, and without unnecessary ad-hoc deliberation—with tenants who are facing and fighting dispossession, despite contractual or legalistic nuances. ‘Control’ in this manner was an unspoken theoretic in our quick (and, in my analysis, principled) call to action and defense at 964 Park Place despite questions around the possible or actual solidarity that can exist between ‘tenants’ and homeowners. It is right then to formalize that consideration.
More specifically towards the above critique: we do not, organizationally, frame tenancy as a class. That is because within tenancy there exists significant class distinctions and different interests. There is no solidarity possible between a working class tenant and a capitalist tenant. Housing and thus tenancy are not solvable problems outside of a broader understanding of capitalist accumulation. This is why our horizon is not ‘housing as a human right’ or ‘housing for all’ but communism, because we understand classlessness to be the condition in which tenancy dissolves and in which true and universal community control of housing is actualized.
Our historical protagonists—as an organization—are working class tenants. Proletarian tenants. This is the crux of my defense of our inclusion of mortgage-payers. Working class mortgage-payers are often aptly labeled ‘bank tenants.’ That is to say the relation of power and of control that define working class mortgage structures—i.e. precarity and movement along the above-described axis of tenancy—parallel that of the renter. Of course there are significant differences and distinctions both within mortgage-payers (we are not dupes) and between bank tenants and renters—just as there are within the population of renters themselves (in NYC market-rate tenants are famously hard to organize; Justin Bieber rents an apartment in NYC, he is not our historical protagonist). Deed theft is not an exception that grants some homeowners the badge of tenancy (and thus proves that rest and the ideal-average mortgage-payer is not a tenant), but one iteration of the intertwining structured systems described above that enforce dispossession through and despite ownership.
Solidarity with all tenants and all oppressed peoples,