Recently I attended a discussion on Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si at the Harvard Catholic Center.
I really liked the encyclical and it’s earned its place alongside other classics of Catholic social teaching like Rerum Novarum and Centissimus Annus. Most germaine to the purposes of this blog, however, are the meditations on cities, which adequetely summarize their challenges and opportunities.
While the encyclical seemed largely focused on non-Western cities, the problem of housing is acutely felt across the board. While many cities lack housing with good sanitation, American and European cities lack housing all together. The number of units being brought online versus the strength of demand is simply paltry. What’s more, many of the units are luxury apartments or condos. Some people in Boston pay over $4000 a month in rent in tony apartments in the Fenway, which is more than they would with a regular mortgage.
The causes of this are debated. There’s certainly some demand for luxury units, but they are also increeasingly difficult to rent or sell, but they keep getting built. I argue that it’s because regulatory processes and hurdles overwhelm developers who would otherwise build cheaper apartments (and it surely doesn’t help that big developers get tax breaks from the City of Boston), while the profits from a luxury building are great enough to make going through the whole process acceptable. Other people I know have argued that wealthy foreign investors are buying up property and condos as a way of parking their money in the United States.
But the fact is that rents and hopusing prices are going up.
The usual response to this, here in Greater Boston, has been to form advocacy groups to push for laws that would raise taxes or attempt to set limits on luxury development or some other state action. Well, I don’t think that increasing state power or bureaucracy is a right or just away to go.
For one thing, advocates never cease to tell people how much the government has retreated from various social programs. While they blame it on convenient targets like Congressional Republicans, neoliberals and the right-wing in general, this is disingenuous: costs in Massachusetts have risen. Healthcare, pensions, infrastructure maintaince and the like have risen while the growth of the economy has slowed. This has meant less and less money for the University of Massachusetts and it means less money for social programs. So I really don’t see the wisdom in trying to get the state to spend loads of money when its expenditures already outpace revenues.
Another problem with a government-effort is that it would not be democratic. It would just be another bureaucracy staffed by experts and civil servants. It might be effective. It might be a Kafkaesque nightmare, but they would likely have nothing to do with the people the organization was created to house.
Fortunately, Pope Francis and Catholic Social Teaching have provided a possible solutution: Cooperatives.
A community that is capable of organizing to lobby for legislation should be more than equipped to mobilize to buy and maintain housing. Indeed, a few properties the Massachusets Alliance of HUD Tenants have helped to keep affordable, are tenant owned. Community Development Corporations, although generally funded through foundation and government grants, have done similar work. But they are the exception, not the rule.