30 January 2021

Housing inappropriately located in market spaces

[some time ago now, a comment from Arborman effectively asked what's this approach to housing you're talking about? I hope this is something in the vicinity of a useful response.]

At present, the COVID-19 recession has many people faced with eviction.


Well, generally, because the public sphere has not acted to house them.  It hasn't done that because there's a construction of axiomatic justice which says, you must pay.

That in turn comes in with the triumph of wealth-concentration as the mechanism of organising society during the Carbon Binge; there were, before Great Harry suppressed the monasteries, alternate support mechanisms beyond your utility to existing wealth.  There were, before Puritans demonized hospitality and generosity, constructions of virtue around charity as an act. (as distinct from the present "and if they weren't bad, we wouldn't need to do this".)  There were, before the enclosures of the commons, villages as collective organizations to supply basic needs.  Today, there aren't; it's nigh-impossible to have any form of collective organisation that isn't a for-profit corporation.

(What we're seeing with the US evangelical movement is a sort of mammonite memetic colonisation of the practice of religion.  It's not a collective support mechanism in material terms, it's a ranched population of marks.)

If we're going to consider housing in a context of not being mammonites, we need to start with that axiom of justice; you must pay.

The simple reason for that axiom is that justice is presently constructed to guarantee wealth.  This is a conscious and deliberate process and explains much of how wealth has had a presumption of virtue attached to it.  (There aren't many working rationalisations for the inherent probity of keep the loot.  Much better to avoid that question somehow.)

The structural reason for that axiom of payment is that once you introduce payment, you get relative advantage. If you iterate, you wind up with a small number of winners and a very large number of losers; dumb luck will do that.  If you introduce relative advantage (often the dumb luck to be born with something that confers relative advantage), you get the same small number of different winners; different because you've introduced this bias.  Because the iterations are generally slow enough to notice, you get widespread and then consensus rationalisations for why the bias is good; people who have it are sure it is, and they have most of the agency.  (Plus people who don't have it still want it, so you get rationalisations about why it would be OK if they had it.)

Which is also how you get homeless people.

Which is a euphemism; "dying of exposure" is less euphemistic.  "Lost some fingers to frostbite, struggled, then died, because that facilitates the relative advantage of someone with more than they can ever possibly use" is starting to get toward factual.

It's a brutal, brutal system.  It's a brutal system even when people manage to remain housed at the cost of two-thirds of their income from working multiple unsafe jobs for low hourly pay.

So what would it look like if it wasn't brutal?  If the axiom was something like people have value, rather than keep the loot?

People need, not just a place to sleep without fear, but a place to securely keep their stuff; people need a privy, and a place to bathe, and a place they can store and prepare food.  It has to function all year round, in any weather.  It needs to be a space you can clean without heroic effort; it needs to be something you can alter and decorate.  (If you can't change it, it isn't yours, and if it's not yours you're definitionally insecure.)

So there's a whole lot of problems; how do you build that, in the century of angry weather? what do you make it out of, and how, so it isn't adding carbon load to the atmosphere? what heats it, what cools it, how do you ensure the heating the cooling and water and the sewage work even during external service interruptions? How do you make it quiet, and private, and have natural light, and not use up unreasonable ground area in what will need to be an increasingly dense urban landscape?  How do you ensure this thing you've built keeps working across generations, because you're not going to want to rebuild housing again for a long while; it's going to be expensive.  That's where Universal Design comes in, and should come in.

That's the general scale of housing problem; as a system, what kind of housing does society build?

As an individual, you have to ask mostly how do you pay for it? People need to move, it takes time to accumulate value, and the value in mortgages doesn't go to the house purchaser, so this isn't a question that has a sensible present answer.

I think the "pay for it" problems collapse into three general areas.

One is risk; two is durability, and three is mobility.

You manage risk collectively.  That shouldn't mean a single massive collective housing authority, but a large number of just-large-enough housing collectives with specialities and geographic particularity.  So you join one when you start being an adult; maybe you inherit a membership, maybe membership is passed to offspring of existing membership, maybe there's a joining lottery, maybe you just apply.  But in all cases, three things are true; you get a membership in some housing collective. All the memberships are of required to be exchangeable, so if you want to move your existing membership can be swapped for membership somewhere else (and the range of values for housing collectives is constrained to some fairly narrow range to permit this).  You can't lose your membership; it's not a transferable asset in the sense of something you can sell or lose in bankruptcy or not be able to pay for. (Which means there's going to have to be some public backstop when people get ill, hurt, lose their jobs, etc.)

Durability means a bunch of things; one of the things it means is you can't use an individual-scale market mechanism for this because most individuals know nothing about houses.  The current housing market is about materials for producing houses and house producers buying land, it has nothing to do with the people in the house.  So it cannot deliver value in the sense of habitability days per currency unit; the folks building houses want to keep doing that, if they can get the working life of a house under two generations that would be perfect.

We're going to need a new building code, new materials (and thus a lot of training AND some serious civil-power coercion to shift trades), and we're going to need a long-term, educated, skilled buyer.  Oh look, a housing collective again; something that expects to be immortal, is trying to minimize its long term spend, and has the ability to buy value.  (Which most individual house buyers aren't equipped to recognize, remember; you can't purchase what you can't identify.)

Mobility means people need to move; if you own a house today, moving is a problem because home ownership is only a good investment if you don't move.  This is not of general economic benefit; rearranging communities of practice is a net positive, and systemic barriers to the free movement of labour are a net negative.  Only one of those systemic barriers is produced by the effort to maximize cash extraction from housing, so we definitely have it, and we're going to have to abolish it.  Which might mean restructuring all the financial institutions sitting on mortgages as their primary capitalization.

But, anyway; housing does not belong in the domain of markets, nor of profit.  The question for housing is, "how many can we house, how well, for this much?" and that's a public-sphere question.  Which means some set of public institutions as necessary to accomplish the task.


Moz said...

Mobility means people need to move; if you own a house today, moving is a problem because home ownership is only a good investment if you don't move.

That is biting me right now. I'm used to moving when I feel like it but since I bought a house I'm trapped in it. Australia having a $50,000-ish tax on buying a house (stamp duty, and yes it really is insane) makes that worse but it would be a hassle even if it was free.

Not being able to rent easily is a PITA. I rented for six months close to work (~60-90 minutes from my house) and that was ... interesting. Work moved the factory to where land is cheap, so the houses are cheap, and the property managers are scum. Did not enjoy, 0/10. Meanwhile the people who rented my house did a surprising amount of damage. Not expensive per se, just annoying and hard to fix.

So now I'm working myself up to following the incentives provided and using my equity in this place to buy a second one, and prep the current house for long term rental. Sigh. It's bullshit but the complete freedom from tenant's rights in this country makes renting an annoying hit'n'miss game in the long term. When renting stuff like having chickens and gardening are privileges that can be withdrawn at any time with no reason needed.

Moz said...

Having lived in a couple of communes and spent way too long looking at cohousing, some sort of co-op is the obvious answer... for educated people with time to spend just managing their housing. It works at university (Stucco), it's how many share houses are organised (sans the owning bit) and I've seen a few communes last into their third generation.

BUT those all rely on people putting a lot of work in to fight the way society is structured. And a lot of that work doesn't scale, or scales the wrong way and exponentially - organising ten people is at best 10!/2! more difficult... the stuff that does scale is trivial for the sort of people who do it. It has to be, because the other 90% of their effort goes into organising the collective. Even if the collective want to be organised and are trying very hard to cooperate.

What we need is a public housing co-op, as you say. Professional managers who look after the building, an owners co-op who manage the people.

BUT, in the individual-worshipping atomised loose association of millionaires and billionaires that we live in today, just doing that means fighting society in a big way. It's *hard*. It's exhausting. And it never ends. People burn out, and often the mere fact of burning out causes other people in the collective to explode and frequently the end of the collective.

I don't have a solution to that that I like. The obvious ones I really, really don't like (ie, forcibly suppressing individualism/imprisoning people in their housing co-op). I suspect the obvious ones would make current brutalist slum blocks look like paradise after a while, because for the most part they are the non-disaster survivors of an evolutionary process (ie, the really bad ones killed enough people that they were destroyed).

But the alternative requires reshaping mammonite society into a much more collective form... and I fear that means a revolution with all the billions of dead that that implies. Most killed just by the collapse of international trade, and that is collapsing without a revolution.

Graydon said...

I don't mean communes, in part because those are generally too small and in part because those are generally not institutional; they function, or not, on the basis of personal relationships, and as you note single individuals are often critical to the continued function.

On the other hand, I observe that credit unions work fine. If financial services can be done for the membership on a not-for-profit basis, I can't see how housing couldn't be. It would even be a very similar cash flow to the mortgages those credit unions currently hold. It would just have this regulatory and legal armature so you can participate in this residential domain of exchange where no profit-motivated entity is permitted. So you can swap equivalent shares between different local housing unions if you move; you can swap spaces if you don't need that much space now that kids are grown but retain your accumulated equity (which you can bequeath, but not sell), and so on.

Remarkably like truly old-school lifetime fixed value pensions that indexed by contribution, and those are well-understood from a regulatory perspective. I don't think this would be difficult to implement. Enough emphasis on the angry weather and it might not even be all that politically challenging.

Kai Jones said...

I like what I can understand of this. Too disabled to work in any way toward making it functionally available though.

Graydon said...

+Kai Jones
I have the political aptitude of something lacking political aptitude myself, so I have to hope the ideas catch on someone who has the aptitude.

I could wish I didn't feel like I need a time machine and to start trying to spread these ideas about the time I was born.

Moz said...

Underlying my ideas is that the atomic ideal of disjunct housing units standing proudly isolated from any semblance of community is a dead end. Literally. That's how you get "the body was not found for six months" and "collected her mother's pension for ten years after she died" as well as much worse outcomes.

But as soon as you bureaucratise a community it starts to struggle to remain a community. I don't have a really good model for how you'd get around that, but I know that allowing people who've been kicked out of one community to go off and poison another is a bad idea.

But yes, you can have many identical machines for living (in), made of ticky-tacky or what have you. Whether they work better than any of the existing attempts appears to come down to chance. I've done quite a lot of research into the topic but there doesn't seem to be a "machine for making community", at least in the current hostile environment.

Cohousing is one approach to this that seems to work, as do gated communities, at least for some. I suspect it would be scaled into intentional communities via a very loose set of associations or rules. Plausibly by formalising what's done now with modern redlining etc. But as we see, those often end up as dumping grounds for the (hated) other, and get neglected accordingly.

I think the first step would be a right to a home, recognised in law.

Moz said...

Also, credit unions work because money is the platonic ideal of a fungible commodity. It's meaningless, units of it are indistinguishable, and it requires no physical form.

Homes are the exact opposite in many, many ways: they're individual, personalised, have sentimental value as well as practical value, they are most definitely not fungible and they externalise most of their core functions. It doesn't matter how glorious some mansion is, relocate it to an island in the Bering Strait and it will be a liablity not a home. And like the soap opera says "everyone needs good neighbours"

This is why, for example, land in cities is more expensive than land outside them, and changes in land use can dramatically change it's value. And despite the fantasies of some, removing those laws won't create more land in the CBD.

Graydon said...

+Moz villages work. Villages are often suboptimal, but villages have worked for millenia. (I'm going to suppose a lot of the suboptimal relates to lack of both political representation and some approximation of uniform justice.)

I think rights are a failure as an organizing principle, because it's so easy to decide rights don't apply to those people. No one does anything you can point to or sue about, but everybody knows. I would much rather see a legal obligation to provide habitable space with interior control applied to ~municipal government; the level that handles water and sewage and streets.

"Bureaucratise" is one of those unfortunate terms, because it's pointing to a collection of not-very-well-related problems. I think it's completely obvious that you can organise a community so that it's a functioning system, that you can set up the feedback in that system so that it's stay-in-the-bounds feedback rather than approximate-the-ideal feedback, and that the people involved have a considerable incentive to have the whole thing work but won't know how to do it, so you need to get people involved who do know how, and whose incentives amount to creating both a belief in the inhabitants that they're pleased AND meeting some material measures of success. This isn't necessarily easy but it is pretty simple. (It presumes something about how the requirements are set out; you can't do this to guarantee anyone status or profit. You mostly have to do it specifically to NOT guarantee anyone status or profit. Which is conceptually tough but not systemically tough.)

Credit unions (in Ontario) work because they're in a legislative box that says you can't do a whole long list of things. If there was a way to go profit-maximizing out of that box, they'd fail. It's not that money is easy, in this sense; I'd say that it's because someone put a lot of thought into setting them up so they can't be organized around profit.

People get emotionally attached to their homes, care about a great many things, and see their individual house as status. The basis of status has to shift to the collective; that the worst living space in my collective is better than the worst space in yours. And you definitely have to have a consensus mechanism around gardening, and so on. But again, villages work. There is a way to set bounds so there's stuff that's individual decisions (like decorations) and stuff that's collective (like how to upgrade the in-ground heat sink for the heat pumps); there's likely several ways. It's not even difficult to design larger buildings with multiple homes in them. (It is presently really difficult to do this so you are fiscally sensible to live in one. But if all the actual buildings are owned by the collective, well. That problem goes away.)

(Oh, and all the "let's try out UBI" studies note major improvements from decreased insecurity. I can't but suppose that there are larger such improvements from decreased insecurity around housing.)

Moz said...

But villages don't work in the presences of cities as strong attractors. Villages are also renowned as hellholes of vile innuendo and mysterious suicides. If you let people leave most of them will. So first you have to fix that problem.

I'm not saying it can't be done, just pointing out that the price is likely to be high and it's mostly going to be paid by people who are different from the norm. Sure, no-one's going to be too sad at the return of infanticide for deformed or defective babies, and the high attrition rate for intellectually disabled or mentally ill children, but you're also going to see the smart kids filtered out by the same processes, especially the smart-but-not-social ones.

You can't *have* city values in a village, there's not enough space for that. The price for living in a group larger than a family but smaller than a city is that there's just enough social distance to built hate (and multigenerational grudges). I'm interested in my family history, and I've met some fascinating people from my extended family, but I wouldn't want them living with me and I couldn't survive living with them. Admittedly there's a strong filter where the xenophilic and tolerant ones have left, and they've been leaving for several generations... what's left are the ones who aren't like that.

I would much rather see a legal obligation to provide habitable space with interior control applied to ~municipal government

... but not simultaneously give anyone the right to occupy that space? The mechanisms for operating the people part of state housing are endlessly fascinating if you're just watching from a safe distance. If you're trying to live your life surrounded by people who can't get market housing it can be a very different experience. But operating non-market housing in a market society doesn't fit, so (to misquote you) "funding doesn't adhere to those people". We know how housing first works, we know that it requires a certain amount of funding... and the easiest way to show that that silly foreign idea doesn't work is to give it 90% of the minimum required funding.

Graydon said...

I'm not talking about recreating villages; I'm pointing to villages as an indication that something of the same approximate scale as the proposed collective organization has historically been workable.

Rights are deist nonsense and do not work. You can watch them not working as people die in the snow hereabouts. (You can, historically, watch rights-as-a-concept completely fail to give slavers any cognitive dissonance whatsoever. The axiomatic utility of rights is a problem.)

I'm also not talking about state housing; state actors are the wrong scale to house people. (I am, in part, pointing out that there's a scale of public endeavour we don't have.) Laws that put the mayor and the council into the snow the second there's anyone else there sound ideal but create a whole lot of incentive to murder the homeless before whoever does the counting finds them. If it comes down to laws, it won't work. (People in general agree that the non-prosperous should be killed before the curse transfers. That's why tax rates look like they do, and why democratic processes to address climate change are going to have problems.)

So, everybody -- and I do mean everybody -- belongs to a housing collective. You can attach status to supporting those as can't support themselves; you can make it easy to switch collectives and you can provide transfer payments to maintain them (though you do this by transferring from the other collectives in the (spreading) vicinity; make it cheaper to help than to shun).

Easy to achieve? No.

Possible? Yeah.

Necessary? If we don't want to declare most of the population expendable by 2050 at the outside, also yeah.

dilbert dogbert said...

Does the Israeli Kibbutz movement have any thing interesting to offer? The last time I read anything about them (40 - 50 years ago) was how they had a tough time remaining Kibbutz.

Graydon said...

+dilbert dogbert
I don't know much about kibbutz as a form of land tenure, but I expect that it does and that one of the core lessons is that it's really really difficult to do anything even vaguely like collective housing if you're dealing with a profit-optimized land tenure system.

One of those problems that has to have a collective solution, alas.

arborman said...

I currently work in the provision and maintenance of supportive housing (i.e. housing for people who cannot sustain market housing for various combinations of mental health/addiction/poverty/trauma). I have seen the fundamental importance of having a reliable roof on the quality and experience of life for people with the most awful of histories and experience. Most of their trauma comes from the actual history (i.e. residential schools and their ongoing cascade of harm), personal trauma, and the inability of our current system to effectively value humans who do not or cannot successfully produce money in some form.

I am also an owner of rental housing, and an owner of the euphemistically termed 'detached family home'. Said ownership comes not from a desire to perpetuate inequity but more from a determination to play the game well as currently designed whilst working to change it.

I believe very strongly in the value of housing first, and I see the positive effects firsthand on humans who have a home where otherwise they would be in the cold. There is a strong economic argument for housing and support for every single human being. While utterly bereft of empathy or other non-measurable values, the cost-benefit of 'housing or not housing' x person is beyond any non-emotional debate. The downstream cost of desperation continues to rise: policing costs, property insurance, target hardening (locks, security systems etc), health care, emergency health care. Also real is the effect on the mental health and well-being of people who work to make things better - I have seen many people burn out and have personal collapses due to the insurmountability of the societal problems to which we currently consent (most recently 3 days ago a friend has taken 6 month stress leave).

Sadly, 'they will get free stuff and I don't' is still a strong, passionate motivator in our culture. Changing that is a hard road, I find myself as a middle aged person somewhat at a loss as to how to proceed. Like it or not I live in a mammonite society, I want to survive as long as reasonably possible and I'd like my kids to do the same. As M. Stross said, if the Culture showed up I'd be an enthusiastic collaborator.

I don't have an answer. I suspect I'll be running in the next municipal election, because someone must and that is where a lot of this stuff happens. But I lack political skills and will probably hate it all.

Graydon said...

It's a tough problem. Swinging policy discussions away from feelings and onto facts is hard work. Convincing everybody that status arises from taking care of each other is likely tougher.

It's just about impossible to stop playing the game on your own; that's one of the things that makes the problem difficult.

If you do run, I hope it goes much better than you expect.

(I kinda have negative political skills.)

Zeborah said...

My experience of politics is limited to being on a party's branch committee and that's plenty enough for me. But I would say, if you do run, the most important thing you should do is look for your allies. You'll have your own policy ideas but you can't get a single one through by yourself, and others will have great ideas too, and allies of their own. (Especially look for the Indigenous folk and other under-represented groups who are already in the spaces you're interested in, and do what you can to support them and the work they've done.) Working together will obviously make it easier to make change, but also gives you support to deal with the soul-destroying parts of the job and stave off the burn-out.

arborman said...

There are workplaces where status arises in different ways than money/power/flashy stuff. They are often populated by people who have no/little interest in mammonite stuff. Also somewhat vulnerable to exploitation by the sociopathic set without a strong union in place. The non-profit sector (it's in the title) is generally the sort of place where people who want to help end up. It is rife with exploitation (why aren't you wearing hair shirts?), but also has great potential when run properly.

One of the most respected people at my workplace has no money and little power, but an almost superhuman ability to connect with people in very dark circumstances. I have watched in astonishment as she talked a dissociative man on the brink of violence into maybe sitting down for some tea and getting to the bottom of things instead.

Humans are still shaved apes with a highly tuned sense of relative status, and predisposed to experience threats to that status as a personal and even physical attack. It is no small job to identify and push ways to shift the locus of that 'status' onto 'helps' rather than 'is good at making money.' But there exist some such models.