Short Take: In Defense of Housing

By William Caraher

Peter Marcuse’s and David J. Madden’s In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis (Verso 2016) is a elegant survey of issues facing housing on a global scale. For the authors, the contemporary housing crisis exists in the tension between housing as home and housing as a commodity. Marcuse and Madden juxtapose the multimillion dollar luxury condominiums in New York and London with the need for basic, affordable housing in the same cities. The multimillion dollar apartments, however, were rarely occupied whereas the basic and affordable housing are a key factor in social cohesion, personal dignity, and the health of individuals and communities. The problem is that both affordable housing and luxury condominiums represent commodities, investments, and figments of complex, global financial arrangements that belie their material presence and the central role that basic housing plays in the lives of billions of people. This book argues that for our society to restore a human character to housing and to protect it as a basic right for all people, the state (on a global scale!) must transform and undermine the system of commodifying and financializing housing. The push might come from tenant and housing activists, but the change must come from the top.

My interest in housing emerged over the last five years of working on the archaeology of workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota. Among better known issues that emerged during the Bakken Oil Boom was a housing crisis that was mitigated in part by a range of temporary workforce housing sites collectively called “man camps.” In keeping with Madden and Marcuse, these housing sites followed the flow of global capital into the region and distant landlords and eventually developers seeded the landscape with a range of housing options from tidy, new subdivisions to informal settlements filled with RVs and dusty roads. During the boom, the primary concern was housing the influx of workers, but as the boom has turned to bust, housing has become a financial concern for communities who have massive inventories of newly built apartments and homes and abandoned workforce housing sites whose investors have pulled their capital for greener pastures or been left with properties that will not generate income or appreciate.

While the Bakken boom and bust has made obvious the financial systems that fuel both extractive industries and the global housing market, it has also made visible the complex attitudes of individuals involved in most ephemeral aspects of the global housing market. The temporary workforce that supported the oil industry in the Bakken had distinct attitudes toward “home” that ranged from an affection for mobile RV to a nostalgia for distant (and often past) stability of farms, suburban neighborhoods, or rural communities. These individuals constantly made financial calculations that allowed them to negotiate the tension between home and the placelessness of the global market. The maintenance of a garden at an RV made a temporary vehicle into a home. Practices like “hot sheeting,” squatting, and corporate housing by global logistics companies allowed workers to separate where they lived from a sentimental concept of home. These strategies subverted and renegotiated the ways in which the fiscal realities of a commodified housing market on the ground and offered examples of resistance more subtle (and perhaps less idealistic) than the kind of tenant activism celebrated in Marcuse’s and Madden’s work.

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William Caraher earned his PhD from Ohio State in 2003. At the University of North Dakota, he teaches Western Civilization and The Historian’s Craft. His research interests include the Late Antique East, Byzantium, and Mediterranean archaeology. Caraher also is an NDQ editorial board member and the Digital Editor for NDQ.