In this week’s missive we explore the question: how do you strangle a corporation, when it doesn’t have a neck?
Some of my more regular listeners may be tired of hearing about the fact that the rent on my apartment in Portland, Oregon has more than doubled since I moved to the city twelve years ago. But as President Trump fires half his staff because they’re basically not fascist enough, I must return to the doubling of my rent, because it is the living room elephant. One pollster I heard yammering on the radio one day said that the single factor that most effectively represented in a nutshell Trump’s base of support were people whose standards of living had decreased over the previous ten years. One of the main reasons for the marked decrease in quality of life for so many people in the US and many other countries, especially since around the turn of the millennia, has been the skyrocketing cost of housing.
How easy is it to say “we’re full” and then blame the most recent refugees and immigrants on the lack of affordable housing? Is it any surprise that this would happen? Did the wrecking ball deregulators of the housing market intentionally encourage a rightward, xenophobic shift in politics in order to distract attention from their ever more cannabalistic tendencies, as increasingly the billionaires and hedge fund managers don’t invest in the volatile stock market, but in the housing market. That is, they invest in the human need to keep a roof over our heads. They bank on the notion that as long as most people somehow manage to be resourceful enough to keep paying the ever increasing rents, they can keep on getting a return on their investment, until — until when? When every year the rents rise several times as much as wages, when is the breaking point?
For many years now I have been wondering, trying to answer the perennial question, how do you strangle a corporation? Unable to answer the question myself, I took to asking audiences at my concerts. I think it was in Olympia that someone answered, “one at a time.” It’s not good enough, though. And all the songs I wrote about strangling my landlord helped my mental state temporarily, but as the rent continued to increase, these moments of creative catharsis became ever more fleeting. What we need are solutions — both songs and arson may have their place, but then so do band-aids.
Meanwhile, the solutions exist, and they’re easy — they just require that the state not be controlled by real estate developers. Because when people other than real estate developers or other money-grubbing pond scum are in power, then there’s the prospect of actual democracy taking place. This can potentially involve legislatures imposing things like rent control. In the US, this is entirely within the purview of state legislatures to do — but the vast majority of them have instead banned the practice over the past several decades, making sure that municipalities cannot pass their own local rent control ordinances.
In the US, the movement against gentrification is frankly pathetic. Nowhere are there ever sustained or large protests, housing occupations, or rent strikes. All of these things have happened in the past in the US, but that was a long time ago. I am a proud member of a tenants union in Portland, but it is an anemic organization, bereft of popular participation, funds, or most anything else aside from a handful of dedicated, enthusiastic, and often stressed out organizers. I’d suggest that the reason for the fact that when we have protests in Portland or Salem we’re lucky if attendance is in the triple digits is twofold — it doesn’t help at all that most of the media is about a hundred times more interested in covering Trump and anti-Trump than in covering basically anything else. Especially if it’s an issue like housing, which directly affects the billionaires and investors who own most of the media. Much safer to cover Trump and anti-Trump, along with supplementary team sporting events, always skimming the surface of any exploration of the actual policies lying beneath the rants. Whether the refugee children are put in cages or not does not affect the bottom line of the real estate developers, speculators and investors that quietly dominate so many of our lives.
The other main reason for our sad little protests is we profoundly lack optimism in the possibility that we might actually reverse course, rather than just slow down the inevitable.
Buried in the headlines, very intentionally, I’m sure, among many other intentionally buried or otherwise horrifically mis-reported stories, is the growing movement against the trend of ever-increasing rents and ever-increasing corporate profits in Berlin. In Berlin, protests against gentrification such as the one last weekend involve tens of thousands of people in the street. This would be a decent crowd for a national or even international protest there, but this is mainly just Berliners.
Like Portland, Berlin was recently a city full of artists and cafes and vibrant communities of all sorts, where rent was cheap and life was full of possibility. That all changed in Portland, and it’s been changing in Berlin, too. But unlike in Portland, where rent used to be cheap because the economy wasn’t good enough to support many people who could afford to pay high rents, the city of Berlin — both east and west — remained affordable for so long because the lion’s share of the housing was public — owned by the government.
Hundreds of thousands of units were sold to private corporations in recent decades in Berlin, and the result has been gentrification and rapidly rising rents, largely imposed by corporate conglomerates that have absolutely no interest in sustainable community or human rights, but only in the bottom line for their wealthy investors from places like New York, London and Oslo.
This is exactly what’s been happening in Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. But unlike our straggly group, often outnumbered by the politicians within the building we’re protesting outside of, to say nothing of their staff, Berlin is rising up.
There are many explanations for this difference, but chief among them is the fact that Berlin has a recent history of great, widespread, and inexpensive public housing. People in Berlin, and more broadly in Germany as well as in many other countries, generally grew up with the notion that the government — again, both in the east and in the west — has a responsibility to adequately house the citizens of the country. It has long been understood there to be part of the social contract — why we have a government.
Someday, maybe we’ll re-learn this lesson in the United States. In the meantime, may the people of Berlin please show the world how to properly strangle a landlord when the landlord is a faceless corporation — socialize their property for the common good.