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ack in 1999, myself and a crew of anti-displacement activists gathered in a Mission District bar to found what would later become the San Francisco Community Land Trust. Back then, many of us were invested by the ideas of building an urban commons, having been politicized in the era of the Zapatistas, Landless Workers Movements, austerity and welfare reform. We imagined building gentrification-proof bubbles of self-managed housing to counter the shredding of the social safety net while simultaneously prefiguring a radically different social order: One that centered notions of solidarity, antiracism and community preservation.
I was always struck by just how many aspirations could be hitched to the idea of the urban commons. For some of us, it was a fulfillment of the Black Panther Party’s politics of self-determination as stated in their 10-Point program. “We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings. We believe that if the white landlords will not give decent housing to our black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.” For others, it was a chance to return to the ethics which initially guided the birth of the nonprofit housing sector. Many of us just like the idea of showing that the world could go on just fine without landlords and bosses. I believe that all of us overestimated the “threat of a good example” our work could make against the larger national economic backdrop.
It starts with a dream, but that dream is complicated quickly by the actual act of self-managing the housing, after the campaigns were won. Immediately, it became apparent that what was being prefigured was not some sort of democratic-socialist-anti racist utopia. What we might have been getting a sneak preview of was real and actual antagonisms of building a new world within the shell of the old. Ever had roommate problems? Try them out with co-owners. Conversations of the commons ebb and give way to what must be done to preserve the meager gains: operating reserves, replacement reserves, broken pipes, permits, hostile historical preservation activists, and allies now suspicious that you are unwittingly going to unleash for-profit condo conversions.
This is where prefigurative politics become the politics of the pro-forma.
That is exactly why Amanda Huron’s Carving Out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington D.C. is such a valuable work. It is not an organizing manual, yet it immensely valuable to housing organizers. Its theoretical and academic engagement is near perfect, but the book is grounded in the real life experiences of working-class Black residents of the city Huron was raised in. Huron never abandons the vision that urban commons can provide, a very real alternative to the “move along” politics of Real Estate speculators, and the ballad of the bulldozer.
One of the understandings in this book that is particularly useful is the differentiation between rural commons and urban ones. Washington D.C. and San Francisco are very different from Manila and rural towns in Brazil. It is possible to take inspiration and ethical guidance from these struggles. However, commoning in a North American city, with its convergence of a highly developed regulatory bureaucracy and neoliberal investment strategies, is necessarily going to be different. Huron succeeds at bridging the gap between the institutionalists (commons theorists who stress the viability of the approach) and the alterglobalizationists (those who emphasize the political potential of the commons.).
This is important on two levels. If these experiments fail, they discredit future efforts. Failure will build the case that the radical democratic dream which surfaces in the building of cooperatives is unworkable. This will leave the only solutions to the urban housing crisis to be found in hackneyed misreadings of supply-and-demand theory or traditional regulatory regimes which never quite do the job of curbing displacement. This is why the lessons in Chapter 5 may be some of the most poignant ones. It is here that Huron grapples with disinvestment in buildings, the complexities of self-management, who to include and exclude from a building.
One of Huron’s great strengths is that she engages seriously with the political economy of the city, moving the dialogue beyond a simplistic story of rights real and aspired for. If there is one thing I wished she would have grappled with more fully is the excruciating slow pace of building urban commons in contrast to the swift waves of hyper-investment. However, I think that this book will be the first of many for her. Perhaps the sequel the follow up will unleash her considerable talents on the issues of strategy in contemporary urban organizing.