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everal months ago the Baltimore City Housing Authority officially announced the complete demolition of Perkins Homes in East Baltimore. These 660 units of public housing are “the commons” to me. This public space where families and tenants reside should be the domain without the exploitative impact of market capitalism. “Carving Out The Commons” by Amanda Huron provides a compelling and legitimate debate and discourse on the relevance of the urban commons, tenant rights, and housing cooperatives. The commons, tenants’ rights, and cooperatives are elements of public space that we can no longer take for granted. Everyday people organizing to stay in the city of Washington, DC need a tool such as this book to learn from the bold and brilliant work of powerful Black and Latinx women who believed in their “right to the city.”
Huron’s book supports us grassroots organizers and public intellectuals in our on-the-ground debate and discussion about strategies to reclaim and rebuild our urban communities, and especially our housing spaces. We can use this book as a tool for research and reflection, and to practice emerging ideas and plans for housing commons. As Alexis Zanghi writes in her review in Jacobin Magazine of “Carving Out The Commons,” limited equity housing cooperatives are autonomous community driven spaces. And these spaces are essential to our neighborhoods and family stability. The massive serial displacement creating tidal waves of community destruction can be slowed down by tenants organizing for community control of public and subsidized housing, and converting these sites into limited equity cooperatives. The idea of “commoning” needs to be the topic of strategic thinking and organizing strategy in places like Portland, Houston, New Orleans, Chicago, and especially cities on the West and East coast such as Oakland, San Jose, Baltimore and Washington, DC.
But housing commons are already thriving in pockets around the U.S. One example from Baltimore is Washington Hill Mutual Homes, which is in East Baltimore, just a few blocks from Perkins Homes — both are within walking distance of the Baltimore Harbor and luxury waterfront condo communities. Washington Hill Mutual Homes is an over 40- year-old limited-equity housing cooperative community which sits on a hill overlooking the waterfront. The views are extraordinary and it is only minutes from the exclusive Canton neighborhood. The subscription fee for most units is only $1,000 to buy into the cooperative and most 1 and 2 bedrooms are under $700 for monthly cooperative fees. Because it is decommodified housing, and very low cost, long-time residents are not subject to the tidal waves of serial displacement.
Huron’s focus on the urban commons, tenants rights, and housing cooperatives makes this book a great resource for organizations like ONE DC – Organizing Neighborhood Equity DC. ONE DC recently started a Housing Education Team made up of long-time residents in the Shaw neighborhood of DC, which was at one point the “hottest market” for home sales in the nation. The Housing Education Team is led by tenants from subsidized housing, a limited equity coop, and member organizers, including a former staff person of ONE DC and another member organizer who worked at NYC Acorn. ONE DC prides itself on being a learning organization, and we can learn from this book. Learning about the struggles and successes of past tenant leaders and organizers in DC through studying this book should provide a wonderful opportunity to the ONE DC Housing Education Team to integrate their lived experience and praxis theory with the documented research on past issues related to tenant organizing and housing justice in DC.
The question of housing justice is a serious concern for feminist theory too. Huron correctly mentions the commons as a place for social reproduction and women do a lot of the “household” work in the streets and the home. Many community organizations like United Workers in Baltimore, which is exploring community land trusts and housing cooperatives for the 40,000 abandoned lots and homes in Baltimore, need to take into consideration feminist theorizing work and reflection that is required to do this organizing well. Also ONE DC’s Housing Education Team with a large number of women leaders should explore the commons and feminist theory, but we all should be clear that feminist theorizing and the commons needs to researched, studied, and reflected on by all people. Huron could have given more “space” in the book for this area.
“Carving Out The Commons” is a must read book for urban theorists and community organizers. For over 400 years people have been struggling over land and rights. The 660 families in Perkins Homes near Fell Points in East Baltimore is no different battle. It is a different time and different space, and new ideas and new strategies are needed to win the fight against serial displacement. As I keep a watchful eye on the very small group of public housing residents who are planning the resistance and who want to emerge as a many-headed hydra ready for battle, I hope that me or someone else is able to hand them a copy of “Carving Out The Commons” and say, “I know you said that it was hopeless, but Huron’s research and stories show a small group of powerful women can win the battle for their homes. And after winning, you can decide to convert public housing into the “commons” and create an autonomous community driven space called the Perkins Homes Mutual Cooperative.”