If you rent, you probably have to move often. In the US, 20-25% of all renters move every year, repeating an endless cycle of selling and buying furniture, dragging couches and bed frames up and down stairs, signing leases, and paying security deposits that you’ll never get back. Most people go through this annual hellscape because they are trying to find a better deal on rent, which seems to constantly go up.
But choosing where to go next is an increasingly impossible decision. Low-income neighborhoods have cheaper housing, but it’s cheaper because it’s shoddy and often not even up to code. These neighborhoods often lack convenient grocery stores, good schools (because schools are paid by local taxes), and community amenities like libraries and green spaces. People who live in low-income areas are likely to have worse health outcomes, not just because of a lack of hospitals and healthcare options, but because these areas are also often where corporations place polluting factories and refineries, like the infamous “Cancer Alley” of Louisiana.
More affluent neighborhoods, on the other hand, have safer housing and convenient grocery stores, but everything is so expensive that working-class people are hard-pressed to live there. These neighborhoods quickly become playgrounds for the most well-to-do of a city, and circle back around again to having none of the essential things that neighborhoods need – featuring boutique build-your-own-$18-salad bars where there should be playgrounds for families. Why can’t capitalism give us any neighborhoods where we can live long-term, happy lives?
Poor Neighborhoods Stay Poor, Rich Neighborhoods Get Richer
Low-income neighborhoods in American cities frequently remain segregated. In urban centers, these neighborhoods tend to be majority Black and Hispanic, and in more rural areas, they often have a higher indigenous population. In many cases, highway systems and infrastructure were built to specifically silo people of color away from wealthier, white areas – as was the case with Robert Moses’s transformation of New York in the 1930s. Other neighborhoods have undergone periods of “white flight” where wealthy and middle-class white residents have retreated to the suburbs with the rise of expanded highway systems and car infrastructure, as well as moral panic around “rising crime rates” and other even more explicitly racist alarmism about the “cultural decay” of cities.
Roads, bridges, and public transportation networks are left to rot in lower-income regions of the country by a political establishment that profits from maintaining this de-facto racial segregation. This is an economic phenomenon that is amplified in Black neighborhoods in cities and suburbs alike, but it affects working-class people of all races, with infrastructure like clean water and access to the internet, which is essential to operating in modern society, becoming largely inaccessible in rural white communities as well.
Infrastructure is one of the biggest reasons that poor areas stay poor – it’s not just a matter of building better houses or bringing in new services and businesses. From the cell phone towers to the phone lines to the pavement to the lead pipes in the ground, under-resourced communities need massive investment.
But capitalism’s response to low-income communities – gentrification – doesn’t work either. When big developers swoop in to capitalize on low land prices, the housing they build isn’t just expensive, it’s quickly and shoddily built. While fancy new condo buildings might look high-end, they often lack proper ventilation, draining systems, and other protective measures that renters and homebuyers won’t notice until there’s an emergency.
When our communities are planned and constructed by major developers whose primary interest is maximizing profits, they will always cut essential corners. They will build with subpar materials with no consideration for the type of amenities all working people deserve. As long as the capitalist government continues to give handouts to these developers rather than invest in our communities, we will never have fully stocked libraries and well-paved streets.
Social Housing Is The Answer
There are many examples throughout the last century of social housing projects that have transformed the lives of working people for the better. One such example is the socialist planning of neighborhoods in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, a period of rapid development after the revolution of 1917.
While living standards were low to begin with – a consequence of the overwhelmingly feudal economy in Russia at the time, as well as a blockade of resources from capitalist states – the economic planning that was used to develop neighborhoods can be seen as a useful example for a genuine reconstruction of impoverished neighborhoods in the United States today.
Because of the planned economy, guaranteed housing was constructed in the Soviet Union which led directly towards city centers, and contained ample green spaces and community services like laundromats and communal kitchens. Houses were often built towards the ends of streets, as a means of reducing noise and dust from the newly developed factories which had begun to sprung up as part of a plan for rapid industrialization. Planning whole communities based on the needs of the people who would live in them would have been impossible under capitalism – but it’s just the beginning of what a socialist economy can achieve.
Today, we need to fight to take our right to housing and to fulfilling communities out of the hands of the capitalist market. We need to fight for rent control, so that landlords can’t just charge whatever they want without fixing anything, and we need to tax the rich to fund permanently-affordable social housing that would be run democratically, not for profit. None of these things are remotely acceptable to the capitalist class – which shows why we need to fight for a socialist world where these basic reforms would not just be possible, but commonplace.
The housing system we face not just in the US but globally does not work in our interests or the interests of the people around us. Capitalism claims to be able to provide all things to all people based on the laws of supply and demand, but has completely failed to realize its promise. We need to fight to take this system into our own hands, and transform it to bring us the housing and services we need.