Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement.
By Jason Sibert
The early 20th century sewer socialist movement used socialist-oriented municipal politics to improve the lives of metropolitan residents. Sewer socialists fought for publicly owned sewers and electrical grids (so residents didn’t have to pay for the profit margins of a private systems), quality parks, quality education, quality public safety, quality infrastructure, a vibrant labor movement (sometimes achieved), and financially sound government.
A must issue for an updated sewer socialist movement is housing. Homelessness is present in our cities; rents are going up and putting pressure on the budgets of working people in metropolitan areas (in the rural areas as well); and buying seems out of reach for many. Housing cooperatives are the answer to our housing affordability crises and should be a cause embraced by modern sewer socialists.
Back in 2013, I penned a story on coops during the great recession (Addressing Housing Affordability Using Cooperatives | Newgeography.com). I detailed the efforts of Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt to expand homeownership and suggested federal involvement in housing cooperatives. According to the National Association of Housing Cooperatives, cooperative housing is defined as when “people join together on a democratic basis to own and control the housing or community facilities where they live.” According to the NAHC, 1.2 million families live in cooperative housing in the United States.
In my 2013 story, I suggested the creation of a Cooperative Housing Authority to promote coop housing. While I still think this is a good idea, creative sewer socialists could work to bring something similar about on the local level. Sewer socialist mayors and aldermen could allocate city funds to housing coop projects. Perhaps the coops could pay back the city funds within time. Housing coops usually charge so much to purchase a share in the cooperative and then a carrying charge (something like rent or mortgage in terms of monthly costs). Of course, each coop member is allowed a vote on the governing of the coop. By cutting an actual landlord out of the picture, housing coops offer working people cheaper housing. Keep in mind, housing coops could take the form of apartment complexes or single-family houses.
Low-wage workers in the restaurant, hotel and motel, healthcare, and retail sectors are currently attempting to organize unions, and these efforts have received attention in the media. In addition, Fight for Fifteen is a movement concentrated in low-wage sectors that fights for a higher minimum wage ($15 an hour). The movement has been successful, with California, Massachusetts, New York (downstate), Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut, Florida, and Delaware passing $15 minimum wage laws. Cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City have raised their minimum wages to $15. These movements should work hand in hand with a movement for housing coops, as the low-wage sectors of our economy have many workers in need of affordable housing.
Perhaps the unions in these sectors could allocate some money for coops. Remember, the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative in New York City came about with the efforts of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union under the leadership of social democrat Sidney Hillman. It is the first co-op created by Founding President and Manager Abraham E. Kazan, known as “The father of cooperative housing in the United States.” New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the coop in a positive manner: “Amalgamated Cooperative Apartment House is a significant development in this comparatively new sphere. It signifies the economic soundness of the cooperative conception as well as the assured success of both these housing undertakings which were inspired by the splendid ideal of mutual good and reciprocal benefit.”
Let’s not forget the possibility of tenants’ unions playing a role as well. Tenants’ unions have made a different in California’s metros, known for high rents. Tenants in cities in California are organizing tenants’ unions in their buildings and communities and have been influential in passing new rent control ordinances for the first time in over 30 years. Organization has made a difference in the fight against landlord lobbyists, corporate developers, and realtors. Perhaps an alliance amongst sewer socialists, labor unions, tenants’ unions, non-profits that represent low wage workers could make a dent in the problem of affordable housing.
The original sewer socialists brought certain economic activities into municipal ownership that were natural monopolies or at least very capital intensive. We can use some municipal funds to tame the power of the real estate industry. It’s unrealistic to think that workers in low-wage sectors would have enough money to start apartment complexes and housing developments on their own, but several entities acting cooperatively could make a big difference.
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.