A Tale of Three Cities

David Harvey traces our changing relationship to housing through the city of use value, the city of exchange value, and the city of speculative gain.

Illustration by David Biskup

A house is a simple enough thing. But it is also a commodity, which means it abounds ‘in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’, as Marx once put it. I grew up in a house in a safe, secure, and respectable working-class neighbourhood in Britain after 1945. The house was a use value — stolid in its ordinariness. It constituted a secure, albeit rather repressive space in which to eat, sleep, socialise, read stories, do homework, or listen to the radio; a place where family, with all of its inner complexities and tensions, could dwell and relate without too much outside interference. Relations with neighbours were cordial and supportive but not intimate. This was the city of use value.

I do remember, however, the day the mortgage was paid off. There was a mild celebration. The house, I then realised, had an exchange value that could be passed on to future generations (like me). But that was never a topic of conversation. Not far away there were estates of social housing. They looked OK to me but when I dated a girl from there my mother strongly disapproved — they were feckless people not to be trusted, she said. But they too seemed to have secure housing in a not too bad — though somewhat bland — living environment. We listened to the same radio shows and the kids played the same games on the street. But at election time they supported Labour. In my neighbourhood there were a few posters, some Labour but also some Tory. Working-class homeownership, promoted from the 1890s onwards in Britain, had always been an instrument of social control and a defence against Bolshevism. In the United States they say: ‘debt encumbered homeowners don’t go on strike.’

In the 1980s the emphasis changed. Margaret Thatcher sold off the social housing and people became more passionately concerned with the exchange value of their homes. The building societies that promoted homeownership stopped being local working-class institutions and became more like banks. In 1981 nearly a third of all houses in Britain were in the public sector, but by 2016 that had fallen to less than 7 per cent. In an ideal neoliberal world there should be no social housing. As Colin Crouch argues, ‘social housing tenants are the unwanted residue of a pre-neoliberal past.’ We were set fair to be a property-owning democracy. Houses were exchanged to rent or fix up. Then maybe people could move up to a higher-status neighbourhood. The emphasis was on improving the house as an exchange value, as a form of saving, and as a locus for augmenting personal wealth. Individual wealth in homeownership was a common topic of conversation. Riff-raff (like people of colour or immigrants) would be kept out to protect neighbourhood property values. Segregation tightened and gated communities flourished. Spaces were enclosed and the urban commons was depleted.

By the century’s end the emphasis shifted again. The house was viewed as an instrument of capital accumulation and speculative gain. It became an ATM machine from which people could extract wealth by refinancing their mortgages. Credit and liquidity sloshed through housing markets, driving house prices hither and thither. But behind this shift a far more monstrous power emerged. The focus was not on the house but on the land upon which it stood. The gap between current land value and the value under the highest and best use enticed investors. To realise this speculative gain either the existing uses had to be displaced and present occupants evicted, or current residents had to pay higher land rents for the privilege of staying put.

Dramatic examples could be found in all of the world’s large metropolitan regions. Take the case of China. Land prices increased fivefold in China between 2004 and 2015. Before 2008, land values accounted for on average 37 per cent of Beijing housing prices. After 2010 that had risen to 60 per cent. Everywhere, low-income populations were either forced out or burdened with sky-rocketing rents. ‘Millions’, Dinny McMahon wrote in his book China’s Great Wall of Debt, ‘have been priced out of housing markets in the cities in which they live, and the situation is only going to get worse.’

Marx would not have been surprised. ‘Poverty is a more fruitful source for house rent than the mines of Potosi were for their owners’, he said. ‘Tremendous power’ accrues to landed property which enables it to ‘exclude workers engaged in a struggle over wages from the very earth itself as their dwelling place’. It is, he went on to observe, ‘the ground rent and not the house that is the object of speculation’.

In many neighbourhoods, low-income populations have been evicted to make way for upscale investment opportunities, expensive condos, and conversions to new uses, such as Airbnb. It was no longer mere exchange value that drove housing market activity but a quest for capital accumulation through the manipulation of housing markets. The rapid increase in real estate prices seem to benefit homeowners but the main beneficiaries are in fact the banks, the credit institutions, and the large conglomerates and hedge funds that have joined the speculative game.

This was apparent when the crash came. Banks were bailed out and homeowners were fed to the sharks of the stock exchange. In the US millions lost their houses to foreclosure in 2007–10, while in the rental sector the pace of evictions of low-income populations accelerated everywhere, with devastating social consequences. Hedge funds and private equity companies bought up foreclosed housing at fire-sale prices and are now making a financial killing on their operations. In what remained of the public sector, austerity led to deferred maintenance and deterioration of the housing stock to the point where, we were told, only privatisation would improve things. The privatisers turned out to be specialists at evictions, so the conversion of affordable housing for low-income populations into lucrative market-based housing accelerated.

This is the city of speculative gain: occupancy becomes unstable and ephemeral, social solidarities and neighbourhood commonalities disintegrate, and the real estate folk brand upscale, often-gated neighbourhoods with fictitious qualities of superior living. This has even become a full-time profession: ‘urban imagineering’, they call it. The reality is the fraying of social relations, with terrifying results. Glyn Robbins says of the crime wave now sweeping London: ‘Neoliberal and profit-driven urban policies have produced cities in which many young people literally feel they have no place. They find it almost impossible to find a home they can afford in the communities where they were born, thwarting their ability to develop independent lives. Their social networks, sense of belonging, and feeling of respect from the adult world have been stretched to breaking point. Nothing could be more perfectly calculated to create a situation in which young people don’t care, either about the lives of others, or their own.’ This is a different world from the one in which I was raised. But the house is still a house.

Differing forms of value have always coexisted uneasily within the commodity form. Their co-evolution within the recent history of housing markets has culminated in the present impasse where speculative valuation rules as such that more than half the population of planet Earth cannot find a decent place to live in a decent living environment because of the hegemonic power of capital over land and property markets. It does not have to be this way. In clearing out my study recently I came across a booklet published by the New York Metropolitan Council on Housing in 1978. The title was Housing in the Public Domain: The Only Solution. In 1978 the US Housing and Urban Development Department had a budget of $83 billion to help pursue that solution. Limited equity co-ops and even community land trusts were springing up in most major cities to offer non-market solutions. By 1983 the HUD budget had been reduced to $18 billion only to be abolished by the 1990s during the Clinton years. Forty years later, I find myself reflecting on the disastrous worldwide consequences of not resolutely pursuing the obvious solution: housing in the public domain. Use value must come first.

About the Author

David Harvey is a distinguished professor of anthropology and geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His latest book is Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason (Profile Books, 2017).