Photo: The Des Moines Register
In the United States, the two most visible indicators of economic inequality are the disparities in housing and environmental conditions. Not only are both of these issues byproducts of economic inequality caused by capitalism, housing is an environmental issue in and of itself. Socialists know that given increasing global and US populations, the effects of land use on public health, and the vulnerability of frontline communities to environmental catastrophes, the issues must be addressed in tandem. On November 14th, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a bill that does just that.
The Public Housing Green New Deal Act, which has been endorsed by YDSA and DSA, connects the fight for our planet’s future to the need for a just and democratic economy that ensures crucial resources like housing are considered public goods. The bill aims to invest $172 billion in projects to transition “the entire public housing stock of the United States, as swiftly and seamlessly as possible, into zero-carbon, highly energy-efficient developments that produce on-site renewable energy, expand workforce capacity and family self-sufficiency programs and focus on community development.” The Public Housing Green New Deal Act also repeals federal limits on public housing development, gives all residents a vote on resident councils, and requires that all new developments meet labor standards by complying with prevailing wage laws, taking part in project labor agreements, not requiring mandatory arbitration in disputes, and classifying workers as employees instead of independent contractors. Finally, it encourages HUD to prioritize contracts in frontline rural and tribal communities. According to the Huffington Post, the bill “shows for the first time how national policy to slash climate-changing emissions can reduce poverty and racial inequity by targeting long-term investments at largely minority communities, cleaning up sickness-causing pollution and creating demand for jobs that would go to local communities.”
This bill is a striking change of pace from the current housing policy proposals advocated by liberal Democrats, who dominate urban politics in the United States. Due to disinvestment in public housing, many Democratic mayors have been resorting to privatization efforts such as Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) that have converted Section 9 public housing units to Section 8 privately managed units. Converted Section 8 buildings predominantly employ independent contractors instead of employees. The lack of funding for public housing is compounded by the Faircloth Amendment, which prohibits the construction of new public housing units. Democratic socialists approach these issues differently from liberals because we do not see the market as a viable solution. Rather than solely relying on inclusionary housing that would guarantee affordable housing in buildings with majority market rate units, democratic socialists advocate for solutions that would truly make housing a human right. Socialists also understand that housing must be viewed through an environmental lens because of the effects that it has on land use and public health, and the history of segregation in the US means that racial justice, too, is inextricably bound up with housing and environmental justice.
Socialist candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are able to provide legislation and popularize a socialist analysis of these issues and the ways they intersect. However, structural change of the kind we need to stave off climate catastrophe and mitigate the most horrific effects of capitalism won’t be won through electoral politics alone. To ensure that bills like this are passed and enforced, we need a mass movement of militant working-class activists building and using power in the streets — and in their unions. Organized labor is already fighting for housing and environmental justice and winning; during the 2019 Chicago Teachers Union strike, school workers and educators struck for rent control and housing for their students, showing that the fight for housing justice can be advanced on the shop floor as well as in legislative chambers. Furthermore, educators in Los Angeles and West Virginia also struck for demands that included environmental concerns, showing how deeply these struggles are connected. By including labor standards in the Public Housing Green New Deal bill, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez demonstrate the centrality of the labor movement and the fight against worker exploitation and income inequality to any housing or climate solution.
Young people are mobilizing by the millions around climate change, and YDSA chapters across the United States are helping lead the charge. At the 2019 YDSA National Convention in Atlanta, delegates from around the country passed resolutions to make the Green New Deal and Bernie Sanders priority campaigns, continuing YDSA’s efforts to support demands that benefit — and can create a movement of — the working class as a whole, and the class struggle candidates who advance them. One such candidate is New York State Sen. Julia Salazar, who was elected last fall after campaigning on the issues of housing and environmental justice. After a summer spent knocking doors for Salazar, NYU YDSA took up housing as a priority campaign. Members tabled on campus and canvassed nearby neighborhoods to mobilize for a housing justice march, and participated in several actions in Albany alongside NYC DSA and the Housing Justice for All Coalition to advocate for universal rent control legislation (which Bernie Sanders has championed in his housing plan). Although Salazar’s bill to end evictions without “good cause” wasn’t included in the final package, rent control and tenant protections in NYS are now stronger than ever, and future major capital improvements, such as improving energy efficiency, water quality, and building electrification, won’t disproportionately burden tenants. Since then, in partnership with the NYC DSA Ecosocialist Working Group, Salazar has gone on to spearhead efforts to transition New York’s energy supply to renewables by empowering the New York Power Authority to take over power generation for all New Yorkers and transitioning NYPA to all renewables.
NYU YDSA also hosted a panel on the Green New Deal that featured then-DSA Seattle City Council candidate Shaun Scott, as well as DSA members Dr. Nancy Romer and Dr. Matt Huber. The panelists made connections between the Green New Deal, the labor movement, and housing justice. Scott and Romer emphasized the importance of organizing in the workplace and using strikes to extract environmental concessions from the ruling class. Though Shaun Scott’s city council run was unsuccessful, he and Chanan Suarez, who ran for Bellingham, WA City Council on a similar platform of housing justice and a municipal Green New Deal, have successfully pushed the conversation to the left, and YDSA chapters have not stopped organizing around the issues they stood for. According to Western Washington University YDSA member Neah Havens, “Rent control has been illegal in Washington state since 1981, so although it is difficult to push for the repeal of the ban at the local level, we continue to ask our local representatives to push state legislatures to put it on the agenda. In the meantime, we are working closely with Bellingham Tenants’ Union to end the unfair “rule of three” law that states that no more than three unrelated people may live in single family zoning and that disproportionately affects students.”
Housing insecurity also affects students at California State University East Bay, a heavily working-class commuter school where a YDSA chapter founded in September has amassed a mailing list with nearly 300 names by handing out copies of the Green New Deal resolution while tabling and speaking out at sustainability events. In addition to canvassing for Bernie and the Green New Deal, CSUEB YDSA is gearing up for a housing week of action and a divestment campaign, and is growing its presence on campus by organizing around issues like these that matter to students. “Public Housing must be part of any successful Green New Deal implementation,” says CSUEB YDSA member Michael Roe. “Our campus in particular, is struggling with a homelessness crisis, rooted in the Bay Area’s vicious capitalist housing market. 10% of our student body is homeless. We are committed to the fight for public housing here in the Bay Area, working with ACCE Action, supporting SCA1 for public housing projects, as well as supporting broader national public housing visions, like Bernie Sander’s Housing For All plan.”
NYU, WWU, and CSUEB are just a few of the YDSA chapters already organizing at the intersection of housing justice and environmental justice and fighting for the one presidential candidate who’s doing the same. YDSA at UCLA is canvassing for Bernie and working with unions in the UC system, Albany High School YDSA in the Bay Area just co-hosted a Climate Strike Forum, and Loyola YDSA members are working on GND and housing campaigns in conjunction with their Bernie work — and that’s just scratching the surface. Across the United States, YDSA chapters are backing Bernie and other class struggle candidates at all levels of government, and fighting for fair housing, supporting labor struggles, and campaigning for sustainability, fossil fuel divestment, and climate justice on campus and beyond. YDSA’s National Political Education Committee has created curricula for night schools on Bernie 2020 and the Green New Deal, and the national Green New Deal committee, which you can sign up to join here, is encouraging chapters to hold debates and votes on taking up the Green New Deal as a priority campaign. Our movement is growing, and across the country thousands and thousands of students and young people are joining YDSA and taking up the fight for a more just and democratic world, one where every single person is guaranteed a safe place to not only live, but thrive. For this reason, YDSA is thrilled to endorse Sen. Sanders and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s Public Housing Green New Deal Act, and proud to be a part of this fight for the future we all deserve.
Halsey H is the editor-in-chief of The Activist and a member of YDSA’s National Political Education Committee. She was on the Organizing Committee of NYU YDSA, and is now pursuing an MA in Labor Studies from the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. Follow her @bigdsaenergy!
Bill R is a member of YDSA’s National Green New Deal Committee, the Organizing Committee of Bronx/ Upper Manhattan DSA, and is currently studying at CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. Follow Bill @greennewbill!
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