Homes for People, Not for Profit

Brightly colored lawn signs are popping up on Minneapolis lawns, emblazoned with the appealing slogan, “Safe and Affordable Neighborhoods Minneapolis.” When I say “appealing,” I mean appealing like fresh cheese on a mousetrap. They are the product of an “AstroTurf” campaign: elite interests dressed up as grassroots organizing.

The signs are part of a push-back by the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, representing developers, building managers and landlords some against tenant’s rights measures recently passed by the city council. The regulations would limit landlords’ ability to reject prospective renters “on the basis of misdemeanors more than two years old, arrests that did not result in a conviction, expunged or vacated convictions, and felony convictions if the cases are more than five years old.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune). The new rules would also protect “people who may have had an eviction filing but paid their rent off, reached a settlement or won their case,” and would limit the size of security deposits landlords could require. The landlords argue that these measures are unneeded, are an undue burden on building owners and will backfire, “stifle new construction” and cause rents to rise, thus hurting the very people they are meant to help.

The use of even minor run-ins with the police system to deny housing access has deep and sordid historical roots. Our “criminal justice” system was established in the post-Emancipation era to channel mass numbers of Black people into the prison system and use the resulting “criminal records” to deny them housing, good jobs, education and other social benefits. Whatever changes have occurred in that system over time, that core function has remained steady…

Using these indicators to block tenants is a coded system for favoring whites. In that context, “safe neighborhoods” are a dog-whistle signal for safe from the threat of dark-skinned neighbors. Those who are kept out – by the mutual agreement of the landlord class as a whole – are left at the mercy of slumlords who can extort exorbitant rents from people with few options. For others it leads to homelessness, a condition of social instability that doesn’t improve anyone’s safety. The landlords argue that these measures are unneeded, are a burden on building owners and will backfire, causing rents to rise and thus hurt the very people they are meant to help.

This argument has been the go-to for a hundred years, since the imposition of fire codes following the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York. Just weeks before the fire, the Protective League of Property Owners had denounced proposals for sprinklers in factories as “cumbersome and costly” and amounting to “a confiscation of property.” The horror of the fire, which cost the lives of 146 workers -mostly young immigrant women – did not soften their position. The new safety laws being proposed in the face of public outrage were, they insisted, “absolutely needless and useless.” They would force factories to move to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, resulting in “the wiping out of industry in this state” and hurting the very people they were meant to help.

That’s been the template trotted out ever since. Controlling the cost of pharmaceutical drugs will discourage innovation and hurt the very people it was meant to help. They same is said about raising the minimum wage, instituting rent control, adding safety labels to food packaging, raising business taxes, regulating pollution or requiring safety and quality inspections anywhere. Unable to openly say that they just want to protect profits, they instead argue that they care too deeply about us to allow us to hurt ourselves with “well-intentioned” but misguided proposals. Initiatives designed to help poor and working people, it seems, will always backfire while those designed to help the rich are always “good for the economy” – and the benefits will trickle down to the poor, anyway.

Three years after the fire, the New York Times, reporting on a government study, noted that: “Notwithstanding all the talk of a probable exodus of manufacturing interests the commission has not found a single instance of a manufacturer intending to leave the State because of the enforcement of factory laws.”

If we tune out the sweet tones of elite propaganda and look instead at their business practices, lobbying efforts and campaign contributions, we uncover a deeper underlying principle: that their interests and ours are incompatible… and they consider ours to be disposable. Hey, we also want “safe and affordable neighborhoods.” But for everyone!

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