Of Communists and Coalition Building: Columbus Housing for All

By Rio Nero, Curtis Peace, and Mose Hatcher

On Wednesday, June 30th, a newly formed coalition called Columbus Housing for All hosted a rally outside the Greater Columbus Convention Center to address the housing crisis in Columbus. Organizations involved in the coalition include The Freedom Bloc, Just, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Young Democratic Socialists of America, Students for a Democratic Society, Hydrohelpers, National Association of Social Workers - Ohio, Columbus Stand Up!, Ashtanga Yoga Columbus, and Tepper Counseling. Approximately 80 people gathered around a variety of speakers, some telling stories of their experiences with houselessness or housing instability. The aim of the rally was to increase awareness of the ongoing housing crisis, especially in light of the looming wave of evictions that will no doubt come as the eviction moratorium expires. The coalition also set forth a list of demands that reads as follows:

  1. Implement emergency rent stabilization ordinance.
  2. Stop evictions: mandate eviction diversion program.
  3. Increase supply: new housing developments must devote 50% of units to residents who make less than $30,000/year.
  4. Balance the budget: devote 30% of annual city budget directly to folks experiencing houselessness.
  5. Increase representation of houseless folks: Affordable Housing Trust Board = 50% representation of those with direct experience of houselessness or their approved advocates.

A sentiment that was echoed by multiple organizers is that these demands will not end houselessness in Columbus on their own; they're a place to start and build from.

During her speech, one of the organizers drew our attention to a banner held by one of the participating organizations, the Central Ohio Housing Action Network, which read "Housing for everyone benefits everyone." This message exemplifies the goals of the coalition more broadly, seeking policy reforms which prioritize meeting housing demand and better include and respond to the voices of homeless people. While these concerns are well-grounded, and their demands, if granted, would represent a monumental step forward in providing housing to Columbus’s working class, the statement that this would “benefit everyone” reflects a fundamental flaw in their analysis. Surely, guaranteed housing for everyone would not benefit the "private equity companies that are gobbling up properties" who were mentioned by Morgan Harper, former Democratic candidate and current leader in Columbus Stand Up.

While the coalition demands that the perspectives of the houseless and housing insecure be represented in the making of housing policy, they do not seek to challenge the voices of the landlords and developers who benefit from the status quo of elevated housing costs. This class-blind analysis is reflected in their organizational strategy. For Harper,

"the goal of putting these [demands] together is increasing the number of people who have awareness of this issue... It's that ongoing mobilization, organizing, and pressure on our government that ultimately will lead to the policy outcomes we need to make sure everyone has a home."

Harper recognizes the housing crisis not as a failure of capitalism, but as a failure of governance. Much talk was made about how our policymakers have the means to solve the housing crisis and continually fail us, but no mention as to why our policymakers don't ensure that everyone has access to housing. We are left to believe that our government officials are simply lazy or incompetent. While this may be true, we communists know that it is the case that the government always acts in the interests of the landlords - of the bourgeoisie. The coalition’s reformist approach turns our struggle into a war of resources - who has the time, energy, and money to most effectively push for the policies which benefit them. This is a war the bourgeoise will always win. As a left, we must understand that we are not struggling in the name of a nebulous "everyone," but in the interest of the working class - and, by necessity of this fact, against the landlords who exploit them.

Despite the coalition’s lack of class politics, it counts a number of socialists among its ranks. Chandler Rupert, primary leader of Students for a Democratic Society at OSU, expressed why they felt it was important for SDS to join the coalition:

"We need to build coalition across all of the present movements. There's no way a single organization or single ideology on the left can win...I do think that even just making these connections between different socialists, leftists, and interfaith organizations is going to be helpful and make it so we can get closer to achieving collective power."

While these sorts of coalitions are no doubt capable of mobilizing for certain socially valuable reforms, it is unclear what kind of “collective power” we can win through organizing that is divorced from the activity of the working class. For communists to form coalition with liberal nonprofits in pursuit of common intermediate goals is a shallow kind of unity. We must form a deeper unity among the working class, and the working class alone; a unity that is bound by the revolutionary line.

Beyond the differences in analysis, the circumstances of the rally itself - which was entirely non-disruptive and largely invisible to the public - are indicative of the more poignant strategic obstacles we face when working in coalition with nonprofits. Nonprofits, by virtue of their 501(c)(3) status, are prohibited from engaging in various disruptive activities (such as protesting without a permit.) This means that coalition-organized activities are necessarily constrained to operating within the legal boundaries set by the bourgeoisie - lest the NGOs' tax-exempt status be challenged. Perhaps the deeper problem lies in the material incentive for those people whose incomes are tied to nonprofit organizing to protect their jobs; if your livelihood is tied to a continuous struggle, why would you ever want to win it? Nonprofits have to keep the lights on somehow, and they do so by siphoning resources and energy away from the real movement and towards themselves - centering electoral strategies and palliative policy reforms over revolutionary aims.

Moreover, one of the groups tied to this coalition is neither an NGO nor an activist org at all, but a privately owned Yoga studio. Ashtanga Yoga Columbus, run by one Taylor Hunt, has the audacity to attach itself to a program advocating for housing justice and reform, while also charging $120/month for a membership - peddling cultural appropriation at a price only gentrifiers can afford. If we take our work as socialists and activists seriously, we cannot afford to participate in coalitions which include the petty bourgeoisie, who - like the "mom and pop landlords that are renting the unit next door to where they live" of which Morgan Harper seemed only admiring - all benefit from the continued raising of property values and rent prices in the city.

While the demands levied by the coalition are clearly intended to merely be a first step in larger push for housing equity, the dissonance between the coalition's name of Columbus Housing for All, and the reality of their tactics and orientation indicates a failure to conceptualize how a future society really could provide all of its citizens with housing. The more radical elements of the coalition, such as the Party for Socialism and Liberation, understand that only the abolition of rent and landlording themselves will be sufficient in providing stable housing for all. But how can we bring about this state of affairs? It is clear that the struggle for socialism is not the fight that many other coalition members imagine themselves taking part in.

One SDS member, Joseph, told us he saw labor unions, tenants unions, and "anything that can allow people to work in solidarity" as important tools for the working class to win political power and fight struggles. The question arises: if these are the means with which the working class can win its right to self-determination, then what is to be gained from working in coalitions which share none of these tactics? Worker power can only arise from the activity of a working class organizing in its own self-interest - not from the efforts of bourgeois-led coalitions. If "radical language maybe turns people off sometimes, but radical action can bring people in," as Joseph stated, then why are we as a left not acting more radically? Why do we continue to allow Democrats, NGOs, and petty bourgeois narcissists to claim unquestioned leadership in our struggles? What good are the radical words included in the coalition’s demands, if we must deliver them in such a way that nobody is inconvenienced? We must be unafraid to forward an unapologetic demand for the direct democratic control of housing by the working class, knowing full well the only way we'll ever achieve that is by taking it for ourselves.

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Rio Nero, Curtis Peace, and Mose Hatcher

 

Rio, Curtis, and Mose are members of CORS.