This essay invites housing scholars and policymakers to consider how we can learn from the ongoing project of abolition. Abolition here refers to the body of scholarship and advocacy–beginning with the abolition of slavery and extending through contemporary movements for the abolition of prison and the police–that seeks to do away with institutional racism and the relics of slavery in the United States. Recent nationwide protests for racial justice have drawn attention to longstanding inequities and discrimination in housing finance, policymaking, and planning. Meanwhile, despite many activists’ visionary contributions, housing policy has remained technocratic and incrementalist, even in response to entrenched and systemic disparities (Bell, 2019; Shelby, 2016). Learning from abolitionists compels housing policymakers instead to imagine and articulate what “housing justice” might look like; the necessary foundational conditions for housing justice; and where this suggests that we should direct resources toda
II. Abolition in Historical and Contemporary Context
Although the activism of the Movement for Black Lives has introduced the conception of abolition to a broader audience, it remains widely misunderstood and oversimplified. Contemporary abolitionism finds its roots in the end of chattel slavery. Its intellectual cornerstone is W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of abolition democracy, described in his essay Black Reconstruction in America. Du Bois documents the continued disenfranchisement and exploitation of Black Americans following the formal abolition of slavery. After emancipation, white lawmakers thwarted efforts by newly-freed Black citizens to create democratic institutions that would grant Black Americans full economic and social citizenship (Du Bois, 1935; Davis, 2011). Because Du Bois’s vision of “abolition democracy” has not been realized, contemporary abolitionists extend his work—and the work of countless other abolitionists of chattel slavery—into the present, where abolition now serves as a fulcrum for social movements.
Abolition requires identifying the conditions necessary to “imagine a world without prisons,” considering which structures must be dismantled, fortified, or newly constructed (Kushner, 2019). Prison abolitionists acknowledge that in order to do away with prisons, American social policy would need to be both reconfigured and redoubled. Tying their project to the full abolition of slavery, abolitionists insist that crime prevention requires that all communities have access to the full range of services and institutions that address the roots of criminal behavior. They also recognize that safety requires more than crime prevention: it requires freedom from racism, harassment, and poverty; protection from environmental hazards; adequate food and shelter; and more.
These values are reflected in the ways that abolitionists organize. Central to abolitionist mobilization is opposition to “reformist reforms”—efforts that direct additional resources to the systems that abolition targets. Accordingly, abolitionists oppose expansions of jail and prison systems and mobilize against increasing policing budgets. Broad coalition-building is also at the core of abolitionism. Within this coalition-building, abolitionists seek to be led by, and offer material support to, those most directly affected by the prison industrial complex and by police violence.
Abolitionist theory and practice thus encourage critical reflection and political imagination. Rather than centering pragmatism, abolitionism asks: pragmatism to what end? As surely as abandoning pragmatism might lead to failure, pragmatism in a vacuum leads—and arguably has led housing practitioners—to sturdy bridges to nowhere. We invite our colleagues in housing to engage in this bold thinking, examining the relics of slavery in housing and questioning incrementalist approaches to systemic disparities.
III. Building an Abolitionist Approach to Housing Justice
A. Housing Justice in Abolition Democracy
The chauvinism that pervades racial terror and the Great Migration exclusionary zoning and redlining, urban renewal and capital flight, New Deal exclusion, and predatory inclusion is as readily apparent as the chauvinism that pervades chattel slavery, the Black Codes, convict leasing, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. Housing policy is as implicated as criminal law in the American schema of racialized social control. Since the Reconstruction era, state-sanctioned expulsion, exclusion, and extraction have constrained Black Americans’ housing outcomes. Against historical injustices of this magnitude, a limited focus on “technocratic supply-side and deregulatory solutions” will not do (Roy & Rolnik, 2020). We must develop new strategies for conceptualizing, studying, and actualizing housing justice.
The late Critical Resistance cofounder Rose Braz explained the importance of naming and claiming prison abolition as a goal: “a prerequisite to seeking any social change is the naming of it . . . even though the goal we seek may be far away, unless we name it and fight for it today, it will never come.” We thus invite housing policymakers to articulate a vision of housing justice for their work, and operate in pursuit of it. Recognizing that people of color and, particularly, Black people in America have been systematically excluded and exploited out of opportunities for homeownership, housing justice—often intertwined with conversations about reparations—might envision the creation of wealth in Black households and communities; abundant quality, affordable housing; “open housing” in amenity-rich areas; or community wealth building and land ownership (Archer, 2019; Taylor, 2019; Kaplan & Valls, 2007). We might call housing justice the rupturing of the link between ZIP Codes and a host of health, economic, and educational outcomes. Or we might emphasize housing stability, imagining a world in which no one faces the threat of losing their home. Looking to the leadership of the Movement for Black Lives, housing justice might entail a guarantee of housing and utilities for all. There are myriad ways to articulate housing justice; what matters is to name and envision them.
B. Foundational Conditions and New Democratic Institutions
What are the foundational conditions necessary to make housing justice a reality? If just housing is safe housing, safety requires freedom not only from crime but from hazards like lead paint and environmental injustice. It also means eradicating domestic violence and child abuse, which in turn requires directing resources towards a variety of social, mental health, and community intervention services (while ensuring that these interventions do not increase the surveillance and subordination of black communities) (Roberts, 2020).
Likewise, making households safe from the threat of eviction requires rendering eviction unnecessary. Eviction cannot be abolished without developing meaningful alternatives that obviate the need for filing nonpayment cases, calling the police, or engaging an overwhelmed adult protective services system. If we were to drastically reduce the incidence of landlord-tenant disputes, the conflicts that remain might be mediated in arenas that look radically different from todays’ housing courts, offering dignity and voice to all participants.
Housing justice entails universal access to safe, decent, affordable housing in amenity-rich communities. In a world of housing justice, human flourishing and access to opportunity would not be confined, as they are today, primarily to affluent and majority-white neighborhoods. Bringing this about would require investing in parks and other green spaces, schools, economic development, and community services in a broader range of ZIP Codes. Many of these conditions will, ultimately, depend on reshaping federal, state, and local budgets, achieving housing justice through “budget justice.”
C. What Stands in the Way
As Angela Davis explains, abolition is “not only, or not even primarily… a negative process of tearing down” (Davis, 2011). It does, however, seek to render obsolete institutions that have proven impervious to reform. Pursuing abolition rather than reform asserts that some conditions (such as the mass incarceration of Black people) are unacceptable. And, having identified a host of justice-preceding foundational conditions that require investment in education, healthcare, and mental health services, abolitionists suggest that resources should be directed towards these ends and away from institutions where reform has failed.
In a housing context, this prompts us to examine institutions that have failed to serve their designated purpose, proven resistant to reform, and instead perpetuate racism and other forms of oppression. One obvious starting point for considering abolition in a housing context is to examine how the criminal legal apparatus operates in housing. Policing plays a role in creating and maintaining segregation (Bell, 2020); segregation also facilitates racially-targeted policing by creating racially concentrated geographies. Involvement with the criminal legal system is used to deny access to housing and to prevent friends and family members from visiting loved ones through background checks, trespass policies, and “crime-free ordinances” (Archer, 2019). Vagrancy laws, anti-panhandling ordinances, and gang injunctions govern public spaces, which are, in turn, shaped by centuries of segregation and exclusion. Research has compellingly linked many of these structures to the legacy of slavery in the United States, and abolishing and replacing them with meaningful alternatives is as much a project for housing as it is for criminal justice.
The emergence of eviction as a crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic has also drawn attention to how the eviction process disproportionately harms low-income people of color. Tenants of color are overrepresented in the eviction process, which is both a trauma in and of itself and a predictor of outcomes such as homelessness and future hospitalizations. Tenants have little bargaining power to negotiate the leases that they can be evicted for violating, and evictions are adjudicated in court proceedings where landlords are substantially more likely than tenants to be represented by lawyers. Research has shown that landlords in some cities treat eviction as a debt collection mechanism, while vital protections for tenants are under-utilized in housing court. By and large, these proceedings reproduce, rather than level, power imbalances between landlords and tenants. Taking an abolitionist approach thus recommends divesting resources away from structures like housing court and towards strategies, like social housing, that would make housing court an unnecessary recourse. Instead, abolition could make way for a new institution that serves as an alternative to eviction: housing that is decommodified, permanently affordable, democratically controlled, and rooted in social equity, not stigma.
Housing policy has, of course, undertaken many efforts to address segregation, housing instability, and homelessness. But in many instances it has operated in a piecemeal rather than transformative fashion. Much of this incrementalism comes from worthy motivations, such as a commitment to evidence-based policymaking and to consensus building. But in other cases, perhaps housing policy has treated pragmatism as the end rather than the means—and we may have reasons to question the reformist project.
Grassroots movements offer many instructive “freedom dreams” for housing (Kelley, 2002). Low-income women have long asserted their dignity through bold action and rights-based claims on the state. In Philadelphia, “welfare mothers” squat in underutilized subsidized housing, municipal offices, and tent cities to demand sustenance and shelter. Women in Baltimore public housing mount campaigns for better neighborhoods, redefining livability to center habitability and community safety instead of complete streets and pocket parks. These women organize for material conditions befitting full citizens, not those reserved for supplicants. Movements articulate a vision for dignified housing beyond the confines of existing systems of social provision.
Going forward, our hope is that researchers, practitioners, and policymakers can be emboldened to speak forthrightly about economic and racial injustice by acknowledging past harm and highlighting its regeneration in contemporary institutions. Technocratic rigor and objectivity need not elide interrogations of inequity. Abolitionist thinking should compel us to problematize approaches that entrench the power of city fathers or legitimize stratification. A commitment to abolition in housing is a commitment to principled struggle—deepening our collective understanding and co-conceiving solutions through honest and compassionate critique.
Sophie House (email@example.com) is a legal fellow at the Furman Center at New York University, and Krystle Okafor (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a second-year student at the NYU School of Law.
A longer version of this essay was first published in the NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy Quorum.
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