Provision of Housing

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By Marvin T. Brown:

"Housing, like food and water, is a basic right. Providing housing also echoes the original meaning of economics: household management. Housing is also particularly relevant today because of its role in the economic crisis of 2007, which continues into the present. This crisis has been called a housing crisis and a financial crisis. In a sense it was both. Mortgage lenders used homebuyers’ loans to create financial commodities they could trade in financial markets. Trading financial packages became the business of mortgage brokers, not the financing of home ownership. From an economics of property, this makes sense. If you treat money as a commodity, you try to get the best return you can and you trade it as you would computers or livestock. If we take a civic economics of provision perspective, however, turning house mortgages into commodities totally overlooks the meaning or significance of a home. If we ask what housing provides, and how it fits in the systems in which it belongs, we find it has multiple dimensions. We can bring these to light by considering the different dimensions of a dwelling.

The family’s dwelling can be considered a home, a house, and a piece of real estate. As a home, it is a place where families nurture one another. As a house, the dwelling provides shelter and enclosure and may be pleasing to the eye. It is also build from natural and technological resources, uses energy, and emits wastes. It belongs to a natural and urban environment. As real estate, it can be sold or used as collateral for credit. An economics of property focuses only on the real estate aspect of the dwelling. An economics of provision would include all three dimensions as well as the natural and urban environment in which the dwelling belongs. It would view a dwelling something like the following picture.

This multi-dimensional dwelling belongs to larger units or systems. The home belongs to extended families and clans, to neighborhoods, and cities. The house belongs to various ecosystems, such as the water cycle and the carbon cycle. As real estate it belongs to both political and market systems. Given this view of a dwelling, what needs to be provided for a adequate housing system and who should provide it? Our answers to these two questions will give us a fairly good picture of what it means to see corporations as providers.

First of all, we need some land—some location. We also need materials and energy. We probably need credit and money. We certainly need workers and tools. We also need adequate infrastructure. We will need knowledge, protection, and community governance. One could expand the list. Our purpose here is not to be exhaustive, but to list provisions before we think of how they should be provided. In fact, different communities may have different ways of supplying housing provisions.

We should take note that by placing all these provisions in the same system—the housing system—we have moved beyond the traditional division of the economy into different sectors. Sector analysis would separate the acquisition of energy from the manufacturing of homes. It would also separate the financial market from the housing market. In an economy of provision, there is really no reason for a financial market, since money functions as a means of exchange and as credit, but not as a commodity. Furthermore, money would not have its own system of provision, because money is not a provision. Money would flow in these systems of provision supplying a means of exchange and of credit.

Banks, in this provisionary economy, would not use money to make money, but rather would be stewards of money for the sake of the whole community. Bankers should certainly receive a living wage, as others should, but not become rich from handling people’s money. This brings us to the second question: who are the providers.

(Graph, on the The Providers, not included)

Once we have an idea of the provisions that an economic system provides, then we can ask who provides what. Who provides the location, the materials, the designs, the credit, the infrastructure, and so on?

This provider list is not exhaustive, but rather indicates the process of moving from provisions to providers. Instead of beginning with corporations and their mission, our approach is to begin with an accounting of what communities need and then look at various agencies to provide those needs. Our list includes both private and public agencies. It could also include various types of cooperatives and voluntary associations, as well as Internet based sharing communities. A community’s civic desires will largely determine the type of organizations that will become providers.

Civic Desires

"By civic desires, I am referring to what we desire as members of the civic instead of owners of property, although we may also be owners. In any case, these desires are about what “we” want instead of about what “I” want. If we return to the notion of the multidimensional dwelling, we will certainly desire shelter and safety—a home where we have autonomy, privacy, and security. Because all member of the home are citizens, each person should have equal rights to protection from abuse and equal opportunity for self-fulfillment. The home, after all, is not anyone’s property, but rather a private space for human thriving. Who will make this type of freedom available to households? Perhaps a combination of different social institutions, including families, and law enforcement.

In terms of a house as a part of the natural and urban environment, one can imagine a civic desire for a housing stock that is sustainable, safe, and available to all. Different communities will find different ways to realizing these collective desires. Many cities today employ zoning laws, housing codes, low-income housing, and so on. In terms of the housing system as a whole, it should meet its urban and planetary obligations of moving toward justice and sustainability.

Finally, when we look at housing as property, a community must decide how best to handle the meaning of ownership. As we argued earlier, ownership depends on belonging to a civic community that grants property titles. The granting of title is best understood as a concession by the civic community as a way of caring for the property and the neighborhood. Perhaps it is a good idea to reward owners for maintaining their houses by granting them any increase in the value of their homes. This option, however, needs to consider the reason for the increase. More than likely, the increase is not due to improvements of the property, but to broader system changes in supply and demand, which in turn may be due to decisions by the major players in the system to guide the housing system in one direction rather than another. If that is the case, then some of the surplus in value should be returned to the community through taxes rather than given to the house owner. From a civic economics of provision perspective, the question is always how we can make adequate housing available to all citizens. If we engage in civic deliberations that examine viable alternatives, we can find a balanced approach that honors the stewardship of a community’s housing stock and every citizen’s right to a good home.

We need to remember that the location of any home, in both its natural and urban environment, belongs to all citizens. We take materials from what we hold in common for the sake of providing housing. In the sense, the housing stock always belongs to the community. When we begin to think of market value, we should not allow ourselves to return to the old economics of property that excluded those who did not own property from the economic system. When property ownership exists; it exists because that is the best way of maintaining what we have in common: the cities and the natural world in which we live."