Housing, a human right or an investment opportunity?

Ian Van der Merwe
Cover Image for Housing, a human right or an investment opportunity?
Housing Crisis

This op-ed will be brief, and will not give any of these subjects their due in full, but I hope that it will still serve this city’s growing anti-gentrification movement by exploring some of the processes and relationships found within gentrification and more generally in commodified spaces. Recent coverage of the proposed amendment to the RMF-30 (RMF = Residential Multi-Family) zoning designation has highlighted the real and present impact of the redevelopment projects that these zoning changes lead to¹, impacts noticeably absent from the overview of the changes put forward by the city². But several questions should arise from these experiences; Why are renters interests consistently sidelined? And how can the real estate industry be upheld and supported by government and yet consistently work against so much of a city’s population?

In this op-ed I will try to stay away from ideological speculation and think pragmatically; in Utah renters rights are incredibly weak, and as a corollary, property owners rights are incredibly strong. Despite its simplicity this claim gets at the root of gentrification; the interests of property owners are not those of the renters who live on their land. So, for example, when a stakeholder meeting is held, and decisions must be made about redevelopment it is not the renters whose interests are considered, only the landowners’. Length of residency, social connections to a neighborhood, all the work that a person may put into the space that they occupy, all is reduced to the singular question of ownership. And so the law, insofar as it creates and enforces this structure of property ownership, can only work in favor of the property owner, regardless of all the lip-service a government may put towards ideals of diversity, equity, and affordability.

But government does more than just allow and uphold the private ownership of property. It was discovered a long time ago that the development of cities cannot be left solely to the free market; it’s in light of this that zoning has come to be a major spatial function of local governments; through zoning cities create a framework which is erected to manage the development of cities, and, in that function, can be seen to embody the ideals a city takes into account when envisioning its growth. On the face of things the zoning changes Salt Lake City has enacted in recent years have been positive. Many of the changes, and especially those called into question here, focus on increasing density, and the case for increased density is certainly compelling; higher density spaces are often more transit and active transportation friendly³, they can bring amenities closer to residents, and of course, denser housing means more housing, and surely that means cheaper housing! And yet, even if the first two of these conditions are met, they mean very little if the third fails to materialize, and they mean even less if housing costs increase. A common response might be, “But housing supply is going up! It’s simple economics, the more supply there is the more demand is met and the price of housing will go down.” But while housing supply can be measured by existing housing units, demand for housing is defined in-its-entirety by the demander’s ability to pay, not their need for housing. This hypothetical is further problematized by the fact that, in the case of redevelopment projects, since these newly built units are new, the price commanded for them will undoubtedly reflect their new character.

And so the renter, regardless of their social or cultural claim to a space, is seen by the market and the law as “simply a renter,” whose ability to pay, or not pay rent, is the only relevant fact in determining whether they get the housing they want, or really any housing at all. Pushing this even further, the rights of a landlord include the right to choose the rent of the units they’re putting onto the market, and while the market does wield considerable pressure in this regard (and often bounds what the rent can reasonably be), in the end it is the property owner who signs the contracts and collects the rent. The basic relationship then between landlord and tenant is one of competing interests. The landlord finds themself with an abundance of housing along with a mortgage, a bill for development, or any number of other costs taken on in acquiring said housing, but there is a reason they take those costs on. At the very start of the process the landlord makes an investment, and this investment is paid out not by the creation of housing as-such, but because that housing can command high-enough rents to not only cover those costs, but actually make a profit too. On the other hand, the renter, who finds themselves without a home, is only interested in meeting that basic need, they really are only interested in housing as housing.

I’ll end this op-ed with two rather pointed statements, informed by what I’ve said above. The first is that the relation between the tenant and the landlord is one of competing interests, competing interests which result in two antagonistic views of what housing is; for the landlord housing is an investment, a commodity, something to be sold at as high a price as they can manage, while for the tenant housing is a need, a precondition to any sort of decent life. Only one of these interests is enshrined in law, and its consequences have been disastrous. Market ideologues may say that the positive consequences somehow make up for the negative ones, but this shouldn’t be a question of acceptable losses; if the market cannot provide housing for everyone then we must move beyond it. The second point is that the practice of planning has shown itself to be unable to confront the root of these spatial inequities, the issue of ownership; to quote the geographer Sam Stein, “until land is socially controlled, those who possess property, capital and access to power will shape planning priorities.”⁴ Only through a radical reorganization of city planning and development, bringing both their public and private functions into an empowered social realm, can we really create cities that serve to improve the lives of all, rather than impoverish the lives of many.

1. Tony Semerad. “‘Gentrification has arrived in Salt Lake City,’ and it’s wreaking havoc.” Salt Lake Tribune. 14 March 2021. https://www.sltrib.com/news/2021/03/14/gentrification-has/

2. Salt Lake City Corporation. “RMF-30: Low-Density Multi-Family Residential.” https://www.slc.gov/planning/2019/04/10/rmf-30-low-density-multi-family-residential/

3. Active transportation covers modes of travel such as walking, biking, skateboarding, etc.

4. Samuel Stein. Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State. New York: Verso, 2019.