Property v s Humanity?

By Robert Bernstein   |   August 13, 2020
Why are the thousands of dollars that renters have paid not considered equity? That is a question worthy asking. (Courtesy Photo from the Santa Barbara Tenants Council)

George Floyd was killed by police officers over a claim that he had a fake $20 bill. How much power should be given to property versus to humanity?

Property vs humanity is in the forefront of my mind now. Imagine that someone has lived in a home for over 30 years. But in a matter of weeks someone can buy that home and evict that person if property rights are all that matter. That is what has just happened to my wife and me.

It is a microcosm of injustice that in some ways is uniquely American. In Europe, where I lived as a child, most people are renters. Laws there recognize the rights of people to stay in their rightful home as superseding the “property rights” of a new owner.

Economists explain why society benefits from workers renting rather than owning their homes. In an economic downturn in a place like Detroit, people lost their jobs in manufacturing. At the very same time the homes they owned became impossible to sell. They were trapped from being able to move to a new place of economic opportunity. In the end, many of those homes were foreclosed on and the people were kicked out anyway. The homes fell into disrepair and eventually had to be torn down at great public expense. Can you think of a bigger lose-lose?

The US is one of the few countries in the world that preferentially subsidizes home ownership through tax subsidies. These total $77 billion per year as of 2016. Yet it gives no such assistance to renters. With millions of homeless Americans, is that the best use of $77 billion?

Some have said that I built no “equity” by paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent and that is why we have no rights. Why is that? That is a policy decision that could be changed any time. And what is meant by “equity”? Weren’t my neighbor and me renters with jobs who paid the equity for the building? Not to mention all of the repairs I did and appliances I bought at my own expense? What about the goodwill that is built among neighbors helping each other?

What about the investment that a person puts into making their community more desirable? A good friend of mine is an artist for the Santa Barbara Summer Solstice who is going through the same trauma as we are. How much has he increased property values in our area by making our community more desirable to live in with his Solstice art? And yet he is punished for that.

Does anyone think that our laws are based on the best public policy? Or are our laws based on who can raise the most money to fund the election campaigns of those who make policy?

As a UCSB graduate student I worked on the campaign to elect Jack O’Connell to the California State Assembly. After he was elected I suggested that after a certain number of years of rent payments a landlord should be forced to return the deposit. This would prevent landlords from cheating renters out of their deposits. O’Connell told me that the real estate lobby was the most powerful lobby and it was impossible to make any such change.

The entire legal system is set up to protect “property rights.” Renters pay for that legal system that is not their friend. What would you call it if someone disrupted every aspect of your life and cost you large sums of money? Assault is a crime unless it involves property rights, which supersedes human rights.

There is a libertarian myth that markets optimize resources. But there are many non-market forces at work, including tax subsidies and a legal system that favors property rights over humans.

The Black Lives Matter movement has made people aware that there is a point where “reform” is not enough. Decades of tweaking with “reforms” has made little difference in terms of fundamental human rights. Millions of Americans still have no access to healthcare. Millions have no proper housing. Millions have no means to make a living. And millions are threatened with serious harm or even death to protect property “rights” over human rights.

What about the most extreme case of property vs humanity? The Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that the African American Dred Scott was property and not human. It took the most destructive war in US history, the Civil War, to remedy this injustice.

At what point do we recognize that radical change is needed? That we have to ask the fundamental question of where we put our priorities as a society: Property or humanity?

 

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