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In Defense of Housing

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

Housing insecurity is rising across nearly every major city. Such a wide-reaching crisis should not be understood as a temporary failure of the status quo. This co-authored work is not a prescription for incremental policy shifts. Madden and Marcuse aim to spoil the reader’s appetite for technocratic fiddling, encouraging a radical engagement with ‘home’ as a subject for political economy. In doing so, they inspired the name of his blog.

“Housing has long been a vehicle for imagining alternative social orders – this capacity to spur the political imagination is part of housing’s social value.”

In Defense of Housing starts by weaving displacement, eviction, and unaffordability into a compelling historical narrative, from the Highland Clearances to current waves of gentrification on both sides of the Atlantic. Over time, housing is subjected to commodification bringing the use value and exchange value of housing into conflict. When “a structures function as real estate takes precedence over its usefulness as a place to live” the residential becomes a vital sphere for contesting notions of power, justice and equality.

Commodification has been accelerated by networks of global finance, which extracts profit from place-based property. However, the commodification of housing predates its absorption into these networks. Throughout history, housing has always been in crisis for those who lacked access to power. When Madden and Marcuse talk about a crisis, it is an endemic one with deep historical roots. Therefore we must transcend the mere "economics of shelter", which reduce the debate down to a question of supply and demand. Instead, the authors call for an “alternative residential logic”, focused on preventing the economic value of housing from dominating other uses.

Their argument portrays government intervention as ineffective, ‘myth-busting’ the notion of benevolent state. Readers are left in no ambiguity about how the public sector provides infrastructure and convivial legal frameworks for commodification. Where policy-making has moved towards decommodification (eg. the emergence of social housing) it is often an attempt to contain radical tenant-led movements. Narration of this dialectical process takes up a sizable proportion of the short book. Unfortunately, such an analysis misses some notable examples of state action which has played a sustained and transformative role.

The authors fleetingly refer to the ‘Housing First’ approach, as an example of distribution based on need, rather than market signals. Even then, it is only covered in the context of North American cities. This ignores the case of Finland, which has embedded Housing First in the heart of its residential landscape. Homelessness, once as prevalent in Finland as it is in modern day Australia, has more or less vanished from urban life. This is a stunning achievement, won through decades of political commitment and policy change.

In their defense, Madden and Marcuse make an early admission that their analysis becomes limited as it moves away from contexts like New York. Given the territory they attempt to cover in such a slim text, readers should not expect to cover every nuance of residential discourse. However, the omission of the Finnish case is glaring, given the counterpoint it provides to models of the state as complicit in commodification.

150 years after Engels bemoaned the state of working-class housing in Manchester, we have a robust evidence base illustrating the dire impact of housing insecurity on the health, mobility and empowerment of residents. Marxist notions such as alienation have retained their explanatory power, even in today's hyper-commodified real estate markets. Residential alienation occurs when a person’s home is an asset which can be exchanged without the consent or even knowledge of the inhabitant. Or, to use Marcuse and Madden's memorable phrase, "housing that is not a home but simply money in dwelling form". This residential alienation makes it demonstrably harder to flourish.

In Defense of Housing is at its most powerful when it steps beyond the confines of traditional Marxist thought. The reader is introduced to Henri Lefevbre, a self-described "existentialist philosopher-taxi-driver". His seminal work, Le Droit à la Ville urged a collective reclaiming of urban life, proposing the city as an ideal meeting place for making and remaking society. Linking Lefevbre to the history of collective housing struggles is an important contribution. Our cities cannot be fully understood without examining their homes and inhabitants. Looking forward, housing offers a sensible departure point from which to explore what kind of modern cities we can and should create.

Marcuse and Madden have made an important case for prioritising housing as political goal. The ambitious synthesis of Marxist thought, historical survey and urban justice manages to be concise and coherent. In Defense of Housing offers an accessible introduction to the debate, which will entice readers to further research, discussion and action. It is a compelling text which deserves to be widely read.

In Defense of Housing - The Politics of Crisis (2016)

Peter Marcuse and David Madden

Le Droit à la Ville (1968)

Henri Lefevbre

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