The Struggle Begins at Home

Reimagining housing as the ground shifts under our feet

The Editors
September 29, 2020
Toby Millman: excerpt from the series, “Census 2010:48212,” 2011–2013, laser-cut found paper mounted on wood, 2.5 x 3 in

Responsa is an editorial column written by members of the Jewish Currents staff and reflects a collective discussion.

IN MAY, just as we were preparing to begin work on this issue, we received a typed letter in the mail, unsigned and with no return address. “Dear Ms. Editor,” it began, “We write because we don’t know who to turn to. We hear that ethics [are] very important in the Jewish community.” The letter went on to list egregious problems at two buildings on Cathedral Parkway in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, which the letter writer said have proceeded unchecked for years: broken elevators in a 12-story building with many seniors, busted mailboxes and intercoms, frequent gas shutoffs. The landlord has been subdividing small apartments into dangerously overcrowded units, made even more dangerous because of the pandemic. “We don’t understand how [the] city ignores us,” the letter closed.

The letter writer tactfully refrained from spelling out how “the Jewish community” might be relevant to the problems facing tenants on Cathedral Parkway. But they did drop the landlord’s family name. Developer Fred Ohebshalom and his extended clan, who own around 100 New York City properties, have been accused of breaking into apartments and spying on residents, bringing phony lawsuits against long-term tenants and forging their signatures on important documents, and shutting off heat and hot water—all tactics in a well-organized campaign to churn through renters and jack up the rent. At a 2008 protest outside one of their Upper West Side properties, a former tenant told the Haredi news outlet Vos Iz Neias? that a week before he was set to move out, management for the Shalom family, as the Ohebshaloms are known in New York real estate circles, “threw away all his possessions and planned to euthanize his four cats.” We sympathized, then, with the letter writer’s hope that Jewish ethics might somehow be marshaled in support of the family’s tenants. One could imagine, for instance, pressuring the Iranian American Jewish Federation or the Sephardic Heritage Alliance—two of the Jewish organizations for which Fred Ohebshalom serves as a board member—to cut ties with the notorious slumlord. 

Unfortunately, historical and personal experience would suggest that such hope is unfounded. Real estate has long been a major flashpoint of class conflict not only between the Jewish community and the Black and immigrant communities that bear the brunt of housing exploitation, but within the Jewish community itself. In the early 20th century, many working-class Jews engaged in militant tenant-organizing efforts; often, the landlords they revolted against were Jewish, too. The Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld dramatized the explosive intimacy of this dynamic in his 1908 play, Rent Strike—included in this issue—in which a Jewish tenant organizer and the slumlord threatening to evict her discover in housing court that they are siblings. In the present day, Hasidic investors have spent billions buying up properties in some of Brooklyn’s fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods, pricing out longtime residents, including low-income Hasidim; the resulting housing crisis in Haredi communities is currently spilling into upstate New York—and creating the political tinderbox explored in this issue’s lead feature. As gentrifiers in these Brooklyn neighborhoods ourselves, some of us on staff at Jewish Currents have faced off against landlords with whom we share a heritage. We have found that, far from being able to use our Jewishness to intervene on behalf of neighbors more vulnerable to harassment and displacement, we have struggled to prevent even our own mistreatment as tenants. 

The fraught role of Jews in a ruthless and racist real estate market drew us to the topic of housing to begin with. Since the middle of the last century, Jewish landlords have been prominent within Black and brown neighborhoods that had been alternately avoided and exploited by real estate developers and creditors. As American cities attempted to integrate during the postwar period, Jewish neighborhoods were relatively open to Black newcomers, and less prone to the racist riots that broke out in other white and white ethnic neighborhoods. In places like Detroit and Chicago, these conditions—spatial proximity combined with a marked difference in access to capital—set the stage for economic exploitation, as Jewish speculators, often first- or second-generation immigrants eager to cash in on the American dream, recognized an opportunity in their neighbors’ inability to procure mortgages. These Jews often became the local face of a problem rooted in the racism of more powerful actors and larger systems. James Baldwin bluntly describes this dynamic as it played out in Harlem: “When we were growing up in Harlem our demoralizing series of landlords were Jewish, and we hated them,” he recalled in his 1967 essay “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” If “the Jew” was “singled out by Negroes,” Baldwin went on to explain, it was “not because he acts differently from other white men, but because he doesn’t . . . And he is playing in Harlem the role assigned him by Christians long ago: he is doing their dirty work.” 

Early this year, when the media seized on a string of attacks on Hasidim by their Black neighbors in the New York area, we wondered how economic tensions were being sublimated into antisemitic animus today, and what might surface if we confronted the dynamics on the ground without fear of airing dirty laundry or providing fodder for antisemitic conspiracies. Yet even as we investigated these ongoing predicaments, we encountered an urban geography shifting under our feet. Covid-19 and its attendant economic collapse have exacerbated an existing housing crisis in terrifying ways, and shifted familiar housing paradigms overnight. For years, gentrification had relied on bourgeois migration into working-class neighborhoods or cities. In recent months, however, the well-off have been fleeing cities in droves, driving up housing prices in the suburbs and forcing down urban rents as though decades of condo construction and cronut consumption had been a dream. It was startling to encounter the contingency of trend lines that had so recently appeared irreversible. At the same time, perhaps even more strikingly, these shifts seemed to make little difference in the grand scheme of things. Landlords will attempt to evict people whether there’s housing demand or not. Some properties will be deemed more valuable vacant than rented at an affordable rate. Those who profit from the brutal exigencies of our real estate system will do everything in their power to ensure that this system persists.

If the coronavirus has taught us that all health is public health—that it is absurd to think of illness or wellness as private concerns—then similarly, all housing must be public housing.

Covid’s path of destruction, then, has provincialized our earlier understanding of contemporary housing politics. It’s not that our desire to better understand the dynamics of Jews and real estate was misplaced, per se. But we perhaps underestimated just how impossible it is to think about any communal relationship to housing in isolation from the political economy of housing as a whole. It seems that pandemics have often borne this message. In our search for archival material for the issue, we stumbled on a number of housing conflicts that erupted around the globe a century ago in response to the spread of tuberculosis and the influenza pandemic, public health disasters created in part by unsafe housing conditions. So too modern-day American housing nightmares—mass displacement and homelessness, the warehousing of millions in prison—have strongly correlated with Covid infection and mortality rates, helping drive the inequitable distribution of illness along lines of race and class. If the coronavirus has taught us that all health is public health—that it is absurd to think of illness or wellness as private concerns—then similarly, all housing must be public housing. 

Indeed, housing intersects with all of our most urgent problems, from the exponential growth of income inequality to the existential threat of climate change. As we write this, the West Coast sky glows orange as wildfires, exacerbated by global warming, have displaced hundreds of thousands of people and consumed hundreds of homes—many of which were only built in the fire-prone “wildland-urban interface” because of the dearth of affordable housing in urban centers. Environmental devastation converges with inequitable access to safe housing not only in such spectacular instances, but also in the slow violence produced by American urban infrastructure. Even beyond familiar statistics about the extent to which air is less breathable and water less drinkable in poor communities of color, patterns of disinvestment are literally built into the soil of our cities. Studies have shown that many neighborhoods redlined in the 1930s were so systematically deprived of greenery that, nearly a century later, they regularly reach summer temperatures up to 20 degrees hotter than historically white areas nearby. Scratch the surface of housing politics, and centuries of dispossession and discrimination come into view, going all the way back to the nation’s origins on stolen land.

In an infuriating but unsurprising move, the right has taken this moment of exacerbated housing precarity and anti-racist uprising to reaffirm a commitment to the racist structure of the nation’s housing system. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Donald Trump has gleefully denied desperately needed aid to urban centers, which conservatives have cast as lawless vectors of disease. The uprising created a further opportunity for the president and his party to stake a claim for a vision of white property owners under siege by Black city dwellers. At the Republican National Convention this summer, Patricia and Mark McCloskey—the white vigilante couple who brandished guns at Black protesters gathered near their St. Louis mansion in June—appeared as honored guests; during their time slot, Patricia accused the Democrats of trying to “abolish the suburbs altogether.” Trump has also recently affirmed such implicitly segregationist sentiments at the level of long-term housing policy: In July, his administration repealed a largely symbolic Obama-era rule that required federal agencies to “affirmatively further fair housing.”

As usual, a quietist Democratic Party has done little to earn the right’s fear—but some of the most stunning moments of resistance we have witnessed over the past months have posed local yet powerful challenges to the horrors of the American housing system. In Oakland last November, a group of unhoused mothers calling themselves Moms 4 Housing moved with their kids into a vacant home owned by a predatory real estate firm; law enforcement evicted them in a predawn raid, but a judge later turned the property over to a local community land trust, which granted the mothers a long-term lease. In Minneapolis, during the uprising, a Sheraton hotel was temporarily transformed into a community-run shelter. In Philadelphia, homeless people have formed encampments in two public spaces, where they’ve organized for their needs and successfully rebuffed eviction attempts. 

In the course of preparing this issue, we repeatedly encountered the long history of efforts to reimagine housing as a vessel for community power—people organizing tenants’ associations and rent strikes and forging alternative models like community land trusts and co-ops. There is something mesmerizing about the consistency of designs for communal living. The experiments and proposals that appear in this issue—from the grand communes created by 19th-century utopians, to the Bronx housing co-ops established by Jewish workers in the first half of the 20th century, to architect Daniel Libeskind’s current plans for cooperative housing for the elderly—respond over and over again to the same demands of everyday life: People need nurseries for childcare, libraries for intellectual exploration, gardens for shade and enjoyment. They need both company and privacy. But the history of these attempts to forge islands of cooperative housing in the midst of a capitalist landscape is as disheartening as it is inspiring. The New York co-ops became white, middle-class housing with their own exclusionary practices. More recent co-housing experiments like punk squats became beachheads for gentrification. Whether violently repressed or gently defanged, such projects don’t tend to last. 

It gives us no pleasure to close with the simple observation that all housing solutions will fall short until housing in general is decommodified—not because it isn’t true, but because the leap from litanies of immiseration to the call for revolutionary change feels like rhetorical cheating. It is worth noting, however, that precisely what feels so intractable about the politics of housing in particular—its rootedness in land—may at this moment actually point to the inevitability of rupture. Wildfires and floods are shifting the earth beneath our feet, and will only grow more intense in the years to come. Capitalism, of course, can work with disaster. But the knowledge that our built environment is changing dramatically means that nothing about it should be taken for granted. In a burning world, there are no simple facts on the ground.