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Under One Roof: Building an Abolitionist Approach to Housing Justice

By: Sophie House1Legal Fellow, NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. We are grateful to Hillary Aidun, Carolyn Brown, Jameson Fitzpatrick, Megan Haberle, Kayla Merriweather, Jaden Powell, Justin Steil, and participants in the Furman Center Fellows’ Research Workshop for incisive feedback on this essay. For thoughtful editing and guidance, we would like to thank Thomas McBrien, Arianne Connell, Amanda Gavcovich, Jennifer Thompson, Christopher Shenton, and Naomi Wossen. Finally, we thank participants in the Journal’s Fall 2020 Symposium, Under One Roof: Building an Abolitionist Approach to Housing Justice, for their insight and generosity. and Krystle Okafor2J.D. candidate, NYU School of Law.

November 1, 2020

I. Introduction           

This essay invites housing scholars and policymakers to consider how we can learn from the ongoing project of abolition.3We stand on the shoulders of scholars who have laid the groundwork to connect the projects of abolition and housing justice, including but not limited to Monica Bell, Hilary Malson, Rahim Kurwa, Tommie Shelby, Justin Steil, Rashad Akeem Williams, and Craig Willse. Furthermore, prison and police abolitionists, including Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, Dean Spade, and others, have powerfully articulated the importance of housing and neighborhood conditions in the realization of abolition democracy.Abolition here refers to the body of scholarship and advocacy—beginning with the abolition of slavery and extending through contemporary movements for the abolition of prison and the police—that seeks to do away with institutional racism and the relics of slavery in the United States. We explore abolitionists’ practice of articulating a specific vision of justice and identifying the resources needed to achieve that vision as well as obstacles that stand in the way. Writing in anticipation of an upcoming symposium on this subject, we aim to highlight foundational works in abolitionist theory and practice for an unfamiliar audience; explore how housing scholars, policymakers, and activists can apply—or are already applying—abolitionist principles in a housing context; and pose questions to provoke further inquiry.

Recent nationwide protests for racial justice—as well as the racially disparate health and economic effects of COVID-19—have drawn attention to longstanding inequities and discrimination in housing finance, policymaking, and planning. Meanwhile, despite many activists’ visionary contributions, housing policy has remained, in many ways, technocratic and incrementalist, even in response to entrenched and systemic disparities.4See Monica Bell, Safety, Friendship, and Dreams, 54 Harv. Civ. Rts. Civ. Liberties L. Rev. 703, 707 (2019) (critiquing as efforts that “soften the ghetto” “measures that have reduced racial isolation in a statistical sense” but not “the mechanisms and consequences of racial isolation and poverty,” including “the teardown of large public housing complexes and housing mobility voucher programs designed to relocate poor families to higher-income neighborhoods”); Tommie Shelby, Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform 2 (2016) (observing the tendency of housing policies to “increase the material welfare of people living in ghettos through narrowly targeted and empirically grounded interventions” such that “features of society that could and should be altered often get little scrutiny”). Learning from abolitionists compels housing policymakers instead to imagine and articulate what “housing justice” might look like; the necessary foundational conditions for housing justice; and where this suggests that we should direct resources today.

II. Abolition in Historical and Contemporary Context

Although the activism of the Movement for Black Lives has introduced the contemporary conception of abolition to a broader audience, it remains widely misunderstood and oversimplified. Our aim here is to provide an introduction for a housing audience to the theory and application of abolition, which are treated in depth in foundational works by W. E. B. Du Bois and, more recently, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, and others.

Contemporary abolitionism finds its roots in the movement to abolish chattel slavery. Its intellectual cornerstone is W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of abolition democracy, described in his essay Black Reconstruction in America.5W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction In America (Routledge 2017) (1935). Du Bois documents the continued disenfranchisement and exploitation of Black Americans following the formal abolition of slavery. After emancipation, white lawmakers thwarted efforts by newly freed Black citizens to create democratic institutions that would grant Black Americans full economic and social citizenship. Even after the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment, “there were four million freedmen and most of them on the same plantation, doing the same work that they did before emancipation”; although slavery had been formally abolished, “[t]hey had been freed practically with no land nor money, and, save in exceptional cases, without legal status, and without protection.”6Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture, and Empire 73 (2005). As a result, the relics of slavery persisted. Contemporary abolition movements take up this work of fully realizing the abolition of slavery and the creation of new democratic institutions; as Angela Davis explains:

When I refer to prison abolitionism, I like to draw from the DuBoisian notion of abolition democracy. That is to say, it is not only, or not even primarily, about abolition as a negative process of tearing down, but it is also about building up, about creating new institutions . . . DuBois pointed out that in order to fully abolish the oppressive conditions produced by slavery, new democratic institutions would have to be created. Because this did not occur, black people encountered new forms of slavery—from debt peonage and the convict lease system to segregated and second-class education.7Id.

Because Du Bois’s vision of “abolition democracy” has not been realized, contemporary abolitionists extend his work—and the work of countless other abolitionists of chattel slavery—into the present, where abolition now serves as a fulcrum for social movements.8This essay focuses on prison and police abolition movements for several reasons, including their contemporary salience, rich intellectual foundations, and implications for housing policy, as well as space constraints. Advocates working to abolish prisons—and the wider range of industries that support and depend on prisons, altogether referred to as the prison industrial complex—have documented the myriad ways in which the American prison system disproportionately cages, exploits, and dehumanizes Black people. Likewise, they have documented the expensive failures of prison reform and asked: What would it take to accomplish not “the isolated dismantling” of prisons and jails,9Davis, supra note 6, at 72. but the “abolition of a society that could have prisons”?10Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses, 22 Soc. Text 101, 114 (2004).

And so James Forman, Jr. describes abolition as “the idea that you imagine a world without prisons, and then you work to try to build that world.” Imagining “a world without prisons” is, of course, a different project from calling for “our world, but without prisons.” Abolition then requires identifying the conditions necessary to achieve that goal: which structures must be dismantled, fortified, or newly constructed. Many dismissals of abolition assume that abolitionists have failed to reckon with the implications of (for example) closing down prisons. To the contrary, abolitionists acknowledge that in order to do away with prisons, nearly everything about American social policy—including education, healthcare, and, of course, housing—would have to change.11What is Abolition?, Critical Resistance, http://criticalresistance.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/What-is-Abolition.pdf (“Putting people in cages does not solve any of the problems that lead to harm, like harmful drug use, poverty, violence, or mental illness. . . The best way to reduce harm is by building safe, healthy communities where people have their basic needs met.”). As Angela Davis points out, ”the prison is deeply structured by economic, social, and political conditions that themselves will also have to be dismantled.”12Davis, supra note 6, at 72.

Similarly, police abolitionists imagine and articulate what we would need to achieve safety without policing. As Mariame Kaba explains, police abolitionists “are not abandoning our communities to violence. We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete.” Pointing to contemporary police forces’ origins as slave patrols, and the failure to reform away systemic racialized violence as these patrols evolved into police, police abolitionists also tie their project to the full realization of slavery’s abolition. This framework acknowledges that crime prevention requires that all communities have access to the full range of services and institutions that address the roots of criminal behavior. It also recognizes that safety requires more than crime prevention: it requires freedom from racism, harassment, and poverty; protection from environmental hazards; adequate food and shelter; and more.

These values are reflected in the ways that abolitionists organize. Central to abolitionist mobilization is opposition to “reformist reforms”—efforts that direct additional resources to the systems that abolition targets. Accordingly, abolitionists oppose expansions of jail and prison systems and mobilize against increasing policing budgets. Broad coalition-building is also at the core of abolitionism. Within this coalition-building, abolitionists seek to be led by, and offer material support to, those most directly affected by the prison industrial complex and by police violence.13See generally Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (2007).

Abolition is sometimes dismissed as utopian. To be sure, it is not necessarily pragmatic, though it frequently asserts the pragmatic notion that we should stop spending money on things that don’t work. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, for example, acknowledges that “abolition is utopian,” insofar as it is “looking forward to a world in which prisons are not necessary because not only are the political-economic motives behind mass incarceration gone, but also the instances in which people might harm each other are minimized because the causes for that harm . . . are minimized as well.”14Jenna Loyd, Race, Capitalist Crisis, and Abolitionist Organizing: An Interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, in Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis 52-53 (Jenna Loyd, Matt Mitchelson, & Andrew Burridge, eds.) (2012).

More importantly, however, abolitionism asks: pragmatism to what end? As surely as abandoning pragmatism might lead to failure, pragmatism in a vacuum leads—and arguably has led housing practitioners—to sturdy bridges to nowhere. It is in abolition’s process of questioning, critical reflection, and political imagination that we invite our colleagues in housing to engage during and beyond our upcoming symposium. As we explore in greater depth in Part III, the pervasiveness of the relics of slavery in housing in many instances compounds the difficulty of an incrementalist approach.

III. Building an Abolitionist Approach to Housing Justice

A. Historical Racism in Housing Policy

The chauvinism that pervades the Great Migration, exclusionary zoning and redlining, urban renewal and capital flight, New Deal exclusion, and predatory inclusion is as readily apparent as the chauvinism that pervades chattel slavery, the Black Codes, convict leasing, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. Housing policy is as implicated as criminal law in the American schema of racialized social control. When enslaved Africans gained their freedom, becoming American citizens, their manumission was not met with the land sovereignty and redistribution of “forty acres and a mule.” Nationally, a politics of racial revanche thwarted the Freedmen’s Bureau relief effort. The agency controlled no more than one percent of confiscated Confederate land.15Roy W. Copeland, In the Beginning: Origins of African American Real Property Ownership in the United States, 46 J. Black Stud. 646, 654 (2013). Locally, sharecropping and bars on black land ownership bound Freedmen to the soil through peonage.16Id. at 647, 659. Structural and extrajudicial violence went hand-in-hand in the postbellum South: recently reconstructed 1880 Census data demonstrate that residential segregation was “strongly correlated” with lynching. The law promulgated socio-economic hierarchies, and white vigilantes enforced them.
           

In the early twentieth century, spatial immobility and white supremacy continued to constrain social mobility, as new legal technologies further entrenched segregation and housing discrimination in nearly every imaginable way. Public housing relegated low-income Black households to undignified, stultifying conditions; segregation ordinances moated isles of white affluence; federal agencies refused to provide mortgage loans and insurance in Black neighborhoods; restrictive covenants hindered Black families’ access to home ownership and accrual of intergenerational wealth.17See generally Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017). As in the South, Black households who broke northern color lines were often welcomed with mob violence.18Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America 82 (2011). Black households who dutifully relocated to the North’s “dark ghettos” were managed through over-policing and brutality.19Id. at 232.      

            In the 1960s, federal housing policy shifted. The civil rights movement broke down many of the formal mechanisms excluding Black households from homeownership opportunities, but what replaced them was a system Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has termed “predatory inclusion,”20Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, 254 (2019). built on exploitation and extraction through financial products like contract-for-deed agreements and subprime loans. Predatory inclusion builds on the logics of nineteenth century land insovereignty and twentieth century racial planning, but rather than withhold superior housing placements, it imposes inferior ones for corporate gain.21Id.; see also Rashad Akeem Williams, From Racial to Reparative Planning: Confronting the White Side of Planning, J. Planning & Ed. Res. 1, 6 (2020). Housing injustice continues in the neoliberal era, as de facto market-driven strictures replace de jure government-designed ones, yet yield the same racist results.22Taylor, supra note 20. Black families now comprise 45 percent of public housing residents, vulnerable to both the undignified conditions of disinvested sites and potential displacement from privatized, refinanced ones.

            Racial surveillance and harassment also continue in the neoliberal era. For instance, a study of black families in California exurbs who receive Housing Choice Vouchers documents how, like the Freedmen and the émigrés of the Great Migration, these voucher holders are denigrated through their housing. Despite the tacit inclusion of Black families through subsidized rental housing, police enforcement of private, discriminatory complaints empowers their white neighbors to entrench racialized boundaries.     

            A historical perspective lays out the recurring manifestations of subjugation through housing policy. Segregation and discrimination follow from “power imbalances that have been codified and reproduced through law, markets, and complacency.” Since the Reconstruction era, state-sanctioned expulsion, exclusion, and extraction have constrained Black Americans’ housing outcomes. Against historical injustices of this magnitude, limited focus on “technocratic supply-side and deregulatory solutions” will not do.23See also Ananya Roy & Raquel Rolnik, Methodologies for Housing Justice, in Methodologies for Housing Justice Resource Guide (Ananya Roy, Raquel Rolnik, Terra Graziani & Hilary Malson, eds.) (2020). Resisting the “political economy of segmented markets, racialized redlines, and speculative frontiers” instead urges the development of new strategies for conceptualizing, studying, and providing housing.

B. Contemporary Housing Policy Through an Abolitionist Lens

We consider how housing policymakers and advocates can learn from abolitionists and apply these lessons to build transformative housing policies. We first examine: what does housing justice, fully realized, look like in abolition democracy? Our next inquiry is what foundational conditions would make this world possible. We also consider where the relics of slavery persist within housing and stand in the way of housing justice, making them possible targets for abolitionist rather than reformist approaches. Finally, we consider how housing policymakers and advocates can learn to practice abolition by learning from abolitionist movement-building. These contributions are just the beginning of a conversation that we hope will continue far beyond the parameters we have sketched here.

1. Housing Justice in Abolition Democracy

The late Rose Braz, one of the founders of the prison abolition organization Critical Resistance, explained the importance of naming and claiming prison abolition as a goal: “a prerequisite to seeking any social change is the naming of it . . . even though the goal we seek may be far away, unless we name it and fight for it today, it will never come.” We invite housing policymakers to articulate a vision of housing justice for their work, and operate in pursuit of it.

We do not offer a comprehensive account of housing justice; this vision is continuously developed on the ground.24Housing justice is often formulated as a demand. Housing Justice for All’s organizers strive for “stronger tenant protections, an end to evictions, and an end to homelessness in New York.” Housing Justice for All, https://www.housingjusticeforall.org/. The Right to the City Alliance’s housing justice strategy includes “stabilizing renters in their homes through tenant protections, advancing equitable development that serves the community, and increasing community ownership of land.” PolicyLink, Manifesting Housing Justice Equity Summit 2018: Our Power. Our Future. Our Nation, https://www.policylink.org/node/53206. Housing justice may also be understood as a provocation. Per Hilary Malson and Terra Graziani, “Provocation here means we have not accepted an absolute definition of housing justice work; it means we are still asking, still evolving as we go; it means anyone doing this work of housing justice must be constantly interrogating their role as an individual and as a contributor to collective movement work.” Housing Justice in Unequal Cities 37, Institute On Inequality and Democracy, https://challengeinequality.luskin.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2019/10/Housing-Justice-in-Unequal-Cities.pdf. But we can make a few observations about what this might entail. Looking to the leadership of the Movement for Black Lives, we see the importance of a robust and holistic definition of safety. A crucial element of housing justice might be that every person has a safe place to call home. Moreover, in defining “safety,” we should consult the expansive and imaginative work happening now that considers the range of conditions that enable people to be, and feel, safe in their homes and neighborhoods.

Monica Bell suggests that “the unfinished work of the Civil Rights Movement is observable through state failure to respect and protect three intertwined social entitlements—safety, friendship, and dreams—in many high-poverty African-American communities.” Justin Steil and Laura Humm Delgado proffer an “anti-subordination principle” that “seeks to address the continuing manifestations of durable inequalities that structure our social lives and urban spaces.” Reflecting on the conditions of people experiencing homelessness in congregate shelters, we might emphasize dignity, privacy, and autonomy.

Recognizing that people of color and, particularly, Black people in America have been systematically excluded and exploited out of opportunities for homeownership,25See Deborah N. Archer, The New Housing Segregation: The Jim Crow Effects of Crime-Free Housing Ordinances, 118 Mich. L. Rev. 173, 179 (2019); see generally Taylor, supra note 20. housing justice—often intertwined with conversations about reparations26See Jonathan Kaplan & Andrew Valls, Housing Discrimination as a Basis for Black Reparations, 21 Pub. Aff. Q. 255-74 (2007). —might envision the creation of wealth in Black households and communities; abundant quality, affordable housing; “open housing” in amenity-rich areas; or community wealth building and land ownership. We might call housing justice the rupturing of the link between ZIP codes and a host of health, economic, and educational outcomes. Or we might emphasize housing stability, imagining a world in which no one faces the threat of losing their home. There are, of course, myriad other ways to envision housing justice; what matters is to name them, so that we can know where we want to go.

2. Foundational Conditions and New Democratic Institutions

Next, we consider what foundational conditions are necessary to make housing justice a reality. Taking the example of housing justice as safe housing for all, we might consider that safety means freedom not only from crime but from hazards like lead paint and environmental injustice. It also means eradicating domestic violence and child abuse, which in turn requires directing resources towards a variety of social, mental health, and community intervention services.27But see Dorothy Roberts, Abolishing Policing Also Means Abolishing Family Regulation, Abolition J. (July 4, 2020), https://abolitionjournal.org/abolishing-policing-also-means-abolishing-family-regulation/ (“Giving child welfare authorities more money and power will result in even more state surveillance and control of black communities.”).

Likewise, making households safe from the threat of eviction requires rendering eviction unnecessary. Eviction cannot be abolished without providing landlords with meaningful alternatives to eviction—not, as it currently stands, leaving them to choose among ousting tenants, calling the police, or engaging an overwhelmed adult protective services system. Likewise, for eviction to be unnecessary, people must be able to afford their housing. If those conditions were able to drastically reduce the incidence of landlord-tenant disputes, the conflicts that remain might be mediated in arenas that look radically different from todays housing courts, offering dignity and voice to all participants.

Research from housing and urban planning also points us towards many of the conditions that enable neighborhoods to flourish. In a world of housing justice, this flourishing would not be confined, as it is today, primarily to affluent and majority-white neighborhoods. To bring this about would mean investing in parks and other green spaces, schools, economic development, and community services in a broader range of ZIP Codes. Many of these conditions will, ultimately, depend on reshaping federal, state, and local budgets, bringing “budget justice” in line with housing justice.

3. What Stands in the Way

As we have tried to illustrate, abolition is, to paraphrase Angela Davis, more concerned with building up than with tearing down. But it also seeks to render obsolete institutions that have proven impervious to reform. Pursuing abolition rather than reform asserts that some conditions, such as the mass incarceration of Black people, are unacceptable. And having identified a host of justice-preceding foundational conditions that require investment in, for instance, education, healthcare, and mental health services, abolitionists suggest that resources should be directed towards these ends and away from institutions where reform has failed.

In a housing context, this prompts us to examine institutions that have failed to serve their designated purpose, proven resistant to reform, and have instead perpetuated racism and other forms of oppression. We decline to offer a comprehensive account of what these institutions might be, leaving this task to future movements for housing justice. Instead we offer a few examples of how we might begin to identify the relics of slavery at the intersection of housing and the criminal justice system, and in the context of eviction and housing instability. There are undoubtedly other sites for possible abolitionist engagement within land use, housing finance, public housing, tax law, technology, and elsewhere.28See, e.g., Shelby, supra note 3, at 275 (“The ghetto should be abolished. Like American slavery and Jim Crow segregation, the ghetto should never have come into existence. There is nothing wrong with the existence of predominantly black urban communities . . . The problem is that too many black neighborhoods lack needed resources, are offered only inadequate public services and substandard schools, are beset with violent street crime, and are home to many stigmatized and unjustly disadvantaged people with little spatial or economic mobility.”).

One obvious starting point for considering abolition in a housing context is to examine how the criminal justice apparatus operates in housing.29See Rahim Kurwa, Segregatory Consequences of the Carceral State, in Housing Justice in Unequal Cities, 127, Institute On Inequality and Democracy, https://challengeinequality.luskin.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2019/10/Housing-Justice-in-Unequal-Cities.pdf (“The abolitionist approach . . . would create a society in which the force of the law cannot be used to prevent someone from living in a particular neighborhood or renting a home and in which tenants could not be evicted on the basis of virtually any law enforcement encounter. Abolition means not treating tenants as potential criminals, not being told by a judge where you can and cannot live in order to meet your rehabilitation metrics, not being evicted by a sheriff, and not being subject to racial banishment”). Policing plays a role in creating and maintaining segregation; segregation also facilitates racially targeted policing by creating racially concentrated geographies. Past criminal justice involvement is used to deny access to housing and to prevent friends and family members from visiting loved ones, through background checks, trespass policies, and “crime-free ordinances.” Vagrancy laws, anti-panhandling ordinances, and gang injunctions govern public spaces, which are, in turn, shaped by centuries of segregation and exclusion.30See Risa Goluboff, Vagrant Nation Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s 15 (2016) (“In the South, vagrancy laws were directed at the mobility— physical, political, economic, and social— of newly freed slaves.”). Now, as Andrea Ritchie observes, “Provisions targeted at those congregating in and using public spaces or living on the streets disproportionately impact homeless, precariously housed, and low-income women of color and youth . . . .” Andrea J. Ritchie, Law Enforcement Violence Against Women of Color, Keep Ypsi Black (Apr. 8, 2016), https://keepypsiblack.org/2016/04/08/law-enforcement-violence/. Research has compellingly linked many of these structures to the legacy of slavery in the United States, and abolishing and replacing them with meaningful alternatives is as much a project for housing as it is for criminal justice.

The emergence of eviction as a crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic has also drawn attention to how the eviction process disproportionately harms low-income people of color. Tenants of color are overrepresented in the eviction process, which is both a trauma in and of itself and a predictor of outcomes such as homelessness and future hospitalizations. Tenants have little bargaining power to negotiate the leases that they can be evicted for violating, and evictions are adjudicated in court proceedings where landlords are substantially more likely than tenants to be represented by lawyers. Research has shown that landlords in some cities treat eviction as a debt collection mechanism, while vital protections for tenants are under-utilized in housing court. By and large, these proceedings reproduce, rather than level, power imbalances between landlords and tenants.

What would it take, then, to render housing courts—and even eviction—obsolete? As noted above, it would require equipping landlords with meaningful resources for resolving disputes. It would also compel redistribution and social provision to address the underlying economic and social causes of landlord-tenant conflicts (which eviction merely shifts onto the homelessness sector). And it would entail greatly expanding the availability and accessibility of affordable rental housing, as well as educational and economic opportunities that enable tenants to afford their housing. Taking an abolitionist approach thus recommends divesting resources away from structures like housing court and towards programs that would make housing court an unnecessary recourse.

Other examples of housing institutions we might look at through the lens of abolition abound. Congregate shelters, for example, have arguably failed in their designated purpose of serving as reliable temporary, emergency housing that facilitate re-housing. Instead, research has demonstrated that shelters frequently re-traumatize residents (who are disproportionately people of color); compromise dignity, safety, and privacy; and, in the age of COVID-19, jeopardize public health. Rather than continuing to expand this system, we might ask: what would it take to create a world with no need for such shelters?

Housing policy has, of course, undertaken many efforts to address segregation, housing instability, and homelessness. But in many instances it has operated in a piecemeal rather than transformative fashion—“softening the ‘ghetto,’” rather than attempting “fundamental reform of the basic structure of our society.”31Shelby, supra note 3, at 275. Much of this incrementalism comes from worthy motivations, such as a commitment to evidence-based policymaking and to consensus building. But in other instances, perhaps housing policy has treated pragmatism as the end rather than the means—and we may have reasons to question the reformist project.32See id. at 3(“[T]he presence of ghettos in American cities is a strong indication that just background conditions do not prevail.”).

This is not an exhaustive list of institutions toward which housing scholars, policymakers, or activists could take—or have taken—an abolitionist approach. Grassroots movements offer many instructive “freedom dreams” for housing. Low-income women have long asserted their dignity through bold action and rights-based claims on the state. In Philadelphia, “welfare mothers” squat in underutilized subsidized housing, municipal offices, and tent cities to demand sustenance and shelter. Women in Baltimore public housing mount campaigns for better neighborhoods, redefining livability to focus on habitability and community safety instead of complete streets and pocket parks. These women organize for material conditions befitting full citizens, not those reserved for supplicants. Movements articulate a vision for dignified housing beyond the confines of existing systems of social provision.

In the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, organizing “is abolition – not a prelude, but the practice itself.” Thus, the call to engage with abolition is a call to mobilize with and be led by the people most affected by housing policies. Abolition in the housing sphere could harness the best of contemporary practice towards transformative ends: Calls to rescind paternalistic requirements for shelter services, deepen public investments in community land trusts, and make Housing Choice Vouchers an entitlement are each incisive. While piecemeal and perhaps “kludgy,” they augur well for a future in which housing is decommodified and universally available.             

4. Discerning Abolition

Many housing movements speak of abolishing homelessness. The language of abolition is at work in these campaigns; are abolitionist methods? To be sure, campaigns whose vision of justice centers on ending homelessness can be abolitionist. But without claiming the authority to declare movements abolitionist or not—and with hopes that these conversations will continue within housing—we suggest that abolitionist movements focus on identifying and dismantling oppressive structures rather than outcomes such as homelessness.

Likewise, there is no shortage of calls to abolish housing regulations. We do not purport to offer, or even to suggest, that there are simple answers as to what abolition can address. There may be regulatory schemes that make meaningful targets for abolition: exclusionary zoning seems particularly apt in this regard.33See Archer, supra note 25, at 185 (“For centuries, local governments have enacted land use, zoning, and tax policies that prevent poor or minority residents from being able to move into those communities.”). But, recalling Angela Davis’s exhortation that abolition is “not only, or not even primarily . . . a negative process of tearing down,” not every movement to abolish something is an abolitionist movement in the Du Boisian sense.34Davis, supra note 6. Moreover, where clear definitions are elusive, a sound guiding principle is that abolitionism is defined by abolitionists—by activists working for racial justice and an end to anti-black racism.

The question of deinstitutionalization—the mass closure of inpatient psychiatric facilities in the 1980s, considered a driver of homelessness in the following decades—is also worth evaluating insofar as it is a possible failure of abolitionism in a housing context. The topic merits further scholarly exploration. But if deinstitutionalization began as an abolitionist project, it was not seen through as one, as evidenced by the continued inaccessibility of mental health services and other resources that might render psychiatric hospitalization obsolete.

IV. Conclusion

Going forward, our hope is that researchers, for their part, can be emboldened to speak forthrightly about economic and racial injustice by acknowledging past harm and highlighting its regeneration in contemporary institutions. Technocratic rigor and objectivity need not elide interrogations of inequity. Abolitionist thinking can compel scholars to problematize approaches that entrench the power of city fathers or legitimize stratification. When qualitative researchers forgo the supposed pathologies of concentrated poverty for a focus on the inherent cruelty of opportunity hoarding, they begin to redress their predecessors’ wrongs. When quantitative researchers take a relational approach that acknowledges the centrality of social forces in markets’ allocation of resources, they do the same.

Lastly, a commitment to abolition in housing is a commitment to principled struggle—deepening our collective understanding through honest and compassionate critique. There are building blocks for abolitionist thinking that we might fruitfully apply even to gold-standard housing practices: Does universal access to counsel unnecessarily expand housing courts, a form of “poverty governance,” instead of shrinking them? Does trauma-informed care legitimize social services instead of making them redundant through redistribution and community care? A shared analysis developed through unsparing assessment would pose such queries.

The “triple pandemic” in public health, racial justice, and employment is a clarion call for the housing field. Soon, we will ask a group of housing scholars, policymakers, and advocates convened for a symposium to turn an abolitionist lens inward on housing, considering what we need to get to where we want to go—and what we should leave behind. We hope to provoke participants to summon the temerity of the summer’s social movements to set forth a bold vision of housing justice.


Sophie House, Legal Fellow, N.Y.U. Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy

Krystle Okafor, J.D. Candidate, N.Y.U. School of Law


Suggested Citation: Sophie House & Krystle Okafor, Under One Roof: Building an Abolitionist Approach to Housing Justice, N.Y.U. J. Legis. & Pub. Pol’y Quorum (2020)