‘This is the moment’: Advocates call for lawmakers to pass bold policies at State House rally / by Evan Popp

A rally Thursday spearheaded by Maine People’s Alliance | Dan D’Ippolito

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on June 1, 2023

Urging the legislature to “fund our future,” over 50 people rallied at the State House on Thursday to call for lawmakers to approve legislation that would address Maine’s affordable housing crisis, lift families out of poverty, ensure low-income immigrants can access health care, and establish paid family and medical leave for workers. 

The rally, organized by the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project), comes as the first session of the 131st Legislature is close to an end. With Democratic control of the House and Senate as well as a Democratic governor, advocates view this year’s state budget as a major opportunity to strengthen Maine’s social safety net and ensure that people can afford housing and health care. 

“It’s the end of the legislative session, and right now, we need to let lawmakers know that they need to pass these priorities, and make sure they get funded, so we can make the investments that will make life better, safer, and healthier for all Mainers,” said Arundel resident Amy Larkin, a longtime member of Maine People’s Alliance. “This is the moment.”

One of the policies those at the rally are backing is an expansion of Maine’s child tax credit program. Specifically, they are supporting LD 1544, which would increase the state’s existing dependent tax credit amount to $350 per dependent from $300. 

The bill would also fix a major flaw in the existing program by making the credit fully refundable, meaning that those with extremely low incomes could access the child tax credit. If passed, experts estimate the measure could reduce childhood poverty by over 12%, lifting 3,500 low-income kids out of severe economic hardship. 

Hazel Willow, a Maine mother, asked legislators to support LD 1544. Willow said she is a domestic abuse survivor and that she has had to rebuild from “the ashes of that life.” That has meant relying on social support programs like MaineCare and SNAP benefits. 

During the pandemic, a federal government initiative that expanded the child tax credit program was a significant help to Willow and other Maine families. However, that expanded program was allowed to expire by Congress.

Increasing the amount of the child tax credit (CTC) in Maine and ensuring that low-income people can access it would be a huge financial aid to Willow and many others, she said. 

“Programs like the CTC reduce the ramifications of domestic violence because poverty as a consequence is a main tactic of abusers,” she said. “If you can’t afford to live without them then how can you ever leave? If they control your access to child care or economic independence, they control you.” 

Along with helping families survive, advocates called for lawmakers to address Maine’s dire housing crisis. With a severe shortage of affordable units, a long waiting list for housing vouchers and many Mainers rent burdened, rally-goers implored officials to protect people amid the crisis. 

Lawmakers have introduced a litany of such bills. However, many tenants’ rights measures have been watered down amid strong opposition from real estate interests and landlords. Michael Beck, a housing advocate in the Bangor area, noted that fact in his speech Thursday.

“We are fighting a battle in the State House between the right to live and someone’s right to profit from it,” he said of the effort to protect tenants.

Rep. Cheryl Golek (D-Harpswell), who called housing her top priority, also said bold action is needed to address the issue. She said one way to start would be passing LD 1710, a bill Golek introduced that would provide rental assistance to people struggling to afford housing costs while also preventing discrimination against those who receive public assistance to help them pay for an apartment. 

Attendees at Thursday’s rally | Dan D’Ippolito

Given the wide-ranging nature of the bill — and with this session wrapping up soon — Golek said LD 1710 will be carried over to next year’s session. The issues the measure would address, however, are no less urgent, she said. As a result, Golek called for the legislature to include rental assistance funding in the state budget.

“We can do better, and Mainers deserve better,” she said. 

Another significant piece of legislation this session is a proposal to create a paid family and medical leave program. Lawmakers have introduced a measure to provide most Maine workers with 12 weeks of paid leave and 12 weeks of medical leave per year in the aggregate. The bill is a top priority of Democratic lawmakers and is working its way through the legislature. However, if lawmakers fail to act, Maine People’s Alliance and other advocates have gathered the necessary signatures to trigger a referendum on the issue in 2024. 

Advocates say the policy would allow people to avoid having to choose between their economic livelihood and urgent life needs. 

Larkin provided an example of the difference having paid leave in Maine would make. She told attendees about being the caretaker for her 100-year-old grandmother, Eva. While Larkin is grateful to get to spend time with Eva, she said it also means that she often can’t work because her grandmother needs so much care. 

During one particular instance, Eva broke her hip and needed intensive care for a significant period of time. Because of that, Larkin, who is self-employed, had to turn down work and feared losing income and clients. 

She called for an expansive paid leave that would permit a wide range of people to take leave when they need to. 

“We need a strong paid family and medical leave system here in Maine — one that allows people to take all the time they need to care for themselves or their family members, one that pays enough so people with the lowest incomes can afford to take it, and one that applies to all workers, not just those who work for certain kinds of businesses,” she said. 

During the rally, advocates also backed LD 199, which would restore coverage under MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, for low-income noncitizen residents 21 years or older who are currently not covered because of their immigration status. Combined with action taken by the legislature and Gov. Janet Mills in 2021 to restore health coverage to younger noncitizens and those who are pregnant, LD 199 would ensure that no one is excluded from care because they are an immigrant. 

As a result, supporters have dubbed that campaign to provide health coverage for everyone who needs it “all means all.” 

Rep. Ambureen Rana (D-Bangor) spoke in favor of the legislation at the rally, telling the story of her father, who came to Maine from Pakistan and who was eventually able to bring all his siblings from Pakistan to New England. 

Rana said it’s difficult to imagine how her family would have fared if they hadn’t had access to MaineCare coverage for health needs, particularly given that some of them had serious medical conditions. 

Everyone deserves the assurance that if they get sick, they can access health care, Rana said. But too many low-income people are uncovered by MaineCare simply because of their immigration status, she noted. 

To address the issue, Rana called for her fellow lawmakers to approve LD 199 and ensure that all truly means all.  

“LD 199 is the choice for equity, prosperity, and a health care system that works better — no exceptions, no exclusions — for all of us,” she said. 

Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at evan(at)mainebeacon.com.

Maine could begin developing its own public housing to tackle the affordability crisis / by Dan Neumann

Activists with Housing Justice Maine call on state lawmakers in 2021 to fund more affordable housing. | Beacon

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on May 20, 2023

Dusting off an old idea, Maine could join a list of cities and states across the country that are taking matters into their own hands to address soaring housing prices by becoming public housing developers. 

Democratic Rep. Grayson Lookner of Portland introduced LD 1867 to the Select Committee on Housing in a public hearing on Friday. The proposal would establish the Maine Community Housing and Rural Development Authority, which would create publicly-owned housing that the tenants themselves would manage.

“This ain’t your grandpa’s public housing,” Lookner told committee members, who have been tasked with finding solutions to the state’s housing emergency, which threatens to spiral out of control with rental prices skyrocketing and evictions spiking. 

There is currently a shortage of over 20,000 affordable housing units in the state and homelessness is growing.

“This program avoids many of the pitfalls that undermine public housing nationally, such as income and racial segregation, systemic underfunding, and lack of resident governance,” Lookner said.

As Beacon previously reported, the approach is a drastic departure from the way Maine has built affordable housing for the last several decades. Since new public housing development was halted at the federal level in the 1990s, Maine policymakers have tried to meet the demand for affordable housing with the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), a Reagan-era tax incentive that pushes public money to private developers to build temporarily affordable housing. 

Tax credits are the only tool left. And they build 90% of all affordable housing in the country. 

Gov. Janet Mills’ recent budget proposal calling for $80 million for new affordable housing would all be funneled into LIHTC and similar tax credits, which is the state housing authority’s only current means to build housing. 

The problem, critics say, is that the tax incentives are inefficient and prone to abuse. Because it is tied to demand in the private housing market, LIHTC produces fewer units than they did 20 years ago, while costing the public 66% more through tax subsidies.

“It is not a coincidence that we find ourselves in the housing crisis that we are in today when looking at the housing policies that were implemented federally 40 years ago,” Lookner said. “Low-Income Housing Tax Credit developments often only stay at affordability for 15 to 45 years and federal public housing has been left to die a slow death by a thousand cuts since the 1980s.”

Lookner has modeled the proposal off a pilot program in Montgomery County, Maryland where local officials leveraged an initial $100 million investment in public money to create a revolving fund to build publicly-owned, mixed-income apartments in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.. After just a few years, Montgomery County officials — who presented to Maine’s Select Committee on Housing in March — say they are on track to own 9,000 apartments — all of them permanently affordable.

The key difference between Montgomery County’s public-developer model and previous federal housing projects is that it is open to tenants of different incomes, not just low-income residents. At the behest of the real estate industry in the 1930s, federal housing projects were designed to serve only the poorest of the poor. The result was concentrated poverty and racial segregation.

Under the new model, residents pay different rates in a funding process called cross-subsidization, where the higher rents pay for the lower rents. Once initial public funds are put in, cross-subsidization covers the apartment complex’s day-to-day operating expenses, allowing it to break even or potentially return a profit — which could then be used to fund other mixed-income developments.

Lookner said the public developer proposal would benefit rural communities in particular since, because it uses public money free of the whims of the market, it would avert the problems inherent to private development, where deindustrialization and capital flight has made large swaths of rural Maine unattractive to private investment. 

Lookner’s proposal would be available to renters making 120% of the area median income, whereas many LIHTC developments are only available to renters making around 60% AMI. 

“The authority would also create housing for the storied ‘missing middle’ of income earners, as this is not a type of housing that is usually funded by either tax credit deals or by market-rate development,” he said.

Because the model could provide housing to their middle-income members, the state’s largest nursing union, the Maine State Nurses Association, is backing the bill. 

Seattle, California, Colorado, Hawaii and Rhode Island have either passed or are exploring public developer models similar to the one piloted in Montgomery County. A social housing ballot initiative in Seattle won handily in February. Last summer, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a $10 million pilot public developer. And Colorado recently created the Middle Income Housing Authority, which plans to build 3,500 units of workforce housing. 

Josie Phillips, a budget and tax policy fellow at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, said that the spate of recent public developer proposals resembles the examples of social housing found across the globe — such as in Austria where public housing is available to nearly 80% of its citizens — rather than the American version of underfunded and racially segregated public housing.

“A policy brief from the [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an intergovernmental organization with 38 member countries, including the U.S.] considers social housing to be ‘a key part of past and future housing policy,’” Phillips told lawmakers. 

“Ultimately, social housing is not going to be a magic bullet, but used in concert with other strategies, it can be an effective piece of the puzzle when it comes to addressing the affordable housing crisis,” she added.

Landlords Are One of the Leading Causes of Canada’s Rent Crisis / by Mitchell Thompson

Nearly 20 percent of renters in Toronto are forced into overcrowded housing units. (Roberto Machado Noa / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on May 11, 2023

Dismissing Canada’s rental crisis as nothing but a supply-demand issue overlooks the fact that a small group of landlords dominates the rental market and exploits tenants. As rents become extortionate, Canadian landlords are reaping record profits.

Canada’s rental crisis is often dismissed by the corporate media as a “mismatch” between supply and demand. But a deeper analysis of the country’s rental market — where tenants face some of the highest housing costs on the planet — reveals that a tiny percentage of landlords are controlling the sector and exploiting tenants for their own gain.

None of Canada’s five million tenants need to read Canada’s mainstream media to know that the county is facing a rental crisis. Over the past year, according to an RBC Economics study, the country saw its “highest annual increase in rent growth on record.” These skyrocketing rents have also caused homelessness to explode in nearly all of Canada’s major cities. Housing congestion is a growing issue as well, with nearly 20 percent of renters in Toronto, 21 percent in Mississauga, 11 percent in Montreal, 13 percent in Edmonton, and 11 percent in Vancouver are forced into overcrowded housing units “not suitable for their household size.”

However, a significant portion of media coverage simplistically attributes the housing crisis to a mere incongruity between the demand for rental housing and its supply, removing from the equation the landlords who are charging excessive rents. On this view, housing crises are not examples of profiteers leveraging market failure, but rather a fleeting problem that people should accept and move beyond.

With five million renters competing for two million purpose-built units, we’re told, double-digit rent hikes are unavoidable. Various politicians and corporate media outlets suggest that scrapping rent control and other tenant protections will somehow lower “housing costs.”

Against the backdrop of the housing crisis, some members of the ruling elite have used it as a justification to call for an overhaul of Canada’s immigration system. News outlets like BNN Bloomberg have run with headlines like: “Rents are soaring in Canada as surge of people goes undercounted.”

Blame for record-high rents seems to be placed on everything and everyone — except landlords and speculators. Lamenting that it “has become cool” to “disparage” real estate speculation, the Toronto Sun claimed earlier this year: “If it wasn’t profitable for investors to own rental properties, investors would take their capital elsewhere and supply would diminish. We need them.”

It’s true enough that Canada’s major cities are experiencing population growth, as a result of both immigration abroad and from the residential reclamation of ex-industrial urban corridors. It is also true that housing is being absorbed, both by ordinary people — and speculators.

The country’s extortionate rent hikes are hardly an accident of mismatched supply and demand. Housing scarcity is undoubtedly a problem. But using it to hand-wave away eye-watering rental costs is obtuse or disingenuous. Canada’s landlords are not simply having their hands forced. Empowered by Canada’s governments, landlords are reaping record profits at their tenants’ expense.

The Chimera of the Mom-and-Pop Landlord

Senior economist Ricardo Tranjan from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) provides an insightful analysis of the concentration of Canada’s rental units in his remarkable new bookThe Tenant Class. The book breaks the rental supply down into four segments: 12 percent of renters occupy nonmarket housing, 38 percent rent non-purpose-built units from private landlords, and the remaining half rent from corporate and financial landlords.

Despite the media’s focus on Canada’s so-called “small landlords,” Tranjan observes:

The widespread notion of “struggling landlords” is a grave mischaracterization of the rental market. In fact, Canada’s landlord class comprises wealthy families, small businesses, corporations, and financial investors. Rent revenue increases their wealth and political influence, allowing them to extract more income from more tenants, amass more wealth, and do it again.

The private rental market generally refers to individual landlords who own one or a few rental properties. It can be challenging to keep track of the total number of units as they can include not only private homes and condos but also their individual rooms, garages, basements, and closets. But the concentration of wealth in this market is increasing too.

The book calculates that units in the private rental market account for roughly 38 percent of the overall rental market. Tranjan estimates that multiple-property owners have an average net worth of around $1.7 million. As he notes, these owners are hardly “scraping to get by.”

Statistics Canada estimates that the relatively small number of homeowners, who have invested in multiple units, account for nearly one-third of total home ownership.

In 2021, half of the dwellings in the downtowns of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver were condos. But, as Statistics Canada notes, more than half of these condominiums were owned by investors — comprising a total 840,045 units overall. These investors have, on average, managed to obtain up to a 30 percent increase in the value of their assets while renting them out to desperate tenants in Canada’s major cities.

Corporate Landlords and Financial Landlords

Among Canada’s purpose-built rental housing units, the concentration is even more enormous. In 2017, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) economist Gustavo Durango noted: that “Roughly 90 percent of purpose-built rental apartment units in Canada are owned by individual investors and private corporations.”

The book breaks the concentration down further. Tranjan estimates that 22 percent of the country’s rental housing units are owned by small business landlords — individual investors and joint ventures. On average, these landlords own 44 units each nationally and up to 151 each in Toronto. The remaining 28 percent of units is split between corporate and financial landlords. Typically, corporate landlords own and manage rental properties as part of a larger real estate investment portfolio, while financial landlords are entities such as pension funds, insurance companies, and investment trusts.

According to University of Waterloo professor Martine August, Canada’s twenty-five largest landlords, split between corporate and financial landlords, held about 330,000 units in 2020 — nearly 20 percent of the country’s private purpose-built stock of rental apartments. These include rental juggernauts like Starlight Investments, CAPREIT, Boardwalk REIT, Skyline Apartment REIT, Killam Apartment REIT, and Mainstreet Equity.

Since 2020, in turn, there is every reason to believe this concentration has gotten worse. As August wrote in Policy Options, “In some communities, financial firms have effective monopolies over the local market.”

How They Make Their Millions

These corporate and financial landlords are upfront about where their revenue comes from — by extracting rents from squeezed and beleaguered tenants. In the final quarter of 2022, CAPREIT, with over sixty-seven thousand units, was named one of Canada’s safest dividends. As noted by BNN, the company itself explicitly stated the source of its profits. “A record 24.3 percent average rent increase on turnover.” This increase is above average, but not by much. A report by CMHC found that after a tenant moves out of a two-bedroom apartment, the average rent increases by 18.2 percent.

Despite the claims of Canada’s landlord lobby groups, rent hikes have almost nothing to do with “increased expenses,” maintenance costs, or utility rates.

Starlight Investments has openly declared its intention to profit from the rental shortage in Canada. “We think there is a definite housing shortage, or almost a crisis level in Canada,” said then CEO Dale Drimmer in 2019, “and the good news for investors is there is no easy solution in sight.”

Similarly, last year, Hazelview Investments vowed to “create value” by massively hiking rents. “We believe the key to creating value will be identifying companies with pricing power that are able to raise rents on new leases and pass-through higher rental rates on existing leases.”

In 2012, fellow behemoth landlord Timbercreek listed “evictions,” as one of its strategies for hiking rents. As quoted to Canada’s human rights tribunal the company’s “value-add repositioning” program starts by reducing expenses and then “stabilizing revenue” through methods such as “improving the quality of the tenant and tenant profitability,” as well as implementing “stronger disciplinary measures for problem tenants, including evictions.”

“We Only Want the Earth”

In a recent report, Canada’s central bank tracked the flow of capital, focusing on 2008 to 2022, away from productive investment and into housing speculation, housing debt, and rental housing. This reallocation of capital was marked, the report notes, chiefly by the growth of real estate and rental and leasing (RERL) firms, “high-yield debt markets,” the mortgage-backed securities made famous by the 2008 meltdown, and by ever-rising rents. Crucially, the bank notes, none of these entities are really reaping their returns from housing as such — they’re reaping their returns chiefly in areas where “land is scarce” — from their monopoly over a portion of the Earth.

The CCPA likewise notes:

In Canada, housing prices have been driven higher largely by land appreciation; it is not uncommon in major cities for the structures built on land to comprise just a small sliver of the value of a property. For example, between 2007 and 2018, real estate in British Columbia doubled in value, appreciating by nearly $1 trillion in inflation-adjusted terms, the vast majority of that a result of higher land values.

This is “ground rent” — profit that reflects investor’s state-sanctioned monopoly over a natural resource. Land prices are, naturally, monopoly prices. And they make housing unlike any other investment item.

As the New Economics Foundation notes: “Most capital assets depreciate in value over time due to natural wear and tear but land tends to appreciate.” This is, in large part, as they observe, because “The permanence and inherent scarcity of land make it a good asset for the storing of value.” Liberalized credit markets across the Western world since the 1970s, they further note, “have also incentivized banks to favor property-related lending over other types of loans and so contributed to keeping property and land prices up.”

This helps to explain why, just before the pandemic, Statistics Canada found that $8.752 trillion or 76 percent of Canada’s $11 trillion national wealth, was caught up in real estate. It also helps to explain why Statistics Canada found, in 2016, that the top fifth of Canadian households own 63 percent of Canadian real estate’s net worth, while the bottom 40 percent own just 2 percent. Among properties that are not principal residences, the top quintile owns 81 percent of the net worth.

As land values rise, more people are left struggling to find affordable housing. This creates an opportunity for landlords to exploit their tenants by increasing rents at an exorbitant rate, thereby securing a steady stream of passive income. It’s a vicious circle and landlords always win.

The “rental crisis” is not simply a scarcity problem, it’s also a policy failure. To ease the crisis, the most parasitic wing of the capitalist class — landlords — must have their power broken. Large cities everywhere should follow the lead of Berlin and expropriate their most powerful landlords. These vast holdings should be turned over to public housing for human need and not for speculation. And once the inevitable elite backlash occurs, doubling down on such expropriations should be the way forward, with no concessions made.

Mitchell Thompson is a writer, researcher, and occasional radio producer in Toronto.

Tenants back far-reaching housing assistance bill as Maine faces affordability crisis / by Evan Popp

Belinda Vemba of Westbrook and Jodie Hill of Waterville waiting to testify Friday | Beacon

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on May 12, 2023

Citing a worsening housing crisis that features skyrocketing costs, an increasing number of evictions and a lack of sufficient emergency assistance, tenants and advocates implored lawmakers on Friday to pass a bill that will help more Mainers stay in their homes and protect renters from discrimination. 

LD 1710, sponsored by Rep. Cheryl Golek (D-Harpswell), is a wide-ranging measure that would allocate $75.5 million in 2023-24 and $75.5 million more in 2024-25 to addressing the housing crisis — the kind of investment proponents believe is necessary given the scope of the problem. The bill was heard by lawmakers on Friday in a public hearing before the Joint Select Committee on Housing. 

A key aspect of the legislation — dubbed the Housing Opportunities For Maine, or HOME, Act — is providing rental assistance for low-income families by establishing a state-run housing voucher program, which would have the effect of clearing current lengthy waitlists for Section 8 vouchers. 

Currently, there are around 15,000 people on waitlists for housing vouchers in the state. Golek said ending that waitlist would allow tens of thousands of low-income people to only have to use 30% of their income on rent, a more manageable proportion than what many are currently paying. 

The measure creates the Maine Rental Assistance and Guarantee Program under the Maine State Housing Authority to carry out the rental assistance initiative. 

“Passing the HOME Act would play a significant role in preventing eviction and homelessness and stabilizing housing for thousands of Mainers,” Golek said Friday.

Along with providing people with funds, the bill would also improve legal protections for tenants by prohibiting discrimination by a landlord against a person because they participate in a rental assistance program, such as the Section 8 voucher program. 

Although discrimination against housing voucher-holders is already outlawed in Maine, a court ruling in 2007 opened up a loophole that LD 1710 is attempting to address. Multiple people testifying on Friday said that it is currently difficult to obtain housing from landlords using a voucher, with Golek noting that the issue affects people of color in particular. Advocates also noted that 19 other states have passed statutes outlawing discrimination based on the source of someone’s income, which has resulted in a de-concentration of poverty and an increased ability for people to access rental assistance in those places. 

An additional aspect of the bill requires an owner of more than 10 units of residential property to ensure at least 10% of units qualify as affordable housing. Under Golek’s bill, landlords would receive reimbursement in the form of a tax credit if they experience a loss of income from complying with those requirements. 

To generate funding, the HOME Act would amend the state’s real estate transfer tax to make it more progressive, meaning more lucrative real estate sales would face a steeper tax than transactions for a lower amount. Specifically, under the bill, the real estate transfer tax would rise from $2.20 for each $500 on a transaction where the overall price is less than the median sales price in that county to $4.40 for each $500 on a transaction where the sales price is $1 million or more and includes levels in between those prices as well. 

Bill receives backing from advocates and Mainers in need

Given the desperate need for housing in the state — with 40% of Maine renters considered cost-burdened, homelessness on the rise and a shortage of about 20,000 affordable housing units — advocates said approving LD 1710 is crucial. 

Others agreed. Outside the hearing room Friday, dozens of people from across the state waited for their chance to speak in favor of the bill. Many of them are facing financial insecurity and compared their experiences with housing instability and with waiting for a Section 8 unit to open up.

Karina Beadling, who was accompanied by her 2-year-old son Roam, said she waited for five years to get a Section 8 voucher but was unable to find a place that would accept it. She finally got housing in Belfast through New Hope Midcoast.

She told Beacon she had been up in the middle of the night with her son and contemplated not coming to testify Friday, but ultimately decided she had to show up. 

“This is why we’re in this position, because it’s hard” for people who are dealing with these issues to get politically involved.

Karina Beadling and son Roam from Belfast | Beacon

“For every person who’s here,” Beadling said, “there’s a thousand people at home freaking out about their housing.” She said when she was trying to get away from an abusive relationship and couldn’t find housing she “felt powerless.”

Beadling felt it was important to speak at the hearing because she was finally given an opportunity to get housing and wanted to “pay it forward” and help the many others in the state who haven’t been so lucky. 

Jodie Hill, who serves as co-chair of the new Waterville Tenants Association, said she came to speak on behalf of her daughter and granddaughter, who are both currently homeless and living in a motel. She said her daughter works as a substitute at Educare, and started out making only $14 an hour. 

“There’s nothing she can afford,” she said. “People’s wages don’t match what people are charging for housing today. To survive [with a rent that is] even a thousand a month, that’s a job that pays $30 an hour. I don’t know of any jobs that pay that.”

“It feels like us tenants are just taking it and taking it,” Hill added of the need for LD 1710. “There’s homeless people everywhere like never before that I’ve seen. Some are working but can’t afford the rents. They’re only making enough to get groceries and pay for medical care.” 

Another person in favor of the bill, Sandy Joy of Bangor, said she has also seen the brutal nature of Maine’s housing crisis up close. 

“I’m in a position where I can’t afford to purchase a home, I can’t afford a rent, and maintain a standard of living. I live with this every day and it’s frightening. It’s frightening to me,” she told the committee. “Please pass the bill. We need to invest in more than building housing. We need to help Mainers to be able to afford a safe place to live.” 

LD 1710, however, spurred opposition from many landlords and real estate interests, who particularly opposed the provisions meant to prevent discrimination against housing voucher-holders.

Daniel Bernier of Central Maine Apartment Owners Association complained that the bill’s regulations on real estate owners would essentially mandate that “landlords sign a contract with a government agency, which they have absolutely no negotiating power over.” 

Bernier, however, acknowledged that many landlords choose not to accept vouchers. He said there is an ebb and flow to voucher acceptance by real estate owners. When prices are more reasonable, he said, more landlords accept vouchers. When costs rise, some landlords stop taking them, Bernier said, arguing that they should have the right to make that decision.

LD 1710 is just the latest in a slate of housing bills introduced by lawmakers this session that advocates hope will help alleviate the state’s dire affordability and homelessness crises. Other measures in that list include bills to protect tenants and a measure to encourage the development of a “housing first” approach to address chronic homelessness. In addition, Gov. Janet Mills has proposed over $90 million in funding in her budget plan meant to help with housing needs in the state.  

Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at evan@mainebeacon.com.

Asset-Manager Firms Are Taking Over the Social Infrastructure on Which We All Depend / by Adam Almeida

An aerial view of a sewage treatment plant. (Silas Stein / picture alliance via Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on May 5, 2023

Review of Our Lives in Their Portfolios: Why Asset Managers Own the World by Brett Christophers (Verso, 2023).

Asset-manager firms like Blackstone have become hugely important players in global capitalism since the 2008 crash. They’re steadily taking control of the social infrastructure that’s essential for human life and using it to generate massive profits.

Asset management is an emerging part of the global financial system that has come to prominence since the great meltdown of 2008. Asset managers invest money on behalf of institutional investors — such as sovereign wealth funds, pension schemes, and insurance companies — to generate enormous profits for themselves and their clients.

In an asset-manager society, firms like Blackstone, Brookfield, and Macquarie act as the shadowy overseers of wealth funds that find a home in the assets that sustain human life, such as housing, energy, and transportation. The questions of how this came about, what the implications are, and who the ultimate winners and losers might be are all explored in brilliant clarity by Brett Christophers in Our Lives in Their Portfolios: How Asset Managers Own the World.

An Invisible String

When my sister-in-law told me that she had been offered a job in human resources for the City of Mississauga, I was extremely happy for her. She would be working for the municipal government of our Canadian hometown, where she would enjoy security of employment, robust benefits, and a healthy pension plan for when she retires. As I recently discovered while reading Our Lives in Their Portfolios, I had already been contributing to her retirement savings for years through a complex and obscure labyrinth of global capital flows.

The pension plan that covers my sister-in-law is the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS), one of the largest public pension plans in Canada. As an institutional investor, OMERS has assets under management valued at Can$124 billion, with most of its exposure in private equity, infrastructure, and real estate.

One of the crown jewels of its portfolio is Thames Water, the private utility company that supplies me with drinking water in north London an ocean away. As OMERS is the largest shareholder in the company, the ever-growing water rates that I pay ensure that my sister-in-law will one day enjoy her golden years in retirement. Simultaneously, however, wastewater treatment plants owned by Thames Water suffer from a lack of investment that threatens to leak raw sewage into the rivers of the Cotswolds and the Chilterns.

An Asset-Manager Society

In Our Lives, Brett Christophers traces the burgeoning of an asset-manager society that is responsible for financial arrangements like the one illustrated above. Christophers is a professor at the Institute for Housing and Urban Research at Uppsala University who has previously written two books for Verso, The New Enclosure (2018) and Rentier Capitalism (2020).

Our Lives is a continuation of ideas and concepts first explored in these books, where he tracked the economic conditions that gave rise to a “rentier class” of proprietors who collect an income solely by owning a scarce resource that can be monopolized. Christophers had already noted the expansion of asset managers within the rentier class, and his latest book shines a spotlight on their activities, operations, and growing prominence since the 2008 financial crisis.

Asset management has come to dominate the financial sector in a remarkably short period of time, and asset managers are now among the most powerful institutions transforming the global economy. Despite their profound extension into innumerable industries and geographies, public awareness and recognition of these economic actors does not align with the scale of their ability to shape modern society.

Christophers provides the reader with a helpful definition in the introductory pages:

Asset managers are private financial firms that manage money on behalf of investors, typically institutional — as opposed to household or “retail” — investors, and in particular pension schemes and insurance companies.

In other words, asset managers are essentially brokers who pair enormous pools of wealth with assets to generate returns on investment. In Our Lives, Christophers discusses the emergence of what he calls an “asset-manager society: a society in which asset managers increasingly own and control our most essential physical systems and frameworks, providing the most basic means of social functioning and reproduction.”

Christophers presents this development in contrast to what other academics, most notably Benjamin Braun, have termed “asset manager capitalism,” or the growing concentration of universal ownership of asset managers in the largest corporations publicly listed on stock exchanges. While the likes of BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street dominate the S&P 500 and FTSE 100, Christophers sets his sights on the control of “real” assets that take a physical form, such as apartment buildings in Madrid, fiber-optic networks in Hawaii, or a subway line in Seoul (all explored as case studies in Our Lives).

Owning the World

Christophers underscores the capture of “real” assets by asset managers in contrast to financial assets, such as stocks, bonds, and debt. The ones that asset managers most desire are those on which we depend for social reproduction. The assets detailed in Our Lives include housing, farmland, energy, transportation, telecoms, water, and social infrastructure (like schools, hospitals, and prisons).

Our Lives introduces us to the players who dominate asset-manager society: Blackstone, Brookfield, and Macquarie. While Blackstone has had a light shone on its activities over the past year, the names of these firms are still not as well-known as they should be despite their undue influence over key societal infrastructure.

Macquarie has its fingerprints all over the financial arrangement noted above between my sister-in-law and me, as it led the consortium that purchased Thames Water in 2006 before selling its final shares in 2017 to OMERS for an estimated £1.35 billion. This transatlantic coincidence should not be too surprising, since, as Christophers points out, the firm “now owns infrastructure on which 100 million people rely each day” around the world.

There is an important clarification to be made on the topic of ownership when discussing asset management. Asset managers seldom own “real” assets directly. In nearly all cases, investment funds that are established and under the control of the asset manager own those assets. In other words, this means Blackstone does not own the apartment you live in, but rather owns and manages the fund that in turn owns the apartment you live in.

This is important to note for a number of reasons, but principally to understand the fundamental role the investment fund plays in the industry. Money is committed by institutional investors such as pension schemes and insurance companies to the investment fund, along with large amounts of debt, to purchase an asset.

Investment funds typically hold only 1 to 5 percent of capital committed by asset managers themselves. Despite the fact that they have minimal “skin in the game,” asset managers recoup a disproportionate amount of the financial gains made through the investment vehicle. This is a result of the fee-generating model that underpins the operations of asset managers.

Institutional investors that commit money for investment are charged a myriad of fees to do so — the most noteworthy being management and performance fees. Management fees are charged to use the services of asset managers, and performance fees are only paid “at a certain level of financial return.”

This means that even when investment funds have disastrous performances, asset managers still make money. According to Christophers, management fees account for roughly 60 percent of profit in real-asset asset management.

Renting and Returns

Another major point that Our Lives highlights is the acquisition of rent-generating assets in the portfolios of asset managers. This is most obvious in the purchase of single- and multifamily homes where tenants live, but we can also identify the acquisition of infrastructural assets through the provision of concessions as rent-generating.

These concessions are time-limited ownership arrangements where the asset manager maintains control and collects any income generated from, for example, a toll road or parking space. In certain instances, the public body that grants the concession will also guarantee a set, recurring income to the owner, regardless of how well the asset performs.

The rental income realized by “real” asset ownership is typically not to the direct benefit of asset managers. Many investment funds are “closed-end,” which means that they have a predetermined lifespan. As a result, all assets must be sold at the point of fund termination — usually seven to twelve years. As those who are already acquainted with asset managers in the housing sector will know, increased rental rates are one of the most common factors associated with asset management.

However, their principal motivation for buying rent-generating assets is the value they hold to future owners at the point of sale. Even if Blackstone currently owns the building you live in — from student accommodation in Leeds or Manchester to mid-market apartments in Tokyo — the firm is not likely to remain your landlord for the long haul. The ultimate goal of an asset-manager society is to derive the highest possible return on investment in the shortest amount of time to the primary benefit of the asset manager, with a new rentier filling the space it leaves behind.

Socializing Risks, Privatizing Gain

Our Lives is an impressive feat, delivering a clear and concise study of a particularly complicated and increasingly important facet of modern capitalist society. Christophers does what few other economists are able to convincingly undertake in less than three hundred pages. He has written a book on the creeping financialization of our daily lives that an informed, generalist audience can understand, and told it through engaging and relatable case studies.

Christophers most likely drew upon his professional background in management consulting, where he worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Mercer for nearly a decade prior to completing his PhD. His ability to provide precise and accurate information will help readers who are probably implicated in the same web of financial arrangements that connect me to my sister-in-law and millions of others along the way.

Of particular interest was the book’s discussion of how the state plays a role in de-risking public assets so as to shepherd in private investment for the outsized benefit of asset managers. The tendency of governments in the Global North to socialize the risk of building or maintaining infrastructural assets while privatizing their profits is deeply concerning in general. But this is especially so in the context of renewable power generation, as the construction of such assets is of existential importance in the face of climate and ecological crisis — and they are expected to generate tremendous profits for decades to come.

Understanding the active role that the state plays in bolstering an asset-manager society adds necessary nuance to discussions of state abandonment that dominate discourse on the Left. Readers will recognize the inability of the state in many contexts to reproduce society: one pertinent example is the failing of public health care systems across the Global North, or the complete lack of such a system in the United States.

There is an increasingly widespread belief that we are experiencing an “organised abandonment” by the state as a result of its absence. However, Our Lives demonstrates that the state continues to play an essential role in these most fundamental infrastructures that sustain human life — while only doing so for the benefit of capitalist interests and not the citizenry it serves.

Pushing Back

One of the most unsettling aspects of Our Lives is the unseen and undue influence of asset managers in transforming our built environment. Christophers notes their growing ability to “frame and facilitate the myriad ‘daily flows and rhythms’ that constitute urban social life” through shaping housing and infrastructure networks.

PULL: The development of an asset-manager society has grave implications for the nature of our social relations and our ability to reproduce society.

One glaring example is the purchase of long-term parking concessions from the City of Chicago by Morgan Stanley Infrastructure Partners (MSIP). Under the terms of the agreement, the city was liable to compensate MSIP for any adverse event that prevented parking meters from being used or the introduction of any new parking facilities that diminished “the monopoly rights and market share of MSIP.”

This meant that the city was forced to limit the construction of bike lanes

and the efficiency of bus rapid-transit routes across Chicago, all to protect the right of the asset manager to collect revenue. MSIP sued the city in 2015 for $62 million due to a breach of the noncompete clause after permitting “a parking garage just one block from one of the concessioned lots.”

The development of an asset-manager society has grave implications for the nature of our social relations and our ability to reproduce society. Our Lives clearly demonstrates that there are few winners and many losers under this model of society, which sees the limitless advance of financial institutions into the structures that sustain human life.

Understanding the actions, operations, and developments of asset managers is essential if we want to reverse their encroachment into our quotidian lives and realize a future where we control the physical world we occupy.

Adam Almeida is a senior data analyst at Common Wealth, where he researches gentrification and housing financialization.

Underscoring urgent need, bill to address chronic homelessness sails out of committee / by Evan Popp

A sign in front of Portland City Hall during the weeks-long encampment in 2020, which called for more support to address the crisis of homelessness in the city. | Beacon

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on May 5, 2023

Underscoring the severity of the crisis, a near unanimous committee vote advanced a measure this week to help address chronic homelessness through instituting a housing first model that provides 24-hour-a-day services to Mainers in need. 

The measure, LD 2, sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), is among a slate of housing bills introduced by lawmakers this session that advocates hope will help alleviate the state’s dire affordability and homelessness crises

As Beacon previously reported, housing first refers to an approach to addressing chronic homelessness in which people are provided housing without preconditions, such as staying sober or needing to obtain a job, along with comprehensive support services. The idea is gaining momentum around the country, including in Maine, where Gov. Janet Mills has backed it. 

Talbot Ross’ bill would establish the Housing First Program within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DDHS). That program would help facilitate around-the-clock services at permanent supportive housing sites for chronically homeless people, defined as those who have lived in a place not meant for human habitation for at least a year. 

LD 2 would also allocate resources for the Maine State Housing Authority to assist with developing more housing first units complete with comprehensive services. 

The bill would be funded by taking half of the money from the real estate transfer tax that would otherwise be deposited into the state’s general fund and putting that into a fund to support the Housing First Program. Talbot Ross has estimated that around $13 million in seed money would be raised using that funding mechanism, with the measure also providing $1 million annually for scattered site housing services, which typically includes groups working with individual landlords to place people in supportive housing units rather than placing them in a site-based housing complex.

The measure was advanced earlier this week by the legislature’s Housing Committee on a 10-2 vote, with two Republicans — Rep. Dick Bradstreet of Vassalboro and Rep. Dick Campbell of Orrington — supporting a version that does not include the creation of two positions within DHHS to implement the initiative. The measure will now face votes on the floor of the House and Senate. 

Legislative supporters and advocates celebrated the committee’s decision to advance the bill. 

“Every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and that means safe shelter and having their basic needs met,” Talbot Ross said in a statement. “LD 2 will both provide vital compassionate care while providing a marked reduction in emergency crisis services, providing a tremendous benefit to the community at large.”

Mark Swann, executive director of the social service group Preble Street, which runs three highly-successful housing first complexes in Portland, also praised the committee’s decision and said he is hopeful that policymakers will give final approval to the bill in the coming months. 

“The Housing Committee promised to tackle the urgent situation facing people who are unhoused and this critical legislation is a very important step forward,” Swann said. “Site-based Housing First with 24/7 onsite social work staff is the most effective solution to chronic homelessness and through this legislation, Maine has a true opportunity to end chronic homelessness.”

The strong Housing Committee vote continues the momentum behind LD 2 and the housing first model, which received widespread support at a public hearing in April, with advocates arguing it would vastly improve the lives of the nearly 700 chronically unhoused people in Maine. 

“A place to call home for this population and supportive services so they stay stable in that home saves our society untold dollars in emergency room visits, law enforcement engagement and, most importantly, untold trauma for these individuals,” Laura Mitchell, executive director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, said at that hearing. 

Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at evan@mainebeacon.com.

Rent control proponents say Portland tenants must mobilize against landlord-backed referendum / by Evan Popp

Photo of Portland by Corey Templeton

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on May 1, 2023

In November, Portland voters approved a ballot measure that limits rent increases to a maximum of 5% after a tenant voluntarily leaves a unit and a new resident comes in. Proponents say that initiative, along with a referendum passed in 2020 to cap rent increases at the rate of inflation and create a board to consider exceptions to price hikes, has allowed Maine’s largest city to implement some of the best protections for tenants on the East Coast amid a pronounced statewide affordable housing crisis. 

The latest protection against increasing rents, however, could be short-lived if a group of landlords gets their way. 

On June 13, Portland voters will consider another referendum, this one spearheaded by the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine, previously known as the Southern Maine Landlord Association. The group, which unsuccessfully sued the city of Portland over the 2020 rent control referendum, spent the winter gathering the signatures needed to place its measure on the June ballot, even as some residents accused the organization’s signature collectors of using deceptive and misleading tactics

The proposed referendum triggered by that campaign would change the part of the 2022 law passed by Portland voters that established 5% as the maximum rent increase a landlord can impose on a new tenant after a previous tenant leaves voluntarily. Under the proposal, property owners would instead be able to increase rent as much as they want in such situations. 

Proponents of rent control are worried about the ballot measure. 

“This is really bad. It’s a pretty clear attempt to undo the rent control laws that Portland has overwhelmingly passed over the last couple of years, twice now,” said Rose DuBois, chair of the Campaign for a Livable Portland, an initiative of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America, which spearheaded the push for the 2020 and 2022 laws. 

Data on how Portland’s rent control initiatives have worked thus far is limited, given that the laws were only passed in the last couple of years. However, the city’s rent board reported that from January 2021 to November 2021, the price of rent-controlled units in the city rose by an average of 1.6% versus an increase in prices of 2.5% for units not subject to rent control rules. 

Sam Spadafore, a tenants’ rights advocate in Portland who opposes June’s landlord-backed referendum, said enforcement of the rent control regulations by the city has been an issue. Still, Spadafore said the measures at least create a legal obligation for landlords to undergo a process before they are allowed to raise rents by a large amount. 

However, in a statement, Rep. David Boyer, a Republican from Poland who owns two housing units in Portland and is involved with the Rental Housing Alliance campaign, argued that the current rent control law needs fixing and asked Portland voters to support the group’s Question A on the ballot.

“The current policy has resulted in tenants having their rents raised yearly,” Boyer said. “Previously, most housing providers only raised the rent once a tenant voluntarily vacated the unit. Yes on A will align Portland’s rent control ordinance with similar rent control laws across the country, while still retaining all existing tenants protections including limits on rent raises and eviction protections.”

But opponents of the June referendum argue that rent control has prevented expensive housing prices in Portland from going even higher. A study from October — before the 5% rent increase cap for a voluntary apartment turnover was passed — found that Portland had among the highest median rents in the country, ranking 18th for the cost of a one-bedroom apartment among cities across the country.

“Rents are already very high in Portland, and the current rent control law is helping stabilize them so they don’t skyrocket even more,” DuBois said. “Undoing that stabilization will allow the rents to just skyrocket, so we need to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Landlords spending big money on referendum  

In a sign of how big a priority the push to roll back rent control is for real estate and property interests, money has poured in to support the proposal. The Committee to Improve Rent Control — a group associated with the Rental Housing Alliance — reported on an April 10 financial report that it had raised nearly $80,000 in support of the referendum. 

Much of that has come in large chunks from landlords or landlord-affiliated groups, including $15,000 from the Rental Housing Alliance itself and $10,000 from the property management company 132 Marginal Way LLC. Furthermore, the Greater Portland Board of Realtors conducted a survey for the committee that amounted to an in-kind contribution of a little over $29,000. 

In contrast, Maine DSA’s Livable Portland Campaign reported raising a little over $5,900 on its April financial report. That type of discrepancy is reminiscent of 2022, when Maine DSA pushed for the successful rent control measure but was defeated on referendums that would have raised the city’s minimum wage to $18 an hour over three years — including for tipped workers — and limited short-term rentals. Maine DSA and grassroots organizers were outspent by corporate opponents 54-1 in that election.  

DuBois criticized the amount of money landlord groups and real estate interests are putting toward the upcoming June referendum. 

“I would just point out that if they have all this money to spend on an election campaign, then maybe we don’t need to be letting them raise rents,” DuBois said. 

Advocates call for mobilization

In response to the significant money being spent by real estate groups, advocates said those who oppose the referendum and want to keep Portland’s rent control laws in place must get organized. 

Spadafore said the stakes are extremely high, arguing that the outcome of the ballot measure could shape the future of the city for years to come. 

“The issue is, we’re not going to have people who work in Portland be able to live here” if the referendum passes, Spadafore said. “We’re already seeing that happen. People are moving to other cities, and then that also in turn … increases the rent in other cities and then we continue to perpetuate this issue of a housing crisis.” 

Spadafore said people who want to see Portland remain affordable must show up and vote in the June 13 election. Landlords and their allies will likely come out in force to vote, making it crucial that tenants do so as well, Spadafore said.

“I just want it to be really clear that people have so much to lose with this one and it only takes a little bit of time to show up to vote,” Spadafore said, urging people to bring their friends to the polls as well. 

DuBois said Maine DSA is starting a field operation in opposition to the referendum, making phone calls, knocking on doors, mailing postcards and passing out flyers. 

DuBois and Spadafore both said the referendum being in June during an off year is a challenge, as many people may not be thinking about voting during that time.

That concern was echoed by Tobin Williamson, advocacy manager for the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC), who said off-cycle elections often feature less participation, particularly among communities of color. 

Williamson said that MIRC worries the Rental Housing Alliance referendum would exacerbate Portland’s housing availability and affordability crisis at a time when shelter beds are being filled rapidly and many asylum-seekers — who can’t work for several months due to federal immigration law — are arriving in Portland.  

“Reducing the already scant availability of affordable housing would also have negative impacts on Portland’s economy, since some workers would no longer be able to afford to live near their work,” he said. “Moreover, raising rents in Portland would hardly be a solution to Maine’s housing crisis; if nothing else, it would make it even worse.” 

Portland is just one part of Maine’s housing crisis 

Along with Portland, prices are high across Maine, as fair market rents have risen in Maine every year since 2020 and are projected to rise in 2023 once more, according to MaineHousing. In addition, the state continues to grapple with a shortage of about 20,000 affordable housing units, with an estimated 27,000 Maine households on the waitlist for Section 8 vouchers. All of that comes as the number of eviction filings in the state jumped 27% in 2022 over 2021. 

In response to those issues, advocates partnered with Maine legislators to introduce a slate of housing justice bills this year. Within the slate are measures to prevent retaliatory evictions, bar landlords from discriminating against tenants with a previous eviction, increase the notice at-will tenants must receive before an eviction, provide more notice to tenants for rent increases, ban rental application fees, and ensure that those facing eviction have access to legal representation, among others. 

The bills, however, have sparked an onslaught of opposition from landlords that seems to be having an impact. Last month, the Democratic-led Judiciary Committee advanced a number of those bills after introducing amendments that significantly reduced the scope of the proposals. 

Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at evan@mainebeacon.com.

Austria’s Communists Are Showing How Class Politics Is Done / by Adam Baltner

Communist Party of Austria leader Kay-Michael Dankl at a demonstration with fellow party members and supporters in September, 2022. (@kay_dankl / Twitter)

Originally published in Jacobin on April 27, 2023

In Sunday’s state elections in Salzburg, Austria, the Communist Party scored 12% of the vote. Their success mobilizing around housing issues shows that a focus on working people’s material needs can rally support even in long-conservative areas.

On Sunday, April 23, Austria’s political landscape was rocked by a true earthquake. In legislative elections in the state of Salzburg, where conservative and far-right parties combined currently control over 60 percent of the seats, the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) won 11.7 percent and thirty-one thousand of the votes cast. This result put the party in fourth place, behind the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP, 30.4 percent), the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ, 25.7 percent), and the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ, 17.9 percent) — yet ahead of the Greens, as well as NEOS, a libertarian party which missed the threshold to return to the state parliament.

This result is striking in many respects. The last and only time that the KPÖ had earned a mandate in a Salzburg state election was in 1945, off the back of the Allied victory in World War II, when it managed a modest 3.8 percent of the vote. In most Salzburg state elections since then, the Communists have not even cracked the 1 percent mark — when they have bothered to run at all. In the last election in 2018, they received a mere 0.4 percent and one thousand votes.

Yet the KPÖ’s success is not just unprecedented for Salzburg state. Before Sunday, the party had never managed a double-digit result in any Austrian state election. Even in Styria — for decades the only Austrian state with Communist representatives in its legislature — the party won 6 percent of the vote and two mandates in 2019, the most recent election year. Now it will likely control four of the thirty-six seats in the next Salzburg state legislature.

The KPÖ also gave a strong showing in the city of Salzburg itself — the fourth-largest in Austria, with over one hundred fifty thousand people. There, it came in second place with 21.5 percent of the vote, only three points behind the ÖVP. This result approaches typical KPÖ electoral performances in the Styrian capital of Graz, the Communists’ national stronghold, where local party chair Elke Kahr won a surprise victory with 28.8 percent of the vote in the 2021 municipal election. Since then, Kahr has served as the only Communist mayor of a major European city. Yet with the next Salzburg municipal election scheduled for 2024, there is already speculation in national media about whether a second Austrian state capital could soon be governed by a Communist.

A Surprise With a Long Prehistory

Many analyses of the KPÖ’s Salzburg surprise have focused on the young, charismatic candidate at the top of the party’s electoral list, the thirty-four-year-old historian and museum tour guide Kay-Michael Dankl. A native of Salzburg city who spent part of his teenage years in Tucson, Arizona, the plain-spoken Dankl comes off as authentic and genuine. According to the initial reactions on election night, he was especially successful in winning over voters who feel alienated from the political status quo.

Yet the fact that Dankl stood for election as a Communist was hardly inevitable. Dankl’s political career began during his time at the University of Salzburg, where he became active in the student organization of Austria’s Green Party. Later, from 2015–17, he headed the Greens’ party school in Salzburg and served as the leader of their national youth organization, the Young Greens. But when the Young Greens criticized the Greens’ lack of class politics and internal democracy several months prior to the 2017 Austrian parliamentary election, they were unceremoniously expelled from their mother party.

Instead of giving up, Dankl and the Young Greens decided to campaign with the KPÖ under the auspices of an electoral alliance named KPÖ PLUS (PLUS stands for Plattform Unabhängig und Solidarisch or Independent Solidarity Platform). At the time, the KPÖ had no more than a few thousand, mostly older members and virtually zero national relevance — think Democratic Socialists of America prior to 2016. Though it stood candidates in parliamentary elections, it rarely earned more than 1 percent of the vote.

Outside of Styria, there was little consistent activity between elections, apart from the odd standing meeting that some local chapters still held at the district office or pub. Nevertheless, for the young activists looking to engage in class politics, the KPÖ ultimately seemed like a good fit. And in light of Austria’s looming lurch to the right — which came to pass when ÖVP candidate Sebastian Kurz won the 2017 election and formed a coalition government with the FPÖ — they viewed precisely this kind of politics as the order of the day: according to the analysis of Dankl and other Young Greens at the time, “the rightward lurch in Austria can only be stopped by a strong movement from below.”

KPÖ PLUS only finished with 0.7 percent in the 2017 parliamentary election. However, the electoral campaign itself initiated a process of mutual learning between the old, historically aware Communist cadre and the young, motivated activists, paving the way for future cooperation. Shortly thereafter in 2018, the Young Greens refounded themselves as the Young Left. They also began receiving financial support from the KPÖ and now function as a de facto youth organization of the party.

In recent years, a number of current and former members of the Young Greens/Young Left — including Dankl — have also joined the KPÖ. The merging of these two milieus — of the knowledge and experience of the older generation with the energy and enthusiasm of the younger — has formed the basis of an emergent left-wing force that was desperately missing from the Austrian political scene. And now, the years of work that have gone into building this force are starting to bear fruit.

Styrian Model

The majority of the new KPÖ activists from Young Greens/Young Left circles are not from Styria and were not socialized politically in the Styrian party organization’s networks. Yet as most of them are too young to have firsthand experience of the infighting between the Styrian KPÖ and the national party leadership during the tumultuous 1990s, they have been able to more impartially adopt the far more successful approach of their Styrian comrades. Above all, this model entails a clear focus on issues that affect the day-to-day lives of all working people. Moreover, it’s maintained outside of election campaigns through a highly concrete and personal form of engagement.

This is precisely the model that Dankl has pursued in Salzburg since 2019, when he first ran in a municipal election in the state capital. Similar to former KPÖ Graz chairman Ernest Kaltenegger in the 1980s, Dankl focused his campaign predominantly on housing — a logical choice given that Salzburg has the second-highest rent prices of any Austrian city. In doing so, he managed to win 3.7 percent of the vote and a seat on the city council. This strategy was based on the simple recognition that the KPÖ can use the issue of housing not only to drive a wedge through local politics but also to attract strong support outside of the Left’s ever-dwindling core electorate.

As the only Communist member of the Salzburg city council, Dankl has placed great emphasis on grassroots work and personal contact with his constituents. Drawing on a long-established practice of the Styrian KPÖ, he holds regular office hours when people come by to discuss their everyday problems. Of the €1,800 he earns each month as a city councilmember, he donates €400 to a social fund set up to provide financial assistance to people in need.

Some leftists criticize this practice as a form of charity as opposed to politics. In fact, it is better understood as propaganda of the deed: by offering others concrete assistance with their own resources, KPÖ politicians have proven their credibility and earned voters’ trust. And although this practice will hardly bring about structural transformation in itself, it has helped Austria’s Communists in office understand which structural transformations are most urgently needed, which has in turn influenced the specific demands of the party’s electoral platforms.

By providing direct support in this manner and maintaining a focus on the issue of affordable housing over his four years as a city councilman, Dankl has made his name as a genuine champion of the interests of working people. To be sure, he and his party are far removed from having attracted the support of a broad majority of Austrians. Yet they have demonstrated that it is possible even in conservative regions to win people over to a left-wing project that unites reforms in the here and now with a vision of a different society. One can only hope that socialists elsewhere will take note.

Adam Baltner is a teacher and translator in Vienna, Austria. He is an editor at mosaik-blog.at.

Connecticut Communists issue emergency housing program / C.D. Carlson

EVICTED: City-hired movers carry out a former tenants’ belongings from a house in Norwalk, Ct. | Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Newspapers via AP

Originally published in the People’s World on April 19, 2023

HARTFORD, Conn.—Tired of the same old system, a rising movement is organizing around the cornerstone principle that all people have the right to housing. In Connecticut, the movement is organizing for secure and stable housing as a means of creating a fairer, more stable, and more reliable democracy that puts the interests of working people before the interests of profit.

Last week, the Connecticut Communist Party USA issued an urgent program calling on all communities in the state to declare a housing emergency. The program grew out of the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic and the formation of a broad coalition of struggle to address working class needs, specifically the need to be free from arbitrary and aggressive evictions and the need for affordable housing.

The program, available online in full, draws a picture of a small state that has been hammered by an aggressive inflow of capital that has destabilized communities and harmed working renters and homeowners in the name of profit.

Recognizing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where the United Nations stated all people have the right to housing, the program critiques the capitalist system that routinely fails to provide for the needs of people, opting instead to commodify housing in order to provide maximum profits for a corporate ruling class at the expense of people and planet.

The program describes in great detail the crisis in Connecticut that was kicked into overdrive by COVID-19. For example, the program makes clear that during the pandemic institutional investors like Blackstone and UBS Realty Investors flocked to the state for the sole purpose of land speculation, to flip housing, and jack up rents.

At the same time, big business in the state thrived; 12 Connecticut billionaires acquired $15 billion in value while essential and low-wage workers struggled to get by.

This squeeze on working people—being pressed in a vice of land speculation and capitalist exploitation—has caused wild disruption in housing and is gutting communities. For example, as rents have risen, 68% of workers in Connecticut now spend more than half their income on rent. This incredible pressure has led to a rise in homelessness for the first time in ten years.

The state has struggled to provide for the needs of the people being thrown into homelessness: Only one third of the people who call 2-1-1 for emergency housing are able to get placements—the remainder are left outside.

The program explains that the burden of high rent and evictions is borne disproportionately by Black and Latino residents, who are twice as likely to be evicted than white renters. Likewise, working mothers account for 56% of eviction filings, and the LGBTQ community and the undocumented are subjected to disastrous rates of discrimination and harm.

Despite these horrendous conditions, the program notes that the movement is rising and winning victories, raising class consciousness around the issue of landlord speculation along the way. For example, a diverse working-class coalition of housing activists in Connecticut won action by the state legislature establishing Right to Counsel in 2021, a program that gives tenants the right to an attorney in housing court.

This program has blunted arbitrary and aggressive evictions, as 76% of tenants with a lawyer are able to now avoid an eviction judgment and 71% are now able to avoid involuntary moves.

Building off that victory, door-knocking across the state was launched to build support for a statewide 2.5% rent cap. The coalition expanded to include unions and community groups. This broad coalition of working-class organizations organized hundreds of people to give their testimonies to the legislature’s Housing Committee in a hearing that ran 20 hours through the night and into the morning.

Workers sharing horror stories of eviction and severe hardship that resulted from skyrocketing rents—sometimes doubled rents imposed with little notice—far outnumbered the corporate landlords five-to-one in the longest public hearing in living memory.

While corporate interests were able to block legislation in this session, the movement carries on, as 72% of Connecticut workers continue to demand a cap on rent.

The program closes with a ten-point emergency program directed at local and state governments:

  1. Immediately declare a state of emergency and continue and expand all protections against evictions and foreclosures put in place during the pandemic.
  2. Enact a 2.5% annual rent cap, coupled with rules preventing rent increases from one tenant to the next and a prohibition on no-cause evictions.
  3. Eliminate systemic inequalities and discrimination; enforce anti-discrimination laws against redlining and other harmful practices by large landlords and lenders; require municipal zoning laws that allow for multi-family and affordable housing units; enact rules that seal eviction and foreclosure records so landlords cannot use that information to discriminate against tenants who enforce their rights.
  4. Require representative fair rent commissions in all municipalities and give standing to tenant unions before those commissions; defend the right to organize tenant unions and enact rules that require the recognition of those unions by their landlords.
  5. Allocate sufficient resources to expand the Right to Counsel program to cover every municipality in the state.
  6. Expand state and federal rental assistance for low- and moderate-income households, including for the unhoused.
  7. Enforce equal protection from environmental and health hazards in housing.
  8. Increase real estate conveyance taxes and fees on the large investors buying up single family and rental properties and use those funds to create affordable units.
  9. Enact the Equity Agenda put forth by Recovery for All to tax the rich and provide relief to renters and homeowners. The Equity Agenda would increase revenue by $1.24 -1.44 billion per year through a 2-mill statewide property tax on commercial and residential properties worth more than $1.5 million, a 5 percent surtax on capital gains for people earning more than $500,000, raising the corporate tax rate, and a 10 percent digital advertising tax on companies earning more than $10 billion. It would create three new tax brackets with higher tax rates for people earning more than $1 million, $10 million and $25 million. The agenda includes tax relief for the poor and middle class by spending annually: $49 million to maintain the state’s income tax credit; $250 million to double the child tax credit to $500; $180-240 million to double the property tax credit to $600; and $180-240 million to provide property tax relief to seniors.
  10. Make a historic national public investment in affordable housing by reallocating funds from the excessive military budget to our communities as part of a just transition to a green, peace economy.

The report concludes with a quote from a working-class mother of color. In Spanish, she recounted her children’s struggle with a recent eviction and unhealthy living conditions: “It is stressful and inhuman not to find affordable housing, because it is a human right to have a roof and stay in the community. Displacement is abusive much more for children.”

The movement is stepping forward.

C.D. Carlson writes from Connecticut.

Mainers back $200 million proposal to build affordable housing / by Dan Neumann

Activists with Housing Justice Maine call on state lawmakers in 2021 to create affordable housing. | Beacon

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on April 15, 2023

Housing advocates and developers are speaking out in favor of legislation proposing a $200 million investment to increase the affordable housing stock in the state.

They say that’s just the beginning of what’s needed to address Maine’s housing emergency.

“We have reached a crisis point. ​​We can’t water that down,” said Laura Mitchell, the director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, which represents housing developers. “We are decades behind in building housing. It’s been since the 1970s that we last met the demand. Our workforce concerns are because of our lack of housing.”

Rep. Rebecca Millett, a Democrat representing Cape Elizabeth, introduced LD 226  at a public hearing held by the legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Housing on Friday. The bill would allocate $200 million from the state’s general fund through fiscal year 2025 to go toward the construction of affordable housing.

As Beacon previously reported, 40% of Maine renters are considered cost-burdened by rent, while homelessness has increased and there is still a shortage of over 20,000 affordable housing units in the state.

Housing advocates insist that the state needs to be building around 1,000 units a year to meet the scale of the problem. Maine currently produces far less than that through existing funding streams.

Millett explained during the hearing that the average fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Maine is $1,045. In order for a person to afford this, while spending the advised 30% of their income on housing, they would need to make $20.10 an hour. Maine’s minimum wage is $13.80.

“That’s staggering,” she said. “This squeeze means that Mainers have less money for other necessities like nutritious food, transportation and health care, let alone retirement savings.” 

In 2021, as housing prices spiked in Maine during the pandemic, Millett led the effort to secure $100 million to build approximately 1,200 energy-efficient units while also improving labor standards through the use of Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). Her legislation passed but was pared back to $20 million by the legislature’s budget-making committee.

She said the demand for housing far outpaces what was approved that year and even what is proposed this year.

“I do believe that the need is even bigger than that,” Millett said. “The $200 million is more of a determination of the state’s capacity, because the need is huge.”

Millett’s bill is just one of a series of measures introduced this session to address the housing crisis. Housing advocates at the public hearing Friday advised lawmakers to approach the issue from all sides. That means investing in new construction while at the same time funding rental assistance (a federal emergency rental assistance program run by the state lapsed at the end of last year) and passing tenant protections.  

Millett’s funding proposal will be considered alongside housing priorities laid out in Gov. Janet Mills’ budget plan, released in January, that calls for allocating $30 million to the Rural Affordable Rental Housing Program and the federal Low-Income Housing Credit Program — two private-public development partnerships overseen by MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority, through which they issue tax subsidies or forgivable loans to entice developers to build affordable units or refurbish old buildings.

Erik Jorgensen, MaineHousing’s director of government relations, told lawmakers in a budget hearing in February that the governor’s proposed $30 million would build an estimated 250 affordable housing units. The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee boosted the proposal to $40 million and the final sum will be determined later this session as lawmakers approve a supplemental budget.

Advocates say that is still far below what is needed.

“There are a number of solutions we have proposed and needs that we have identified, but the most simple and important solution is this: build more housing,” said Ruben Torres of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. “This is not an immigrant-specific issue. This is not a Portland-specific issue. This is an issue that affects all of us from all parts of the state.”

Affordable housing developers and advocates alike agree that the lack of affordable housing drives a vicious cycle in Maine, driving young workers out of a state already hobbled by an aging and declining workforce. 

They said now is the time to break that cycle.

“We need to be looking back at this period in time and say, ‘We did the right thing. We took care of our people and we invested at a bold level to start to meet that demand,’” Mitchell said.

Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at dan@mainebeacon.com.