Housing Everyone

Housing is a problem everywhere, but nowhere is it as bad as it is in San Francisco. I had an idea a few years ago which inspired me to go back to school and study this issue in depth in order to deploy this potential solution. This is why I chose to move to the city where this problem is worst in order to study this problem and this potential solution.

As a student at SFSU majoring in Urban Studies with minors in Racial Resistance and Queer Ethnic Studies, I learned from leaders in both the non-profit and for-profit housing development sectors as well as the the financial side of the issue, the public policy stream, and the advocacy stream. Together these forces try to improve conditions and ameliorate the housing crisis, with limited success.

Lots of housing is being built; luxury condos. This displaces the people who already lived in the neighborhood and drives cost of living up. Combined with busing rich people into this new neighborhood, this can mean the theft of entire communities by wealthy people who pave over the existing culture and erase generations of history. This forces marginalized people into denser living situations and further depresses the remaining affordable neighborhoods. We call this social problem gentrification.

Gentrification is different from development. Gentrification is development which displaces marginalized people from existing communities and replaces them with privileged people. Development can sometimes be good, but gentrification is always bad.

“Affordable” vs “affordable”

It’s not possible to build affordable housing that is a good investment. Therefore there are two ways that affordable housing may exist.

There are several different ways the word affordable works with regard to housing. What does it mean for housing to be affordable? It means that the monthly price of the unit is less than 30% of the median income in the same community. Let’s say the median income is $1,000/month. An affordable unit of housing would have to cost less than $300/month.

The problem with the standard definition of affordable housing should be obvious. Even if there is “affordable” housing available, it’s only affordable for the top-half of the income percentiles.

Now let’s talk about the two types of affordable housing.

Capital-A affordable generally means housing that is subsidized by government programs. If I am living in the example community I just gave, and I’m only earning $500/month, then a unit that’s affordable for me would be $150/month. Therefore government programs will pay the difference. If I find a unit that costs $2200/month then the government will pay the remaining $2,050 each month so I can afford the unit. I hope this looks like a ridiculous solution to this problem, because it is.

Little-A affordable means housing whose price is already affordable. Typically this is going to be in depressed communities with a history of redlining and systemic racism. The effect of these low prices is that rich people will take these units and drive the prices in the community up. Thus eliminating any affordable units through gentrification.

The solution seems obvious to me. We need a lot more units, and we need them everywhere.

Why is this still a problem?

As I see it, there are two major fundamental problems — especially in San Francisco — which contribute to gentrification. Officially, we have fines for luxury condo developers who neglect to include affordable units in new construction. These fines are typically about 10% of the cost of building those affordable units. Therefore, almost no one builds affordable units. When they do, residents are often excluded from the building’s amenities and given a separate “poor door” around the corner which accesses the affordable units.

In other cities like Portland, developers of large projects can be required to provide identical units to residents with rents based on their income rather than market prices. This means developers do not have the opportunity to pay tiny fines and skip the affordable units; all the units must be affordable based on the income of the residents.

The second major fundamental problem is the cost per unit to construct affordable housing. Like most cities, the developer industry in San Francisco is an oligopoly with a small number of firms controlling the market and openly colluding to artificially inflate prices and prevent competition. This means the cost per unit to construct affordable housing is now up to a million dollars. This makes those tiny in lieu fees look very attractive to developers who have no rational reason to build affordable units which can never break even.

What would be better?

Everyone deserves dignity and housing. Currently, cities in California are required to investigate the progress they’re making in addressing the unmet need for housing. Unfortunately there is no requirement that they actually do anything about the problem or that they actually meet their housing needs. Consequently, some cities are officially projecting they will meet their current needs in about eight-hundred years.

Solving social problems is hard. It takes a lot of work from a lot of angles, and it takes proposed solutions. I am planning to approach this problem from three angles.

First, we need to build an activist organization devoted to building as much housing as possible.

Second, we need new solutions to dramatically reduce the cost of building housing.

Third, we need powerful and ethically-constrained corporate interests fighting both the market and the political system to accomplish the goal of housing everyone.

What would it look like?

I propose a radical shift to a completely different strategy from what has been tried before. There are several firms attempting to develop modular construction techniques. None of them sells a single unit which is ready to live in. They often sell sections of framing which still need siding, plumbing, and electrical installed.

I propose to manufacture complete units ready to live in.

By building these units inside shipping containers, they can then be dropped in place and even stacked ten stories high. This is what they are designed for; on ships crossing the high seas.

These units would have a front-door and a rear balcony or porch. Simple plumbing and electrical connections allow easy installation of a single unit in a back yard or in a drop-in mid-rise residential tower.

Imagine if Tesla or Solar City were selling apartments instead of cars. You call or go online and make an order, then a team comes to install it. Everything from financing to electrical and plumbing is built in to the process. You have a single point of contact and everything is taken care of.

This allows us to take advantage of dramatic recent progress in ADU deregulation.  This policy change allows us to pit NIMBY against NIMBY; every back yard becomes a rental unit which helps bring the prices down.

The other huge opportunity is disaster response. A single cargo ship can hold ten thousand shipping containers. Imagine sending ten thousand homes to the site of a disaster. From ships to trains to trucks, the infrastructure is already in place to cheaply ship these units anywhere in the world.

Endless Options

Part of what’s so exciting about this idea is the fact that there are several different options. The various shapes and sizes of these containers are designed to lock together into large structures. This means we can easily build an extremely strong tower containing lots of different sizes and types of units. These towers are designed to tilt back and forth to extreme angles on a constant basis on cargo ships. This means these structures will be extremely resistant to earth quakes and other environmental problems associated with the ongoing collapse of the biosphere.

We can cheaply build affordable units, and we can also cheaply build luxury units. Combining these in interesting ways lets us create integrated communities consistent with the design principles of new urbanism.

Perhaps most significant is the opportunity to integrate self-contained, closed-loop, off-grid systems. We can easily make these units solar powered. We can easily make these units filter their own drinking water from wells or creeks and integrate septic systems to cleanly and safely dispose of the waste. Creating this integrated housing solution with an eye on permaculture and designing for closed-loop systems-thinking means anyone can live anywhere and get their needs met whether they’re in a desert or a rainforest.

Philanthropic Arm

Equally important to the idea of manufacturing these units is the idea of having a nonprofit arm which builds lots of affordable housing units and then manages them. This will allow us to have a widespread impact on the housing crisis while also being our own biggest customer.

One of the most exciting parts of the business model is the idea of “housing credits.” I want to create a new tool for those who want to help solve the housing crisis. Most large companies buy carbon offsets which fund the offsetting of their carbon impact. I want to create housing credits which offset the effects of companies contributing to demographic shifts in communities where their employees displace existing residents.

Desert Farming Is Better

This title may sound contradictory but I’d like to persuade you that it actually makes more sense. Desertification is spreading around the world. Additionally, high deserts like those present in Nevada will be less susceptible to the effects of climate change such as wildfires and sea level rise.

Climate collapse is already driving migration in the United States and around the world. This trend will continue to accelerate and grow as conditions worsen. The biosphere is already collapsing. Even if we suddenly change course 180 degrees and get serious about fundamentally changing everything about society and the economy; it’s too late to avert the next few decades of disasters which will themselves speed up the process. Desertification is perhaps the least terrible of the disasters that’s coming, and one of the easiest to embrace now.

Xericulture is not going to make you a rich farmer. It’s not about capitalist profit motives. Instead, it’s about learning to conserve rather than consume and produce enough to thrive and share.

Perhaps the most important reason desert farming is the right place to learn about living sustainably is the fact that being away from readily consumable resources means being forced to consider the inputs and outputs of your community and to use your resources carefully, conserving rather than consuming.

Blue Gold: Water Capture and Reuse

In Taos New Mexico, The Eathship Academy builds permaculture homesteads from recycled materials. In a region that gets just a few inches of rain per year, these homesteads are sometimes constructed like funnels to catch and store that rainwater…

Taos rain catcher roof

The community’s members have developed techniques to safely store, use, and reuse this limited water supply over and over.

Greenhouse aquaculture allows the earthship residents to grow fish in their homes, using the liquid waste products from fish and humans to feed their food crops. This technique (called aquaponics) also allows bacteria, plants, and fungi to continuously clean and recycle the limited water supply.

Desert Food Crops

There are many food crops that thrive in deserts. One example is Indian Rice Grass, a historical staple food of the high deserts of the Americas.

Less Water + More Food

According to research from Cal Poly, this kind of closed-loop aquaponics system conserves 99.75% of the water. This means it uses 90% less water compared to conventional farming techniques while actually growing more food and allowing all of it to happen anywhere, even in a greenhouse in the desert.

Simple filtration systems allow the water in the fish tanks to be reused as potable once again for showers or drinking water. Using staged mesh filters as described here makes most of the filters permanent and eliminates the need to replace disposable filters. Sediments collected by the mesh fitlers goes into the compost process.

Black Gold: Composting

There are three main inputs for the compost loop. First, human solid wastes. Second, fish solid waste which is automatically filtered using simple techniques. Third, green waste from food crops. Together these three inputs form the next generation of compost. This compost allows future food crops as well as serving as a product to be sold or donated to neighbors and other communities.

Regenerativity Is Built-In

I hope a theme is evolving in your mind while you read this. See how each form of waste becomes useful and is leveraged as a valuable asset rather than something to be discarded? See how these simple techniques and systems manage themselves with very little work from the community members? This is the thesis of closed-loop regenerative design in intentional communities. More than just being a sustainable process, the wastes actually create new value for the community; this means that the community can actually be regenerated rather than burdened by its outputs.

Born of Necessity

Desertification is spreading to cover the globe. The biosphere is collapsing, and it’s going to take with it the economy we rely on to provide for our needs. Even America is seeing the effects, and it’s likely to get a lot worse in short order.

Embracing these techniques and methods now gives us an advantage once society begins to realize it is collapsing along with the biosphere. People say we should be the change we want to see; but beyond that, we can be the survivors we want to see. We can model how to minimize personal impact while also modeling how to survive the collapse of capitalism and the biosphere.

Embracing desert permaculture now will put us in a much better position as things continue to get worse around the world and at home.

Desolation

I recently spent several weeks of solitude in the desolation wilderness writing about an idea I’ve been working on. Here are my notes from that trip.

Shared foundational assumptions

  1. First let’s assume David Harvey’s argument that communities are an urban process, not just a place. That process becomes an argument for how communities should be. If we leave communities alone and don’t plan them, then they become deeply unjust. We must therefore carefully articulate arguments about what kind of communities we want, or else we can not possibly get there.
  2. Let’s further assume Kate Raworth’s arguments about doughnut economics. Planetary boundaries exist; natural resources have limits. People should not be forced to live below a certain quality of life. Infinite unlimited growth is not possible and as a goal it creates harm while ignoring suffering and injustice. Focusing on improving quality of life and sustainability are better goals.
  3. First let’s start with a bit of context for this one. Capitalism is different from mercantilism. There is nothing inherently wrong with people buying and selling things; mercantilism is good. Capitalism is the hoarding of wealth by the rich based on exploiting the poor. Capitalism is an engine that creates inequality and harms. Capitalism is the reason for the lack of affordable housing, a problem it is not able to address.  Neoliberalism is the argument that capitalism is somehow a cure for social problems rather than the cause of social problems. Modern capitalism and neoliberalism are inseparable because of neoclassical economics which forms the foundation of both philosophies. Neoclassical economics does not work. So let’s further assume we reject neoliberalism, capitalism, and neoclassical economics which are three ways of saying the same thing in this context.
  4. Systems thinking: a community is not just the community or even just the process. It is also its inputs and outputs. Close these loops! Within every challenge lies an opportunity. Turn waste into compost. Turn roofs into rainwater collectors. Turn solutions into tools for others to use to liberate themselves like we have.

What are the major problems we face in our communities today?

The lack of sufficient affordable housing is widespread and pervasive despite the fact that there are plenty of homes to house everyone. Affordable housing does not exist for most people, and can not exist under capitalism.

Poverty is widespread and pervasive and forms the foundation for most social problems because of strain and lack of access to vital resources like food, clean water, healthcare and education. Poverty is the result of a flawed system which combines two unjust circumstances: pay-to-live and lack-of-opportunity.

Hunger is widespread and pervasive despite the fact that we grow plenty of food to feed everyone and most food that is grown goes to waste rather than to feeding hungry people.

Along with hunger goes access to clean water; most people around the world and many people across America have no access to clean water, despite the fact that there is more than enough clean water for everyone. Instead of building pipelines to bring that water to those who need it, we build pipelines to bring oil from those same areas in order to further pollute the world instead of providing for the basic needs of the people.

The fact that so many people’s basic needs are not met by the system prevents those people from self-actualizing and reaching their full potential. The cost of this failure to society and individuals is incalculable.

What would be a better way of doing communities?

A good community is one that continuously develops itself as a sustainable city which meets the basic needs of all its members and provides them with the tools and resources they need to self-actualize and go on to do whatever they want to do with their lives. (Food, water, housing, electricity, internet access, healthcare)

A sustainable community meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. (Brundtland)

A good community is just by design, providing additional help to those who need it.

A good community is resilient, planning to survive the coming disasters in an uncertain future with a collapsing biosphere.

A good community is one where everyone strives to work fewer hours and consume less resources (electricity, water, food, etc). Well-being and quality of life become the objectives rather than infinitely-increasing productivity (GPD, fiscal growth, etc). Raworth and others call this concept de-growth.

A good community is one where the community owns the land together and makes careful decisions about its use, rather than giving land to capitalists who displace the poor and members of minority groups.

A good community is one where decision making is transparent and inclusive, requiring the consent of the people in the community.

A good community is one where community goals and priorities align closely with things like the sustainable development goals, the doughnut economics model, planned resiliency, arcology, and permaculture.

A good community uses domes, greenhouses, aquaculture, and other methods for producing the maximum amount of nutrient-dense food with the minimum amount of labor.

A good community works to spread its ideas by starting new communities elsewhere and sharing lessons learned.

What advantages would such a community have?

A community such as I have outlined would have many natural advantages. Perhaps the most significant is resiliency; the community would be able to survive unexpected disasters and stressors.

Such a community would be able to devote a significant portion of its time and resources to fulfilling its own needs and the needs of its neighbors.

One easy way to bring money in is by doing what Taos, Arcosanti, and Biosphere 2 have done; bring people to visit and learn about the results of the argument we are making. Have camping and events, bus people in from major cities, give tours and talks, and take other steps to spread the ideas that will change and improve communities everywhere.

Additionally there are a huge number of natural advantages and opportunities for producing goods and services which allow others to adopt similar positive change in their own communities. For example food, water, reusable containers, low-impact soaps and sustainable cleaning products, etc.

Closing loops for things like water and compost allows waste products to become valuable resources. Check out this longer post about that topic.

Another example of an opportunity is to sell the subsistence products such as vegetables and fruits which the community grows. This would also be a great way to connect and network with neighbors by hosting a farmers market or taking produce to external farmers markets.

What are some examples of similar communities that already exist?

Oneida was a utopian socialist commune which made a fortune producing and selling flatware for decades. You can still buy their flatware in most any department store.

Arcosanti is a proof of concept community from visionary architect Paolo Soleri whose goal was to fuse architecture with ecology, creating communities with integrated planning for their inputs, outputs, and fulfilling the needs of citizens. Arcosanti also famously makes unique, one-of-a-kind bronze wind bells which they sell both online and in-person.

Biosphere 2 is a long-term closed experiment in ecological systems research. It contains seven enclosed biomes full of plants, animals, and people working together to learn about how to be a good community in concert with its local ecology.

Taos Earthship Academy is a community of permaculture homesteads constructed from recycled materials with the intent of living sustainably and teaching others to duplicate their amazing results.

Faerie sanctuaries are the modern implementation of the radical faerie philosophy of queer ancom. There are countless examples spread all over the world of shared houses and small or large communities working on queer intentional communities which host events, produce their own food, and try to live sustainably.

Freedom Georgia Initiative is a community currently being built by a group of black families who wanted to create a safe place for black people. Together, 19 families purchased an entire town! They are building on a long history of black cooperatives doing similar work.

Farming communities in Bangladesh are turning the impacts of rising water and invasive species into an advantage. By collecting invasive floating plants like water hyacinth and lashing them together, they are able to build floating garden beds like their ancestors used. Crops are planted into the beds and then able to access the water below, all without any soil.

How do we get there?

The early steps for this kind of development might include the purchase of a large piece of semi-remote land. This land should get lots of sunlight and be at a high enough altitude to avoid rising sea levels and the smoke of burning forests. At the time of this writing, 400 acres in Nevada can be had for $30k-50k. High deserts are sort of perfect. It’s too easy to consume resources that are readily available. Choosing to locate away from flammable forests where closed systems or resource recycling become mandatory is a good step in the right direction.

Next, a nonprofit or similar entity should be created to allow the community to act together. The organizational structure should include as voting members everyone in community with provisions for incorporating new members as the population grows.

A land trust or similar legal framework should be created to ensure the ownership of the land remains with the community rather than any private entity. The entity constructed in the previous step should have the exclusive right to make decisions about the land through democratic processes.

I would highly recommend making every effort to insulate the overall legal entity from inevitable factionalism and internal political conflict by creating sub-units for different groups throughout the community. One useful model might be the way camps are assigned sections of land at black rock city by the larger organization. Decisions about which groups get to use the land go to the community and the larger organization while decisions about the way the land is used fall to the smaller organizations, with annual review by the larger community. This insulates the political issues of smaller camps from the decisions about placement by the larger community. It also prevents anyone from excluding anyone else from the city.