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Making housing commons possible: inclusivity and autonomy

Federico Savini 

Housing commons can offer a real alternative to current housing markets. In this post, I will discuss how housing commons can ensure autonomy of communities while at the same time being also inclusive. Inclusive autonomy is one of the core principles of the housing project de Nieuwe Meent.

Autonomy and freedom

The largest victory of neo-liberal ideology is having convinced masses of people that individual private property is a way to social, economic and political emancipation. In housing, this ideology translated into a fierce policy strategy towards individual home ownership. In the last two decades, governments and banks have fueled homeownership through debt, facilitating the issuing of credit to families of all income levels, often through subprime mortgages. Private ownership has been narrated as a way to individual well-being, freedom and independency. Through private home ownership, households would also access the advantages of rent, through the dream of steady valuation of real-estate properties. Through mortgages, financial institutions would then be able to leverage capital and fuel new economic activities.

The explosion of the housing bubble in 2008 has revealed the fallacy of this ideology. Too many families have become slaves of their own debts; many have been evicted because of their insolvency, while many others have become permanently dependent on multiple jobs to survive. At the same time, the housing market has turned into a wild competition. Wealthier investors are free to accumulate multiple properties, while those that cannot access credit are displaced to the outer edges of cities.

This ideology of individual home ownership results from an artificial distortion of the notion of autonomy. The meaning of autonomy was conflated with that of individual freedom and independence. It was understood in an atomist way and as subsumed to individual freedom: somebody is autonomous if she/he/them has the ability to own or dispose of something.

Autonomy has a very different meaning. In both moral and political philosophy, it identifies the ability of a person or a group to self-determine its own values and goals. Liberty is the capacity to realize those values, but autonomy is the precondition for that. It exists as the possibility to self-define one’s identity, her/his/their everyday lifestyle, ethics and values.

Today people are generally free to buy a house in a competitive housing market, if they have the money to do so. Yet, they are not autonomous in as far as they cannot refuse to join the home ownership market to secure a shelter. If private and individual ownership is the only way to secure a house, individuals cannot be considered as autonomous. Social rent is an alternative to this obligation of ownership. Yet, social rent is often perceived as an obliged choice, a marginal one, increasingly less accessible in most cities of the world. As renters, households have no capacity to self-define their own rental rules, their own practices and strategies of dwelling, their own design, or rent increases/decreases. They cannot decide for which purposes their rents will be used in the future. They become dependent from regulations imposed by the providers of the social housing – the government or housing corporations – and the indirect and tortuous circuits of representative democracy are their only way to advance their will.

No autonomy without inclusion

The theory of the commons provides a strong alternative to this ideology. When applied to housing, the notion of the commons advances the idea that housing is, first, a collective good, whose ownership is collective and cooperative. Secondly, it assumes that ownership, use, maintenance and legal property as much as possible overlapping. Third, it instructs that communities of inhabitants should be able to self-define their own internal organization and to decide how to manage those resources. These resources are financial (rent), physical (space), and social (fellow dwellers).

Through the commons, autonomy becomes the foundation of liberty. Differently from freedom, liberty is the result of cooperation (and often struggle), not a natural right of individuals as such. Autonomy defines the capacity of the group to self-regulate itself, not to dispose freely of things. It stresses the value of reflexive and conscious self-limitation, through the mutual institution of rules, principles and architectures that are expressions of the common will of the individuals. Autonomy stresses a paradox: liberty is the freedom to define constraints, that manifest through the rules and procedures that govern the housing estate, how it can be accessed, repaired, financed, used.

A general critique to this notion of autonomy is that it paves the way to enclaving and exclusivity in housing. Paradoxically, this critique often comes from both the right and left of the political spectrum. Self-regulation, especially when built around ideological views (eg. political programs) and spatial identities (eg. an island) can turn autonomous communities into isolated collectives. Gated communities are a deviation of the housing commons. On the other hand, autonomous communities may also suffer marginalization. Housing commoning practices can easily implode into an excess of self-isolation. These deviations are not rare, and it is necessary to find institutional and organization devises that allow maintaining autonomy again these risks of enclaving and marginalization. Exclusivity is, in sum, what makes the commons die.

Translation: Housing is a right

Inclusivity is what instead makes the commons thrive. The large body of studies on the theory and practice of the commons has offered answers to the problem of inclusivity. Again, a paradoxical one: in order to survive, commoning practices need to reproduce. They need to multiply physically, socially and geographically. Reproduction is not replication. It is the reproduction of autonomy itself: practices of commoning need to engender new practices of commons that are also autonomous, able to enjoy the same condition of autonomy and self-regulation. It is through reproduction that the housing commons can be inclusive.

The reproduction of autonomous commons can take two forms: internal and external (sometimes also defined as endogenous and exogenous). Both these two forms identify the capacity of the housing commons to be inclusive. Internal reproduction means to nurture a permanent practice of cooperation, and to allow the group of commoners to enlarge, expose it to external, participants, that are able to access and enjoy the good (the housing  estate in this case). External reproduction involves the enablement of further housing commons. Both these two directions depend on each other. It is through the inclusion of others in the enjoyment of housing that it is possible to expand the community of commoners, through mutual learning and value sharing, which in turn become the resources to form new housing commons.

Nesting

Internal and external reproductions of autonomy are achieved respectively through processes of ‘nesting’ and ‘federating’.

de Nieuwe Meent inclusive and autonomous organization

Nesting is the ability to enable different levels of engagement of commoners. Imagine a housing estate with different living groups in each floor, common facilities, a garden, a surrounding public space, non-residential spaces, terraces and water and energy networks. These are all goods that form the housing commons. In order for autonomy to reproduce, the organization and provision of these goods has to be inclusive. At micro-scale, each of these goods is a micro-commons, a space to generate new commoning practices. The dwellers of the building will cooperatively manage their floors, but will include others in the enjoyment of other sections of the building. Common spaces can be open to individuals from the neighborhood, so can the garden be a space for including communities that do not rent the house. The building overall will be managed by a plenary of all these micro-commons that will coordinate with each other in the maintenance of an inclusive housing estate. The physical architecture of the estate – as well as the design process to define it – have to be geared to facilitate this multiple micro-commons. The way to avoid enclaving is to make the housing project itself become an ecosystem of commons.

Federating

External reproduction of autonomy is instead generated through federating. The idea of (con)federation combines principles solidarity and cooperation (non-secessionism and non-independentism) with the idea of self-determination. To be federated means to be able to coordinate with others without becoming the others. It means to have a decentralized form of cooperation that organizes the reproduction of the commons in other places and times, keeping each common separated and differentiated. A federation necessarily survives through solidarity, which is the sharing of values and resources. The first of these values is autonomy itself. It is through a federation that the respect of others autonomy to self-define their own rules and identity is nurtured. Federations become the factories of the commons, the spaces that reproduce the multiple expressions of autonomy.

There are several cases of federated commons in the world. The German Mietshäuser Syndikat (the apartment house syndicate) is one of those, result of radical housing movements in the country since the 70s. It is inspiring others in Austria (Habitat) and The Netherlands (VrijCoop). These federations offer an infrastructure of solidarity for the exchange of knowledge and finances, able to sustain new housing commons in the country. The federation itself is an example of macro-common. It is a practice of co-owning housing estates, with the monetary resources and knowledge that emerge from them, through an infrastructure of solidarity and collective decision-making. The federation itself is autonomous but it is built around the strong ties of interdependency, not individualized freedom. It is the arena where members autonomously redefine their own rules and limitations around the most critical decisions, the selling of properties in the real-estate market. Yet, it allows for inclusivity because it becomes an enabling infrastructure for other commons.

In conclusion, nesting and federating are two sides of the process of maintenance of autonomy. They ensure the survival of the commons through their reproduction. Reproduction is inclusive yet it is based on the principles of self-determination.

Final notes

All ideas offered in this article are underpinning de Nieuwe Meent, as a project of inclusive and autonomous housing in Amsterdam, oriented to participation and connected to an expanding network of housing cooperatives in the city. Moreover, this article pays a tribute to the large body of work around the notion of autonomy and commoning. These work already started in the 60s with the beginning of the autonomist philosophy of praxis against the Market and State (Negri, Hardt, Castoradis etc.), the empirical enquiry on the institutional architecture of real-life commoning practices (the ‘Ostromian’ tradition), and the engaged scholarship of critical commons studies (Stavrides, De Angelis).

About the author

Federico Savini is advisor of de Nieuwe Meent and works at the University of Amsterdam as Assistant Professor in Environmental Planning, Institutions and Politics.

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