This article considers the relation between basic income, questions of housing and issues of access to land.
We would like to express our thanks to the author of this paper, Dr. Katarzyna Gajewska, for generously allowing us to publish this on our website. Opinions expressed are the author’s own.
Universal basic income, power relations, and housing problem: the proposal of a complementary land access
Author: Katarzyna Gajewska
A universal basic income (UBI) promises a considerable improvement in the quality of life of the poorest and increasing security and psychological well-being among precarious workers. However, we need to analyze more closely the impact of a basic income in the context of power relations that will be produced due to this radical change. In this article, I will conduct a macro-structural analysis of the potential impact of a universal basic income on the subsistence, especially housing. Then I will highlight the limitations of complementary policies that are supposed to improve accessibility to housing and fail mainly because of the primacy of property rights and low law enforcement. Third part will shortly present my idea of resource based basic income as a response to the limitations of other policies. I will mainly refer to the example of France, a country having strong public administration and relatively difficult housing situation.
A universal basic income and power relations
Having stable income, precarious workers may be more attractive tenants for landlords. The access to housing in France is difficult for those being in precarious employment relations and unemployed. The reason is an artificial scarcity of flats to rent: some owners prefer not to rent their flats if they cannot find an attractive tenant (having stable employment or a guarantor). In theory, a universal basic income promises a better accessibility to housing. However, the stability of revenue does not solve the problem of accessibility to housing as the French case illustrates. The minimum social benefits (RSA) and housing allowance (APL) may be considered to be a form of basic income because it is difficult to lose them and one can only improve one’s financial situation from there. Despite this stable revenue, owners tend to discriminate against unemployed tenants.
Furthermore, thanks to a UBI middle class households may obtain sufficient financial stability to either get a loan or to save for the purchase of housing.
Although a universal basic income may liberate people from the need to be employed to make a living, the power relations and inequalities in terms of wealth and possessions will necessarily remain. Exploitation through employment is just one form of exploitation we experience nowadays. The possession of the means of production (physical and intellectual property) becomes increasingly egalitarian thanks to the open source movement and the availability of 3D printers (Anderson 2012). Housing and real estate is a considerable source of wealth extraction and inequalities within the society. The rent and real estate may become one of such exploitation attacks from the capitalist class. As I write in an unpublished manuscript:
‘Additionally, one can imagine other cost-inducing practices imposed by the capital to extract gains. The introduction of a basic income does not imply an authoritarian communist system [the private property was limited by state intervention in the communist regime]. It is not assumed this reform will be accompanied by any measures challenging the capitalist relations of power. It should be noted that labor exploitation is just one of elements of the capitalist exploitation. The property rights in their current forms make other forms of exploitation possible. Therefore, capital, although limited in its opportunities to exploit labor, would still have influence and be able to extract gains by increasing prices and controlling the means of subsistence.’ (“How Basic Income Will Transform Active Citizenship? A Scenario of Political Participation beyond Delegation,” Conference paper to be presented at the BIEN conference, 27-29 June 2014).
In another article, I elaborate on the possible impact of both technological unemployment and a universal basic income on the organization of life. One of the effects may be a territorial segregation between those living from their properties and wages and those living on a basic income (Gajewska 2014).
Limitations of current housing policies
The problem of inflation and rent hikes are one of the objections expressed in citizens’ debates on UBI. In response, the proposition to regulate housing market is presented as a solution. In this section, I will illustrate some limitations of the policies targeting private property.
Housing rights were included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized by United Nations, Council of Europe, and the EU member states. The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights prohibits forced eviction and obliges the State to provide alternative housing to those who cannot provide for themselves. Social housing provisions have been recognized in the EU as a service of general economic interest (Kenna, 2008). Nevertheless, Eurostat data reveal that there is still a lot of housing deprivation. In France, despite a legislation guaranteeing public housing, the needs are not covered.
Housing policies do not automatically translate into housing inclusiveness. Let’s take the example of non-enforcement of housing policy in France. The 1945 requisition law – which allows public authorities to take control of housing units left empty for at least 6 months in order to accommodate persons in need of housing – is practically not applied. In 2007, activists occupied an empty building in Paris nicknamed “Rio,” which had been empty for seven years, but the owner regained control of it after a few months. According to the Droit au Logement (DAL) organization, there are about 2,400,000 empty housing units in France. Over 125,000 empty apartments are located in Paris, according to Jeudi Noir (a social movement created in 2006 whose members occupy empty buildings and carry out colorful protest actions). The former housing minister, Marie-Noëlle Lienemann, who tried to implement this law in 2001, pointed to the extensive administrative obstacles to the execution of this law: the requirement to register empty housing, investigate its status and prove that no one lives there, as well as to conduct further works to adapt apartments for living.
In France, the access to private housing is very difficult for precarious workers and unemployed people. The state funds some guarantees for tenants, but these are limited in number. Eligibility is limited to young people. There are private-public agencies that help people rent an apartment and talk to apartment owners: in some cases, they even offer to sign a guarantee for a tenant.
For the illustration of further limitations of public housing policies and law enforcement, see the article on cases in Poland (Gajewska 2012, 2013).
Resource based basic income: access to land as part of the package
Combining a basic income with the access to self-sufficient subsistence organization will be a guarantee against a possible inflation feared by some opponents of a UBI. It should be noted that inflation is not necessary related to the creation of money but may be also a result of producing artificial scarcity of goods, for instance, vacant flats. Even if a UBI may liberate workers from the pressure to work, this strategy may turn out to bring short-term results if the population had no guaranteed access to the means of subsistence. Seeing that the power relations may be an obstacle in introducing counter-measures to dispossess those living on a UBI and not being able to find a job due to technological unemployment or other reasons, I propose to enlarge the concept of a UBI with measures guaranteeing access to resources. I call this measure a resource-based basic income.
A UBI would be complemented by guaranteed access to land (being in public hands) for each citizen who requests it. It would require further calculation and it would depend on the available land to indicate exact space. I propose 100 square meters to help visualize the idea. The land would remain in public property and would not be heritable. This would prevent an accumulation of land. The access to land is a measure to prevent a speculation, so that the population can survive without privately possessing a land. Guaranteeing the public ownership of sufficient amount of land, so that a reasonable plot can be available for each citizen will allow these assets to become means of capital accumulation and will serve as a reserve means of reproduction.
The land plots would be allocated by a lottery. Since the communes need to take stock of their inhabitants and their land, it would be relatively cheap and easy to implement. Certainly, it will turn out that the most attractive plots will miraculously land in the hands of politicians and the people close to power. Where the state operates, there is a lot of potential for corruption and collusion.
This measure (as opposed to measures subsidizing mortgages mainly for middle class) would mainly address needs of the poorest citizens, who may be ready to live in a small housing: for instance movable houses or yurts. The land could be used to produce food. This would ensure subsistence for those who decide to live only on a UBI allowance. It would make them more autonomous and less affected by potential rent and prices hikes. A straw house of 20 square meters can be built for the price of ten thousand Euros in France as an architect building such houses told me.
There is also a possibility of living in more provisional houses. The measure addresses the poorest population because 100 square meters does not seem to be attractive enough for the rich.
On the other hand, the concept is acceptable for the power-holders and capital owners because it does not challenge directly their property rights as it is the case in other corrective housing policies, which are not enforced by public authorities.
For instance, a commune in the South-East of France, Dun, possesses 200 hectares of un-utilized land. The commune does not have enough tax revenue to cover social needs of its inhabitants, many of which are retired. It would be advantageous for the commune to have more and younger inhabitants. Benjamin Lesage, who wants to create an intentional community working outside of the monetary system, talked with the authorities about possible exchanges: free services for access to land (Lesage 2014). This example illustrates that such a measure may be advantageous for the revitalization of empty villages and places with low economic activity.
My idea needs further deliberation as much as the concept of a UBI and the policies accompanying it. A calculation of administrative costs and the availability of state-owned land is necessary to imagine this solution in national context will enrich further this proposal. I hope to stimulate reflection and discussion to deepen our understanding of consequences and capacities to plan.
Anderson, Chris (2012): Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. Crown Business.
Eurostat 2013. “Housing statistics.”
Gajewska, Katarzyna (2012): “Reprivatisation sauvage et insuffisance de logements à Varsovie.” Dossier: “Projets d’urbanisme à l’Est,” Regard sur l’Est. http://www.regardest.com/home/breve_contenu.php?id=1329&PHPSESSID=c68c1deb9821897f1fe45fddde6560d0
Gajewska, Katarzyna (2013): The real life of law: Polish lessons on housing activism in the postcommunist context. LeftEast, 21 October, http://www.criticatac.ro/lefteast/the-real-life-of-law-polish-lessons-on-housing-activism-in-the-postcommunist-context/
Gajewska, Katarzyna (2014): Technological Unemployment but Still a Lot of Work: Towards Prosumerist Services of General Interest, Journal of Evolution and Technology 24(1): 104-112.
Kenna, Padraic 2008. “Globalization and Housing Rights.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 15(2): 397-469.
Lesage, Benjamin (2014): En quête d’un lieu utopique : « Vous avez l’air sérieux, pas trop hippies », Rue 89, 26 March 2014, http://rue89.nouvelobs.com/2014/03/26/quete-dun-lieu-utopique-avez-lair-serieux-faites-trop-hippies-250787
Schwartz, Herman and Seabrooke, Leonard 2008. “Varieties of Residential Capitalism in the International Political Economy: Old Welfare States and the New Politics of Housing.” Comparative European Politics 6: 237–261.
Main photo courtesy of Seier + Seier