Property and exclusion go hand-in-hand.
Just a few weeks ago, a King County Superior Court judge struck down a 2016 Seattle law meant to protect renters from landlords’ unconscious discrimination against potential tenants based on race, gender or disability. The judge reasoned that “choosing a tenant is a fundamental attribute of property ownership.” It is the ability to exclude others that defines property as one’s own.
Property is power.
But the American love affair with property often fails to appreciate its troubling origins, particularly the racialized acquisition and distribution of property throughout America’s colonial history, such as the forced seizure of Native American lands and the systemic exploitation of African Americans as slaves. Through doctrines of inheritance and structural racism, the colonialism of property is then reproduced throughout generations. Those of us with property, privilege and power really didn’t earn what we have: We stole it.
Those of us with property, privilege and power really didn’t earn what we have: We stole it.
Today, the rules of property continue to create and reproduce inequality. Richard Rothstein’s recent book, “The Color of Law,” persuasively articulates the links between governmental segregation of physical spaces — such as neighborhoods and schools — and persistent patterns of structural discrimination that continue to exclude historically oppressed people from equal access to housing, responsive health systems and paths to economic mobility.
Discrimination ensures many other marginalized groups are more likely to become poor or homeless: LGBTQ youth, single-female-headed families, people struggling with chronic mental or physical challenges, immigrants; such historically marginalized groups — no surprise — remain disproportionately represented in homeless populations when compared with the general population. But in the context of poverty, discrimination is still largely unrecognized as discrimination. Americans commonly disregard evidence that racism, able-ism, sexism and homophobia are major drivers behind poverty and homelessness. We discount the devastating impact of low wages and the lack of affordable housing. We ignore the role of domestic violence or medical crises in creating housing instability.
Americans commonly disregard evidence that racism, able-ism, sexism and homophobia are major drivers behind poverty and homelessness.
Instead, we generally believe that poor and homeless people are to blame for their own circumstances. Somehow, through the special stigmatization of poverty and housing status, we whitewash traditional notions of discrimination and reframe it as something perhaps less offensive: Judgments about others’ social worthiness. It comforts us to conclude that people experiencing homelessness and housing instability must have done something to deserve it.
But the truth is that we’re all complicit in creating the circumstances within which homelessness and poverty can thrive.
We can change course. We can combat systemic oppression. A more hopeful vision requires our resources, our time, our voices, our connections with and beyond one another.
A more hopeful vision requires our resources, our time, our voices, our connections with and beyond one another.
Part of this change requires us to redefine our relationship with property. Progressive property theorists — such as Ezra Rosser, who literally wrote the book on poverty law, “Poverty, Law, Policy, and Practice” — persuasively argue that American property law should be reconstructed to reflect owners’ social and moral obligations. Such an ambitious journey will be long and complicated.
But one critical, even if modest, step is to challenge our current uses of public, private and religiously-owned space to better address the homelessness crisis.
On April 14, 2018, community activists, people experiencing homelessness, lawyers, students, scholars, service providers and others will come together to discuss ideas, solutions and challenges around property and homelessness at the “Finding Space” forum. We’ll explore social, legal and policy issues related to many private and city-based approaches to tackling homelessness, such as safe parking lots, authorized encampments, shelters and secondary dwelling units in residential backyards.
Of course, truly finding space to address homelessness will require much, much more than just a day of learning, collaborating and planning. But we can start.
WHAT: Finding Space to Solve Homelessness
WHEN: April 14, 2018 8:00 a.m. - 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Seattle University School of Law, 901 12th Avenue, Sullivan Hall, Seattle
Sara Rankin is a professor at Seattle University School of Law. She founded the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project (HRAP), a group that looks into the myriad ways in which society violates the rights of homeless and low-income people.
Wait, there's more. Check out the full April 11 - April 17 issue.