This land is my land
It is not your land
If you don’t get off
I’ll blow your head off
I’m sure readers have heard the parody of the Woody Guthrie song, as well as the saying attributed to both Mark Twain and Will Rogers: “Buy land—they’re not making it anymore.” Most of us want just a little piece of it, enough for a house and garden, or even a small farm. Others want as much acreage as they can grab—plus a large crew of peasants, serfs, slaves, or sharecroppers to do the field work or, in the case of urban property, plenty of tenants to pay rent.
I am writing this on Thanksgiving, a holiday commemorating a time when Native Americans helped European settlers learn how to plant and harvest in what was for them a New World. Subsequently the Europeans massacred most of the Natives and stole the land, “from sea to shining sea.”
Land grabs are an old story, older than the pharaohs. In ancient times most of the plunder was accomplished through force of arms. We still invade other countries to extract their resources and reduce their populations to peonage, but within our borders, financial instruments such as mortgages and leases serve the purpose even better than swords. The bankers don’t risk their lives riding into battle. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the papers that evict you from your home are backed by a gun-toting sheriff.
A Recent Land Grab at Home
If you’re old enough to vote, you remember the Great Recession and housing crisis of 2008. The roots of the crash began earlier, with what economists call a housing bubble. The figures below are for the U.S., but it’s important to remember that the same process occurred at the same time in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Poland, Hungary, and South Korea. Why those countries and not others? I haven’t been able to find out.
Here in the U.S., assuming a base point of 100 in January 2000, the home price index rose to 184.6 in July 2006—in other words, an increase of 84.6% in six years. Home buyers, and many officials in government and in financial institutions, were convinced this escalation would continue indefinitely. Only a handful of economists predicted otherwise, and they were ignored.
Predatory lenders encouraged this delusion, suckering people who couldn’t qualify for standard mortgages into subprime ones. Would-be buyers could take out a loan with a variable interest rate, figuring that they’d refinance when rates when down—except that rates continued to climb, well beyond their ability to meet the payments. Wells Fargo in particular targeted Black and Hispanic communities, foisting subprime mortgages on people who would have been offered standard loans if they were white. Families put their life savings into down payments, and when the bubble burst, Wells repossessed their homes. Once again the essentially white establishment drained those communities of what meager wealth they’d managed to accumulate.
The bubble burst in 2008.
When people couldn’t pay their mortgages, many lenders found themselves on shaky financial footings. The government bailed out Wall Street, whereupon the biggest financial firms used the money to award their top bankers and traders bonuses of $1,000,000 apiece. Those who lost their homes got nothing.
By 2010 hundreds of thousands of families had been forced out, and the houses they’d occupied were sitting empty. In early 2012, the government launched a program that made it easy for private equity groups and hedge funds to purchase foreclosed homes from Fannie Mae, the government agency. The idea was that these Wall Street corporations would rent out the properties and stabilize the housing market. In arguing for the program, these rich investors said they would be better landlords than cash-strapped mom-and-pop owners.
The market was stabilized, all right. Investors bought up over 200,000 homes nationwide, and people who used to own homes became renters. The new landlords did not invest in the safety of the dwellings or in necessary repairs. Often they required tenants to do their own repairs and maintenance.
The Pandemic Moratorium Ends
A new crisis arrived with the Covid-19 pandemic. When businesses such as restaurants had to close, workers lost their jobs, and the government instituted a moratorium on rents. The money these tenants owed wasn’t forgiven—they’d have to pay in full once the moratorium ended. The feds did institute a financial assistance program, but only 1/10th of the money allocated actually made its way to those in need. The Biden administration tried to extend the moratorium, but the so-called conservatives on the Supreme Court said no. Some states have provided extensions, while others have not.
So far I haven’t been able to find figures for how many renters were thrown out when the moratorium ended. But looking at the increase in homeless encampments, I’d say it was pretty substantial. Rents are going through the roof as well. The mean increase nationwide over the last year (August 2020-August 2021) was 11.5%, while in some states like Florida it was over 25%, and in New York City, as much as 70%.
Wall Street’s Land Grab Abroad
Following the global financial crisis of 2008, many families in Spain lost their homes. Just as in the United States, Wall Street financial firms such as Cerberus, Blackstone, and Lone Star snapped up these Spanish properties at bargain prices. Blackstone is now Spain’s biggest landlord. When the pandemic pushed Spain’s unemployment rate up to 15%, these giant private equity companies jacked up rents and are now evicting tenants who can’t afford to pay. Per The New York Times, “In the first quarter of 2021, evictions of renters in Spain rose by 14 percent compared with the same period the previous year…By the second quarter of this year, they surged to eight times as many as in the same period in 2020.”
The Spaniards are fighting back. A group called War Against Cerberus blocked police trying to evict people, squatted in homes where evictions took place, and has occupied homes, and is working with officials in the Spanish government to impose rent controls. They may be more successful than was the Occupy Wall Street movement here.
What Shall We Do?
The housing situation for the average person appears to be getting worse. As I reported in my post of October 30, homeless people now occupy 60,000 campsites in Portland OR, compared to 40,000 sites last year. Many comfortable citizens—I read their comments to articles in The New York Times—reassure themselves with the notion that homeless people are all mentally ill or drug addicted, or bums who’d rather live on the streets than work regular jobs and pay rent. I’m sure the comfortable will continue to pat themselves on the back until they, too, find themselves on the street.
So what shall we do?
We can allow the financial pythons to swallow the globe. We can submit out of fear, or because we have been propagandized to believe that the system we live under is the only possible one. We can go along with it because we’re still too comfortable in our own homes and are willing to blind ourselves to the cruelty visited on others. We can worship the wealthy as though they were gods, and many of us already do just that.
Or we can take up the struggle for social and economic justice. In the immortal words of Frederick Douglass:
“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
I don’t know what form that struggle will take. I do know it will not be conducted by tapping out complaints on your computer, or by voting every four years for one of two corporate-owned politicians.