“Incidentally, another thing I have at least been able to sort out is the shitty rent business”, Marx wrote to Engels in a letter from Summer 1862 which gave account of the chronic misery of his family’s living conditions. Marx, notoriously incapable of keeping accounts, had mentioned the burden of rent and placations of the landlord in earlier messages. Paying rent was as equally vexing for Marx as it is for many of today’s renters. In the letter, however, he tackled something he considered different: “I had long harboured misgivings as to the absolute correctness of Ricardo’s theory, and have at length got to the bottom of the swindle”. (Marx 1984, 380–81). The groundwork for his theory of ground rent was later laid out in the third volume of Capital (Marx 1981). It would go beyond the scope of this note to fully unfold his theory of ground rent. The main achievement of the concept, to put it in a nutshell, was a theory that connects to the labour theory of value:1 a socially distinct class of landlords rents out land, and claims higher profits for the advantages for production of one plot of land over another in the form of differential rent; socially determined by the profitability of the land, it reflects historical modes and relations of production. Moreover, Marx complements the concept of differential rent by so-called absolute rent: because of it being private property, rent is conditioned by the class of landlords holding a monopoly over scarce land. As such, the theory of ground rent shows that in capitalism, production involving land of any sort is turned into a business just like any other.
Rent is central when it comes to housing – not only because housing, too, follows the logics of capital accumulation in capitalist societies, but because rent has been key in determining who is living where and how. In spite of this aspect, which has been inscribed into processes of urbanization at least since the industrial revolution, Marx contributed little to the topic of residential living.
Housing, however, gave cause for another seminal text in a Marxist tradition: in the early 1870s, Engels published a polemic entitled “The Housing Question” (Engels 1872). It was written as a reaction to reformists who discussed the miserable residential conditions of the unpropertied classes as the central Social Question, allegedly best solved by equipping workers with home ownership. Unfolding major lines of the debate, Engels rejected the argument as ineffective, and moreover as a mere tactical distortion: the social question was not to be found in housing, but in the ownership of the means of production. For Engels, the misery of housing was little more than a secondary evil. With this and Marxists’ focus on the production side of the economy in mind, housing – or, more generally speaking, reproduction and everyday life – lived in the shadows of the factory and the division of labour for the following decades. Following the epistemological shift towards neoclassical economics, depoliticised supply-and-demand models took over theories of ground rent as sole explanations also in the field of urban studies.
The renewed interest in housing over the last decades started not least from the actual developments taking place in urban areas. Running out of other investment opportunities, in many cities since the 1970s capital turned towards urbanization and housing. Considering today’s economic developments, housing actually accounts for a major part of capital accumulation which keeps the global capitalist economy running. More than ever before, the progressive commodification of housing rendered buildings as something to invest in rather than to live in. This aroused the attention of various disciplines contributing to urban research: critical urbanists showed that mainstream economics is incapable of explaining the mechanisms of housing. Linking Marxist theory with other concepts of power and oppression, critical urban theory uncovered the processes underlying housing and its stabilizing and destabilizing effects as part of a wider economic and political project.
We know the downside of large-scale investment in real estate: the creation of scarcity in developed land, rising rents, less affordable housing, and the gradual dissolution of neighbourhoods. We have witnessed the exacerbated version of these drawbacks through the rapid financialization of the rental market over recent decades – with indebtedness, disinvestment in the housing stock to induce renters to move and make space for those paying more, displacement of lower-income populations, and evictions as its consequences. Housing, it turns out, has served as a key technology, an apparatus, for governing populations. Rent – or tenure, more generally speaking – is but one aspect in an ensemble of mechanisms through which the restructuring of contemporary urban life takes place, complemented by other aspects ranging from the role of reproductive labour to forms of cohabitation, from the division of the domestic sphere from the public, to construction regulations, to architecture and the built environment. Moreover, processes of stratification and exclusion within housing cannot be confined to income alone, but also operate along the intersecting lines of class, race and gender.
Against this background, however, housing has also become a major cause of discontent. Affected by the transformation of urban cohabitation, this discontent has taken on various forms, from anti-eviction campaigns, to rental protests or attempts to strengthen affordable rents and create new social housing. With the appraisal of the role of everyday life in general, housing has definitely stepped out of the shadow of the factory: far more than a “secondary evil”, the right to housing is no longer postponed to the future but is one of today’s manifold struggles.