In the 1930s, Canadian socialists defended fine public housing

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It’s impossible to walk around Toronto in 2021 without being overwhelmed by the juxtaposition of garish GN mansions like British country houses and run down apartments renting over $ 2,000 a month. The irrationality of housing under capitalism is not, however, a recent development. Already in 1937, the League for Social Reconstruction (LSR), the intellectual appendix of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, precursor of the New Social Democratic Democratic Party of Canada), condemned the gross waste of urban landscapes that the capitalist class had built.

The LSR saw that the splendor and the misery of capitalist housing were linked. He argued that:

A rampant system of for-profit corporations is responsible not only for the dry waste of streets and slums, rooming houses and “slums”, insufficient open spaces, playgrounds and community centers, but also the vulgar ostentation or the faux-antiquity of many of our “upscale” residential neighborhoods, the crudeness of our current civic architecture, the waste and grafting of much of our public works development. .

In the eighty years since the LSR made this statement, little has changed.

The LSR has been widely recognized by historians for the vital role its ideas played in the formation of Canada’s welfare state. His leaflets continue to inspire activists and left-wing thinkers today. But his proposals for a new Canadian urban policy – combining a radical socialist understanding of political economy with the utopian modernism of the progressive era – have attracted little attention from contemporary leftists.

In the pages of their great political manifesto Social Planning for Canada, as well as in their periodical Canadian Forum, League members presented a remarkable vision of what Canadian cities could look like. Today’s left should look to this vision for inspiration.

The LSR’s call to transform cities asserted that we should treat housing like the public service it is by recognizing that, like clean water and electricity, it is a necessity that people cannot afford. pass. First of all, it meant pulling the housing out of the clutches of the market. Building on the momentum of progressive-era reforms that gave Toronto a state-owned electric utility in 1911 and a transit system in 1921, the LSR demanded a complete de-commodification of housing in modern society. .

For the LSR, the objective of the construction of social housing was to broaden the idea of ​​a “utility” to housing. He sought to force people to recognize that society had a responsibility to house all of its members in the same way as it had a responsibility to maintain the public electricity and transportation infrastructure that made it run.

The LSR was not only interested in housing because it considered it necessary for the continued functioning of society. She considered socialist town planning essential to revitalize public life. Day care centers, libraries, parks and more – built around social housing communities – could be the basis for a “real renaissance of city life”.

Urban development according to market logic ensured that cities would be divided along class lines. Socialist planning, however, would produce truly beautiful cities – animated by an invigorated sense of community and public participation. The vision of beauty that LSR had in mind was not the McMansions in which the wealthy isolated themselves from the working class, but the image of a public swimming pool bustling with an extremely hot day.

This utopian vision of the beautiful urban life was based on an active expansion of the concept of “public”. He envisioned the city – as a whole – as something to be shared and to be built collectively through democratic planning. He argued that the privatized urban space produced nothing but dilapidated working class housing and ugly “luxury”, rendering the city deeply alienating and atomizing. The city to which the free market had given birth was, from LSR’s point of view, a psychologically oppressive place to live.

An urban landscape produced by the public, for the public, can be truly invigorating. It could be filled with common luxuries that would make the city a center of community experience. The idea was simple: a community center is much nicer than a private gymnasium; a park much more than a golf course.

While arguing for strong public ownership and development in the late 1930s, the LSR could convincingly cite the successes of British social housing and Viennese Hofs as examples of the remarkable results of the intervention of the state in the housing market. The Roosevelt administration’s passage of the Wagner-Steagall Act (authored by Catherine Bauer, whose writings on housing had long been admired by League members) left Canada as the only industrialized country without a public housing program. . League member Frank Underhill described the housing situation in Canada as a “fiasco”.

Socialist and Labor parties across Europe had succeeded in producing a new consensus around public housing in the 1920s and 1930s, driven by strong working class activism. Canada badly needed a similar movement to advocate for a transformation in the way we think about housing.

The LSR has recognized that the fight for social housing requires confronting the dominant ideology of home ownership. More than any other North American city in the 1920s and 1930s, Toronto was a city of owner-occupiers. Leftists seeking to decommodify housing therefore had to force a reimagining of what city life might look like.

While the left has succeeded in shaping many aspects of Canada’s welfare state, it has failed to effect any profound change in the housing arena. In this area, postwar Canadian policy remained firmly attached to the idea of ​​building a “proprietary democracy”. Inconsistent at all times, the idea appears even more desperate in today’s hyper-competitive and uncontrollable real estate market.

This ideal of home ownership for all is reflected in the Liberal Party’s National Housing Strategy, which seeks to tackle Canada’s housing crisis with a ridiculous lease-to-buy program and a temporary homeownership ban. foreign. The mass production of condos in contemporary Toronto rather than rental housing is the result of this same ideology.

The Liberals’ unwavering commitment to free market housing policy has a long tradition. Historical geographer Richard Harris described Canada as “more American than the United States.” In making this observation, he was simply echoing the 1944 remarks of CCF research director PA Deacon, who called Canada’s approach to housing “the last bastion of ‘free enterprise’ theorists.” Unfortunately, the New Democratic Party’s housing rhetoric in the last federal election did little to upset this status quo. In their manifesto, they argued that subsidized home ownership and rental subsidies should take priority over the expansion of social housing.

LSR understood that tackling the fetishization of home ownership would be crucial in building a just city. “It is said that in this country there is a prejudice against apartment buildings, at least among employees,” writes the League in Social planning:

But this objection is often raised by workers who have not lived in a truly modern building – and who are often also the victims of a conspiracy between real estate and speculative construction interests to persuade the public that there are virtues. in home ownership.

To pursue housing justice today, the left must be willing to defend the ideological case versus home ownership and for social housing. To make this point, public housing in Canada needs to be truly beautiful, capable of allowing its residents to thrive.

Faced with the privatization of infrastructure, it is difficult to conceptualize what the expansion of our public services would look like. Many of the public services that inspired LSR’s housing vision have since been privatized or are currently at risk of social spending cuts. Nonetheless, the idea that housing can be produced and provided publicly, as transport and electricity once were, is an idea that the left should support today.

LSR’s vision of an urban utopia, driven as much by a commitment to modernism as to socialism, is not quite sufficient to build a truly democratic city. The arrogance of postwar modernism has been well documented – we do not need to substitute control by capital for control by technocratic decree. But the ambitious goals of the left of the interwar period – housing and a beautiful urban landscape for all – remain indispensable for contemporary socialists.

In addition, land de-commodification remains the most effective way to implement these ideas. The emphasis on public space, public property and lodging should form the basis of a left-wing urban policy for Canada today.

We can to have beautiful cities, but only if we free the land from the market. Democratic planning can produce this beauty. Municipal socialism can ensure that communities are built for people on profit and controlled by their residents rather than real estate. We must embrace the LSR’s belief that a democratically run city can provide the conditions for a “true renaissance of city life”.


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