Rompiendo puertas /
Break and Enter
Residential autonomy:
economies of dispossession and their undoing

by Morgan Adamson

Less than 48 hours following George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, Minneapolis was ablaze. One of the early and consequential casualties of the uprising was Midtown Corners, an affordable housing development under construction in the parking lot of a strip mall containing an Aldi, a charter school, and a dive bar. On the eve of the burning of the Third Precinct, iconic images of the six-story apartment’s wooden frame in flames circulated nationally and internationally as early evidence of the intensity of the uprising. Mainstream media outlets were quick to take an admonishing tone toward the protesters for burning apartments intended for low-income residents, lamenting the irrationality of such violence.

As local activists noted, however, such projects often give developers massive tax incentives to designate small percentages of housing units as “affordable” for a limited period of time Those strategies are themselves the products of decades of failed housing policy.[1] [open endnotes in new window] In the case of Midtown Corners, the builders designated all of the units “affordable,” with the majority of units’ rent set at a price corresponding to 60-80% Area Medium Income (AMI), reserving a small number of units for residents making less than 60% AMI. However, with the AMI in Minneapolis set at $100,000 for a family of four, the inability of such developments to meet existing housing needs is obvious.

Rather than a mundane and apolitical thing, housing is a fundamental aspect of social reproduction, or “the daily and generational renewal of human life” that is essential to capitalism as a system.[2] Viewed through this lens, the burning of Midtown Corners was more than a senseless outburst. It signals the ways that the institutionalized, racial violence that led to George Floyd’s murder cannot be separated from persistent contradictions in the domain of social reproduction that create housing insecurity.

With rising rents, rapid gentrification and displacement, and increased residential precarity over the past decade, the Minneapolis Uprising became, among other things, an opening through which to contend with housing. The epicenter of the uprising was a neighborhood still reeling from the anti-Black legacies of redlining and the 2008 foreclosure crisis, and persistent and pervasive racism against Indigenous residents. In the weeks following Floyd’s killing, activists took over a vacant hotel and parks as sites of temporary shelter for unhoused people. These efforts dovetailed with movements to #CancelRent incited by the pandemic and ongoing radical housing work by groups in the Twin Cities like Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia. The aftermath of the uprising intensified focus on the compounded histories of racial capitalism and settler colonialism that manifest themselves across the urban landscape through many BIPOC residents’ lack of access to dignified housing.[3] The Minneapolis Uprising thus joined a wave of radicalized housing movements across the United States occurring in 2020, commencing with Moms 4 Housing, a group of unhoused mothers occupying vacant rental properties in Oakland, California. Building on movements around housing that arose from a decade earlier, such as #OccupyHomes, activists have expanded these strategies since the start of the pandemic in cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia, while organizing numerous rent strikes and actions against evictions that have taken place across the country. Essential to these movements has been an explosion of alternative media. Video, social media, and other web-based resources have generated not only practices of solidarity but a collective vision that pushes the horizon of what housing could become in a liberated world. 

These developments signal the urgency of attending to the residential as an essential site of critical investigation today. The house, according to Paula Chakravartty and Denise Ferreira da Silva, operates on a number of registers simultaneously:

“A house is a juridical-economic-moral entity that, as property, has material (as asset), political (as dominium), and symbolic (as shelter) value.”[4] 

Though encompassing these intersecting facets of the economic and social life, housing has long been sidelined in Left politics. Yet housing opens onto a tangle of essential problems and concepts that Marxists critiques of media have elided. These fall, generally, into three interrelated categories that have elsewhere generated considerable conversation within cultural theory in recent years: 1) social reproduction, 2) dispossession within settler colonialism and racial capitalism, and 3) finance and real estate as central sites of value production in contemporary capitalism. Though it is beyond the scope of this essay to fully dissect this constellation of issues, I will touch on each in proposing that residential politics is one node through which to rethink contemporary approaches to media critique and resistance. In particular, this approach recenters race and struggles outside wage relations that are essential to understanding contemporary capitalism.

Contemplating the ways that media participate in the production of residential politics, I turn to an independent activist documentary that is deeply relevant today—Newsreel’s Rompiendo puertas/Break and Enter (1971), which documents struggles against the racialized dispossession of urban renewal in Manhattan. Rompiendo puertas is a useful starting point for constructing a genealogy of alternative media that builds toward a politics of residential autonomy. By that I mean the struggle to control the domain of social reproduction that begins with housing in a way that remaps claims to urban space beyond the regime of private property. This film is particularly useful because the vision of residential autonomy produced by Rompiendo puertas stands in stark contrast to the myriad ways commercial media participate in the racialized dispossession that built the real estate industry, especially in the U.S. settler colonial context.

Housing and economies of dispossession

Housing is a specific kind of commodity that opens up questions relevant to Marxism beyond traditional waged labor and ideology critiques.[5] Since the residence is the primary site of social reproduction, struggles around housing decenter the male, industrial worker as the protagonist of class struggle. As feminists in the Wages for Housework movement of the 1970s argued, the home and the labor conducted within it are not only directly productive of capital, but the kitchen is as crucial as the factory as a space from which to organize, an insight that the Left ignores at its own peril.[6] The claim that the “residential is political” also highlights the significance of myriad struggles around housing in the U.S. over the course of the twentieth century, many led by BIPOC women who have fought to reshape urban life in more equable ways. [7] Questions over housing are ultimately about the production of everyday life, as David Madden and Peter Marcuse put it:

“housing is the precondition both for work and for leisure. Controlling one’s housing is a way to control one’s labor as well as one’s free time, this is why struggles over housing are always, in part, struggles over autonomy.”[8]

Residential alienation—defined as unsafe and precarious living conditions and forced displacement—produces the opposite of lived autonomy, disrupting every facet of social life as well as the subject’s mental and physical health.[9] The pandemic has brought the politics of home to the fore, as a lack of childcare, domestic violence, and evictions have too often stretched an already precarious domain of social reproduction to a breaking point. The struggle for what I am calling residential autonomy, then, is not simply the struggle for decent housing but also the struggle to control the conditions of social reproduction that are manifest in a very situated and material way—in the place one lives.

In addition to its immediately political nature as the primary site of social reproduction, housing’s legal, commodified status as landed property makes it a principal vector through which unremitting processes of racial and colonial dispossession operate. Redlining and segregation, as well as practices of systematic disinvestment in neighborhoods occupied by nonwhite residents, set the stage for the widespread financial dispossession of BIPOC communities in more recent decades. The “predatory inclusion” of BIPOC populations into homeownership and subsequent wave of foreclosures after the 2008 crisis was predicated on more than a century of racist housing policies.[10] Moreover, recent scholarship has explored the co-constitution of regimes of property and race, such as Brenna Bhandar who argues:

“legal forms of property ownership and the modern racial subject are articulated and realized in conjunction with one another.”[11]

Thinking through the role of property within racial capitalism, Erin McElroy contends that “property functions as an anti-Black technology of dispossession” through the casting of Black spaces as “‘empty and threatening.’”[12] In a parallel vein, recent work on settler colonialism has brought attention to the ongoing practices that stem from and reproduce structures of settler colonial dispossession across racialized groups. For example, Sarah Launius and Geoffrey Alan Boyce argue that within urban contexts, tropes of settler colonialism and frontier logics are still “processes that continue to produce inequality via the devaluation and dispossession of heterogeneous communities of color from their land, property, and way of life.”[13] That is, the land speculation that was a primary feature of settler colonial dispossession is contiguous with what Byrd, et. al. have called contemporary “economies of dispossession ”—

“those multiple and intertwined genealogies of racialized property, subjection, and expropriation through which capitalism and colonialism take shape historically and change over time… Colonization and the economies of racial subjection serve as conditions of possibility in the United States for the ways in which financial institutions and market speculators have produced and profited from the most economically disenfranchised.”[14]

Focusing on dispossession, or the separation of subjects from the means of social reproduction, as a key concept of both racial capitalism and settler colonialism, recent scholars have revisited and refined theories of primitive accumulation as an ongoing part of capitalism.[15] Following from these insights, we must foreground how contemporary economies of dispossession that operate through financial and real estate speculation feed off the systematic, racialized devaluation of “land, property, and way of life” of those dispossessed.           

The urgency to understand these mechanisms of dispossession through housing comes into focus when we consider the importance of residential real estate to contemporary global capitalism. Professionally-managed real estate investment markets massively increased as a global asset class over the past decade to reach $9.6 trillion in 2019, a 7.8% increase from 2018. Figures like this indicate that cycles of disinvestment and dispossession through real estate have only accelerated since the 2008 financial crisis.[16] Minneapolis, which has the highest racial disparity in homeownership rates in the country, has seen an explosion of private equity firms and real estate investment trusts buying up single-family homes since the foreclosure crisis, intensifying evictions, fees, and other forms of financial dispossession across the city.[17] We can think of global real estate markets as what Marx referred to “real abstractions”; though abstract and speculative, they articulate with existing modes of racialized domination to create forms of dispossession that are both novel and established.[18]