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Rent: It's a racket

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Photo: rentassembly.org

As every tenant knows, rent is a racket. Landlords charge occupants of their property not according to what improvements they have installed, but to what renters are willing to pay to have a roof over their heads. A famous economist put it like so: a landlord prices property proportioned not "to what he can afford to take; but to what the farmer can afford to give." That economist isn't Karl Marx -- it's Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations.

It's this legacy of rent as a form of wealth extraction criticized by classical political economists from Smith to Marx, Mill to Ricardo -- now all but forgotten by their mainstream counterparts -- that the Rent Assembly in Vancouver will be examining this weekend. "A gathering of renters in a time of siege," reads the forum's description.  And as anyone who rents in this city, or indeed in any metropolitan area in Canada, can attest, it's about time.

The Assembly is organized by the most pointed and consistent critical voice against gentrification in Vancouver, The Mainlander, and celebrated experimental poetry and art collective, the Kootenay School of Writing. Conversations and workshops range from poetry readings, discussions of economic theory, and presentations of direct action from an array of local organizers. The full schedule can be found here.

It's discomfiting how unnoticed the concept of rent is in a city where real estate and housing often dominates the local imagination. Canadians frequently boast of our public health care system, chiding Americans by pointing out that profiting off of something so essential as access to proper medical care is barbaric. Yet the public conversation surrounding rent is usually framed as some sort of equilibrium between landlords some good, some bad -- and tenants -- some tolerable, some "problems"; as if the fact that housing is a resource essential to human survival and happiness is somehow coincidental rather than fundamental to the tenant-landlord relationship. Talk of provincial rent controls is off the table in British Columbia, as it is across most of the country -- with the notable exception of Quebec. Gentrification has become a question of cosmetics or "cleaning up the city" rather than an elemental assault on a person's right to a home.

UBC Geography professor Elvin Wyly, who will be leading a reading circle on David Harvey to kick off the assembly, has tried to emphasize that rent is a monopoly:  "Owners enjoy a collective power in the marketplace by virtue of the fact that they are not renters. Owners' rights are codified in law and backed up by state protection, and, if necessary, armed police force: owners' protection is by no means absolute or unconditional, but it is much more than the security given to renters." The subprime mortgage crisis should have foregrounded the sketchy definitions of who counts as an owner and who a tenant, as well as undercutting the ideological fantasy that success and happiness in middle-class Canada depends on home ownership -- but instead rent in Canada remains at once stigmatized, unprotected and invisible.

The timing of the Rent Assembly, then, couldn't be more urgent. Here's to a stimulating and movement-building weekend in Vancouver.

Photo: rentassembly.org

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