This post draws heavily from Tom W. Bell’s “Want to Own a City?” and would not have been possible without his prior writing and research
The “Right to the City” is an old marxist slogan that’s as catchy as it is ill-defined. Neither the phrase’s originator Henri Lefebvre, nor David Harvey, a more recent proponent, seem to have articulated the idea in any meaningful way. Even the Right to the City Alliance stops short of explaining what the right actually is. When it comes up, it’s typically alongside a claim that something is being stolen or taken away from long-standing communities, as if neighborhoods were sovereign territory suffering from an invasion. For practical purposes, no one has any right to reside in any place beyond their ability to pay. But if the desire is for a way in which communities could actually own the places they call home, perhaps the Right to the City should be a property right.
Public Ownership through Private Property
What’s the difference between a private company and a municipal corporation? You can own the former but not the latter. Investors have clearly delineated property rights in their corporations. Residents have no equivalent ownership rights in their cities. But what if living in a city meant owning a piece of it as a legal entity as well?
Imagine that a city issued shares to its residents. Shares would vest over time and long-time residents would have more equity than new arrivals. Now assume that this city took in all of its revenue through land value taxation and that land revenues were used to pay dividends to the city’s resident-shareholders. Instead of facing displacement, incumbent residents would benefit from rising demand to live in their city.
Shares might also be used to weight the voting system. More shares could mean extra say in electing representatives, city-wide ballot measures, neighborhood level participatory budgeting, or perhaps even corrective democracy. Again, the point would be to formally privilege long-time residents over newcomers in deciding how the city is run.
All of this should be taken as more of a thought experiment than a policy proposal. For one, policy reform would go a long way in solving the problem of displacement without having to favor incumbency. There are also plenty of blanks to fill in when thinking about how a shareholder system would work. And, of course, there’s a lot that could go wrong. The devil’s in the details and given the wrong details the devil might look like hyper-nativist parochialism. But, given the right arrangement, privileging tenure through ownership could tie together the fortunes of residents with the fortunes of their city as a whole. It could encourage long-time residents to welcome newcomers with open arms. And it could offer political and economic enfranchisement beyond what the status quo is able to provide.