Landlords looking for a place in the progressive spectrum

by Bill McGaughey

The term, “progressive”, is often used to describe agendas on the left end of the political spectrum. It used to be called “liberal”. In the old days, liberals and conservatives squared off. For some reason, the word “liberal” has acquired a bad odor. “Progressive” is the preferred label for political partisans of that persuasion.

I suppose “progressive” implies progress toward a better society. I would be for that, of course; and so would most people with an optimistic temperament. However, I started thinking about this subject when a posting I submitted to an email list known as “Progressive Calendar” was rejected. The same list had posted “calendar” items of mine on two previous occasions.

I supposed that the difference was that the list master, not knowing me, had previously given me the benefit of the doubt. In this case, however, the date of the event came after several days of very open and heated discussion on St. Paul’s e-democracy forum. I had been the original poster for that discussion. The list master of the “Progressive Calendar” must have monitored the discussion and thought to himself: This guy’s not a progressive but quite the opposite. I won’t post his event on my list.

Protest Demonstration at 14 E. Jessamine Street

The event in question was a protest demonstration in front of a condemned building on St. Paul’s east side. The City of St. Paul intended to demolish this house belonging to a single mother, Nancy Osterman, on Wednesday, February 15, 2006. She had sold it to an investor, Julian Jayasuriya, when she ran out of funds to complete the city-imposed work orders. Our protest would take place the day before the planned demolition, on Valentine’s Day, starting at 1 p.m. We were hoping to arouse public opinion to save Nancy Osterman’s house.

Why did the city want to tear down this house? The official version was that Mr. Jayasuriya had agreed to complete the work orders by a certain date, January 13, and had missed the deadline. Moreover, he had failed to pull permits and have the building properly inspected; the work might have been done improperly and was therefore potentially unsafe. The city went so far as to tell a reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press that the Osterman house was in danger of imminent collapse because a single hydraulic jack which was holding up the first-floor beam was tilting under the stain. (In fact, two non-tilting screw jacks were placed in a crawl space beneath an addition to the house. They had been there for thirty years. The main part of the house was supported by sturdy wood pillars in the basement.)

Nancy Osterman, who grew up in that house, told a different story. She said she had once been a drug user. The St. Paul police wanted her to infiltrate a group of her former associates as an informer. She refused because she thought it would endanger her own and her children’s lives. The police then did a drug raid on her house (finding nothing) and city inspectors accompanying the police condemned the house.

Osterman also told a story about the city inspector, Steve Magner, who had condemned the house. In a sworn affidavit, she said that in the spring or summer of 2003 Magner and police officer Joel Johnson told her that “they were determined not to let me complete rehabilitation of my house ... Mr. Magner sent someone to look at my house and I was instructed by Magner to sell my home to that person or ‘I would be looking at a hole in the ground’ instead of my house.” The proposed sales price was $40,000.

The issue from our standpoint was one of corruption by city officials. They were pretending that Osterman’s house was in poor shape where, in fact, St. Paul police were pressuring Osterman to become a drug informant and a city inspector was trying to shake her down to sell the house to an associate for a low price.

Is this type of political issue “progressive”? It would seem not. A dominant view on the e-democracy forum was that city government sometimes had to play hardball to keep neighborhoods safe from irresponsible property owners who let maintenance on their buildings slide. Those who were supporting Osterman, said one man, were “an industry group that is chronically good at playing the victim ... in order to do nothing more than further their own self-interest.” Through rumors and innuendoes, we were slandering conscientious city officials. We were stirring up a cloud of confusion to allow a property owner who broke the rules to avoid the consequences.

Who is on the side of the angels?

To put things in a broader context, I, the organizer of the protest demonstration, must identify myself as a member of Minneapolis Property Right Action Committee, a now-defunct group which used to do the same kinds of protests in Minneapolis. We were that “industry group”. Our political agenda included such issues as city government’s using inspections to do police work, using the power to condemn by eminent domain where no clearly defined “public purpose” was served, cooperation between big developers and city officials to subsidize private development at great cost to the taxpayer, police tolerance of crime in certain neighborhoods, the large subsidies to housing non-profits which compete with us for tenants, and such things.

In many of those areas, we ran into stiff resistance from types of persons who considered themselves politically progressive. The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, both dominated by the DFL party, are organized into neighborhoods which each have their own organization. There are police-organized block clubs which exert pressure against the owners of “problem properties”. There are affordable-housing coalitions with a strong religious component. There are all kinds of non-profits and social-service agencies each doing good in their own way with ample funds supplied by government and private foundations.

Two daily newspapers watch over the scene, interpreting it all as a sign of vigorous civic engagement in the context of a caring community. We who see ourselves as fighters against government corruption are instead seen by others as a group of selfish business people narrowly focused on profit. Presumably it is the mission of progressives to oppose an agenda such as ours.

So I need to do some more thinking about the nature of progressive politics. What “progressive” really means is that “we are on the side of the angels”. We are the good people in this political fight. The bad people are selfish conservatives.

But I think that the fight against city corruption ought to be considered “the good fight”. We who engage in this fight are on the side of our own kind of angel. It’s “good” to be fair to the people who spend their own money on their own business and “bad” to give some developers and some organizations “other people’s money” - the taxpayers’ money - to compete against private businesses on cost and to swell the supply of housing where an oversupply already exists. Yes, and the city police are the ones who ought to be doing police work, not landlords or city inspectors.

It all depends on what you mean by “progress toward a better society”. It depends on your definition of “fairness” or “good and humane government”. When it comes to progressive politics, I think there’s an additional element: being on the side of the underdog. The archetypical conservative is someone who holds power, economic or political, and is fighting to retain it. The progressive is someone fighting against entrenched power to overcome some type of injustice. That would be the self-image of progressives.

What happens, though, if it is liberals who are in power politically? Or perhaps liberals dominate the media, or university faculty, or the courts? The political “conservatives” might then be the ones fighting the uphill battle against entrenched power. Where does the “progressive” label fit in that case?

Arguably, that was the case when Ronald Reagan began his political career in 1966. He was a lonely, reviled, much ridiculed political figure; but, of course, he had his supporters. Finding liberal control of Congress and big media - the three big television networks, New York Times, Washington Post, etc. - slanted towards a liberal political philosophy, political conservatives fought and clawed their way back into power with the help of direct-mail fundraising campaigns, talk radio, Fox News, and other new media. Televangelists and church leaders contributed to that effort.

Political liberals used to have an appealing model of society in socialism. Stalinist Russia wrecked that ideal. Democrats can look back with pride to Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. But that legacy, too, has faded. They are no longer a party concerned with the poor. Instead, some Democrats realize that they can milk the party's legacy for good high-paying jobs in government. They can be successful lobbyists having served a stint in Congress. Of course, Republicans play that game as well.

Big-city politicians have learned that they can employ the powers of city government to take property away from politically isolated owners. They can condemn buildings, revoke rental licenses, put properties on nuisance lists, and invoke the power of eminent domain. They and their friends can acquire devalued properties for a song and then attract government subsidies. “Development” is the golden pot at the end of this rainbow.

Now it is liberals who are on the defensive, trying to engineer their own revival. Both conservatives and liberals (“progressives”) have well-developed political organizations. Big business supports the conservatives, and a coalition of interest groups the liberals. Small property owners and many others, of course, are left out in the cold politically.

I would argue that our recent fight to save Nancy Osterman’s home from demolition by the city is an example of “progressive politics”. However, the Democrats elected to office in St. Paul city government are our enemies; and the Republicans won’t do much to help us. We’re not their kind of conservative.

We landlords are mostly small-time business people who are stingy contributors to political campaigns. Some of us have close dealings with persons at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder who cannot afford to own their own home and often cannot afford to pay the rent. And we have these relationships for the purpose of profit rather than to provide a humanitarian service. That’s how we make a living.

Of course, there’s an element of selfishness in what we do. Can such people also be fighters against civic corruption? Can we be considered the “good guys”? Can we be “progressive”?

Some Progressive Causes from the Past

You have to look at the history of liberal or progressive politics to understand the current situation. Let us review some of the groups that have appeared under the progressive label.

First, consider Christian groups - not those looking for the imminent return of Jesus but political activists who fight for social justice and otherwise do good in their communities. Forget the peace movement and the anti-abortion campaign but consider an issue like housing. Christian activists want to provide more affordable housing so that low-income people, too, can live in comfortable homes. It’s a worthy goal.

The problem I see is that such groups are hooked on the donation model of economic activity. You have well-heeled suburban Christians wanting to do something to help the inner-city poor. They may give money, or give of their time to Habitat for Humanity, or urge legislators to appropriate taxpayer dollars to build more units of housing or provide subsidies to builders of low-income housing or provide rent vouchers for the poor.

This model fails to recognize that housing is a business. Businesses need to be structured to pay their own way. In this case, it would be good if private developers could foot the bill for new housing if more new housing is required. It would be good if wage earners earned enough to afford to buy or rent the housing units already available. Government should encourage general good health in the housing market and in the economy. Christian social activists could play a constructive role in the housing discussion if they made a comprehensive study of the housing market and offered intelligent suggestions for government policymakers to consider.

Because Christian activists are hooked on the idea of doing good for persons less fortunate than themselves, they’re not really interested in that approach. In being financially disinterested, they see themselves as being good people. The landlords, developers, and others who profit from providing housing are seen as selfish. So, they’re not interested in those people's perspective. As an inner-city landlord, I think, however, that it is the suburban Christians who are pursuing a selfish agenda - fulfilling the mandate of Jesus, making their faith relevant to contemporary problems, or whatever. The poor people who need housing are a means to that end.

I believe that the private sector is more than willing to supply all the housing that society needs, provided that it can make a profit. Unfortunately, local governments regard housing as a “cash cow” to be burdened with property taxes. As taxes rise, housing becomes less affordable to low- and middle-income people.

Christians could approach the affordability issue from that standpoint but they will not. Perhaps they’re fearful of offending local government officials whose support they might need for their political projects. Instead, they want government to give housing at reduced rates to certain people using taxpayer dollars. The question is: Do poor people need Christians agitating for more housing or does the church need the housing issue to stir its membership and remain relevant? Which needs the other more?

Another model of political activism is that exemplified by labor unions. Their members are people “who have nothing to sell but our labor”. They can be unskilled factory or farm labor or the labor of educated professional people. In either case, the labor-union member works for an enterprise which owns property and uses their paid work to produce certain products. So the possession of property is antithetical to labor’s identity. All property owners are potential enemies.

Labor activism is based on confrontation with employers. In the early days of industrial history, the labor movement engaged in heroic actions as unions fought for shorter work days, pay increases, and other benefits. Workers risked their immediate livelihood for the chance of a better future. Today it is recognized that those gains achieved by labor unions with some difficulty are the foundation of a sound, middle-class life. It’s doubtful that the captains of industry would have granted the concessions without pressure from below.

But now, the unions have been entrenched in certain businesses and certain industries for decades. Generally their membership enjoys higher wages and better benefits and working conditions than non-union workers and, indeed, most Americans. Therefore, a strike for higher wages no longer seems the just cause that it once did. Under competitive pressures, some business firms and, indeed, some industries are teetering on the edge of extinction. Under those circumstances, militant demands for wages exceeding the norm seem selfish and unwarranted. Is it fair for the union worker to maintain his or her advantage in the economy so that others in less privileged positions must pay more as consumers?

The 1930s and 1940s were the heyday of the U.S. labor movement. Grimy, underpaid workers in the mines and mills were fighting for humane treatment. Today’s union employees are heirs to that successful struggle. However, union membership now accounts for a shrinking part of the work force. Many who want good union jobs find their path blocked by incumbent job holders. Instead of agitating for shorter work hours that would benefit everyone, many well-paid employees seek to increase their earnings further through overtime work.

Unless organized labor works for the betterment of the entire society, it cannot continue to serve as a model of a progressive cause. No longer the underdog, it has an entrenched place in successful businesses which can be exploited for personal gain. To the extent that others are denied the same benefits, this is seen as selfish.

The next movement to come along was the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The institution of black slavery and the failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction had left African Americans in a racially defined subclass, especially in the South. The Civil Rights movement removed the legal barriers to full citizenship. American society adopted the goal of desegregation and embraced remedies for present and past discrimination along the lines of race.

Far from obliterating racial distinctions, however, it also put blacks in a official victimized class. It created a mythology of white oppression known as institutional racism. Prejudicial attitudes against whites as a class were imposed, oddly enough, by the white power structure. The Civil Rights movement did not move toward a “colorblind society” but toward a society of heightened racial differences serving particular political interests.

Soon other groups of people claimed special victimhood. Feminist women claimed that U.S. society was a “patriarchal society” embodying male supremacy. Like enslaved blacks, women had been forced into oppressive relationships with men. The institution of marriage was structured to give men power. Women needed special police protections to bolster their power in families dominated by men.

Then, after the Stonewall riot in New York City, gays and lesbians joined the Civil Rights bandwagon. They agitated to add sexual preference to the list of groups against whom it was illegal to discriminate. They also worked to remove the social stigma associated with homosexuality. In the name of gay pride, many gay persons were prodded to “come out of the closet.” The entertainment industry was encouraged to show gays and lesbians in a positive light. The schools were asked to teach that homosexual unions were a normal type of relationship. Church and state were pressured to accept gay marriage.

With the flood of immigration into this country came another group of victimized persons. These immigrants tended to be impoverished persons less able to protect themselves in society because of cultural ignorance, the inability to speak English, and, in some cases, illegal status. They were willing to work for less money than American natives in most jobs. Here it was a matter of reviving the Civil Rights struggle that blacks had waged a half century earlier to overcome prejudice and discrimination inflicted upon a vulnerable group by the majority population.

The Civil Rights movement in its different variations shapes liberalism today. It is at the core of the liberal political identity. At the same time, it is a real, if unspoken, reason that the American electorate has tended to vote for conservatives in recent elections. This type of politics bitterly divides the community into groups determined by birth, assigning one-sided moral characterizations to each. Born of a desire to overcome racial prejudice, it has itself become prejudiced to an extreme.

Because its values are sternly enforced by government, corporate employers, the media, education, and other elements of the power structure, this movement can no longer claim to be representing the underdog. Instead, it is used to demoralize and marginalize those Americans thought to be on the wrong side of history. It advances more through court rulings than through a legitimate electoral process. Based on birth-determined characteristics, it pits one group of people against another and employs the politics of shame. It has created crimes out of thinking in politically disfavored ways. If this be progressive, much can be said for turning back the clock.

Each of these political movements was born of a sense of justice. They were progressive causes in their day. But the day has passed. The movements have fulfilled many of their aims and injustices have been corrected. Beyond that point, they become instruments of power which may serve other ends. In a Hegelian way, these fulfilled movements swing to an opposite position. They become socially unjust causes, damaging to the community.

But the political pundits and sages (including newspaper editors) are stuck in the past. They idolize these glorious causes which have gained victory and continue to call them “progressive”. They do not trouble themselves to see what is going on in society today. When they do see, they put on ideological blinders to shut out unwelcome truths.

The Educated Proletariat

To understand the current situation, one needs to recognize a politically pregnant group whose role in politics is not yet understood. That would be the growing number of people who were shaped by education but failed to connect with promising careers. These are Americans who spent some of their best years in schools and in the process accumulated student loans. They were thought to be “above average” by virtue of having earned an academic degree. Instead, some graduated only to find jobs as dishwashers, taxicab drivers, or positions on the fringes of the arts or cultural scene. I would characterize them as a new kind of lumpen proletariat.

These educated proletarians do not possess much property unless they inherited it from a relative. Some continue to live with their parents. They may have small and unstable families. But they do have aspirations. Unable to distinguish themselves in a career, they distinguish themselves by unusual lifestyle choices, by an interest in music, by special intellectual interests, or by involvement in a political cause. Some are active in local neighborhood associations or bloack clubs. Some may be frequent visitors to computer chat rooms or discussion groups. They are not unintelligent, though a bit disconnected from life. Their educational experience has dropped them in a wasteland where they are free to do as they please.

I would contrast this group of with two others: first, the college graduates and others who are fulfilling their career expectations in a managerial or professional position which is financially rewarding but extremely time consuming and demanding of conformity to the organization which feeds them; and, second, the owners and managers of small businesses who also have constant demands on their time. While both have property, it is the latter group that uses this property to earn a living. The first group functions in a bureaucratic setting; the second, in particular places where the businesses are located.

Both draw the ire of the educated proletariat for having integrated into economic life and acquired property. The proletarians form the core of the “progressive movement”. They are the small-time writers, artists, and communicators at the center of political life. They are the committed activists in the environmental movement, the animal-rights movement, transit enthusiasts, and many others. The unpaid policy wonks of nearly every stripe come from this group. They do not see themselves as proletarians but as society’s leaders, just a lucky break away from success and recognition. They are, after all, college graduates.

My Perspective as a Landlord

Let me say that, as a person employed in a mid-level accounting job but having interests elsewhere, I was a member of this group until about ten years ago. Then I was laid off from that job and became a full-time landlord. Suddenly, I had responsibilities arising from my property. At the same time I became a target for political activists from my neighborhood. For the first time, my activities were dictated by necessity rather than choice. I had been thrust in the conservative camp, a “slum landlord” under attack.

Yet, even bearing this stigma, I felt more grounded as a landlord than I had previously been. Having never lived on a farm, I’ve never had the experience of producing my own food or other commodities upon which life depends. Coming from a family of college graduates, I was raised to take a job in a corporate, professional, or government bureaucracy. I couldn’t imagine what life as a shopkeeper of self-employed business owner might be. I’d never run my own business, at least not one that made money. Bureaucratically employed, I had the luxury of chasing dreams in my spare time.

As a prematurely retired person who became a landlord, I had at last acquired intimate contact with some type of business, as an owner rather than low-level employee. Then I was attacked by the neighborhood group. I jumped back into politics after the city condemned my apartment building. I became an active member of a small group of landlords who, like me, had bad experiences with the city.

In the next several years, we created something new. We were a landlord group which dished out punishment to city government instead of taking punishment from the bureaucrats individually. I began to see new political possibilities. A group of people our size could affect the political life of a city the size of Minneapolis. As small businessmen, we had some money to play around with to influence city politics. We were no longer marginalized. A group of people like us could actually do something to fight corruption in city government.

I claim, therefore, a place on the progressive spectrum for persons with property who are abused by city government. I say this to the proletarians who control political discussion in cities like mine. We need to disabuse ourselves of the idea that only propertyless persons can be progressives and business owners have no right to call themselves such a thing. For we are small-scale landlords and property owners, not the type that is politically connected. There are many small shopkeepers and owners of businesses who would be in much the same situation.

See what is happening today. On one side of the political divide stand we; on the other side are the big-scale business people and their friends in government who want to take our property away from us through various legal and political shenanigans. That is a divide which may define the politics of the 21st century. It is an authentic struggle of our time which most journalists are too blind to see.

The Old Style politics saw dirt-poor people taking on the economic and political power structure and gaining some victories. The welfare state would be at the end of that line. But today’s politicians are not interested in dirt-poor people with no property to take. We live in an era of “deep-pockets justice” where government officials are interested in situations where revenue can be extracted. (For instance, low-level street crime is ignored while expired parking violations are aggressively enforced.)

What immense power do they, the elected officials, have when the U.S. Supreme Court has said that city governments can condemn anyone’s home by the power of eminent domain if the property is needed for a development project that conceivably would bring in more tax revenue than what the homeowner pays. In effect, all real property in a city belongs to the city.

Legality hardly matters when city governments have huge legal staffs to litigate and appeal unjust takings of property and grind small property owners down financially in court. City officials can manipulate their way to wealth with the help of a few favored developers. We small property owners are ripe for the picking as the big players enlist government’s help to rob us.

This is actually a human rights issue since the right to own property is enshrined in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is an issue important in China where thousands of peasants have come to Beijing to protest collusion between big developers and local government officials who took their land without due compensation. Corruption of this type is rampant. The Chinese government itself is said to be at risk if it does not address the corruption issue. And so it is in many places around the world, and also in the United States, where government power is used to enrich politically well-connected types.

The trouble is that garden-variety corruption such as what Nancy Osterman had to face isn’t politically interesting. Most people simply blot it out of their mind. They may be oriented toward the life of a neighborhood activist and see corruption charges as a weakening of the power that government officials suggest they have in the community.

Property owners who fight such corruption are seen as privileged persons who complain. Only a persistent barrage of facts can hope of penetrate the prevailing political stereotypes. Government corruption just doesn’t concern people that much.

I say that we property owners can sometimes be on the side of the angels if we fight together to improve the community and its government. And so my friends and I came to Nancy Osterman’s rescue. We wrap the banner of progressive causes around ourselves and walk out into the sunshine of public scrutiny.


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