Carving out the Commons: Fighting Displacement in the Capitalist City

Assistant professor of interdisciplinary social sciences at the University of the District of Columbia

On Christmas Eve 1977, the working-class residents of an apartment complex in Washington, D.C., all received eviction notices. They had 90 days to get out; the owner of the complex wanted to rip it down and replace it with luxury buildings. It was a propitious time for upscale development in the city: gentrification was sweeping through parts of D.C., and home prices were soaring. Evictions were rampant, often the result of condo conversions, in which owners of shabby rental buildings converted them into high-priced condos. Condo conversion struck fear into the hearts of low-income tenants. As one man, a long-time resident of the Adams Morgan neighborhood, told me of this time:

“For a long time, when it was really bad, and the [condominium] conversions were everywhere, it was just like an explosion of that, and everybody knew a lot of people who had gotten something saying, okay, 60 days. The building’s sold, in 60 days, you gotta get out. And you know, you’re renting, what can you do? You gotta get out, find something else. But at the same time that was happening, rents were going up, so getting out meant not just getting out of the building, it meant getting out of the neighborhood, it meant getting out of the city… And I think people were very afraid. People were just afraid! People didn’t have money. And they didn’t know where they could go, or what they could afford. People had children, the elderly people, it was disorienting to them — what, what is this about?”

Despite — or perhaps because of — this fear and anxiety, tenants all over Washington were getting organized, and were starting to fight back. The Washington Post called 1978 “the year of the renters’ revolt.” The city had just elected brand-new leadership, steeped in civil rights activism, and much of that leadership was ready to rumble with developers in protection of low-income Washingtonians. One of the many anti-displacement laws that was passed in the late 1970s and early ’80s was a law that gives tenants the right to purchase their buildings if their landlords put them up for sale. Using this right, along with city financing, hundreds of low-income tenant associations bought their buildings and turned them into limited-equity cooperatives — homes essentially removed from market forces, and controlled by their member-owners. I theorize these co-ops as a form of the commons. My new book, Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C., tells their story.

Members of a limited-equity co-op in D.C.’s Columbia Heights
neighborhood gather on their front steps, 1980s.

The commons is a resource that’s marked by two key traits: it’s been de-commodified, at least mostly, and it’s collectively governed — perhaps also collectively owned. Its value is in how it’s used directly by people to support life, rather than its exchange value on the market. Crucially, the commons is not an inert resource: what’s important is how the resource is governed by the collectivity of people who use it. Perhaps more important than “the commons” is the act of “commoning,” which, as Peter Linebaugh writes, implies the labor and time necessary for seizing, holding onto, and expanding the resource of the commons.

I wanted to write about the commons because I was nagged by the celebratory nature of the writing on commons on the left. It seemed too general, too sweeping: if we could only just reclaim the commons, it would all be okay: capitalism would wane, people would have the resources they needed to live decently, justice would reign. There was little discussion of the actual practice of commoning: the hard work of it. But at the same time, I was convinced that commoning really could work, at least partially, even in the midst of the stranglehold of capitalism. I knew this because I’d spent several years talking to people who had seized their own commons in the form of their collective housing, and were making them work, even though the road was bumpy, and seemingly rife with inconsistencies.

Scholars who have studied the actual workings of commons — the fine-grained details of how people work collectively over time, how they set their rules for collective life and deal with rule-breakers, how they guard their resources against depletion — have mostly examined how people govern what are called “natural resources” in what are known as “less-developed” parts of the world. There are thousands of these studies. These studies tend to be managerially oriented, and devoid of politics. The political economist Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on commons governance schemes, refused to take a political stance on the commons. Her last public talk was at a London institute founded by devotees of free-market economist Frederik Hayek. The institute framed her work as a vindication of free-market economics: we don’t need the state to meddle in people’s affairs, the argument goes — they can take care of themselves, through the commons. A few scholars on the left have warned of the danger that the commons can become, as George Caffentzis puts it, capitalism’s back-up plan, a way for the state to absolve itself of responsibility towards its citizens. This tension between making demands on the state and engaging in collective self-care is one of the central tensions of the commons.

Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry helps celebrate
the grand opening of the Champlain Court Cooperative in D.C.’s
Adams Morgan neighborhood, 1980s.

Commoning is a back and forth process, a constant struggle — like life, like politics, there is never a clean resolution or a permanent victory, a sense that it’s all been finished and wrapped up neatly. The commons is an ongoing practice, and it never ends. The work of the commons is like housework, ongoing cyclical labors that, as Silvia Federici notes, are most heavily performed the world round by women. So why is it worth it, if the labor never ends? Well, it’s better than it was before. In the co-ops I studied, members told me over and over how much better their housing was once they owned it, had control over it. The refrigerator worked. The fear of eviction was muted. The cost of housing, while still susceptible to rise, was at least under the control of the members of the co-op. Compared to renting from a slumlord, the co-op is a vast improvement. And there’s something else: a sense of pride, of victory, of taking on capitalism and winning, of setting an example for your neighbors.

That complex where eviction notices were issued in 1977? The tenants were able to buy their buildings, and forty years later, it’s still a limited-equity co-op, made up of about sixty units, providing an oasis of affordability and stability in a city of recklessly high rents. They’ve achieved something remarkable: a commons in the midst of the capitalist city. But the next challenge is to think about how to expand these commons. How can we learn to common together, in the midst of multiple pressures? If we’re going to create just cities, we need to figure this out, together.


Amanda Huron is author of Carving Out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, DC. Huron is assistant professor of interdisciplinary social sciences at the University of the District of Columbia.

“An incisive book that speaks to a vital issue in contemporary politics and social theory.”
—Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch

“Amanda Huron illuminates new ways of thinking what social justice in the city can look like.”
—James Tracy, author of Dispatches Against Displacement

“This important book should be read by students of the city as well as those trying to make it more socially just.”
—Nik Heynen, University of Georgia



Caffentzis, George. 2010. “The Future of ‘The Commons’: Neoliberalism’s ‘Plan B’ or the Original Disaccumulation of Capital?” New Formations, 69, 23-41.

Federici, Silvia. 2012. “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons.” In The Wealth of the Commons: a World Beyond Market and State, eds. David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, 45-54. Amherst, MA: Levellers Press.

Gately, Blair. 1978. “Tenant Rebellion Fueled by Increases in Rent, Evictions.” The Washington Post, December 21.

Huron, Amanda. 2018. Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Linebaugh, Peter. 2008. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ostrom, Elinor. 2012. The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs.

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