On my flights and down moments this summer I read Corey Doctorow’s new novel Walkaway and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York: 2140. Both novels are set in the near future and both offer perspectives that are equal parts horrifying and exciting, but the most exciting thing to me is that both novels recognize housing as a crucial challenge and opportunity in the future. This piqued my interest because of my work in the Bakken oil patch which focused on workforce housing. When I started that project, I had no idea, really, how crucial housing issues were in the public discourse (despite Bret Weber’s insistence that I should get that), but works like Matthew Desmond’s Evicted (2016) and Peter Marcuse’s and David Madden’s In Defense of Housing (2016) really crystalized some of these ideas in my head.
Doctorow and, more significantly, Robinson, recognized that housing will be a crucial issue in the near future. For Doctorow, walkaways are people who have abandoned the conventional (or “default”) world of massive wealth disparities, pervasive surveillance, and precarious employment, and literally walked away into the less densely populated and governed interior. In this space, walkaways set up their own utopian community based on radical egalitarianism, abundance, and, of course, free housing. As one might expect from someone like Corey Doctorow, the world of the walkaways is essential a physical version of Wikipedia where participants contribute what they know, what they can, and what want to the literal and physical code of their DIY society. The fabric of housing, for example, rested upon a forked version of the United Nations Commission for Refugees housing model which apparently disseminated open-source on a futuristic version of the web. Doctorow set the openness of this model for housing – and walkaway society – against the rampant capitalism of the mega-rich who seek to license and commodify human experiences.
For Robinson, housing took a more central role. His novel is set in New York city after a series of catastrophic sea level changes have transformed it into a “SuperVenice” of interlaced canals and structurally compromised buildings. Amidst this chaotic cityscape stood a series of “SuperScrapers” that were largely warehouses for the wealth of the super wealthy. Average New Yorkers, in contrast, we crammed into communal living spaces in buildings that remains structurally sound or reduced to squatting among the collapsing ruins of the compromised buildings. When the city was struck by an hurricane that brought with a devastating storm surge, post-apocalyptic winds, and rain, the city’s housing stock was further condensed and riots broke out as the population sought to claw back housing from the wealthy who saw it as a commodity. Without getting into too much detail, Robinson saw housing as the linch-pin to the global economic order and a general strike that targeted the willingness of people to repay their personal debts destabilized global finance.
Both Robinson and Doctorow recognize that housing stands at the intersection of capitalism (and particularly the financial strategies of the super wealthy) and the human experience. Our need for housing is fundamental and tied to all sort of crucial developmental indicators from academic success to life expectancy. They cleverly set housing as the central point of conflict in the battle against the growing disparity in priorities, values, and wealth between the super wealthy and the ordinary individual.