A thought experiment

In response to Gabriel’s and Cheryl’s posts, I thought I’d share a personal dream of sorts, in the form of a thought experiment. Take this lovely building, located in heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood:


Though I’ve only lived in this neighborhood for about six years, I’ve watched the gentrification machine come and go, and recently return. Around the time this photo was taken, I believe the only commercial tenants on the first floor were the Comet Tavern (live music, on the corner) and the Basic Plumbing bath house (yes, that kind of bath house) to the right. The bath house has closed and a diner is currently going in. A seedy dance club where there was a shooting back in 2008 or so has been split into two retail spaces, one of which is The Lobby bar, and the other of which stands empty. But the retail isn’t what interests me.

Turning to county property records, we can see that there are 28 residential units above, which average 649 square feet apiece, and they are all vacant: the county deems them uninhabitable. Assuming the building is structurally sound (the city does not identify it as unreinforced masonry, which would be the worst case construction type with respect to earthquakes), it might be possible to renovate the units to a bare yet functional standard and/or to encourage people who needed a space to live and/or work to help build out their own space under some sort of cooperatve/”sweat equity” model.

Obviously, the task of reversing primitive accumulation comes first, and in this case, the first step would mean freeing the building from the current owners who are only putting part of it to use (as use- and exchange-value), and returning it to its full use value. With my engineering background, I can’t help but think of this quantitative terms: say each apartment would cost $500 a month, which is way below market-rate in this area (my apartment, six blocks away is the same size and could probably rent for $1400 a month; I also split a small office space in a building right around the corner, in the back of a theater, that my friend and I rent for a total of $400). Still, at $500/month, 28 units brings in $14,000 per month. I don’t know what the retail tenants are paying, but whatever it is, it would surely be at least $6,000 per month (probably much more), which would bring the income up to $20,000 per month. Going by the rule of thumb that a bank needs to make about 1% a month on whatever it lends out, this amount of income corresponds to around what the building would currently cost on the market (~$2 million).

Undoubtedly this sort of model rests on a status quo market transaction, but what I think is so amazing about this building is that there are 21,400 square feet of empty apartment space in the center this neighborhood, and I’m trying to think of how a combination of radical and reformist movements could free this surplus space from its present state of capture. Setting aside practicalities (like coming up with a down payment), I’m thinking about how people with backgrounds in architecture, engineering, plumbing, and electrical systems work could help this sort of movement started, and take the edge off some of the requisite labor. Moreover, as buildings in the neighborhood are purchased for similar prices, demolished, and rebuilt as luxury condos, the allure of salvaging a century-old building like this one and bringing it up to a standard in which “regular” people could thrive is incredible.

Thinking again of the terms that Holland outlines as constituting minor marxism — work, consumption, and debt — is helpful: with the cost of housing being as low as it would be here, less work would be required; using the labor of the future occupants to help produce the space reduces the amount of outside labor to be purchased; debt, unfortunately, would probably be increased for the “financially responsible parties,” but I’d like to think of this as a place where truly free market relations could flourish, thereby relaxing this debt burden. Freed from what Harvey calls “the coercive laws of competition,” it seems that there would be no need to demand higher costs for the living units, which would correspond to offering prices far below the going market rate, and result in something like a waiting list for spaces rather than a vacancy sign out front.

3 thoughts on “A thought experiment

  1. Pingback: Lazzarato — The Making of the Indebted Man | My Desiring-Machines

  2. Pingback: [Re]Build: A Call for Contributors and Participants | My Desiring-Machines

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