“The proletarian state has to forcibly move a very poor family into a rich man’s flat,” wrote Vladimir Lenin in October 1917, just days before his Bolshevik Party violently seized the reins of Russia’s government. Lenin’s musing set the tone for Soviet housing policy for the next 40 years. During that time, the urban population was largely compelled to reside in “communal apartments,” subdivisions of prerevolutionary housing stock that the Soviet government had expropriated from its rightful owners.
New York City mayor Eric Adams seems to be advocating a similar arrangement following a sharp uptick in the number of illegal immigrants seeking asylum in his distressed city after the expiration of Title 42, a pandemic-era policy that allowed U.S. authorities swiftly to turn back migrants at the border. After months of pleading that the 45,900 migrants currently housed by New York municipal authorities were straining city resources and finances to the breaking point, Adams floated the idea that compensating private homeowners who house migrants might be the answer. “They have spare rooms. They have locales,” Adams suggested of Gotham homeowners, declaring “we should take this crisis and go to opportunities” that involve “private residences.”
Adams has refrained from criticizing the Biden administration for losing control of the southern border, but he had a number of ideas on how to handle New York’s predicament. Last October, he declared a “state of emergency” and asked the federal government for $1 billion to meet the costs of arriving migrants. (Last month, New York governor Kathy Hochul also declared a state of emergency and requested federal funds.) More recently, Adams has housed migrants in elementary school gymnasiums (while classes were in session), made a deal with religious leaders to lodge male migrants at 50 places of worship around the city, bussed migrants at city expense to upstate New York and Canada, and called on small towns and cities across the country to help ease New York’s migrant burden. In his latest fiasco, Adams spent millions of dollars in public funds to rent upscale hotel rooms for migrants, only to be scandalized by the behavior of some, who have allegedly trashed their pricey accommodations.
Manhattan residence and tenancy laws limit what the mayor can do about private accommodations, but Adams says he is looking for ways to use his “power” to get around any adverse “rules.” He’s not the first mayor to try to do this. In his 2019 State of the City address, Adams’s predecessor Bill de Blasio threatened landlords, saying that he would “seize their buildings” and “put them in the hands of a community nonprofit” if his administration decided that they were negligent. He pledged to create a new authority within the mayor’s office for that purpose and announced his intention to transform at least 40 multiple-dwelling buildings per year into what he described as “responsible, mission driven ownership.” The website of New York City’s public advocate office maintains a list of the city’s “100 worst landlords”—a ranking that has even included the city’s own housing authority—likely as a pretext for future seizures. New York State eminent-domain law, which provides for compulsory sales of property marked by the government for conversion to “public use,” is among the country’s most hostile to property owners, and state courts have enforced notoriously low standards for its application. Even without such extreme measures, stories of New Yorkers threatened with property seizures over even minor unpaid city bills have circulated for years.
In this environment, leftist activist groups such as Open New York have called for the redistribution of unoccupied apartments to low-income groups. This would likely suit New York Democrats like de Blasio, who was enamored of Nicaragua’s Communist Sandinista government in the 1980s, married a feminist collectivist, and secretly honeymooned with her in Communist Cuba. In a frank interview with New York in 2016, de Blasio stated that “if I had my druthers, the city government would determine every single plot of land” and “determine which building goes where, how high it will be, who gets to live in it, what the rent will be.” Welcome to Moscow.
Communal apartments in the bad old USSR weren’t a lot of fun. Soviet Communism developed the concept out of Marxism’s doctrinal hostility to private property. If private property was ideologically objectionable, then housing and its distribution were matters of public policy to be determined by government officials. The general rule apportioned any qualified Soviet individual nine square meters of space, with larger allotments for families based on size. In thousands of mini-revolutions, former owners found themselves confined to one or two rooms of their once-sprawling homes, with the rest of the living space given over to the urban poor, low-level functionaries of the new Communist state, Red Army soldiers, and others thought to be deserving of what was officially called “resettlement.” Bathrooms, kitchens, hallways, entrances, chores, and other common phenomena were shared. Privacy was nil. Petty grudges and antagonisms were facts of everyday life.
By the 1960s, even Lenin’s eventual successors considered it better to build new single-family housing in outlying sections of Soviet cities than to follow the old communal policy. Millions of Soviet citizens took advantage of private accommodations as quickly as construction and party red tape allowed, but the older revolutionary concept never completely died out. More than a century after the Bolshevik Revolution, it has been estimated that as much as 10 percent of Russia’s urban residents still live in communal arrangements. Retrograde as their lives are, they could represent New York’s future if the far Left ever gets its way.
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