Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Carving Out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C.

Amanda Huron

University of Minnesota Press



Carving out the Commons develops a theory of the urban commons through an investigation of limited-equity housing cooperatives in Washington, DC. In the mid-1970s in the US, waves of gentrification led to the displacement of lower-income residents who were unable to afford rising rental prices, and who were evicted to make room for new developments. In response, tenants organized to buy their housing complexes collectively under the limited-equity cooperative model, paying low amounts for a co-op share and low monthly fees. These housing cooperatives represent the creation of an urban commons (i.e. a resource, in this case housing, that is collectively owned and controlled by the people living in it).

The author, Amanda Huron, aims to bring together two lines of scholarship on the commons that rarely intersect: institutionalist perspectives and alterglobalisationist perspectives. The former focus on studying the institutions that govern the management of commons and how these are maintained over time, while the latter focus on the need to reclaim commons and resist enclosure. To achieve this, the book uses the framework of diverse economics, which recognizes a broad range “of economic practices and possibilities that exist within the seemingly monolithic capitalist world” (page 5).

The book is concerned with investigating and theorizing the dialectical relationship between commons and capital to articulate challenges to capitalist claims to life. To this end, it investigates commons and “commoning” practices in “the heightened capitalist conditions of the contemporary city” (page 41). The urban context and the study of urban commons, in particular, lend themselves to this investigation due to three characteristics:

1. The dense, heterogeneous urban population

2. The urban as a site of intensive capital accumulation

3. The urban as a site of heightened state regulation and surveillance

These characteristics present obstacles to the development and maintenance of commons. Therefore, investigating urban commons in the context of rapid and increasing urbanization is a critical endeavour. Ultimately, the book argues that the commons, as exemplified by the housing cooperatives, is “a pragmatic practice to be pursued, within and between and against capitalist practices” (page 155). The commons, and particularly urban commons, is a potential pathway to building a post-capitalist world.


Book Note prepared by Kate Goh

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