Comment on "Housing Organizing for the Long Haul"

colist-admin at colist-admin at
Sun Dec 8 21:43:48 CST 2002

[ed:  thanks to Stephen for beginning discussion on Larry Yates' 
paper (available from the Papers page, 2002 section, at  Some background from 
me below.]

From:    "Barton, Stephen" <SBarton at>

We haven't had many comments on the working papers lately, and I would like
to say a few things about this paper since I agree with the values it is
based on and disagree with some of the analysis.  If nothing else, perhaps
my comments will help Larry Yates clarify some parts of the arguement he is

In his "Closing Thoughts" Larry Yates says something I am in complete
agreement with:  "The ... fundamental issues of housing will not be resolved
by housing technique, by narrow changes in (housing) policy, or by new
(housing) programs.  These issues are rooted in racism, in lack of democracy
and in maldistribution of wealth.  When these fundamental problems are
attacked with some success by organized action, successful housing programs
are one result."  (If I am wrong about the "(housing)" I inserted above I
apologize.  This seemed implied by the context.)  Thus Larry Yates arguement
is not narrowly about housing policy or housing organizing but on the
broader question of how housing work can help strengthen the organization of
a movement for democracy, redistribution of wealth and elimination of racism
and sexism. of how housing work can help strengthen the organization of a
movement for democracy, redistribution of wealth and elimination of racism
and sexism. 

If that is the case, organizing around those broader and more fundamental
issues is clearly critical.  In my opinion, that does not necessarily mean
that work in each individual policy area should have a primary focus on
organizing, although I think it does mean that policy area work needs to be
connected to organizing movements and strengthen the possibilities for
further organizing.  The most successful types of organizing groups are
multi-issue, such as unions or neighborhood organizations.  I don't think
there is much of a "housing organizing movement" outside of New York City's
tenant movement.   In New York City, where 90% of the population are
tenants, there is a very strong tenant movement, but the neighborhood-level
tenant organizations typically take on the functions of multi-purpose
neighborhood associations in other cities, with a particularly strong focus
on tenant needs. Organizing groups specifically based on their housing
status, homeless people, tenants, low-income homeowners, is not necessarily
the best way to create sustained organizations any more than organizing
people separately as patients or healthcare consumers is the best way to
sustain a movement for national health insurance.

 As I read it, the theme of the paper is that policy work and creation of
community-based corporations that own and develop housing must be
accompanied by and give priority to organizing work among tenants, the
homeless, and low-income homeowners.  I think the most effective connections
are often more indirect and run through the broader movement.  Organizing
efforts in some areas may be best focused on union drives, while the unions
may join with others to support various housing programs, health insurance
programs and so on.  In other areas, such as New York City, it may well work
to give priority to organizing specifically around housing status and

This leads to my second criticism of the paper, which is that the framework
used to analyze housing work, based on Sidney Hill's pamphlet from 1935,
leaves out the concept of "strategic reforms"  (Andre Gorz, Gar Alperovitz,
Staunton Lynd, and Harry Boyte were among those using this concept),
including the role of creation of alternative and counter-institutions.  For
example, the creation of union contracts and the National Labor Relations
Act were strategic reforms and institutions that enabled unions to grow
where IWW-style organizing that rejected contracts was not sustainable over
the long term.  

While there are many examples of unions that maintain mass memberships over
a long period of time, there are very few examples of tenant organizations
that sustain a mass base over a long period of time.  Local rent controls
are a strategic reform that supports tenant organizaing.  They have the
drawback that they can be abolished by changes in State legislation, as
vacancy decontrol was mandated in California in 1996, bringing to an end
Berkeley's experiment with strong rent control that began in 1978.  Housing
owned by limited equity cooperatives or non-profit organizations, however,
has all the constitutional protections of private property and can't easily
be eliminated or phased out.  Cooperatives can become too internally
centered and lose their drive to expand and assist other cooperatives, and
the kind of connection created by involvement of a land trust in cooperative
ownership can help overcome this by providing a link to a broader vision and
movement.  Certainly community corporations can become conservative in
approach, just as unions do.  In California the Housing California coalition
brings together non-profit housing developers, homeless service
organizations, homeless advocates, tenants in subsidized housing with
expiring rent restrictions, and private sector tenants.  The strongest part
of the coalition is probably the non-profit housing developers and the
service organizations.   This omission of an analysis of strategic reforms
such as social ownership weakens the arguement very unnecessarily,
especially since land trusts are an important strategic reform and Larry
Yates has a strong background in this area.

For additional background on my comments here, I refer readers to my papers
on Comm-Org:
Stephen E. Barton <>,
Property, Community, Democracy: Barriers to Social Democracy in the Beliefs
of San Francisco Neighborhood Leaders.
Stephen E. Barton <>, A
History of the Neighborhood Movement in San Francisco.
Barton, Stephen E. 1996, "Social Housing Versus Housing Allowances: Choosing
Between Two Forms of Housing Subsidy at the Local Level", Journal of the
American Planning Association, 62#1: 108-119

"The Success and Failure of Strong Rent Control in the City of Berkeley,
1978 to 1995" in Rent Control: Regulation and the Urban Housing Market, by
W. Dennis Keating, Michael B. Teitz and Andrejs Skaburskis, Center for Urban
Policy Research, 1998.

Stephen Barton, Ph.D. AICP
Housing Director
City of Berkeley
2180 Milvia Street
Berkeley, CA 94704

Tel: 510-981-5400
Fax: 510-981-5450
E-mail: sbarton at

Please note that the views expressed here are my own and are not necessarily
those of the City of Berkeley.


[ed:  for those of you unfamiliar with the original COMM-ORG 
tradition of discussing papers online, here is some background.  
COMM-ORG first began as an academic discussion group on the 
history of community organizing.  Originally, it was designed to 
have academic papers posted and then discussed.  But over time, 
it became clear that people also wanted COMM-ORG to be a place 
to discuss community organizing in general, as well as a place to 
seek out technical assistance and support.  I  am very proud 
COMM-ORG has met those latter goals for so many people.  I 
often wish, however, that we could also have more discussion of 
the papers that authors place on COMM-ORG.  I hope that 
Stephen's comments on Larry's paper may serve as 
encouragement for others.]

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