Yates: Housing Organizing for the Long Haul

Contents | Introduction | 1933-48 | 1949-65 | 1960s | 1971-88 | 1988-93 | 1990s | Summary/Analysis | References/Notes/Bio

III. The "Sixties" -- Housing Issues Key to Empowerment of Urban Communities of Color

The Housing Situation of the Period

By 1965, the year of Los Angeles' Watts rebellion, inner-city ghettoes and white suburbs, defined as "American Apartheid" in the seminal 1993 book of that name, (Massey and Denton, 1993) had been firmly established in their modern interrelationship.

Watts was not like the slums of the East and Midwest that had inspired most housing protest and legislation. The McCone Commission investigating the rebellion cited wide clean streets, and the one-third of the homes that were owner-occupied in "the Negro districts of Los Angeles." (Platt, 1971, p. 265) The Commission chose to ignore "involuntary racial segregation ... in Los Angeles and how the black community is victimized by this practice." (Platt, 1971, P. 328)

Racial ghettoes were the site and the means of a multi-faceted exploitation of African-Americans that, far from being a relic of the past, was intensifying. American Apartheid notes that "[i]n general, the larger, the more modern, and the more economically developed the metropolitan area, the higher the level of black-white segregation." (Massey and Denton, 1993)

"Slum clearance" usually resulted in public housing "built on cleared land within or adjacent to existing black neighborhoods" -- "high-density towers of poor families". (Orser 1994, p. 56) African-American residents of many suburbs and rural areas were also forced into the inner-city. (Shafer, and Arlington County Action Committee)

African American "pioneers" in formerly white neighborhoods gained "deteriorating properties which cannot be improved because the necessary money is already sunk into the overpriced market." (P. 13 of 'Communities Under Siege', mimeographed report published by Activists Inc. in Baltimore in 1970, as quoted in Orser 1994) Ghetto residents then faced a lack of affordable home improvement loans and insurance, exploitation as captive consumers, and political and cultural isolation. In the words of American Apartheid , "residential segregation is the principal organizational feature of American society that is responsible for the creation of the urban underclass." (Massey and Denton, 1993, p. 9)

The simultaneous and related residential segregation of whites was driven by the "carrots" of the highway system and the housing finance system and the "stick" of racial fear. Whites were manipulated by "block-busters," in a process one observer of the flight of a white community compared to "the Three Mile Island thing." (Orser, 1994, p. 84) As early as 1966, suburbanization was "a massive internal migration involving the construction of nearly 15 million one-family houses," (Baran and Sweezy, 1966, p. 300) a vital stimulus to automotive, real estate and other central U.S. economic sectors.

By 1965 the United States as a society had made a massive financial and psychic investment in a segregated society. Housing policy was key to that investment.

The Activist Response

1) Resident Self-Defense

The urban rebellions of the 1960s, as already mentioned, were a major grassroots response to housing injustice. Though often characterized as irrational outbursts of violence, Platt's The Politics of Riot Commissions (Platt, 1971) and other sources show that these were conscious political efforts, with broad community support. Though illegal and semi-spontaneous, these rebellions clearly were organized acts of resident self-defense.

While the usual trigger for these rebellions was an act of violence against African-Americans, the relationship between the rebellions and increased attention to housing and other conditions by those in power was clear and public. For example, the New York Urban Coalition, which put "millions of dollars donated by the nation's largest corporations into poor communities" over twenty-seven years, "was a direct response to the riots that had left many of the country's inner cities in cinders..." (Kischenbaum, 1994, p. 16)

This period saw a heightened and more self-conscious level of resident self-defense.

2) Technical Assistance

During this period, today's structure of technical assistance to communities was first created. Community Action Agencies and Legal Aid received federal funding to assist communities on a variety of issues, including housing. These organizations took bold, sometimes unsophisticated, steps to assist communities, such as providing legal assistance to tenants, helping them to organize against landlords, often at first with little sense of the inherent political strings attached to federal funds.

3) Progressive Agenda

When the civil rights movement among southern African-Americans, the central progressive effort of this era, emerged as a nationally visible force, housing issues were not central to it. However, the civil rights movement "altered and expanded American politics by providing other oppressed groups with organizational and tactical models..." (Morris 1984, pp. 286-287) The movement revitalized the broad progressive agenda, stifled in the previous period.

Among the first to benefit from this revitalization were northern urban African-American communities. For these communities, housing segregation was central to their fight. When southern civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., joined with existing Chicago organizations to bring the movement north, housing was central from the beginning. Dr. King led marches in the summer of 1966 into "hostile" and "hate-filled" white suburbs of Chicago to protest housing discrimination. (Schulke and McPhee, 1986, p. 234) The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Dr. King led, also participated in tenant organizing drives in Chicago and Cleveland, which contributed directly to the emergence in 1969 of the National Tenants Organization, described in greater detail below. (Marcuse, 1980)

As Manning Marable has written, Dr. King had "come closest to bringing together a biracial coalition demanding peace, civil rights, and basic structural changes within the capitalist order ..." and his murder "meant any linkages between these vital reform movements would be much more difficult to achieve." (Marable 1984, p. 117) However, a wide range of movements, including tenant and housing movements, were linked and revitalized during this period and continued to move forward.

4) Right to Housing

Dr. King's murder ended that period's best chance for a broad unified social justice movement. However, another such attempt was made by the Black Panther Party, which sought a united front against capitalism and racism. The fourth Point of the Black Panther Party's 1966 Ten Point Program was:

"We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings. We believe that if the white landlords will not give decent housing to our black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people." (Goodman 1970, p. 211)

Allies of the Black Panthers, including the Brown Berets in western Chicano communities and the Young Lords Organization in Puerto Rican communities in the East and Midwest,took parallel positions on housing. At the Poor Peoples' March, which went on after Dr. King was killed, the Brown Berets demanded "housing that would meet Chicano cultural needs." (Quiñones, 1990, p. 114) Housing was key to fights for community power and self-definition waged by communities of color in the late Sixties.

While the Black Panther Party did not conduct a national mobilization for a right to housing, it clearly took such a position. Its positions and those of Latino and other progressive organizations set the stage for the housing nonprofits that have since been a key expression of community activism.

5) Anti-Racism

In a period in which African-American leadership set the tone for all progressive movements, anti-racism moved to the forefront of housing organizing efforts. This was a major and crucial change in housing organizing. For better or worse, low-income housing, like "welfare," had become identified with the aspirations of communities of color.

During the 1960s, a number of groups took a head-on organizing approach to fighting housing discrimination. In 1966 in Washington's Northern Virginia suburbs, the Action Coordinating Committee to End Segregation in the Suburbs (ACCESS) regularly faced arrest at a segregated apartment complex and other sites, and called for the denial of federal funds to Arlington County, Virginia, because of housing segregation. In Baltimore in 1969, The Activists, "a coalition of African American and white civil rights advocates," demonstrated and were arrested at the office of a large real estate firm that their research implicated "in the process of changing the racial composition of neighborhoods." (Orser 1994, P. 133-136)

Eventually, such small cadres were worn down and defeated or diverted. Facing high legal costs, The Activists withdrew their civil suit against the real estate firm they targeted. ACCESS, after several months of relatively balanced reporting and peaceful marches, saw increased police harassment and press attacks, while Arlington County's highest elected official stated he was "not unsympathetic" but was "powerless" to end housing segregation.(4) Perhaps most important, these groups acted without mobilizing a strong community base of people impacted by housing segregation.

The Government Response

During this period, the government response was reactive, and can only be understood in contrast to the period's radical activism, which questioned all of society, including the whole system of suburbs and ghetto.

While cruel repression of all kinds of progressive activism was one major response, various reforms also went forward, many of them housing-related. Nineteen sixty-five saw the creation of HUD -- the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development -- which institutionalized its "programs concerned with the Nation's housing needs, fair housing opportunities and improvement and development of the Nation's communities." (Office of the Federal Register, 1995, p. 333) Between 1966 and 1974, major new federal housing and community development programs included the Model Cities program, the Community Development Block Grant program, and several programs for funding and financing multifamily housing development by private developers. In general, these programs moved away from widespread slum clearance efforts and towards at least a formal resident participation process.

These programs clearly were responses to the rebellions and activist challenges of the day. President Johnson wrote in his memoirs of "a new approach .. based on the proposition that a slum is not merely decaying brick and mortar but also a breeding ground of human failure and despair." (Johnson, 1971, p. 330) The search for a "new approach" that went beyond slum clearance, as well as the financial investment that was made, signaled that activism had made an impact on those in power, once again bringing low-income housing needs into the light after fifteen years of virtual invisibility. Whether or not they "bred" despair, the slums had bred activism that could not be ignored.

Civil rights legislation, especially the Fair Housing Act of 1968, put the issues of race and housing into federal law for the first time since Reconstruction. While the Fair Housing Act was also a response to rebellion and protest, and a direct reaction to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this law did not initially speak to the critical needs of communities of color with the greatest housing needs.

To summarize, the "Sixties" period, specifically the last five years of that decade, saw housing organizing regain old strengths and gain new ones.

In Malcolm X's famous phrase, "chickens came home to roost" in the Sixties as far as housing was concerned. The ghetto had been sharply defined by the post-war development process, and formal and informal resistance to its exploitative and isolating character erupted. While segregated and deficient housing were only sometimes the mobilizing issue, the ghetto that they created was the key arena of struggle. As in the New Deal era, government responded with a number of housing programs. Organized housing activists lacked the power to win the programs they knew were needed, but the overall activism of the day did win genuine resources and opportunities for some low-income households and communities. However, bridging the enormous gap had been created between the mostly white suburbs and the largely African-American inner-city would clearly be a generational task, which at least some of the emerging generation were willing to take on.

Contents | Introduction | 1933-48 | 1949-65 | 1960s | 1971-88 | 1988-93 | 1990s | Summary/Analysis | References/Notes/Bio