Yates: Housing Organizing for the Long Haul

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

IV. 1971-1988: Grassroots Housing Work Grows

The Housing Situation of the Period

The 1970s were the era of "The Great U-Turn" -- the point when economic inequality began to increase again, after decreasing since the New Deal. The authors of a book by that name noted that "for the average worker, 1973 was the high-water mark in material gain." (Harrison and Bluestone, 1990, p. vii) This pattern of economic polarization, and of reduction in real wages for the majority of Americans, continued into the 1980s and 1990s.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the post-war housing paradigm in the U.S., like the overall post-war economic and social structure, began to falter. In housing, as in the overall economy, the era brought what conservative writer Kevin Phillips denounced as "one of U.S. history's most striking concentrations of wealth even as the American dream was beginning to fade not just in inner-city ghettos and farm townships but in blue-collar centers and even middle-class suburbs." (Phillips, 1990, p. xii) The carefully crafted centerpiece of the post-war housing finance system, the system of local thrifts, was massively looted in the 1980s and left a mere shell of its former self.

In a troubled economy, investors found rental income a more attractive source of profit. Television hucksters featured the no-money-down purchase of rental property as a get-rich quick method. Between 1976 and 1989, according to Michael Stone, the "aggregate affordability gap" -- roughly, the difference between rents and what renters could afford to pay while maintaining a decent living standard -- increased from $14 billion to $51 billion. Most of this was "traceable primarily to features of the rental housing market during this period -- such as abandonment, gentrification, arson, and low vacancy rates -- that drove rents up." (Stone 1993, P. 152-153)

During this period, homelessness, the product of these rent increases and of intensified downtown and rural exploitation of land, lack of low-skill jobs at a decent wage, and the lack of social support systems, took root in U.S. society. At first, homelessness was framed by the media and political leaders as an urgent crisis. But the media quickly re-framed this profound social failure as a condition with complex causes beyond human intervention, like storm damage or automobile traffic. Rarely, if ever, was it identified as a result of the larger system -- in Stone's words, "the lowest rung of a long ladder of [housing} affordability problems." (Stone 1993, P. 14)

The Government Response

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, private development of subsidized multifamily low-income housing hit its peak, despite the Reagan Administration's undisguised hostility. Sophisticated networks of for-profit housing developers, and of local and state housing agencies, especially public housing authorities, ensured that Congress and HUD maintained the programs that were their livelihood.

The post-Great Society right-wing critique of all programs that claim to benefit the poor has led housing professionals to "circle the wagons" in defense of all government housing programs. The ownership and management of subsidized housing by private developers, though in principle distasteful to many progressives, has generally not been an issue for activism, with the exception of local fights with landlords. The main exception to this rule is the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT). NAHT has pointed out that the original owners of these buildings "typically made sizable windfall profits through the sale of tax shelters," then frequently re-sold them to "investor/syndicators .... [who] made a second windfall on the 'resyndication'" of the properties. (NAHT, 1995) Of course, the owners of these properties emphasize their risks and their professional management skills.

The media characterizes public housing mainly in terms of the notorious problems of a relatively small minority of troubled inner-city projects, making public housing seem like a burden that local governments would gladly give up. Certainly many local governments have little repsect for the residents of public housing. However, the real estate devoted to public housing, the jobs and contracts associated with it, and the powers of local government authorities that own and manage public housing, are generally seen by local government as assets rather than liabilities.With their power to build and manage public housing, and to condemn land and promote development, public housing authorities are significant centers of local political power. As active elements of the local power structure, they are not "enthusiastic about the prospect of giving up power," in the words of a New Jersey tenant organizer. (Vanover, 1991, p. 15)

The political networks that support all types of subsidized housing have largely depended on Democratic Party dominance of the cities, states and Congress, as well as on close working relationships with the HUD bureaucracy. As HUD and the Democratic Party have fallen under conservative control, the still substantial power of these housing professionals has eroded.

During the same period, the official response to individual acts of housing discrimination became stronger. New protected classes, including women, people with disabilities, and families with children were added to federal fair housing laws, and some local and state laws came to protect persons receiving income subsidies and sexual minorities from housing discrimination. The courts also granted larger awards where discrimination was proved. These developments reflect the increasing sophistication and diversification of civil rights groups.

The Activist Response

The activist response of this period was in part a creative response to harsh repression.

Two years after the murder of Dr. King, facing brutal secret police tactics, the Black Panther Party splintered and essentially ceased to operate in 1970. In that year, the then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, answered a press question about "young dissenters" with the words, "If it takes a blood bath, let's get it over with." (Goodman, 1970, p. 502) Within a month student activists were shot dead by authorities on the Jackson State and Kent State campuses.

Rather than respond in kind to the challenge of Reagan and his ilk, with results tantamount to a civil war, most activists narrowed their focus, either to one community or to one issue. Radical author and teacher Carl Boggs described the result as "new movements [that] uphold, in different ways, the ideal of transforming daily life that was only implicit in the sixties" and, that, though typically "more 'moderate' and less disruptive," are "a mature elaboration -- not a reversal -- of important sixties themes." (Boggs) Housing justice was one of these themes.

Among the "new movements" that emerged or grew substantially in this period, there are four for which housing is central: the community organizing movement, the community development corporation network, national tenant organizing, and fair housing work.

1) Resident Self-Defense

Probably the most powerful of the four housing-related "new movements," and one of the older ones, is the community organizing movement, which is often traced back to organizing work in the 1940s in Chicago by the Industrial Areas Foundation.

This movement consists of multi-issue groups in lower-income neighborhoods in every part of the nation, as well as regional and national networks of these groups. Their growth in numbers has meant that many more low-income neighborhoods have had the techniques and the support needed for effective resident self-defense. To mobilize people in their communities, these groups must choose issues that lead to tangible victories at the neighborhood level, but often not to substantial changes in the institutional framework around housing. The one major exception, the Community Reinvestment Act, is a powerful anti-racist tool, and is described in that context below.

National community organizing networks like ACORN and National People's Action have included tenant organizing in their work, and taken strong housing positions. In 1972, National People's Action adopted a position that "decent housing is the right of all Americans" and that their constituents "need not accept poor housing and the abuse of a large and unresponsive industrial-financial-political housing complex." (NTIC, 1995)

Community organizing networks tend to work in isolation, not only from each other, but from groups not taking a community organizing approach. This means that most local housing organizers benefit only from the limited cumulative experience and technical expertise of one network.

Housing organizing, however, found its highest national strategic development in two free-standing tenant networks -- the National Tenants Union and the National Tenants Organization -- which shared membership and methods with the multi-issue networks.

Tenant organizing in private market housing brought together the groups that formed the National Tenants Union (NTU) in 1979 in discussions of national rent controls. The NTU was active until 1985. Woody Widrow, then a housing organizer at the National Housing Institute, who describes himself as "the closest to paid staff that NTU had" remembers that NTU members developed common policies "on key issues, such as rent control, eviction protections and security issues." However, national rent control never moved forward, and state laws. which govern private tenancies,varied widely, in Widrow's words, "from okay to feudal." This made it difficult to find common ground. For example, rent control was a key issue in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and some localities, but was a utopian dream in the South.

Widrow sees "a lot of the growth of the CDC movement [community development corporations, discussed below] ... in reaction to squatters, rents strikes, and rent control efforts."(5) Rent control activists also played a major role in cities like Santa Monica and West Hollywood in California and statewide in New Jersey in building a progressive movement that also takes on other non-housing issues. This process was described for Santa Monica as "build[ing] bridges between various disenfranchised groups and bind[ing] them into an organized body, demanding even greater economic and political change in other spheres of life." However, by the late 1980s, rent regulation organizers and activists were "waging an increasingly defensive campaign simply to keep [rent control] alive where it already exists" and many tenant groups had re-focussed their work on solutions like "large-scale cooperative housing programs for low- and moderate-income persons." (Gilderbloom and Appelbaum, 1988, p. 148)

The National Tenants Organization(NTO), in contrast to NTU, organized almost entirely in public housing. Unlike most rentals, where landlords are "small operators of limited resources, unorganized, unsophisticated ... and not susceptible to public pressure," public housing is "built with federal funds [and] controlled by federal regulations." For organizers, "the resources, the political sensitivity, the number of tenants, the visibility, were all there." (Marcuse, 1980, p. 53) For these reasons, NTO was more successful than NTU at developing a national strategy, and has had a much longer organizational life. However, NTO faced the problem of any national network of low-income people -- functioning with minimal resources. In addition, housing authority staff often seek to control or compromise public housing resident organizations. In some cases, "rival organizations were organized and dealt with" by housing authorities in response to the emergence of local NTO affiliates. (Marcuse, 1980, p. 53)

NTO was formed in 1969 with assistance from the American Friends Service Committee. NTO grew out of local organizing, including the SCLC-initiated effort in Chicago, as well as the work of Jesse Gray, a long-time progressive activist in Harlem. (Lawson 1986, pp. 174-176) A key event for NTO was a public housing rent strike in Muskegon City, Michigan, as a result of which a well-organized tenant association won the replacement of housing authority commissioners with commissioners they approved, including the association's President. (Neagu, p. 41) Thanks to these local actions and national advocacy with HUD, NTO "was able in early 1971 to establish grievance procedures and a 'model lease' in all federally-funded public housing projects." (Burghardt, 1972a, p. 15) Through the 1970s and 1980s, NTO continued to be a national resource for public housing residents, but mostly as an unstaffed organization. Still, public housing residents, thanks largely to work of NTO, have more rights and protections than most private market tenants around the nation.

Overall, housing organizing during this period more effectively supported resident self-defense, and re-legitimized resident self-defense nationally. The community organizing networks, though not focussed on housing, created the conditions that made this possible.

At the local level, housing organizing made a substantial difference. Both NTU and NTO provided technical assistance and models of successful organizing to local tenant groups, and helped them to win battles that they otherwise might not even have taken on. Both groups, especially NTO, also made some difference in national policy. However, the resident self-defense that both groups mobilized did not become a consistently powerful national force.

2) Technical Assistance

During this period, national community organizing networks like ACORN and National People's Action, as well as the Center for Community Change, (CCC) a support center for low-income communities, began to provide specialized assistance to housing organizing efforts.The National Housing Law Project also became a key resource for organized tenants, especially for its information on and advocacy for the rights of federally subsidized tenants, though the Project was not directly involved in organizing.

This period also saw the flowering of the community development corporation, a manifestation of expertise at the local level, often as one outcome of local organizing. While community development corporations in theory work on all aspects of developing a community, housing has been their major focus. Born almost literally from the ashes of urban rebellions of the 1960s, community development corporations have been rediscovered by successive waves of funders and government leaders as a solution to inner-city poverty. Thousands of units of below-market housing, many of them with some degree of community control, have been built by CDCs in projects in every metropolitan area and many rural areas. According to the National Congress for Community Economic Development, a trade association for CDCs, there are about 2,200 CDCs around the nation.

The complex relationship between community organizing and CDCs is in some ways similar to the relationship between the "experts" that Sidney Hill criticized and the proletarian organizing he championed. In a 1995 interview, Bob Brehm, the outgoing long-time executive director of a Chicago CDC, noted that early in his CDC career "many of the people who got involved in local community housing organizations were ... doing so as part of their activism, of their part in a larger movement for social change and social justice." However, over time CDCs had come to show "some of the provider mentality, too little of the activist mentality, and far too much of a 'doing deals' mentality." (Chicago Rehab Network, 1995)

This debate is not new. In 1978, the newsletter of the still-new Chicago Rehab Network responded to criticism of CDCs in Keep Strong, the magazine of the Intercommunal Survival Collective, with an article entitled "Who's Got the Grassroots?" According to the Rehab Network, Keep Strong had accused "neighborhood development corporations" of "play-acting as a surrogate grassroots leadership, while not producing enough housing units or jobs to make a difference." The Network defended the efforts of its members to "develop participatory development organizations that are responsive to community needs." (Chicago Rehab Network, 1997)

CDC professionals have been found to "[tend] to look with disdain at community organizing's adversarial tactics," and to see organizing as "outmoded," and perhaps less professional or even less mature (Delgado, 1994, P. 25) and to "argue that the community organizing model--a more confrontational, conflict oriented political approach to addressing poverty--is no longer appropriate." (Stoecker, 1996)

To Brehm, on the contrary, "organizing should not be a big part of housing development" so much as "housing development should be a big part of organizing." (Chicago Rehab Network, 1995)

Brehm's view, however, is hardly typical. Most CDCs, and the networks that serve them, such as the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and Enterprise Foundation, focus on the contribution of their work to the housing supply, and see themselves as technicians in the housing "industry," rather than seeing their work mainly as an adjunct to institutional change and organizing.

Brehm critiqued the idea that with "a few hundred or a few thousand units of housing, we can improve our community" as "absurd ," stating that "with the limited subsidies, the resources that are available today, we can never build more than a tiny percentage of what is needed." (Chicago Rehab Network, 1995)

Of course, there is no objective measure as to whether housing development or job creation is enough "to make a difference." To the person benefitting, even a single affordable housing unit is immensely valuable. Still, nonprofit housing groups do not have the capacity to even to come close to meeting the housing needs in this nation by developing and managing housing. They do, however, have the capacity to support institutional change by working with and for organized communities. Alternatively, they have the capacity to undermine organizing, whether by "compet[ing] for public attention with organizing groups," or even by "delegitimiz[ing] the organizing group by making it appear more militant..." (Stoecker, 1996)

Urgency of need and limitation of resources is another issue often raised by CDC advocates, and other service providers, such as shelter operators, who argue that they have no time for organizing, or even advocacy, because so much assistance is needed right now from organizations with minimal resources. But sometimes organizing for change can be not only more direct, but just as fast, as the service provider model in meeting people's needs. Randy Stoecker, another CDC critic, answers the "objection that people need housing now, ... jobs now, ... services now" by arguing that we can as easily "help people occupy vacant housing now, .. help them march now on wealthy corporations laying off workers, ... help them protest now to politicians attempting to destroy government at every level." (Stoecker, 1996)

By the early 1990s, the Chicago Rehab Network had moved from defending its members' roles to touting its organizing effort, the Chicago Affordable Housing and Community Jobs Campaign, which won millions of dollars in commitments from the City of Chicago. The Campaign's success in taking on Chicago's entrenched power structure has not diminished the ability of the Network or its members to develop housing or to carry out technical assistance. In fact, the Network's newsletter noted in 1997, "shortly after the success of the Chicago Affordable Housing and Community Jobs Campaign HUD showed its faith in the Network with a new technical assistance contract." (Chicago Rehab Network, 1997, p. 33) This occurred despite the fact that the brother of Chicago's Mayor, the Campaign's main target, was a member of President Clinton's Cabinet. This is no surprise to those who believe that good organizing causes opponents to have more respect for you, and to be more, not less, likely to do business with you.

Stoecker, in a 1996 paper, cites a number of examples where organizing has led and nourished community development work:

In Boston, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) focused on organizing as the means to development, while partnering to do actual physical redevelopment. In Minneapolis, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood residents placed neighborhood organizing and planning in the hands of the Project Area Committee, limiting their CDC to only implementing plans produced through the organizing process. In San Antonio, Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) resisted pressure to become a CDC (in the words of their lead organizer, Ernesto Cortes, 'for the obvious reasons') after they achieved control of much of San Antonio's CDBG budget." (Stoecker, 1996)

CDCs can bridge the contradiction between their identities as professional housing provider and as part of communities' struggle for justice, but only by being realistic about the overall needs of their community.When they exaggerate their own impact, CDCs are in effect belittling the urgent and unmet needs for institutional change in the communities they claim to serve. Those needs will not be met by "business as usual," but by changes won by mobilized communities.

3) Progressive Agenda

During this period, there was generally little common progressive ground on housing. In particular, the connection to the labor movement that Sidney Hill had considered crucial became only a formality at best for most housing activists. The traditional New Deal connection between construction unions and housing programs degenerated into frequent antagonism, since the building trades unions were often racially segregated, while many housing agencies avoided paying union wages whenever possible. Nor were any clear connections forged between housing issues and the issues of the increasingly powerful feminist and environmental movements.

4) Right to Housing

Beginning in the late 1970s, national housing advocacy organizations emerged, especially the National Low-income Housing Coalition and the National Rural Housing Coalition. While labor and religious groups were key initiators of these organizations, over time, their day-to-day policy came to be dominated by CDCs. CDCs had an increasing need to influence national policy for their own benefit, and had increasingly concrete and urgent needs, such as the preservation of the Low-income Housing Tax Credit (a complex tax incentive to channel investment into low-cost housing that became the main means of producing housing for many CDCs).

In principle, these national organizations supported a broad right to housing. In 1984, the National Low-income Housing Coalition organized a National Low-income Housing Conference at Howard University, co-sponsored by forty-five organizations, from the National League of Cities to the Planners Network, and including ten national faith organizations, the AFL-CIO, and constituency-based groups from the American Association of Retired Persons to the National Council of La Raza. (ACORN and National People's Action were not sponsors.) This broad-based meeting affirmed a program that included:

"Make housing assistance an entitlement for all who need it,"

"Provide resident control of housing through a strong role for tenant organizations, limited-equity cooperatives, community-based housing groups, and homeownership," and

"End displacement of low-income people." (NLIHC, 1984)

A variety of other national housing and community development advocacy groups emerged, from the National Coalition for the Homeless to the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Some groups represented specific constituencies, like the National Council of La Raza, while others, like the Enterprise Foundation or the Institute for Community Economics, built new networks. By the late 1980s, the representatives of these national groups together could fill a room in Washington. Meanwhile, state housing coalitions, also mainly rooted in CDCs, emerged during the 1980s in a majority of states across the nation, primarily to fight for state housing funding to partially replace that being lost at the federal level.

Despite their positions of principle, however, during this period none of the national housing advocacy organizations conducted a national political mobilization around the right to housing, or tried to move forward federal legislation to this effect. Instead, they focussed on the supposedly pragmatic path of advocating for specific programs of benefit to their constituents. Most of these programs, of course, lost ground during the period.

5) Anti-Racism

Community organizing groups and networks have extensively used the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977, itself a result of organizing by National People's Action and other groups, as a tool to negotiate community reinvestment agreements with lenders. The trigger for this organizing has generally been research showing lenders engaged in race-based denial of resources to low-income communities. Often media coverage has followed, such as the "Color of Money" series in the Atlanta Constitution, (Dedman, 1988) raising the usually invisible issue of institutional patterns of racism with a directness rarely seen in this society. While disinvestment by lenders is not solely a racial issue, communities of color have been in the forefront of fighting it, and institutional racism is the central factor in its persistence. Community reinvestment data provides "the smoking gun on lending discrimination." (Oliver and Shapiro, 1997, p. 141) To refute the evidence of CRA data, a recent conservative critique of CRA found it necessary to slur inner-city communities, blaming disinvestment on the defects of "single-parent household[s]," whose members don't have "time to do simple home improvement or maintenance projects" and of communities "in which roving gangs paint graffiti on the sides of houses and buildings, and otherwise abuse the property of others..." (Center for New Black Leadership, n.d.)

The National Community Reinvestment Coalition reported that by 1998, more than 250 CRA agreements had resulted in commitments of over $400 billion, mostly for housing lending.(Silver, n.d.) National People's Action celebrates CRA organizing at its annual meetings with a rally-like display of the millions of dollars in agreements that its members have made. ACORN, CCC and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition also offer support to community groups for community reinvestment work.

Community reinvestment work has been a centerpiece of community organizing, and for good reason. Even though the full $400 billion committed is unlikely to reach the intended communities, this still represents a scale of resources otherwise far beyond the reach of grassroots communities. Community reinvestment organizing enables neighborhood groups to sit down and negotiate for real resources with some of the most powerful people in our nation -- the leaders of major banks.

Although CRA research has focussed mainly on single-family home mortgages, CRA organizing has also produced multifamily rental housing, and other financial opportunities for low-income communities and communities of color.

While CDCs and bankers constantly anticipate a day when communities and lenders will work together without the threat of confrontation in the background, everyone involved knows that good community organizing and the federal laws that grew out of it are what makes the relationship work. However, except for CRA organizing, explicitly anti-racist housing activism during this period was almost completely unrelated to the other "new social movements" with housing agendas.

After the passage of federal civil rights legislation, a number of national organizations focussed on litigation and lobbying as tools to maintain and broaden civil rights protections. Some of these organizations, like the NAACP, also had a mass base and were involved in local battles, and sometimes militant organizing efforts, but were not involved in national housing policy issues.

Fair housing laws resulted in less confrontational and more professionalized fair housing work focussed on discrimination against individual households. Increasing federal funding for fair housing, while a sign of growing concern on this issue, promoted a model of housing discrimination as due to insufficiently educated real estate professionals rather than institutional racism. In addition, litigation has become a source of substantial funds for many fair housing groups, further validating efforts to seek legal redress for individuals rather than redress in the streets for communities. The beneficiaries of fair housing work, like those of CRA activism, are generally more likely to be those who would be eligible to buy homes and get loans but for their race, though increasingly more low-income households, such as those headed by women, have made individual gains through fair housing work.

Modern fair housing nonprofits are typically very aggressive in their pursuit of justice for individuals. However, as Massey and Denton wrote in American Apartheid, "as long as the Fair Housing Act is enforced individually rather than systemically, it is unlikely to be effective in overcoming the structural arrangements that support segregation and sustain the ghetto." (Massey and Denton, 1993, p. 15)

Most fair housing nonprofits had little contact during this period with either nonprofit housing producers or housing organizers, and were engaged in entirely separate fields of national policy work. This functional division has meant that community development corporations, and most community organizers, have defined housing issues in generally non-racial terms, while fair housing organizations, with the responsibility and the analytical tools to identify continuing housing segregation, have been isolated from the development of housing and from the development of overall housing policy.

Ultimately, then, while communities of color gained substantial resources for local fights during this period, including the powerful CRA tool, these resources did not coalesce into a strategically effective anti-racist component in national housing organizing efforts.

During this era, new movements emerged as legacies of the Sixties upsurges. Several of them had housing at the center of their agendas, but had profoundly different approaches to the issue. They also had some serious work to do, as the housing situation got worse for millions of Americans. At the community level, some real accomplishments were won, and housing networks began to emerge to take on national and state-level issues.

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