Yates: Housing Organizing for the Long Haul

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

V. 1988-1993: Moment of Opportunity for the Housing Movement

The Housing Situation of the Period

As economic disparity increased and young households were less able to meet their parents' living standards, housing became a greater national concern than it had been for forty years.

The urban landscape had become an economic prize by the early 1990s. Gentrification was becoming a household word. Cities looked to redevelopment "miracles" like those engineered by James Rouse in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and more traditional and less profitable uses of land, especially single-room occupancy hotels, always vulnerable, were displaced at an accelerating rate.

Gentrification also threatened housing developed for low-income people. The hundreds of thousands of units subsidized by the federal government were potential bonanzas, especially when near prospering downtowns or to gentrifying historic neighborhoods. Jargon phrases like "mixed-income communities" and "urban revitalization" disguised the potential disruption of peoples' lives and loss of housing opportunities.

Public housing, while in theory immune to speculation, was under attack in communities like Allen Parkway Village in Houston, where a strategy of neglect paved the way for demolition and redevelopment.Properties developed under private-public partnership programs of the Kennedy-Johnson years were beginning to be legally available for owners to exploit for more profitable uses. Private developers had the legal right, after twenty years of ownership, to prepay their mortgages and end all restrictions protecting low-income residents.

Homelessness, now a universal problem of American communities, became more visibly a problem for many families with children, including some formerly middle-class families. Volunteering to "help the homeless" was a national trend, especially on campuses. This period was a crucial turning point on this issue, captured in these retrospective words from a leading Protestant cleric:

"I live in New York City. I remember when there were no homeless people. Then there were one or two. Now I can barely find my way among them as I walk down Broadway to work....

I am terribly saddened that we now have many homeless children. God forbid that we ever get used to it."(6)

The Government Response

Having a Presidential contender -- Jack Kemp -- heading HUD (1989-1993) gave housing issues a visibility they had lacked since the early 1970s. Kemp's idiosyncratic and unrealistic crusade to make low-income tenants into homeowners simply did not add up in terms of the federal budget, but Kemp did lessen the influence of owners and agencies at HUD and highlight the issues of low-income residents and communities.

Other policy-makers also emphasized housing issues, including California Senator Alan Cranston, and in the House, Representative Henry Gonzalez, at the height of a career in which housing needs were a central theme.

In 1987, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act was the first major legislative response to the new housing conditions. The Act created a national framework for assistance to homeless people, including shelters, drop-in facilities, and food pantries, based on the activism of homeless service providers, described below.

In 1990, Congress passed the National Affordable Housing Act (NAHA), which offered states and localities new highly flexible housing funding through the HOME program. Key for communities was the set-aside of fifteen percent of HOME funding for nonprofits with substantial community involvement, known as CHDOs (community-based housing development organizations). (This set-aside was the final outcome of a policy process that began at the 1984 National Low-income Housing Conference. Legislation to fund genuinely community-based housing organizations, based on a concept developed at that conference, was modified and included in NAHA as the CHDO concept) The CHDO set-aside has given localities a financial incentive to work with community-based nonprofit organizations they had previously avoided or been unaware of.

A freestanding section of NAHA, known as the Low-income Housing Preservation and Resident Homeownership Act, protected the threatened homes of tenants in HUD-assisted, privately owned housing. The process that led to this legislation is discussed below.

These were signs of a reviving national commitment to housing -- but the numbers were not as hopeful. In 1990, budget authority for low-income housing -- the measure of the federal commitment -- reached its lowest point -- $14 billion dollars, less than one-fifth the 1978 figure. At the same time, actual cash outlays were increasing, as more dollars were needed to meet even the meager commitments that remained, creating increasing pressure for further housing cuts. (Dolbeare 1998)

The Activist Response

1) Resident Self-Defense

During these years, rival national public housing organizations to NTO were formed, in line with the Kemp approach. This further weakened NTO, since the rival organizations had well-known resident leaders and were much better funded than NTO. While public housing residents still provide some of the most effective local leaders on housing and other issues, NTO has not regained its strength of the early 1980s.

Many of the national groups that had emerged in the 1980s, such as the National Low-income Housing Coalition, had member groups that had fought effective local battles for resident self-defense. But staff and leaders tended to develop policy without much input from these grassroots groups -- and to be ineffective at mobilizing grassroots action on issues. As the visibility of resident self-defense efforts grew, some national groups began to seriously try to connect local work to national issues.

One key step was the establishment by the Center for Community Change (CCC) of the CDBG Monitoring Project. The CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) program, created for the benefit of low-income people in 1974, in many communities became a slush fund for downtown development and other politically popular uses. Such abuses led to grassroots activism, such as the successful organizing by COPS in San Antonio, cited above. ACORN in 1979 took a national position to "ban the use of [CDBG] funds for downtown commercial projects until the basic needs of low- and moderate-income neighborhoods are met," and to "give democratically elected neighborhoods the power to make decisions on how CDBG funds are spent within the neighborhood." (ACORN, 1979)

CCC involved grassroots organizations in a network that not only assisted local organizing on the issue, but fed the results of that organizing back into the national policy process. In 1986, local and national groups involved in the Project formed the Coalition for Low-Income Community Development, which has fought for changes in the CDBG program, but also urges neighborhood groups to "get involved and organize around getting more CDBG dollars for their communities," noting that "public officials tend to be far more interested in using CDBG funds to cover government's administrative expenses, basic public services, downtown development projects and public works, than in using them for low-income housing and other low-income neighborhood priorities." (Nilsson, 1993)

CCC's CDBG Monitoring Project provided a model for national organizing-related activities of other organizations, especially those of the Low-income Housing Information Service (then the sister organization to the National Low-income Housing Coalition).

2) Technical Assistance

As the 1980s began, few states spent any revenues on low-income housing and shelter for the homeless. By the end of the decade, the majority of states did so, because, for the first time in this nation's history, in almost every state there was an organization of housing professionals committed to housing advocacy, if not housing organizing.

The growing network of CDCs and other local housing nonprofits began to form state housing coalitions in the 1980s. (A 1995 National Low-income Housing Coalition survey of state housing coalitions found only six that had existed before 1981.) Most of these state coalitions were dominated by CDCs and were focussed on gaining funding streams for them -- and state budgets had become a likely source for such funding. The coalitions used the technical expertise -- and community credibility -- of CDCs to become a political force for housing.In some states, such as New York, New Jersey, and Indiana, the state coalitions came to include a significant base of grassroots activists -- usually tenant leaders or grassroots homelessness activists.

The National Low-income Housing Coalition, in order to engage the state housing coalitions that had accomplished this change in national and more effective state advocacy, kicked off its National Housing Policy Initiative in 1993. The Initiative strengthened networking among state coalitions, coordinated national activities for coalitions to participate in, and provided funding to strategically selected coalitions.

By 1988, a network of experts, some associated with Legal Services, were working to head off or mitigate the conversion of privately owned subsidized housing to upscale uses, as discussed above. The NLIHC supplemented this work by reaching out to grassroots organizers and tenant leaders, pulling together a network that constituted itself in 1992 as the National Alliance of HUD Tenants. At its core were tenant organizing efforts in Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles and other cities.

NAHT has had a substantial impact on housing policy, working with other national housing groups, often in "good cop, bad cop" cooperative efforts. A 1996 academic report found that NAHT "achieved three major victories," namely:

the creation of Residents' Rights and Responsibilities brochure, co-written with HUD" and distributed to tenants all over the nation;

a new chapter for tenants in the HUD Management handbook, spelling out tenants' rights clearly while making them a part of the process", and

a $3 million training program funded by HUD" to inform tenants of their rights, since expanded to include a multi-year commitment of VISTA positions to the network. (Nyden 1996, p. 33)

In addition, the Low-income Housing Preservation and Resident Homeownership Act, a compromise among owners, tenants, and Jack Kemp's approach, included major tenant gains, won by the groups that formed NAHT and the professionals working with them. These provisions assisted residents to purchase their buildings on their own or with nonprofits, and created notice requirements that have enabled tenants to prepare for threatened conversions.

NAHT has its own technically skilled staff, and has also worked with a network of technical experts organized as the National Preservation Working Group.

3) Progressive Agenda

The 1989 Housing Now! march, discussed below, mobilized groups from across the progressive landscape to support the housing issue. Whether this merely meant that housing was the "flavor of the month" or implied more solid connections was never fully explored by national housing activists. Also, housing concerns began to more frequently overlap with other concerns, such as AIDS, mental illness, and domestic violence. In the process, activists on such issues gained housing program knowledge.

Some of the most militant groups opposing assaults on the poor, especially welfare repeal, included housing justice as an element of their struggle. Tent cities, like the Hoovervilles of the 1930s, again became a means of dramatizing issues -- and of meeting peoples' needs. In Boston, a tent city protest of a major downtown project ultimately won a large affordable housing complex, appropriately named Tent City. The Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) has "established Tent Cities in North Philadelphia since 1991 to meet immediate housing needs" and, as important to them, to politically "educate families turned away by the shelter system."(7)

4) Right to Housing

"Housing is a Human Right" had been the slogan of the National Low-income Housing Coalition since the 1970s. In Shelter Poverty, Stone noted a mid-1980s campaign to add this right to the Massachusetts state constitution, and saw the issue "percolat[ing] into the realm of organizing and political action." (Stone, 1993, p. 317) In 19**, Rep. Ronald Dellums had introduced legislation to establish a universal social housing program, based on ideas developed by Stone, Hartman and others.

In 1988, the National Low-income Housing Coalition's sister organization, the Low-income Housing Information Service (LIHIS) committed itself to "build a definable low-income constituency base for housing production and advocacy" and to "involve the constituency in development of proposals for policy change," and stated as a goal "make housing recognized as a human right." (LIHIS, 1988) LIHIS had established projects to support local anti-displacement efforts, and to support statewide housing coalitions -- both aiming to build a national grassroots-based housing constituency.

As these efforts began, however, a new force for housing justice emerged. New nonprofit agencies had emerged in response to homelessness -- many of them informal, egalitarian, and with leaders driven by a deep moral calling. A significant few of these leaders displayed eloquent prophetic anger against homelessness. Foremost among them, because of his personal gifts and his location in the nation's capital, was Mitch Snyder.

Snyder, following local political victories, began to share a vision of a national housing march, which got such a positive reaction that it became an inevitability. In October of 1989 the Housing Now! march brought tens of thousands of people to the nation's capital.

Like all such marches, this one required a massive logistical effort costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the march also required grassroots mobilization, which was largely done by the new breed of homeless nonprofits. A list of contacts from the organizing effort for the march shows that of 80 contacts around the nation whose affiliations can be identified, 35 were working with homelessness-focussed organizations, mainly shelters, 17 with other non-housing social service agencies, and only 13 with housing nonprofits.(8) Yet CDCs had generally been around longer, had more resources, and were more numerous than homelessness groups.

The National Low-income Housing Coalition, which played an important logistical role in the march, used the occasion to launch its first national mass campaign -- Two Cents for Housing. This campaign called for the federal government to increase its funding commitment to housing to two cents -- two percent -- of the overall federal spending dollar. Some communities sent in hundreds of postcards with two pennies attached to them, adding up to tens of thousands of postcards sent to Congress, and some national advocates felt the Campaign helped bring about the National Affordable Housing Act. However, after the Campaign the NLIHC did not follow up immediately with another mobilization effort.

5) Anti-Racism

Because fair housing was, for the most part, treated as a separate issue and advocacy effort, the various new mobilization and organizing efforts during this period did not funadmentally attack the institutional racism in housing. However, people of color did gain new positions of leadership at the national level in and through organizations like the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Center for Community Change, as well as in local organizations, from CDCs to organizations of homeless people.

Housing went back on the national agenda, with a charismatic Cabinet member, a national march on Washington, and widespread concern about homelessness. However, there was no national organizing effort that had the tools or the strategy to seize this opportunity. Local and state organizing on housing issues continued to grow.

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