Yates: Housing Organizing for the Long Haul

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

VI. Mixed Signals in the 1990s

The Housing Situation of the Period

In the later years of the 1990s, the New York Times Magazine reported, "Housing ... simply evaporated as a political issue." (DeParle, 1996) President Clinton was elected twice without even making significant promises, let alone taking any real action, on housing issues. In his second term, homeownership in the U.S. actually increased to its highest levels ever, but homelessness also increased. Shelters and homeless people on the street became integral to urban life. The National Coalition for the Homeless found that shelter use in cities surveyed in 1997 had increased, doubling or even quadrupling in the decade since the McKinney Act. (Safety Network, 1998)

With no visible national effort to raise housing as a social issue, housing need came to be seen as an individual matter. The best known national approach to housing need was that of Habitat for Humanity, which provides single-family homeownership, mainly due to suburban volunteers with little connection to low-income communities. While Habitat's most renowned supporter was former President Jimmy Carter, it also got the support of conservative leader and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an advocate of harsh cutbacks to federal housing programs.

The Government Response

At the local and state level, HUD's new Consolidated Plan encouraged localities to include community groups in a comprehensive approach to housing and community development. But to be genuine, such an approach depended on organized local communities.Still, the requirement for these plans, and the increasing availability of computerized information, made government housing action more transparent to the public.

At the same time, the success of the incessant media propaganda against benefits recipients, immigrants, and other targeted groups did not bode well for housing programs. The repeal of Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- "welfare reform" -- took place with little analysis of its impact on residents of low-income housing -- or on the housing stock they lived in. By the early years of the 21st century, public housing agencies will lose revenue as residents lose their benefits, and may hesitate to rent to welfare recipients. (Sard and Daskal, 1998)

The Activist Response

Following the failure to seize the national opportunity of the early 1990s, there have been many more local or limited efforts that exemplify the Sidney Hill benchmarks.

1) Resident Self-Defense:

Homeless activism, while not as visible as in 1989, has never stopped. The National Coalition for the Homeless has continued to provide a connecting point for this work. A major focus of this work has been the increasing pressure by urban governments to "criminalize the homeless." In late 1997, the National Coalition for the Homeless announced the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project to work on this issue, a clear form of resident self-defense. (Safety Network, 1997)

In the later 1990s, the earlier media emphasis on white homeless families and the "new poor" has been overwhelmed by the reality of persistent poverty in communities of color. More and more, homeless activism, though disorganized and sporadic, has elements of resident self-defense as well as charitable benevolence. Homeless activism is also a place where connections between movements are made, since young activists in colleges and elsewhere are very likely to spend some time working on homeless issues.

In Seattle, homeless and formerly homeless people and their allies have led direct action against development-driven downtown demolition of low-cost housing. In 1991, "Operation Homestead, a loosely organized group of anarchists, independent leftists, homeless people and housing activists," carried out a four-and-a-half-day occupation of the abandoned Arion Court apartments in downtown Seattle. Working closely with more mainstream housing nonprofits, the occupiers got a commitment from the owner to donate the building for self-managed housing. (Oldham, 1992, p. 32) Seattle's downtown, with its long tradition of low-cost housing, has been an arena for policy struggles, due to rapid speculative development over the last thirty years. While many housing units have been lost (the Seattle Displacement Coalition estimated that 1500 downtown units were lost in three years in the mid-1980s), activists have succeeded in gaining condominium conversion and housing preservation laws, and a short-lived moratorium on downtown demolition.(9)

Battles like these, with homeless people and their allies fighting for their survival in an atmosphere of speculation, may return the fight for housing as a human right to the public policy arena. All of the Sidney Hill benchmarks are evident in this kind of organizing.

2) Technical Assistance:

During this period, local activists have gained some technical tools not controlled by housing professionals outside the community.

The Consolidated Plan required by HUD, based on the requirements of the 1990 National Affordable Housing Act, has given local activists detailed information on local housing needs. Several successful organizing efforts in this arena are detailed in the NLIHC report Slicing the Pie, including an effort in Rock Island, Illinois that "used the city's planning process to save 225 units of public housing slated for demolition," and funds that were targeted more effectively to low-income communities in Oakland, Akron, and other cities. (Wise, 1995, Pp. 20-21)

HUD has also provided more and more such information on the World Wide Web and through other electronic means.(10) In addition, there have been notably useful nonprofit efforts to make information available, especially by the organization RTK (Right To Know) Net.

NAHT, described above, continued to fight to prevent conversion of HUD-assisted housing to market-rate housing, to provide protections when conversion became inevitable, and to enable resident groups, and nonprofits working with them, to purchase this housing in order to prevent its conversion. NAHT, local and national nonprofit developers (especially the National Housing Trust) and local and state governments have accomplished the long-term preservation, in resident or nonprofit ownership, of almost 85,000 units of housing in 736 housing communities around the nation. (Organizing Times, 1998a) The fight to save the hundreds of thousands of units still at risk continues. The Pennsylvania Housing Coalition's Resident Education and Action Project is typical -- working with the leaders of communities with 1,200 residents in Pittsburgh to ensure that these residents "play an important role in saying what happens to these properties," even though federal protections are no longer in place. (Moses and Russell, 1998)

NAHT's annual conferences in recent years have brought together about 300 activists and supporters from NAHT's "130 to 140" tenant association members, located from coast to coast. (Basey, 1997) A key NAHT focus is on the right to organize. At its 1998 conference, NAHT raised issues that included the arrests of HUD tenant organizers in Los Angeles, and got HUD support for "regulations confirming the right of tenants to leaflet and door-knock their neighbors" and "the right of organizers to leaflet and door-knock. (Organizing Times, 1998b)

While NAHT's work is dependent on organizers and housing professionals, its approach to the issues in HUD-assisted properties has always been that "the people who call these buildings home are the ones whose voices need to be heard ...." (Minnesota Housing Partnership, 1998)

NAHT's record fits the Sidney Hill benchmarks. Resident self-defense is at its core. It has organized one of the few national groups working on any issue whose Board consists entirely of low-income people, the majority of them people of color. It effectively uses technical assistance, both from its own staff and leading members and from outside groups.

3) Progressive Agenda:

The Institute for Community Economics (ICE), a national organization that provides financing and technical assistance to community land trusts, has proposed a conscious alliance of housing networks around a set of well-defined principles. ICE's leadership includes peace and justice activists and inner-city leaders of communities of color who have a vision that goes far beyond a technical assistance network or the narrow issues of CDCs.

Community land trusts, along with mutual housing associations and limited-equity housing cooperatives, represent a "second wave" of housing nonprofits. Community land trusts hold land in trust in order to reduce housing costs and increase commuity control. Like mutual housing associations and limited-equity housing cooperatives, community land trusts go beyond assisted housing efforts of the past in several ways, especially in resident participation and in removing properties from the speculative real estate market. For these groups, the proposal of the Black Panther Party and its allies that "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" is highly relevant today.

In 1995, ICE began a self-conscious effort to bring together these efforts as Permanently Affordable Resident and Community Controlled (PARCC) housing. This model challenges this nation's basic paradigm of real estate ownership. But it also speaks to many of the public's known concerns about low-income housing programs, which are seen, sometimes correctly, as wasteful, bureaucratic in structure, and not based on local initiative. Among the groups that ICE reached out to in this effort is the National Association of Housing Cooperatives, which includes labor-initiated cooperatives from as long ago as the 1920s.

The potential exists for the PARCC effort to be a building block in the long-term process of forging a broader progressive movement for change.

4) Right to Housing:

In February 1994, the National Low-income Housing Coalition approved a Housing Justice Campaign with three main policy components:

to re-direct the home mortgage deduction tax subsidy for higher-income homeowners towards "providing housing benefits to every low and moderate income family";

to "substantially strengthen the community-based nonprofit sector involved ... on behalf of greater housing opportunity," especially by directing resources to "frontline organizations responsive to people of color, women, disabled persons, low-income people, and others subject to discrimination.", and

to seek "full funding at authorized levels for all current low-income housing programs..."(11)

As part of that campaign, Housing Justice Day brought housing activists to Springfield to lobby Illinois legislators in May 1994. That November, the Washington State Housing Justice Campaign was kicked off by a formerly abused and formerly homeless woman living in subsidized housing, the Director of the Tahoma Indian Center and the Speaker of the State House. Similar activities occurred in Texas, Louisiana, Connecticut, and elsewhere.

Legislation reflecting a detailed program worked out by NLIHC members and leaders was introduced in Congress in February, 1995 by Representative Major Owens, a leading progressive from New York. At NLIHC's annual conference, Owens called for a broad progressive movement to march on Washington on housing and other issues. In the same month, hundreds of militant Philadelphia public housing tenants and supporters, working with the Pennsylvania Low-income Housing Coalition, rallied in Washington.

The election of a conservative Republican Congress in 1994 led many housing advocates to feel that the Housing Justice Campaign was no longer appropriate. In mid-1995, partly due to lack of funding, NLIHC's field organizing staff was laid off or left, and most of the Housing Justice Campaign's media and organizing activities came to a halt.

5) Anti-Racism:

Since at least the Brown Berets, whose 1968 demands were noted above, oppressed ethnic and cultural groups in the U.S.A. have fought for culturally appropriate housing.

In the Twin Cities, urban Indian groups gained low-income housing designed in cooperation with the community. In Albuquerque, Sawmill, a long-established Hispanic neighborhood, has established a community land trust in a process that has used culture and history, especially mural art, as a tool. In Stockton, California, a low-income housing development has enabled a Cambodian immigrant community to express its solidarity and maintain some of its culture. (Yates, 1996) The Tenants' and Workers' Support Committee in Alexandria, Virginia, in its 12-year fight to establish a cooperative housing community owned largely by Salvadoran immigrants, has expanded its housing-based work to "those problems that most affect the Latino community," for example by creating a group of 20 "Health Promoters" who are from and work in the community to expand health services. (VOP, 1998)

Ethnic groups are not alone in fighting for appropriate housing. Contradictions among nonprofit housing groups surfaced when ADAPT of Philadelphia, part of a national network of persons with disabilities, crashed a fundraising event for Habitat for Humanity with demands for Habitat houses to be more accessible. (ADAPT, 1998, p. 24) ADAPT's key fight in the late 1990s has been for their MiCASA proposal, "a national program of home and community services so we are not forced into nursing homes..." (ADAPT, 1998, p. 1)

Such struggles will be key to future fair housing fights. Fair housing must go beyond the right of people from different ethnic groups to obtain their share of the "American dream" -- i.e. suburban homeownership. Many Americans, including the majority of African-Americans, are not likely to be included in that dream in their lifetimes. Other communities, like the Cambodians in Stockton, may have a dream different from that of the majority.

While national awareness of housing as an issue diminished during this period, the fight for housing justice continued at the local and state level, and took more creative forms, benefitting at the community level from an uninterrupted thirty-year tradition of housing organizing. Nationally, however, the agendas of CDCs and their intermediaries are the only voices consistently heard nationally, and those voices are but whispers in the national policy conversation.

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