Yates: Housing Organizing for the Long Haul

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


The story of housing organizing in the nation's lower-income communities is mainly a story of local community struggles -- rent strikes, fights against encroaching highways, hospitals and universities, campaigns to build tenant organizations, and many other battles -- that are hardly known except to those directly involved. There has been no Joe Hill to spread songs of housing struggle across the nation, no Taylor Branch or Rachel Carson to summarize housing organizing's grand themes in a best-selling book, no glossy magazine like Ms. or Ebony to validate the grassroots experiences of housing organizers.

Housing organizing has been the arena for the hopes and desperate needs of millions of people acting in their communities. These people have acted with ingenuity, courage, and sophistication, and have made significant changes in their communities. Still, their efforts, largely because of their isolation and lack of a broad national context, rarely have explicitly confronted the underlying financial, political and institutional structure of housing, as embodied in the interlocking powers of real estate, government and finance. Thus, most housing organizing involves fighting much the same battles over and over in different places. Even the victories with lasting value across the nation have mostly been known only to those belonging to one or another of the national activist networks discussed in this chapter that have linked activists together.

The people fighting these fights, from the neighborhood level to the national level, need and deserve a more effective and far-reaching strategic approach to housing organizing. Such an overview must be rooted in an understanding of the larger political dynamic of this society. As Michael Stone wrote in Shelter Poverty:

For housing organizing to begin to realize its strategic potential, activists need a framework for analysis, a developed vision of an alternative model of housing provision, and the willingness and ability to connect people's direct experiences in an effective way to a broader world view that is different from that so forcefully propounded by the dominant cultural institutions."(Stone 1993, P. 278)

This chapter focuses on a method of action that can enable housing organizing to effectively change fundamental conditions around housing. This method in many ways complements the analytical framework that Stone, Chester Hartman, and others have developed, and the housing development practice of community land trusts and limited-equity cooperatives. It owes even more to community leaders and organizers, especially those who built the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, the National Tenants Organization, and the National Unemployed Councils. Finally, it is consistent with the exciting revival of organizing exemplified by activists connected to groups like the National Organizers Alliance, the Center for Third World Organizing, the Southern Empowerment Project, and the activists who are working hard to renew the U.S. labor movement.

For those already committed to an organizing approach, this chapter will provide not only support and comfort, but analytical tools and historical background to support their practice. For those who seek to meet housing needs solely by improving the techniques of housing agencies and organizations, while curtailing or avoiding organizing and mobilization, this chapter will raise some hard questions. Above all, this chapter will put housing issues in the context of this nation's history of community and political struggles in a practical and useful way.

More than sixty years ago, the intensity and breadth of housing struggle during the Great Depression made possible a brilliantly clear vision of the landscape of housing organizing. One housing organizer, writing under the name of Sidney Hill, in that historical moment outlined a strategic organizing approach to housing issues. Drawing on that analysis, the chapter proposes a set of benchmarks for housing organizers to assess the impact of their work -- national and local -- on the structural issues of housing injustice.

These benchmarks are not organizing tips or guidelines intended to ensure that a particular community or tenant organization wins its current fight. There are already many publications that provide such advice,(1) as well as numerous training centers and organizing networks.(2) Nor do these benchmarks offer answers for all the questions serious housing organizing will face. The fact that national housing-related movement organizations like the National Tenants Organization and the National Unemployed Councils, which clearly met these benchmarks, did not become viable permanent organizations, or that powerful local housing movements like those built in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s suffered serious setbacks in later days, points to the complexity of building a lasting housing movement.A critical point is that the success of housing organizing is inextricably linked to overall progressive activism, and that the history and examples cited here can only be understood as part of the larger history of power, privilege and poverty of the last seventy years.

These benchmarks test whether particular housing efforts best use our scarce human resources. Without effective organizing, housing conditions in this country in the twenty-first century will look much as they have looked for the last half century, if not far worse.

Each hard-earned step forward will be threatened by giant national steps backward. Local victories, no matter how bravely or brilliantly fought, will always need to be won over again. The fruits of dedicated volunteer and professional careers will be corrupted or obliterated in a political climate of disrespect for low-income communities and communities of color. Yet local successes with strategic direction, like the Muskegon City rent strike of 1968, discussed below as a bellwether for the National Tenants Organization, or the work of the Boston HUD Tenants Alliance, one model for members of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, have had lasting movement-building impact far beyond their immediate communities.

Sidney Hill had the advantage of writing at a peak moment not only for housing organizing but for mass organizing in general. He wrote his pamphlet, Housing Under Capitalism (Hill, 1935) at one of the points in this nation's history when issues of power and class were clearest.

Hill, aligned with the Communist Party, maintained Party orthodoxy by insisting that housing problems could only be solved through socialism. Nevertheless, he proposed four "immediate steps" to "help the housing conditions of the masses right now," which are the focus of this chapter:

(1) The first practical activity is the organization of tenants and destitute home owners on a protective basis...

(2) Another immediate and useful activity would involve the very significant cooperation of technical workers in (a) the analysis of existing housing standards and the outlining of better standards..... and (b) local inventories of all the available space suitable for housing and the use to which it is being put....

(3) .... Housing demands, including demands for lower rent scales, can become planks in the programs of local labor candidates for political office.....

(4) Above all, a campaign can be waged to establish housing as a part of state and federal social insurance, so that tenure will be secure in the event of unemployment, illness or old age." (Hill 1935, pp. 36-37.)

Today, Hill's pamphlet is unknown outside of collections of leftist memorabilia. But what he saw is essentially what housing organizers see today, and the strategy he laid out, augmented by a deeper understanding of race, still offers good strategic advice.

Hill's pamphlet was timid only on race, suggesting only that "a complete solution of the housing question as well as the other special problems affecting the Negro, must wait for a more enlightened social and economic system..." (Hill 1935, p. 31)

Since Hill's day, communities of color have won victories that resonate nationally. Informed by this experience, Hill's four points can be crafted into benchmarks for assessing the strategic impact of housing organizing. The Sidney Hill Benchmarks, adapted to a more contemporary vocabulary, and with the issue of race added, are:

  1. Resident Self-Defense: Housing organizing must focus on mobilizing residents to fight for their own housing needs;
  2. Technical Assistance: Housing organizing must benefit from the most current and accurate technical information and advice;
  3. Progressive Agenda: Housing organizing agendas must be included in, and must connect to, the demands and political work of the larger progressive movements of the day;
  4. Right to Housing: Housing organizing must explicitly include the fight for a right to housing and for a large-scale and long-term social commitment to housing; and
  5. Anti-Racism: Housing organizing must aggressively attack institutional racism as a central element of housing injustice, especially racism against African-Americans, who have been most harshly denied housing opportunities.

These benchmarks can serve as a guide through a chronological overview of the history of housing organizing from the New Deal to today. Six distinct periods may be identified:

  1. The New Deal and immediate post-war period: mass left organizing around labor, relief and other issues made housing a significant national policy issue for the first time in U.S. history;
  2. 1949 -- 1965: the modern structure of housing policy was developed with little organized opposition;
  3. 1966 -- 1970: broad-based progressive coalition efforts, especially those led by Dr. Martin Luther King and by the Black Panther Party, made housing one significant issue among many;
  4. 1971 -- 1988: grassroots-based movements developed housing policy experience and began to build national networks; and
  5. 1988 -- 1993: national housing organizing efforts were framed but failed to fully emerge.
  6. Since 1993: housing policy leaves the national stage, but local organizing blooms.

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