Yates: Housing Organizing for the Long Haul

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

VII. Summary and Analysis

The history recounted in this chapter shows that since 1949 the multiplicity of community-based housing organizations and housing organizing efforts in this country have not given rise to a continuing and well-focussed effort to organize strategically around housing as a human right. What are the reasons for this disappointing reality? The Hill benchmarks can help us understand it.

Resident Self-Defense

National and most statewide housing organizations have never put this activity at the center of their work, preferring instead to act as brokers between community development corporations and policy-makers.

There have been some exceptions. The Housing Now! march, as we have seen, was largely based in groups organizing with homeless people and those who work directly with them, and was intended to strengthen local organizing. Going farther back, the National Unemployed Councils and the Black Panther Party depended on and sought to reinforce the activism of poor people mobilized for self-defense.

The experience of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants and the National Tenants Organization is especially instructive here. Though each of these two organizations reached at best a few thousand of the hundreds of thousands of tenants eligible to join them, they both chose an organizing approach. By using their resources to build leadership and to focus on issues that made immediate sense to low-income tenants, NTO and NAHT each substantially changed the debate in a major housing policy area, while opening up new arenas for resident self-defense. Housing advocacy campaigns that mobilize one-time appeals to policymakers sometimes win a single victory, but do not build movements rooted in the communities where housing need is greatest.

Housing activists are a relatively small group with a lot to do, and organizing is labor-intensive. But housing activists would find support from other organizaions if they focussed on supporting and mobilizing resident self-defense. Community organizing networks played a key role in building local components of NAHT and NTO and can be expected to be part of any good fight in the future. If housing issues offer such opportunities again, networks like ACORN and National People's Action will be there. It is not unlikely that the labor movement will be an ally in future organizing efforts; currently labor activists are looking for community issues around which to build alliances, at the same time that they are reaching out to communities of color, women and immigrant populations who have seroius housing needs.

Putting Hill's first point in modern terms, national housing policy efforts must be much more based in grassroots resident organizations, especially in communities of color.

Technical Assistance

How can grassroots activists gain control of technical resources? As shown above by organizing based on Consolidated Plan information, we are close to the point where communities can rapidly call up government-provided information for the organizing needs of the immediate moment. But this is only a fraction of what is possible.

The real estate, lending and insurance sectors have by far the greatest amounts of information on housing. The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act has made a large body of information on financing practices accessible. In American Apartheid, Massey and Denton propose that "realtors serving black clients must be given complete access to multiple listing services." (Massey and Denton, 1993, p. 233) Activists opposing housing segregation should build on these partial steps, and insist that information that is now propietary to major housing-related private instiutions in fact has profound social significance. Insurance companies, lenders and developers, all to some extent regulated, and all with fair housing responsibilities under the law, possess massive amounts of data that could illuminate for community leaders and residents how our housing system works.

Hard evidence on how insurance companies, developers and other real estate businesspeople make their decisions would provide concrete details of the institutional racism and other unjust practices in the housing sector. Facts, no matter how shocking, do not substitute for struggle, but they make for more effective strategies, and for more effective public education.

Communities will continue to need housing professionals whose groups develop housing, working within the limitations of the current housing system, as "niche organizations most useful for bridging the gap between activists, service providers, and resource holders." (Stoecker, 1996)

But the greatest need of grassroots organizations have was named by NTO activists in 1972 -- professionals working on research and planning "under the firm direction of a tenant union." (Burghardt 1972b, p. 200) Such experts already are employed to provide technical support to communities -- where there has already been a political fight to make technical information accessible, as with the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, or environmental Right-to-Know legislation. The reality is that progressive activists working on all issues need "damn good research" tied to "organizing expertise." (Pintado-Vertner, 1998)

Restating Hill's second point for today: national and local organizations should build powerful technical assistance systems to support organizing, and should press for accurate, current and detailed information from government and from the private sector on housing needs at all levels in forms that can easily be used for local organizing.

Including Housing in Progressive Politics

Hill's pamphlet also suggested that "housing demands" be in "the programs of local labor candidates for political office." Not only today's nascent Labor Party, but other progressive forces and alliances should be called on to include housing demands in their programs, whether electoral or not. The Progressive Challenge, the Independent Progressive Political Network and the Third Parties '96 effort, all three of which have brought together a number of parties and groups on the left, have already done so. The Progressive Challenge agenda includes "increasing funds for low-income housing assistance by roughly half the cost of the entitlement to housing assistance enjoyed by upper income home owners" as one of its demands for "Adequate Social Investment"(12) -- a demand that echoes the NLIHC's Housing Justice Campaign.

Community development corporations, in particular, are often loath to identify themselves with progressive political directions, casting themselves as technicians who would endanger their work by getting involved with advocacy. Yet, as Bob Brehm noted, housing nonprofits have never come close to providing enough housing in any community in this nation. This is not because CDCs are deficient, but because of political conditions that will only change as a result of the organizing and activism that CDCs eschew and sometimes even block.

Nonprofit developers often justify political inaction by asking for patience, claiming they are on the verge of a "new age" of housing development, in which the old methods have been put behind, and the right partners, the right resources, and the right programs are finally going to lead to the right solutions to our housing problems. Of course, the demands of funders for innovative projects and politicians' need to distinguish themselves from their predecessors motivate many of these claims. The reality is that the "new age" always turns out to be basically a recycling of the same old relationships and partnerships of government, for-profits and non-profits, with no lasting benefit for the communities in need. Thus, for example, City Limits, a housing magazine, reported that as the New York Urban Coalition was failing in the 1980s, the New York City Partnership was emerging, and drawing "corporate backers who were once likely prospects" for the older group, no doubt with much of the same rhetoric. (Kischenbaum, 1994, p. 17)

The incremental and insider-oriented approach, though well-intentioned, has allowed housing and other resources for the poor to steadily diminish for twenty years, while only prisons and shelters grew substantially as housing providers. No major expansion of housing subsidies and of programs that have genuinely served low-income people's housing needs has ever come from such insider efforts alone, no matter how profoundly thought out. Significant increases in resources to meet real housing needs have always been a response to an upsurge of mass organizing and action around a broad range of progressive issues, like those that forced the New Deal and the Great Society programs into existence.

In today's national-level progressive environment, dominated by single-issue organizations, housing advocates may legitimately fear having their issue submerged. Yet there is not, and never has been, any other reliable source of support for housing programs but a strong, broad-based and well-mobilized progressive movement.

Hopeful signs, such as multi-issue organizations like Sustainable America and the National Organizers Alliance, are beginning to emerge, while cross-cutting issues like environmental justice and corporate welfare are raising community issues that intersect with the concerns of communities organized around housing. And, at least at this moment, the labor movement is moving, erratically perhaps, towards a vision that, in the words of one activist, "would embrace the economics of sustainable development that serves the entire community, rather than only those fortunate enough to hold union jobs," and "with strong ties to communities and to the various struggles against oppression of others..." (Eisenscher, 1998, p. 47)

Hill's third point, then, can be read today like this: The housing movement must put its main hope in organizing and activism, and, as a small movement that is most effective when larger social movements are successful, it must make alliances with other progressive movements.

Housing as a Right

Hill suggested that "a campaign ... 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." In modern jargon, this means the establishment of housing as a federal entitlement.

Many housing professionals -- and perhaps most observers of contemporary politics -- will be quick to describe this as an "unrealistic" demand.

Recently, national housing advocates have learned, using focus group research, that there is deep public cynicism about government and developer housing programs, and even about the poor who need housing. This is important information. It is vital that we recognize the power of the doubts, prejudices and fears that sustain the current system. Perhaps it is even true that "housing as a human right is not an effective message any more," one advocate's reaction to that focus group research. (Saasta 1998, p. 43)

Focus groups in 1932 would have shown a far uglier picture, in a nation where the Klan paraded openly and the majority of African-Americans and Mexican-Americans were denied the right to vote. Franklin Roosevelt was elected on a platform that reflected the "realism" of his Democratic Party before mass movements forced changes. It called for "an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures ... to accomplish a savings of not less than twenty-five percent in the cost of federal government" (Commager 1963, p. 237) a level of austerity Bill Clinton and Trent Lott can only dream of. Yet in Roosevelt's first administration, the radically innovative foundations of all current housing programs, and of the welfare system, labor law, and many other reforms were laid down.

The struggle for decent housing is a harsh and difficult one, perhaps decades away from resolution. But the only strategy that has ever been effective on a large scale is the organizing-based approach outlined here. It must not be discarded to concentrate on deals and programs whose benefits are washed away with each wave of conservatism.

Activists seeking only what today's decision-makers consider realistic will gain nothing worth having. Housing organizers should be part of a conscious and long-term national grassroots-based campaign for a housing entitlement.


This brings us to the issue that even Hill's audacity did not allow him to fully face -- race, which is central to the way that housing is provided in this nation.

The real estate system has become a major institution for hoarding the gains of centuries of white privilege -- and its role in perpetuating institutional racism is not limited to storing up the gains of the past. Its central dynamic, the definition of "good" and "bad" neighborhoods, continues to distribute wealth along a racial continuum. The syndrome of "not in my back yard" and of resistance to placement of low-income housing in middle-class neighborhoods, like housing discrimination itself, are not mere civil rights "problems." They are key means of organizing people in this country so that class, caste and other divisions are maintained. As American Apartheid states, "residential segregation is the institutional apparatus that supports other racially discriminatory processes and binds them together into a coherent and uniquely effective system of racial subordination." (Massey and Denton 1993, p. 8)

Racial segregation is also the source of much of the enormous asset base that real estate represents. This economic reality is not reflected in the rhetoric of the currently existing fair housing groups, which is typified by statements like "it's good business to promote equal professional service and to ensure objectivity in underwriting to African Americans and all consumers." (Berenbaum 1998) The reality is that most businesses involved in real estate and related finance still find it profitable and customary to discriminate, and to exploit the weaknesses of lower income communities and communities of color, if sometimes in more subtle ways than in the past. Discrimination may not be "good business" from a moral point of view, but until society decisively changes, apparently it is still "good" financially.

The existing fair housing groups, aggressive and sophisticated as they are, will not change this situation on their own. After all, in the words of the National Fair Housing Alliance, the national association of these groups, "thirty years after the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act, equal access to apartments, homes, mortgage loans and homeowners insurance is not a reality for the vast majority of people the law was designed to protect against discriminatory practices." (NLIHC, 1998) The Alliance goes on to appeal for more and better targeted resources for fair housing complaints, and decries current attacks on fair housing law in Congress. But how likely is it that "more of the same" will make a fundamental difference, or, for that matter, that there will be significantly more resources for fair housing without a broad mobilized political movement against housing discrimination?

Groups like NAHT and the neighborhood organizations that have fought the expansion of hospitals and universities, bank redlining, and gentrification must be recognized as the leading forces in fighting discrimination. Those who seek to oppose housing discrimination should look to such groups for leadership, and offer them genuine support. If liberal housing advocates and housing professionals had supported the New York City tenants who fought Title I relocation schemes fifty years ago, and that fight had spread nationwide, we might be looking at a very different nation today - - a nation without the racially concentrated communities that nourish both fearful conservative suburban majorities and the feared and maltreated underclass. Opposition to discrimination in housing, especially against African-Americans and other people of color, must be central to housing organizing and activism -- and organizing must be central to opposition to discrimination.

Closing Thoughts

In 1949, our nation's leaders stopped far short of their stated goal of "a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family." They provided a public housing program that they knew could not meet the need for low-cThe structure they created has not and will never be able to meet the needs of "every American family," though it provided unprecedented housing wealth to many families. Like the generation that won this nation's independence and the generation that saved the union in our great Civil War, the generation that fought the war against fascism faltered when it came to providing "justice for all."

This chapter offers some benchmarks to the housing organizers of the future, based on experience. The central lesson it offers is that the fundamental issues of housing will not be resolved by housing technique, by narrow changes in policy, or by new programs. These issues are rooted in racism, in lack of democracy, and in maldistribution of wealth.

When these fundamental problems are attacked with some success by organized action, successful housing programs are one result. When these problems are neglected, the process of meeting housing needs also stagnates. Housing activism gets bogged down in saving existing housing programs. Only by working in partnership with organizing can housing experts and professionals truly contribute to meeting housing needs on a large scale.

Sidney Hill's vision came to him in a terrible moment of our history, and was part of a fierce and often simplistic left-wing analysis of what needed to be done. Millions paid in pain and thousands in heroic effort for the clarity that brought about the New Deal and improved the lives of their children and grandchildren. We should, of course, all do what we can to reduce the prospects of violence and social disruption. But there is functional truth in the slogan "No justice, no peace."

Most people who care about housing needs are not organizers. But all of us can contribute to housing organizing that is resident-centered, technically informed, politically conscious, focused on a right to housing, and seriously anti-racist. Some of us can provide information; some of us can provide resources; some of us can help build coalitions. Some of us can create or run housing projects and programs that include resident power in their design and that do not compromise on questions of race and wealth.

Above all, we can all respect and support the efforts of tenants, of homeless people, and of lower-income homeowners to defend themselves from a callous and often predatory system. We can all ask, whenever decisions are made, that those who have been excluded from the six-decade-old promise of a decent home finally have an active part in every decision that affects them. We can understand that the most responsible, and even the most kind, step we can take is to always remember the quintessential democratic truth that is in the words that close Housing Under Capitalism, that "better housing will be achieved in the same manner that workers have made other gains, and that is by organizing and fighting for them." (Hill 1935, p. 39)

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