I. 1933-1948 -- Undeniable Need -- and Organizing -- Put Housing on the National Policy Agenda
The Housing Situation of the Period
The Government Response
The Activist Response
II. 1949-1965: The Modern Housing Policy Framework is Created
The Housing Situation of the Period
The Government Response
The Activist Response
III. The "Sixties" -- Housing Issues Key to Empowerment of Urban Communities of Color
The Housing Situation of the Period
The Activist Response
The Government Response
IV. 1971-1988: Grassroots Housing Work Grows
The Housing Situation of the Period
The Government Response
The Activist Response
V. 1988-1993: Moment of Opportunity for the Housing Movement
The Housing Situation of the Period
The Government Response
The Activist Response
VI. Mixed Signals in the 1990s
The Housing Situation of the Period
The Government Response
The Activist Response
VII. Summary and Analysis
Including Housing in Progressive Politics
Housing as a Right
This is a chapter from a book tentatively titled "Housing: Foundation of a New Social Agenda," edited by Chester Hartman, Michael Stone,and Rachel Bratt, to be published by Temple Univ. Press. by Larry Lamar Yates copyright 2002.
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:
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:
The Housing Situation of the Period
One aspect of the Great Depression was a massive housing crisis. The incoming Roosevelt Administration estimated there were 1,000 home foreclosures each day in 1933. (Fish 1979, p. 195) In 1932, evictions occurred in New York City at two to three times pre-Depression levels, vacancy rates in some low-income neighborhoods rose to 15 percent, and "hundreds of thousands of people left their apartments for smaller ones, fell into the status of lodgers, or became part of the army of homeless that slept on streets, lived in Hoovervilles, or rode the rails." (Lawson 1986, p. 100) Nationally, while other prices fell with the failing economy, rents lagged about a year behind, reflecting the desire of landlords to keep meeting mortgage payments and the difficulties tenants had in moving. Thus low-income tenants, already hard pressed, "were having to pay a rising share of their falling income." (Stone 1993, P. 100)
Meanwhile, farm foreclosures and abandonments drove 60 percent of the population from the Dust Bowl region of the Midwest and Southwest.(Foner and Garraty, 1991, p. 303) In these and other rural areas, when farmers lost their farms, farm workers their jobs, or sharecroppers the use of the land they sharecropped, they usually also lost their homes.
All economic activity dependent on housing, from construction to lending, was also devastated. Housing starts in 1933 were one-tenth of those in 1925 (Wright 1981, p. 240), and approximately half of the outstanding home mortgage debt was in default. (Fish 1979, p. 186)
The Government Response
Housing programs were part of the New Deal package from the beginning. As participants in the settlement house movement of the early twentieth century, key New Deal decision-makers, including Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, and Eleanor Roosevelt, had a longstanding commitment to housing reform as part of a larger social justice agenda. (Foner and Garraty, 1991, p. 984) However, the largest New Deal housing program, the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), was no "do-gooder" program. HOLC refinanced housing loans for lenders, and in the process set uniform national standards that allowed longer-term mortgages. Its work had much more to do with lenders, real estate and construction than with the needs of low-income people. The HOLC's Chairman reported that "more than 90% of this money has gone to the commercial banks, savings banks, insurance companies, building and loan associations and mortgage companies..." (Hill 1935, p. 12) By 1935, the HOLC had lent $3.1 billion, and "1 out of 5 mortgaged dwellings [had] received HOLC refinancing aid." (Fish, 1979, p. 189)
It was as true in the New Deal as it is in reform efforts today that unless strategic organizing intervenes, "the interests, perspective and style of those who are middle-class, white and/or male tend to predominate, and the existing relationships of power get reproduced." (Stone 1993, p. 277) Such mortgage programs did not meet the most serious housing needs of a nation whose majority still were tenants. The new low-cost rental public housing program was more relevant. But even Harold Ickes, Administrator of the Public Works Administration, the original federal public housing agency, stated that "funds available for housing were far short of the amount necessary to eliminate more than a small percentage of the vast areas of social decay disgracing every large city." (Ickes 1936, p. 14)
The Activist Response
Housing organizing was a key focus of the Communist Party and other progressive groups throughout the Depression and New Deal period. The National Unemployed Councils, formed in 1930 at the call of the Communist Party, took on "the organization of resistance to evictions. Squads of neighbors were organized to bar the way to the dispossessing officers. Whole neighborhoods were frequently mobilized to take part in this mutual assistance.." (Winter, 1969, p. 61) In New York City alone, "hundreds, possibly thousands, of such incidents occurred during the early depression years," (Lawson 1986, p. 101) and the tactic was also widely used throughout the urban Midwest.
Another housing tactic, with greater long-term impact, was the rent strike. Even before the Depression, Party cadres tried to organize a rent strike in Harlem in 1929. In 1932 and 1933, the two tactics came together in New York City, as evictions of rent strike leaders brought as many as 4,000 people into the streets in pitched battles with the police. (Lawson 1986, P. 104-105)
In the deep South, Communist Party organizers sought to organize the Sharecroppers Union and reported from rural Alabama in 1933 that the Union had successfully blocked evictions and forced plantation owners to cancel the debts of sharecroppers. (Winter 1969, p. 75)
Such direct action led to a real but limited federal commitment to housing those most in need. A contemporary commentator described President Roosevelt as "having no enthusiasm for any bona fide housing program" because it would require "a lavish outlay of federal funds" and bring "severe damage to the private real-estate-mortgage structure of the country." (Ward, 1936, p. 635) Nevertheless, the New Deal and war years saw the creation of new housing agencies. Until the New Deal, low-income people in the United States had had no federal housing assistance. The Farm Security Agency and the United States Housing Authority (both established in 1937) laid the groundwork for today's rural and urban housing programs, and local public housing authorities were established across the nation.
How does the housing organizing of this period fare when assessed by the contemporary Sidney Hill benchmarks?
1) Resident Self-Defense
New York City's Depression era resident self-defense was so strong that it was institutionalized in the city's political life. The Depression years created a "a new form of citywide tenant federation that employed a uniquely effective 'mix' of tactics: expert legal representation....reinforced by rent withholding and picketing; careful research on housing issues, which led to legislation projecting a 'tenant perspective'; and aggressive lobbying for tenant interests in cooperation with liberal and left wing organizations" (Lawson 1986, P. 95) -- a progressive framework that has survived, and continues to be effective, into the late 1990s. At its core, one writer found, have been "working-class Jewish women associated with the Communist Party who kept landlords on the defensive for three generations," (Lawson 1986, P. 7) and who continue to do so today. During the Depression, resident self-defense like this was common in many communities, but in most communities it did not last into the post-war period.
2) Technical Assistance
The New Deal created a cadre of professionals in local and national housing agencies, who founded professional organizations still active today, including the National Housing Conference (founded as the National Public Housing Conference), whose modern core membership consists of for-profit developers of subsidized housing.(3) The National Association of Housing Officials was the ancestor of today's National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. (Fish 1979, P. 212) Not then (or now) accountable to grassroots communities, these groups work with opinion leaders to get and keep housing programs. During this period, technical housing expertise grew, but diverged from grassroots organizing.
3) Progressive Agenda
New Deal housing activism was carried on by a broad informal liberal and progressive alliance, including liberal officials. In 1937 Tenement House Commissioner Langdon Post told New York City's City-Wide Tenants Council that "Nothing was ever gotten in this country except when the people forced it." (Lawson 1986, P. 95) Even Harry Hopkins said at the opening of New York's first public housing, "Private capital .... has never spent a dime to build a house for the poor person." (Lawson 1986, P. 94) The Democratic Party, in its 1936 platform, stated that "our people are entitled to decent, adequate housing at a price they can afford." (Commager 1963)
As much as in any other period, housing organizers of this period succeeded in integrating housing organizing into a larger political agenda.
4) Right to Housing
As the New Deal continued, local activists increasingly focussed on local battles for housing, paralleling the labor movement, the major social justice movement of the New Deal period, which continued to grow after World War II, but became more focussed on consolidating its gains and creating an institutional structure. Mobilization for a national right to housing, never a major force, decreased.
The New Deal emerged during a period of heightened racism. The decade after World War I saw tremendous setbacks for racial justice, including unchecked mob attacks and lynchings directed against African-Americans, the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan and of nativist activism that led to Asian immigration restrictions and other repressive laws. Jim Crow had ruled the South for sixty years, and housing segregation was increasing across the nation, reinforced by the professionalization of real estate.
A "Black and White Unite and Fight" anti-racism, though based on a superficial analysis of race, was key to moving the labor movement forward. However, few white organizers saw anti-racist action as strategically central to their organizing. African-Americans and other people of color saw little if any improvement in their position relative to whites during this period, but did gain experience critical to their next steps towards justice.
As the modern housing policy framework was created, racial segregation was an essentially unquestioned part of it. This fact, effectively unchallenged by New Deal housing organizing, had enormous consequences.
The Depression brought housing need to the forefront of political decision-making in a way that engaged hundreds of thousands of people, at least briefly, in major struggles around housing issues. While most of these struggles were at best defensive, the inclusion of housing demands in a larger progressive agenda led to a fundamental step forward in how the United States government dealt with housing. However, the emergence of a body of housing experts with no accountability to communities, and the lack of a sophisticated anti-racist perspective, set the stage for future setbacks, especially for low-income people and those in communities of color.
The Housing Situation of the Period
At the end of World War II, ten million troops demobilized in two years. Families came together at a dizzying rate, to find no new housing other thn temporary defense worker housing that had been built in the war years. Estimates of families expected to buy or build homes ranged from three to six million. (Dewhurst 1947, P. 153) The media reported families living in chicken coops and doubling up with their parents.
The following macabre joke, from a 1949 humor anthology, evokes the intensity of the housing crisis:
The housing shortage was so acute in North Carolina that one Southerner, observing a man under a bridge, going down for the third time, called out to him, "Where do you live, buddy?" The drowning man yelled "13 Main St. Help me out." Not even looking back, he sped to the given address and demanded that the landlady let him have the room. "I know it's vacant," he said, "because the former tenant just drowned."
"It's not vacant now. I just rented it to the man who pushed him in." (Keene 1949, P. 300)
The result, when this shortage forced Congress to act, was "an extraordinary period of ... establishing the practices that would dominate the post-war period" (Rabinowitz 1980, P. 83) -- of radical change in the nation's finance and housing activities.
Homeownership levels, at 45% from 1890 through 1940, were at 55% and rising by 1950. (Apgar 1990, P. 17) Financial institutions shifted from corporate and farm lending to home mortgage loans, which tripled between 1945 and 1952. Government programs were key to these changes. Between 1945 and 1952, three-fourths of the 4.5 million dwelling units built were financed with FHA and VA loans. (Rabinowitz 1980, Pp. 84-95) Homeownership became central to the lives of millions of households, and to the massive finance, insurance and real estate sectors. It was key to the exclusion of people of color from the mainstream. In 1950, only one-third of "nonwhite" households owned their own homes, and the average dollar value of a home owned by a "nonwhite" non-farm household was about forty percent that of a white-owned non-farm home. (Guzman 1952, pp. 170-187)
The Government Response
Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, known as "Mr. Republican," was key to post-war housing legislation. In 1945, a Taft report called for "grants for slum clearance, easier FHA loans for home buyers....a permanent National Housing Agency....[and] 500,000 public housing units within the next four years." (Patterson 1972, p. 317) Only the latter proposal was controversial, but for that one the National Association of Real Estate Boards named Taft "at heart a socialist." (Patterson 1972, P. 319) It took four years for Congress to pass a housing bill along the lines of Taft's proposals -- the Housing Act of 1949.
The Act stated a grandiose aim -- "the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family." In reality, the 1949 Act mainly "guaranteed builders and bankers more substantial profits on large residential developments," and fostered "a suburban world characterized by unimaginative planning, steep housing costs, inadequate services, class and racial segregation...." (Wright, 1981, P. 246, 257)
The hard-won inclusion of public housing did provide low-rent housing for some of those who needed it, a commitment that has since been expanded. But the Act's provisions to finance the new suburbs and redevelop the cities via urban renewal, and its implicit acceptance of segregation, would have far more impact on low-income people than its relatively meager commitment to public housing.
The Activist Response
By 1949, organized housing activism outside of a few urban centers of tenant organizing was pretty much limited to a few liberal and labor leaders -- and to professionals employed by housing organizations. This period was the low point for all aspects of housing organizing. We can quickly review it in terms of the Sidney Hill Benchmarks.
1) Resident Self-Defense
With no national organizing networks or political formations to support them, collective self-defense actions by housing residents become invisible in the post-war period. Neighborhoods faced new threats that they had few tools to fight -- highways that isolated communities of color, public housing that concentrated poverty, and suburbs that gained their cachet from their distances from the poor and people of color. Caught off guard, resident self-defense efforts were less effective and more poorly organized than either before or since.
2) Technical Assistance
More and more, the public housing advocates during this period were administrators of existing housing programs. There was no systematic technical assistance to housing organizing.
In fact, in New York City, and probably in other less-studied cities, conflicts emerged between nonprofit housing professionals and organized tenants. Columbia University and other local nonprofit institutions formed Morningside Heights, Incorporated, which planned with city government to develop middle-income housing. Tenants in the site area, working with the citywide United Community to Save Our Homes and the left-wing American Labor Party, fought those plans, packing meetings with angry tenants and providing tenant counseling. Ultimately the project was built, and the Save Our Homes forces were "discounted as Communisttainted by liberal housing reformers." (Lawson 1986, P. 158-160)
3) Progressive Agenda
Locally, as with the American Labor Party, housing issues were key to left agendas, but such local efforts were not interconnected nationally.
This period did represent a high point of labor union participation in housing development, including "a blossoming of labor involvement in housing cooperatives in the post-World War II period, especially of housing co-ops for seniors" and the work of "the United Housing Foundation, a co-op sponsor that worked closely with labor unions in New York City to create many thousands of units of cooperative housing." (Yates, 1996) However, labor's housing efforts were increasingly focussed on benefits for current members and retirees, not on building an inclusive progressive movement.
There were no significant national initiatives for progressive housing organizing.
4) Right to Housing
In this period, liberals pressed for more housing and deplored the abuse of housing programs; but they did not question federal housing policy's basic assumptions, as radicals had during the Depression. There was no nationally organized effort that sought a right to housing.
As de jure segregation began to be weakened by the civil rights movement, racism in housing became the bulwark of institutional racism. The lack of an aggressive and effective anti-racist housing organizing agenda in grassroots communities during this period was a determining factor in this nation's history.
The period's federal "slum clearance" provisions, Title I of the 1949 Act, made African-American and Latino communities vulnerable to a new and unprecedented level of attack. Title I gave local authorities "power of a new immensity. Title I of the Housing Act of 1949 extended the power of eminent domain, traditionally used in America only for government-built projects, so drastically that governments could now condemn land and turn it over to individuals...." (Caro 1974, P. 777)
Housing activists in New York City came to fear that if housing czar Robert Moses "hounded the people living on those sites out of their homes without finding them new homes... they would have no choice but to flee to other slums....The slums would spill over their boundaries, spreading to blocks as yet untouched by blight..." (Caro 1974, p. 966)
Eventually in every major city, those displaced by this process crowded into existing or newly created slums, some of them high-rise public housing ghettoes to which they had admission priority. This process that disproportionately affected African-Americans -- sociologist Herbert Gans reported that "80 per cent of the relocatees the country over were poor blacks" -- came to be known in African-American communities as 'Negro removal,' mocking the government jargon phrase 'urban renewal.' (Gans 1982, p. 380)
At the same time, people of color who could afford to buy homes outside of their "assigned" neighborhoods gained support from the courts. In 1954, Thurgood Marshall, then Director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, stated that due to Supreme Court decisions, "any American any place in the United States, regardless of race or color, may own and occupy property wherever he can find a willing seller, has the money to purchase the property, and the courage to live in it." Marshall noted there still was "residential segregation throughout the country, not by law" but due to "the reactionary policies of mortgage companies and real estate boards, public-housing agencies, including F.H.A., and other governmental agencies." (Foner 1972, p. 871)
The key legal victories invalidating racial covenants in real estate were won by the NAACP and by Mexican-American civil rights groups. (Henry B. Gonzalez, at the time a San Antonio activist and later Chair of the U.S. House Banking Committee, was involved in one case) (Quiñones, 1990, P. 57) But the Federal Housing Administration, which underwrote the financing for the suburban development surge, had overtly segregationist policies until 1950, and "accepted unwritten agreements and existing 'traditions' of segregation until 1968." (Wright 1981, p. 248)
The fight against housing discrimination usually focussed on individual solutions, not collective problems. For example, while New York's pioneer State Commission Against Discrimination (SCAD) identified the Title I relocation process as "one of the city's most serious minority housing problems," it chose to respond only behind the scenes, and not to take on "any great responsibilities" on this issue. (Lawson 1986, P. 158-159)
The housing activism of the 1950s and 1960s did go farther than the left activism of the 1930s on race, reflecting the increasing organized push for civil rights. However, without any connection to grassroots organizing, successful legal assaults on housing discrimination did not protect the vast majority of people of color from increasing segregation.
The modern framework of housing policy was created during this period, but without the active participation of a grassroots movement -- and without the suppressed voices of low-income communities of color. The long deferred promise of Reconstruction-era civil rights principles began to be fulfilled, an early effect of the emerging civil rights movement. But for most of those excluded from the suburban boom, this era stifled dissent, grossly limited opportunity, and created ominous new restrictions.
The Housing Situation of the Period
By 1965, the year of Los Angeles' Watts rebellion, inner-city ghettoes and white suburbs, defined as "American Apartheid" in the seminal 1993 book of that name, (Massey and Denton, 1993) had been firmly established in their modern interrelationship.
Watts was not like the slums of the East and Midwest that had inspired most housing protest and legislation. The McCone Commission investigating the rebellion cited wide clean streets, and the one-third of the homes that were owner-occupied in "the Negro districts of Los Angeles." (Platt, 1971, p. 265) The Commission chose to ignore "involuntary racial segregation ... in Los Angeles and how the black community is victimized by this practice." (Platt, 1971, P. 328)
Racial ghettoes were the site and the means of a multi-faceted exploitation of African-Americans that, far from being a relic of the past, was intensifying. American Apartheid notes that "[i]n general, the larger, the more modern, and the more economically developed the metropolitan area, the higher the level of black-white segregation." (Massey and Denton, 1993)
"Slum clearance" usually resulted in public housing "built on cleared land within or adjacent to existing black neighborhoods" -- "high-density towers of poor families". (Orser 1994, p. 56) African-American residents of many suburbs and rural areas were also forced into the inner-city. (Shafer, and Arlington County Action Committee)
African American "pioneers" in formerly white neighborhoods gained "deteriorating properties which cannot be improved because the necessary money is already sunk into the overpriced market." (P. 13 of 'Communities Under Siege', mimeographed report published by Activists Inc. in Baltimore in 1970, as quoted in Orser 1994) Ghetto residents then faced a lack of affordable home improvement loans and insurance, exploitation as captive consumers, and political and cultural isolation. In the words of American Apartheid , "residential segregation is the principal organizational feature of American society that is responsible for the creation of the urban underclass." (Massey and Denton, 1993, p. 9)
The simultaneous and related residential segregation of whites was driven by the "carrots" of the highway system and the housing finance system and the "stick" of racial fear. Whites were manipulated by "block-busters," in a process one observer of the flight of a white community compared to "the Three Mile Island thing." (Orser, 1994, p. 84) As early as 1966, suburbanization was "a massive internal migration involving the construction of nearly 15 million one-family houses," (Baran and Sweezy, 1966, p. 300) a vital stimulus to automotive, real estate and other central U.S. economic sectors.
By 1965 the United States as a society had made a massive financial and psychic investment in a segregated society. Housing policy was key to that investment.
The Activist Response
1) Resident Self-Defense
The urban rebellions of the 1960s, as already mentioned, were a major grassroots response to housing injustice. Though often characterized as irrational outbursts of violence, Platt's The Politics of Riot Commissions (Platt, 1971) and other sources show that these were conscious political efforts, with broad community support. Though illegal and semi-spontaneous, these rebellions clearly were organized acts of resident self-defense.
While the usual trigger for these rebellions was an act of violence against African-Americans, the relationship between the rebellions and increased attention to housing and other conditions by those in power was clear and public. For example, the New York Urban Coalition, which put "millions of dollars donated by the nation's largest corporations into poor communities" over twenty-seven years, "was a direct response to the riots that had left many of the country's inner cities in cinders..." (Kischenbaum, 1994, p. 16)
This period saw a heightened and more self-conscious level of resident self-defense.
2) Technical Assistance
During this period, today's structure of technical assistance to communities was first created. Community Action Agencies and Legal Aid received federal funding to assist communities on a variety of issues, including housing. These organizations took bold, sometimes unsophisticated, steps to assist communities, such as providing legal assistance to tenants, helping them to organize against landlords, often at first with little sense of the inherent political strings attached to federal funds.
3) Progressive Agenda
When the civil rights movement among southern African-Americans, the central progressive effort of this era, emerged as a nationally visible force, housing issues were not central to it. However, the civil rights movement "altered and expanded American politics by providing other oppressed groups with organizational and tactical models..." (Morris 1984, pp. 286-287) The movement revitalized the broad progressive agenda, stifled in the previous period.
Among the first to benefit from this revitalization were northern urban African-American communities. For these communities, housing segregation was central to their fight. When southern civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., joined with existing Chicago organizations to bring the movement north, housing was central from the beginning. Dr. King led marches in the summer of 1966 into "hostile" and "hate-filled" white suburbs of Chicago to protest housing discrimination. (Schulke and McPhee, 1986, p. 234) The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Dr. King led, also participated in tenant organizing drives in Chicago and Cleveland, which contributed directly to the emergence in 1969 of the National Tenants Organization, described in greater detail below. (Marcuse, 1980)
As Manning Marable has written, Dr. King had "come closest to bringing together a biracial coalition demanding peace, civil rights, and basic structural changes within the capitalist order ..." and his murder "meant any linkages between these vital reform movements would be much more difficult to achieve." (Marable 1984, p. 117) However, a wide range of movements, including tenant and housing movements, were linked and revitalized during this period and continued to move forward.
4) Right to Housing
Dr. King's murder ended that period's best chance for a broad unified social justice movement. However, another such attempt was made by the Black Panther Party, which sought a united front against capitalism and racism. The fourth Point of the Black Panther Party's 1966 Ten Point Program was:
"We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings. We believe that if the white landlords will not give decent housing to our black community, then 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." (Goodman 1970, p. 211)
Allies of the Black Panthers, including the Brown Berets in western Chicano communities and the Young Lords Organization in Puerto Rican communities in the East and Midwest,took parallel positions on housing. At the Poor Peoples' March, which went on after Dr. King was killed, the Brown Berets demanded "housing that would meet Chicano cultural needs." (Quiñones, 1990, p. 114) Housing was key to fights for community power and self-definition waged by communities of color in the late Sixties.
While the Black Panther Party did not conduct a national mobilization for a right to housing, it clearly took such a position. Its positions and those of Latino and other progressive organizations set the stage for the housing nonprofits that have since been a key expression of community activism.
In a period in which African-American leadership set the tone for all progressive movements, anti-racism moved to the forefront of housing organizing efforts. This was a major and crucial change in housing organizing. For better or worse, low-income housing, like "welfare," had become identified with the aspirations of communities of color.
During the 1960s, a number of groups took a head-on organizing approach to fighting housing discrimination. In 1966 in Washington's Northern Virginia suburbs, the Action Coordinating Committee to End Segregation in the Suburbs (ACCESS) regularly faced arrest at a segregated apartment complex and other sites, and called for the denial of federal funds to Arlington County, Virginia, because of housing segregation. In Baltimore in 1969, The Activists, "a coalition of African American and white civil rights advocates," demonstrated and were arrested at the office of a large real estate firm that their research implicated "in the process of changing the racial composition of neighborhoods." (Orser 1994, P. 133-136)
Eventually, such small cadres were worn down and defeated or diverted. Facing high legal costs, The Activists withdrew their civil suit against the real estate firm they targeted. ACCESS, after several months of relatively balanced reporting and peaceful marches, saw increased police harassment and press attacks, while Arlington County's highest elected official stated he was "not unsympathetic" but was "powerless" to end housing segregation.(4) Perhaps most important, these groups acted without mobilizing a strong community base of people impacted by housing segregation.
The Government Response
During this period, the government response was reactive, and can only be understood in contrast to the period's radical activism, which questioned all of society, including the whole system of suburbs and ghetto.
While cruel repression of all kinds of progressive activism was one major response, various reforms also went forward, many of them housing-related. Nineteen sixty-five saw the creation of HUD -- the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development -- which institutionalized its "programs concerned with the Nation's housing needs, fair housing opportunities and improvement and development of the Nation's communities." (Office of the Federal Register, 1995, p. 333) Between 1966 and 1974, major new federal housing and community development programs included the Model Cities program, the Community Development Block Grant program, and several programs for funding and financing multifamily housing development by private developers. In general, these programs moved away from widespread slum clearance efforts and towards at least a formal resident participation process.
These programs clearly were responses to the rebellions and activist challenges of the day. President Johnson wrote in his memoirs of "a new approach .. based on the proposition that a slum is not merely decaying brick and mortar but also a breeding ground of human failure and despair." (Johnson, 1971, p. 330) The search for a "new approach" that went beyond slum clearance, as well as the financial investment that was made, signaled that activism had made an impact on those in power, once again bringing low-income housing needs into the light after fifteen years of virtual invisibility. Whether or not they "bred" despair, the slums had bred activism that could not be ignored.
Civil rights legislation, especially the Fair Housing Act of 1968, put the issues of race and housing into federal law for the first time since Reconstruction. While the Fair Housing Act was also a response to rebellion and protest, and a direct reaction to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this law did not initially speak to the critical needs of communities of color with the greatest housing needs.
To summarize, the "Sixties" period, specifically the last five years of that decade, saw housing organizing regain old strengths and gain new ones.
In Malcolm X's famous phrase, "chickens came home to roost" in the Sixties as far as housing was concerned. The ghetto had been sharply defined by the post-war development process, and formal and informal resistance to its exploitative and isolating character erupted. While segregated and deficient housing were only sometimes the mobilizing issue, the ghetto that they created was the key arena of struggle. As in the New Deal era, government responded with a number of housing programs. Organized housing activists lacked the power to win the programs they knew were needed, but the overall activism of the day did win genuine resources and opportunities for some low-income households and communities. However, bridging the enormous gap had been created between the mostly white suburbs and the largely African-American inner-city would clearly be a generational task, which at least some of the emerging generation were willing to take on.
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.(See also the discussion of CDCs in Chapter ****.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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1. (Bobo 1991) is one of the best.
2. The National Organizers Alliance, located in Washington DC, is a beginning point for learning about them.
3. Information from the National Housing Conference World Wide Web site at www.nhc.org
4. Northern Virginia Sun, various articles, July and August 1966.
5. Interview of Woody Widrow by the author, December 1997.
6. From a luncheon address at the National Policy Forum on Poverty, organized by the National Association of Community Action Agencies, April 19, 1996. The address was given by Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, General Secretary, National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.
7. "MARCH FOR OUR LIVES: Homeless March from Philadelphia to NYC," Kensington Welfare Rights Union <firstname.lastname@example.org> , Press Release: May 26, 1997; received by the author from an Internet e-mail list.
8. The author's analysis, using the document "List of Housing Now Staff and Regional Contacts" undated but from internal indications prepared by the national office of Housing Now! in the summer of 1989.
9. Letter from Seattle Displacement Coalition, April 23, 1990.
10. An example is the HUD Communities Information World Wide Web site, whose Uniform Resource Locator, or Web address, is http://www.hud.gov/states.html
11. "Housing Justice Campaign to Fight for Trust Fund," The Low-income Housing Information Service Roundup, March 1994, Number 165.
12. "The Progressive Challenge Continues -- A Fairness Agenda for America", n.d.
Larry Yates, now Grassroots Organizing Mentor at the Center for Health,
Environment and Justice, worked for housing advocacy and organizing groups at
the local, state and national level from 1981 through 1995. He participated in
fair housing struggles in the mid-1960s, and
anti-gentrification fights in the 1970s.