From: "Barton, Stephen" <>

We haven't had many comments on the working papers lately, and I would like to say a few things about this paper since I agree with the values it is based on and disagree with some of the analysis. If nothing else, perhaps my comments will help Larry Yates clarify some parts of the argument he is making.

In his "Closing Thoughts" Larry Yates says something I am in complete agreement with: "The ... fundamental issues of housing will not be resolved by housing technique, by narrow changes in (housing) policy, or by new (housing) 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." (If I am wrong about the "(housing)" I inserted above I apologize. This seemed implied by the context.) Thus Larry Yates argument is not narrowly about housing policy or housing organizing but on the broader question of how housing work can help strengthen the organization of a movement for democracy, redistribution of wealth and elimination of racism and sexism. of how housing work can help strengthen the organization of a movement for democracy, redistribution of wealth and elimination of racism and sexism.

If that is the case, organizing around those broader and more fundamental issues is clearly critical. In my opinion, that does not necessarily mean that work in each individual policy area should have a primary focus on organizing, although I think it does mean that policy area work needs to be connected to organizing movements and strengthen the possibilities for further organizing. The most successful types of organizing groups are multi-issue, such as unions or neighborhood organizations. I don't think there is much of a "housing organizing movement" outside of New York City's tenant movement. In New York City, where 90% of the population are tenants, there is a very strong tenant movement, but the neighborhood-level tenant organizations typically take on the functions of multi-purpose neighborhood associations in other cities, with a particularly strong focus on tenant needs. Organizing groups specifically based on their housing status, homeless people, tenants, low-income homeowners, is not necessarily the best way to create sustained organizations any more than organizing people separately as patients or healthcare consumers is the best way to sustain a movement for national health insurance.

As I read it, the theme of the paper is that policy work and creation of community-based corporations that own and develop housing must be accompanied by and give priority to organizing work among tenants, the homeless, and low-income homeowners. I think the most effective connections are often more indirect and run through the broader movement. Organizing efforts in some areas may be best focused on union drives, while the unions may join with others to support various housing programs, health insurance programs and so on. In other areas, such as New York City, it may well work to give priority to organizing specifically around housing status and issues.

This leads to my second criticism of the paper, which is that the framework used to analyze housing work, based on Sidney Hill's pamphlet from 1935, leaves out the concept of "strategic reforms" (Andre Gorz, Gar Alperovitz, Staunton Lynd, and Harry Boyte were among those using this concept), including the role of creation of alternative and counter-institutions. For example, the creation of union contracts and the National Labor Relations Act were strategic reforms and institutions that enabled unions to grow where IWW-style organizing that rejected contracts was not sustainable over the long term.

While there are many examples of unions that maintain mass memberships over a long period of time, there are very few examples of tenant organizations that sustain a mass base over a long period of time. Local rent controls are a strategic reform that supports tenant organizing. They have the drawback that they can be abolished by changes in State legislation, as vacancy decontrol was mandated in California in 1996, bringing to an end Berkeley's experiment with strong rent control that began in 1978. Housing owned by limited equity cooperatives or non-profit organizations, however, has all the constitutional protections of private property and can't easily be eliminated or phased out. Cooperatives can become too internally centered and lose their drive to expand and assist other cooperatives, and the kind of connection created by involvement of a land trust in cooperative ownership can help overcome this by providing a link to a broader vision and movement. Certainly community corporations can become conservative in approach, just as unions do. In California the Housing California coalition brings together non-profit housing developers, homeless service organizations, homeless advocates, tenants in subsidized housing with expiring rent restrictions, and private sector tenants. The strongest part of the coalition is probably the non-profit housing developers and the service organizations. This omission of an analysis of strategic reforms such as social ownership weakens the argument very unnecessarily, especially since land trusts are an important strategic reform and Larry Yates has a strong background in this area.

For additional background on my comments here, I refer readers to my papers on Comm-Org:

Stephen E. Barton <>, Property, Community, Democracy: Barriers to Social Democracy in the Beliefs of San Francisco Neighborhood Leaders.

Stephen E. Barton <>, A History of the Neighborhood Movement in San Francisco.

Also, Barton, Stephen E. 1996, "Social Housing Versus Housing Allowances: Choosing Between Two Forms of Housing Subsidy at the Local Level", Journal of the American Planning Association, 62#1: 108-119 <>

"The Success and Failure of Strong Rent Control in the City of Berkeley, 1978 to 1995" in Rent Control: Regulation and the Urban Housing Market, by W. Dennis Keating, Michael B. Teitz and Andrejs Skaburskis, Center for Urban Policy Research, 1998.

Please note that the views expressed here are my own and are not necessarily those of the City of Berkeley.

Return to Housing Organizing for the Long Haul, by Larry Yates.