Affordable Rental Housing A.C.T.I.O.N.

And we’re back: we will resume our regular weekly posting shortly.

In the mean time, we encourage readers to take a look at the website of Affordable Rental Housing A.C.T.I.O.N., an advocacy organization whose stated purpose is pasted below.  The website of A.C.T.I.O.N.–an acronym for A Call to Invest In Our Neighborhoods–contains several of excellent resources and news updates.

Affordable Rental Housing A.C.T.I.O.N. (A Call To Invest in Our Neighborhoods) is a grassroots campaign led by a broad, cross-industry coalition of over 290 national, state, and local organizations.

Through Housing Credit advocacy and education, the A.C.T.I.O.N. campaign focuses on ensuring that low-income working  families  throughout the nation have access to decent, safe, affordable rental housing.

As the 112th Congress considers tax reform and deficit reduction solutions, the campaign has reconvened to revise its strategy in light of the changed political and fiscal environment.  Moving forward, A.C.T.I.O.N. will focus on both protecting and preserving the Housing Credit in whatever deficit reduction or tax reform plan Congress considers, and enacting national consensus proposals to sustain the program’s  effectiveness and efficiency in solving the nation’s affordable rental housing challenges.

Take Back the Land: A Human Rights Approach to Housing

Image Source: Take Back the Land

This week, we take a divergence from the dense, policy-based reporting of the last several posts to focus on a small, little known social movement, the Take Back the Land Movement.  Take Back the Land, an intentionally designed social movement that emerged via the work of diligent community organizers, possesses one central theme: to elevate the issue of Housing as a Human Right.

On it’s face, it’s easy to conflate the Miami-based organization with the countless other housing non-profits throughout the country, whose work is often challenged by bureaucracy and whose funding is likewise handcuffed by strictly regulated government grants.  But Take Back the Land is different.  It’s a grass roots movement that advocates on behalf of the homeless, with the goal of housing longtime homeless individuals and families as well as folks who’ve been displaced during the foreclosure crisis.  And unlike the stereotypical “social movement,” which often encounter criticism for being “too much talk, not enough action,” Take Back the Land has succeeded in finding houses for displaced individuals through a creative yet simplistic technique: moving people into foreclosed properties.

It’s easy to wonder how this is accomplishable and why the movement is yet to come across serious issues with law enforcement. In an ABC News segment, Max Rameau, a spokesperson for the movement, offers a good reason: “this [foreclosed house] is a complete waste.  This is not benefitting anyone.  It’s not benefitting the bank, it’s not benefitting the community, it’s not benefiting the families.  There’s no reason this house is empty.” (Rameau also wrote a book about developing a homeless village in an effort to provide affordable housing for low-income people, “Take Back the Land: Land, Gentrification and the Umoja Village Shantytown”).   Furthermore, rather than face trouble with the law, the movement, at least in Miami, is gaining the police’s support.  ABC spoke with the city’s Chief of Police, who expressed a refusal to enforce eviction notices, stating, “what Social Good would be served by arresting this mother, taking her away from her children?”

The movement has gained traction in several parts of the country, and while it’s not officially a non-profit, it’s website indicates that it has networked with “Local Action Groups” in cities coast to coast, ranging from Atlanta to Madison to Portland to Rochester.  While not a policy-promoting organization, Take Back the Land’s approach mirrors a policy alternative discussed both in our blog as well as at Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s recent Vacant’s to Values summit, Code Enforcement.

The theory behind Code Enforcement involves heavily cracking down on delinquent property owners to ensure that they meet the city’s code; if they do not, the government, in one step, can turn the property back to the market, where it will be sold in a competitive auction.  The idea behind the notion is that it would give property owners a strong incentive to maintain their homes while redirecting properties to a better owner if they do not.  Similarly, by putting families back into vacant homes, Take Back the Land helps ensure that the homes are once again properly maintained and meeting code, keeping neighborhood property values up and benefitting the broader community.  Their residents pay utilities, giving added business to companies that provide these services.

There are thousands of foreclosed properties in Baltimore and millions in the nation, the effect of which, in addition to harming families, encumber neighborhoods and by extension, capital markets and economies.  Rather than high-minded policies, Take Back the Land provides a plainspoken way to mitigate this crisis, and rather than sitting back and spouting out ideas, they are acting. By doing so, they begin to make progress towards their stated objectives of encouraging the perception of housing as a human right, local control over housing, community-based leadership, and direct action campaigns.  To be sure, plenty of their operations are illegal. However, policymakers and activists alike can benefit from the organization’s can-do spirit and human rights oriented strategy.

Remembering Dr. King, One of America’s First Equal Opportunity Housing Advocates

By Harsha Sekar
Martin Luther King Marching in Chicago
Source: Flickr

Last week, many Americans reflected on the legacy of one of our nation’s most revered heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.   Dr. King’s holiday carried a special resonance this year in light of the recent tragedy in Tuscon, Arizona.  In the past week, luminaries ranging from New York Senator Charles Schumer to the Revered Al Sharpton invoked Dr. King’s message in an effort to comment on the shootings, as the latter even held a special King Day Forum, focusing on the ugly prevalence of gun violence.

At the annual King Day event held in Brooklyn, many of the speakers made the same juxtaposition, calling for an end to gun violence in honor of Dr. King’s legacy.  The New York Times noted that all of the speakers “knew for sure what Dr. King, were he only still alive, would have done about America’s gun culture.  He would have led campaigns to reign it in, they said.  And they were probably right.”

Indeed, there is no question that they were.  But when Dr. King’s name emerges in the contemporary discursive, many more voices than just the good-natured community organizers in Brooklyn have attempted to appropriate it.  And some of them are highly questionable at best.  (I won’t divulge any names, but it’s disheartening to see right wing commentators drawing from Dr. King’s life in an effort to promote their welfare state-thinning agenda). The Times’ Clyde Haberman is correct in remarking that King enthusiasts find themselves “roughly equivalent to constitutional interpreters who claim to intuit what the nation’s founders would have thought on 21st century concerns that were unknowable 225 years ago.”

It is easy to invoke King’s name these days precisely because in many instances, we don’t know what he would have thought of such 21st century concerns.  While Dr. King is remembered for his struggles against the nation’s greatest evil in the past century, Jim Crow in the South, much of his later work has consequently been forgotten.  This includes, perhaps most notably, his relentless campaign for fair housing, which culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the “Fair Housing Act”).  The Act was signed into law about a week after King was killed in Memphis.  And in contrast to the ceaseless speculation about what King “would have thought,” fair housing is an issue for which he spent years organizing, speaking, and protesting.

Most of Dr. King’s significant fair housing work took place in Chicago, a city known at the time as one of the most intensely segregated north of the Mason-Dixon line.  His work in the Windy City in January 1965 is brilliantly recounted in Rick Perlstein’s highly acclaimed political history of the sixties, Nixonland. Perlstein describes the squalid conditions that greeted King upon his arrival in Chicago’s predominantly African-American southwest section: “he rented a four room walk-up for his family in Lawndale (“Slumdale”) neighborhood.  Reporters crowded each other on move-in day, noting the smell of urine, the single hall light, the rumors the block was controlled by gangs.”

King came to Chicago at a time when the city’s mayor, Richard Daley, proudly proclaimed that there was “no segregation in Chicago,” since the city had passed an open housing ordinance a few years prior.  Daley was well aware, however, that without federal enforcement, fair housing in practice would never surface.

Having chosen Chicago for this very reason—to demonstrate why desegregation would not succeed without a sufficient legal infrastructure—King’s efforts, perhaps unsurprisingly, faced fierce hostility.  Perlstein chronicles constituent letters to members of Illinois’s Congressional delegation, one of which read, “Do you or any of your friends live next door to a negro—why should we have them pushed down our throat?”  Later in his stay, King delivered a summer sermon at the Shiloh Baptish Church, where just beyond the church’s walls, “unbeknownst to the cops or to King, kids outside assembled Molotov cocktails.”

Despite the setbacks, King persisted.  On August 5, amidst searing heat, King led a long-planned march through the city, in which he was joined by a number of African-American celebrities.  Perlstein chronicles the copious insults and threats he received while marching, and after a rock grazed his ear, King was forced to pause his march briefly.  Perlstein writes:

He slumped to the ground—the Gandhian moment of truth. ‘I think everybody in that line wanted to kill everybody on the other side of the line,’ a marcher later recalled.  King got up and kept on marching.  We shall overcome.

Indeed, Dr. King’s resilience and grace in the face of unspeakable hardship helped instill in the nation a consciousness about equal opportunity housing that paved the way for the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed racial discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. While the hatred recorded by Perlstein eventually killed Dr. King, his legacy no doubt remains strong.

Unfortunately, we are far from achieving Dr. King’s dream, evidenced by the continuance of deeply segregated neighborhoods, schools, and public institutions throughout the United States.  The senseless violence in Arizona further reminds us that our nation painfully lags behind Martin Luther King’s vision.  At St. Ambrose, Dr. King’s life inspires us when we think of the possibilities of service but at the same time, forces us to constantly examine the fact that there is so much work to be done.

Housing as a Human Right

Part one of a four part series on the developing housing rights movement

“In the US, it’s feasible to provide adequate housing for all. You have a lot of money, a lot of dollars available. You have a lot of expertise. This is a perfect setting to really embrace housing as a human right”

— Raquel Rolnik, UN Special Rapporteur

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik, recently ended her official fact-finding mission in the US. During her seven city tour—including Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and other cities—Rolnik met with public officials, NGO representatives, and people experiencing homelessness in order to understand the current state of housing in the US. Her preliminary findings, while not necessarily surprising, are certainly damning: “millions of people living in the US today are facing serious challenges in accessing affordable and adequate housing.”

As the introductory quote above indicates, a common theme throughout Rolnik’s mission was that adequate housing is a basic human right. In order to explore this theme more thoroughly, Talk to St. Ambrose will be hosting a series of posts dealing with the emerging housing rights movement.

I. Housing as a Human Right: Introduction

II. Why Take a Rights-Based Approach to Housing Issues?

III. Housing as a Human Right: Possibilities for Legal Advocacy

IV. Common Myths about Housing Rights

For more information on the UN Housing Mission, click here.