An Affordable Housing Movement Is Rising from the Wreckage of the Foreclosure Crisis

Michael Arria November 17, 2017

On January 16, 2017 in New York, N.Y., the Citywide Alliance Against Displacement held a rally at City Hall to demand Mayor de Blasio step down for promoting racist rezoning plans that target communities of color and to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.s legacy of ghting against racial and economic injustice all over the country. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In late Sep­tem­ber, activists staged actions in 45 cities to draw atten­tion to preda­to­ry rent prac­tices and vast cuts to Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment fund­ing. Renters Week of Action” was par­tial­ly inspired by a report put out by the Right to the City Alliance (RTC) high­light­ing solu­tions to the prob­lems ten­ants now face after the fore­clo­sure crisis.

The major­i­ty of all renters pay an unaf­ford­able rent,” Dar­nell John­son of RTC told In These Times. Evic­tion, ris­ing rents and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion are racial, gen­der and eco­nom­ic vio­lence harm­ing our people.”

The coor­di­nat­ed actions stem from a long his­to­ry. The rent con­trol move­ment gained momen­tum dur­ing the late 1970s and ear­ly 1980s, spread­ing beyond New York City and tak­ing hold in Cal­i­for­nia. In 1978, Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers approved Propo­si­tion 13, which low­ered prop­er­ty tax­es through­out the state.

Many believed that the sav­ings would mean low­er home prices and rents. But almost 40 years lat­er, Cal­i­for­nia is a sym­bol of the era’s failed opti­mism. The medi­an Cal­i­for­nia house costs 2.5 times more than the medi­an nation­al house, and rents are some of the high­est in the nation. Cities through­out the coun­try have now expe­ri­enced decades of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion from a real estate indus­try con­sis­tent­ly look­ing for ways to sub­vert the few remain­ing hous­ing pro­tec­tions that exist for tenants. 

Over the last few years, hous­ing activism has boomed — a trend that tran­scends the issue of rent con­trol through its focus on halt­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and pro­tect­ing low-income peo­ple of col­or from dis­place­ment. This work is even more impor­tant in the era of Trump, as the GOP is active­ly push­ing a tax plan to ben­e­fit the rich­est mem­bers of U.S. soci­ety. House Repub­li­cans just passed a tax plan that will cut cor­po­rate rates down to 20 per­cent while increas­ing tax­es for house­holds that make between $10,000 and $30,000 a year.

The move­ment has tak­en hold through­out the coun­try, and it’s recent­ly chalked up a num­ber of impor­tant vic­to­ries. After activists staged a hunger strike in San Jose, law­mak­ers approved some of the strongest renter pro­tec­tions in the nation. Seattle’s city coun­cil was pushed to end hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion against for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed indi­vid­u­als. Ear­li­er this year, New York became the first city to guar­an­tee attor­neys for low-income renters fac­ing eviction.

One group with a track record of effec­tive strat­e­gy is the Min­neapo­lis-based Inquil­inxs Unidxs Por Jus­ti­cia. Orga­niz­er Rober­to de la Riva told In These Times that the group has a direct-action approach to com­bat­ing his city’s hous­ing cri­sis. The racial break­down of hous­ing in Min­neapo­lis is stark: Most peo­ple of col­or rent, while most peo­ple white peo­ple own homes. He spoke of Lati­no res­i­dents being fined hun­dreds of dol­lars by land­lords for open­ing their win­dows dur­ing the win­ter — and being forced to pay their rent via mon­ey order.

As an orga­ni­za­tion that works with direct­ly-affect­ed ten­ants in the most afford­able hous­ing in Min­neapo­lis, we see first-hand the amount of pow­er that land­lords hold over ten­ants,” said de la Riva. They can intim­i­date freely with­out any­one hold­ing them account­able and use the sys­tem for their busi­ness mod­el. Because of the lack of effec­tive orga­niz­ing and renter pro­tec­tions like rent con­trol, and just cause pro­tec­tion against evic­tion, land­lords get free reign in the city.” 

When we orga­nize with ten­ants against their land­lords,” he added, we are able to break down fear and iso­la­tion, equal­ize pow­er rela­tions and move ten­ants to defend their rights to nego­ti­ate with the land­lord on renters’ terms.”

One of the most effec­tive ways Inquil­inxs Unidxs Por Jus­ti­cia has fought for ten­ants is through the acqui­si­tion of pro-bono attor­neys to fight for renters in court. This method has led to a major rent return law­suit, charg­ing two Min­neapo­lis land­lords with hid­ing their own­er­ship of prop­er­ties from the city and pur­pose­ly sup­press­ing the costs of repairs for finan­cial gain. If suc­cess­ful, the law­suit could finan­cial­ly ben­e­fit thou­sands of Min­neso­ta res­i­dents. It could be the largest case in terms of dam­ages and rent refunds in U.S. his­to­ry,” hous­ing attor­ney Lar­ry McDo­nough told The Star Tri­bune. I could not find a sin­gle class action around the coun­try that had this kind of price tag on it.”

De la Riva said ten­ants and activists are up against pow­er­ful, mon­eyed inter­ests in Minneapolis.

Accord­ing to advo­cates, this trend extends nation­wide, Entire com­mu­ni­ties and cul­tures are being erased by aggres­sive devel­op­ment,” John­son under­scored. We’re occu­py­ing their offices, tak­ing back our com­mu­ni­ties and esca­lat­ing. Because this isn’t a game. We’re fight­ing for our lives, our com­mu­ni­ties and our futures.”

In Boston, 2016 saw an uptick in resis­tance to preda­to­ry rent prac­tices, with activists fight­ing for Just Cause Evic­tion” rules that would pre­vent land­lords from evict­ing ten­ants for improp­er rea­sons. Through orga­niz­ing, com­mu­ni­ties advanced the Jim Brooks Com­mu­ni­ty Sta­bi­liza­tion Act, a piece of leg­is­la­tion that has already cleared Boston’s city coun­cil and will now make its way to the state leg­is­la­ture. If passed, the act would require land­lords with more than six units to pro­vide a rea­son for evict­ing a ten­ant — and man­date that they report the evic­tion to the city. The city would then be required to noti­fy the ten­ant of their rights as a renter. 

Ten miles out­side of down­town Boston is the city of Lynn, where an orga­ni­za­tion of local res­i­dents is fight­ing back against unjust evic­tions and fore­clo­sures. Lynn Unit­ed for Change’s Isaac Simon Hodes told In These Times that unaf­ford­able rent is a mas­sive prob­lem in the city, and the group is com­mit­ted to work­ing with homeowners.

We bring togeth­er home­own­ers fac­ing fore­clo­sure and ten­ants fac­ing evic­tion because all of these bat­tles are part of the broad­er strug­gle to defend the human right to hous­ing,” said Hodes, Whether it’s big banks that are fore­clos­ing or cor­po­rate land­lords that are caus­ing dis­place­ment, we’ll only be able to chal­lenge the dam­age they’re doing to our com­mu­ni­ties by build­ing a strong and broad move­ment for hous­ing justice.”

Last year, Lynn May­or Judith Flana­gan Kennedy declared that the city already had enough afford­able hous­ing but need­ed more rich res­i­dents for eco­nom­ic expan­sion. Lynn has more than its share of afford­able hous­ing right now,” said Kennedy. We have exceed­ed the goal, and one of the things that Lynn needs to suc­ceed in is its long-term eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment is to have peo­ple with dis­pos­able income in the mix of the hous­ing that we offer.”

Dur­ing Renters Week of Action,” Lynn Unit­ed for Change mem­bers occu­pied a devel­op­ment site demand­ing that afford­able hous­ing be includ­ed in a new set of water­front apart­ments. We do not oppose devel­op­ment,” reads the peti­tion that activists passed out dur­ing the event on Sep­tem­ber 26. We want to see our city grow and improve. But new devel­op­ment will only be good for the peo­ple of our city if it takes our needs and con­cerns into account and does not push out cur­rent residents.”

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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