It’s Time for a “Justice” Movement for Affordable Housing, Led by Low-Income People, People of Color and Women

First, I want to commend John Atlas for bringing up the issues of class and concentration of wealth in relation to the housing movement. These issues are certainly not raised often enough by housing advocates. They are best illustrated, of course, by the point that Cushing Dolbeare, founder of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, first raised more than a decade ago – the “upside-down” character of housing subsidy, through which the federal government provides an entitlement to the wealthy and middle-class on a regressive sliding scale, and then provides a subsidy to some of the poor, using waiting lists and strict certification procedures.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition, working with its sister organization, is currently beginning to mobilize its Housing Justice Campaign. While the content of the campaign is still undergoing scrutiny by housing leaders and activists, my personal opinion is that class issues, and in particular “welfare for the rich,” have a deep resonance today, and should, as Atlas recommends, play a part in building a housing movement. I also fully agree that organizing and direct action will be key to any possible success.

Beyond that point, however, I part company with Atlas’ analysis. He gives the housing movement only two choices – to be a neoliberal movement, or a populist movement based in the middle class. Either way, it appears to me, some group of white males is in the driver’s seat, and it is their interests that we are told must come first.

I certainly agree that we cannot rely on neoliberals; one need look no farther than the White House to see what they can be expected to provide for the poor if left unprodded. Neoliberalism, unless it changes significantly, is going to leave low-income housing programs in worse shape than all of Reagan’s conscious attacks on them did.

The Clinton Administration, despite talk of rebuilding and investing, is not restoring the HUD budget that the Reagan-Bush years shrank. The White House only added a meager $1 billion to its FY 1995 proposed HUD budget after strong pressure from outside and inside HUD. Meanwhile, major cyclical costs, especially renewals of contracts for Section 8 rental assistance, are coming due in the next few years. Dealing with these costs coming due and trying to keep programs going or even start new programs without increasing the HUD budget will be like stuffing two pounds of potatoes into a one pound bag – something’s got to give. If enough Congressional Democrats support further budget reductions, the bag shrinks even more.

Finally, if this Administration finishes its allotted time without even making a serious attempt to bring the HUD budget up to a level relevant to our problems, we can be pretty sure that no future Administration, and certainly not a Republican one, will feel any pressure to do so – at least from within the Beltway. After a half-century of growth from the New Deal on, low income housing programs will be the stepchild of both parties, basically because of the failure of neoliberals to respond to the trashing they got from the conservatives.

But I do not accept Atlas’ argument that our only alternative is to build a movement around benefits designed for the middle class. The examples he uses, mostly from the New Deal, are of programs that were in fact designed for the unemployed and poor, who were a much larger group in the 1930s than they are today. Groups like the CIO that fought for those programs were in fact not populist, but socialist; they consciously built leadership among the unemployed and among racial minorities.

In any case, that’s another era. In our era, the movements that have actually made change are what I call justice movements. The grandfather of them all, the civil rights movement in the South, was explicitly a movement that had nothing material to offer white people except a more decent nation to live in. The movement against the war in Vietnam, which still resonates in our foreign policy, also drew support and even leadership far beyond the population of young men subject to the draft and their families. The movement of our era which does explicitly speak to the interests of the majority – the feminist movement – can hardly be called populist. As for the movements for neighborhood power, for community reinvestment, and for tenant rights, logically exemplars of populism, they are in fact largely movements of low-income people, especially people of color, in distressed urban and rural communities. Atlas does not seem to have learned the lessons of these movements. Nor does he cite any recent broad populist movements that have actually led to progressive social change.

I believe the evidence shows that the vast majority of people in this country – the potential members of a “populist” housing movement – have three major feelings about housing policy. First, polls indicate that they are fairly satisfied with the basic system in terms of how it works for them; they want, and most of them have, single family homeownership. (This is less true, of course, in tight housing markets or during credit crunches.) Second, they want whatever support does come from the government for anyone’s housing to be allocated in a fair and cost-efficient way. Third, they know that the growth of homelessness is a sign that something is radically wrong, and (according to several polls) they are willing to pay more taxes to eradicate it.

These feelings are not a mandate for a populist movement to establish European-style subsidized housing for the middle class, an example Atlas keeps pointing to. They are a mandate to build a movement, with strong leadership by low-income people, people of color and women, to reverse the “upside-down” housing subsidy – to reduce subsidies to the rich and the prosperous, and to provide subsidies to those who so obviously need them. I believe that such a movement will draw significant support from people of good will of all classes, especially those already active in congregations, social justice groups, civil rights groups, and progressive unions, and on campuses. I believe that these people will, along with low-income leaders and the current community-based housing movement, provide the troops to make a profound social change in housing policy. I also believe such a housing movement can gain enough credibility to get passive support from the majority of the population. (I would, of course, welcome as an element of the overall movement for progressive change a genuinely middle-class populism around issues like tax equity and the environment, and there are some encouraging signs. But I am not going to hold my breath – or my activism – while I wait.)

Neoliberalism is not the answer to our problems; but neither is a poorly thought out populism. We can, and should, fight the real battle that is in front of us – the battle for substantial resources for those with desperate housing needs; and we should fight it not by trying to bribe the middle class to come along, but by stating the need and making the case – and by placing this struggle explicitly in the mainstream of the historic and ongoing movement for community and justice. That is, in the best sense of the word, the pragmatic approach.

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