A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to repeat a rite of citizenship – voting. For just about two decades, I’ve been stepping into the booth, drawing the curtain and, in a remarkably palpable way, making my voice heard.
Depending on the election, I’m joined by a few hundred other citizens, letting our local leaders know what we think, or I become one of millions deciding if the direction of our nation should change.
It’s always been amazing to me that in a land where the right to vote seems so cherished, so few of us do it. We all know and bemoan that America has the world’s lowest eligible voter turnout rate. What many of us don’t know is that the turnout rate for registered voters is much higher. The problem isn’t voting, it seems, but signing up to vote. In Start Your Engines, Peter Dreier writes about the National Voter Registration Act, which allows us to register where we apply for, or renew, our driver’s license, among other places.
The Act promises to give voice to many of the disenfranchised. But what will they say? Will their voice call out for progressive change? The opportunity is there, but, Dreier cautions, it will be lost without conscious effort and effective organization.
Effort and organization allowed a group of Baltimore’s disenfranchised to have a few of their rights acknowledged. Hundreds of tenants found that, not only were they paying high rents for the privilege of living in one landlord’s decrepit apartments, their promised repairs would never materialize thanks to the protection that landlord would get during bankruptcy procedures. With the help of the Community Law Center, writes Cinder Hypki, and a coalition of other nonprofit groups, the tenants organized to make their case in bankruptcy court. They argued that repairs were owed them in exchange for their rents. And that made them “creditors” as surely as those to whom the landlord owed money. The Judge agreed. Can we try this in a few more places?
Is having a decent place to live a privilege or a right? If it’s a right, how far does it extend? Barry Bearak tells the story of one group of squatters in New York City who find and rehabilitate “abandoned,” city-owned buildings. They work long, hard hours under dreadful conditions. They pour sweat and dollars into their efforts. And they believe that all this gives them the “right” to call their new homes theirs.
But the city doesn’t see it quite that way. New York has plans of its own for thousands of units it controls and the squatters aren’t part of those plans.
Is the City right? Is it fair? What policies should the City have to help those more than willing to help themselves? Bearak’s exciting story leads to many questions and we would like to hear your comments.
A few days after this issue goes to press, five families will be moving into their first homes in Orange, New Jersey. These affordable homes are being built by H.A.N.D.S. Inc., a local CDC, using wall panels constructed by the NHI/H.A.N.D.S panel factory. As executive director of H.A.N.D.S, Pat Morrissy (also known as the editor of Shelterforce) has been putting the finishing touches on the homes, making them ready to occupy. We haven’t seen much of Pat here in the past few weeks, and we all miss him.
Congratulations on a tremendous job, Pat. And hurry home, please.
We would like to offer our thanks to the following individual and organization sustaining supporters of Shelterforce.
Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative
Community Action Center
Bruce S. Dale
Jan Fulton, City of Bakersfield
Robert S. Gardner
Allan D. Heskin
Karen A. Hiller
Housing Assistance Council Inc.
Octavia Hill Association
Crossroads Mental Health Services Inc.
Fair Housing Council of NJ
Rural Community Assistance Corporation
UDI Community Development Corporation