Building a Strong Movement for Housing Justice

For two decades, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) has been in the forefront of the struggle for decent housing for the poor. It has consistently exposed our lopsided housing policies that subsidize the rich, while leaving the crumbs for the poor. To address this long-standing inequity, the Coalition is mounting a Housing Justice Campaign, described in this issue of Shelterforce. Its centerpiece is a bill to establish a federal Housing Trust Fund that would target housing subsidies to the poor. The Fund would be endowed by reducing housing tax breaks for the well-off.

How can the housing movement win this progressive reform? Asking this question in the wake of November’s elections can be a numbing experience. For at least the next two years, Congress will be controlled by right-wing Republicans – people who only a short time ago would have been considered the lunatic fringe, but who now hold the levers of power in Washington. But even before November, it was easy to see that progressive forces faced an uphill battle.

Reaching the “Forgotten Middle Class”

Many Americans hoped that Clinton’s victory in November 1992 would usher in a new era of hope for the nation’s cities. But Clinton was elected without a majority mandate. He received only 43 percent of the overall vote. Indeed, the key to Bill Clinton’s victory was his success in capturing the vote (or making gains over earlier Democratic candidates) in the suburbs, particularly the inner-ring suburbs where many of the “forgotten middle class” – the blue collar families worried about the nation’s economic decline – live.

Equally important, the Democrats, while capturing a majority of seats in Congress, were deeply divided. Many Democrats in Congress were closely linked to big business interests that oppose progressive taxation, pump-priming, and social spending. Many moderate and conservative Democrats refused to support Clinton’s major initiatives, including his economic recovery package that contained a significant increase in federal assistance to cities. Faced with a huge budget deficit, Clinton confronted major constraints in expanding resources for a domestic agenda.

Frustrated by Congressional gridlock, voters kicked out many conservative and moderate and some progressive Democrats, replacing them primarily with clones of Newt Gingrich. Right-wing Republicans now head key committees, including banking and housing. In this context, protecting existing resources for the poor will be hard enough; winning a new progressive policy will be next to impossible. To achieve our goals, we have to change the composition of Congress.

Sharing Blame

It is easy to blame the news media, or the corporate lobby, or even President Clinton, for this terrible situation. But progressives deserve part of the blame. America’s progressive movement is divided into thousands of advocacy groups fighting for economic and social justice. But these single-issue groups – including housing and homeless advocates – don’t add up to a strong force for progressive change, because there is little grassroots mobilization to provide these “lobbyists for the people” with the kind of support they need to put their issues on the agenda and get them passed in Congress.

The two most important facts about last November’s election are that more than half of voters who earn under $50,000 voted for Democrats, and about 60 percent of eligible voters – disproportionately the poor, blue-collar workers, minorities and tenants – didn’t vote.

The major challenge for housing activists, therefore, is strategic. How can we develop a policy agenda and build a movement that bridges the gap between the poor and the lower middle class – a coalition of the “bottom two-thirds” of the American people – that can win a majority in state legislatures and Congress?

The housing movement has made considerable headway around issues like redlining and tenants’ rights in public and subsidized housing. The Chicago Housing and Jobs campaign was a model of citywide coalition building. Statewide housing coalitions have gained strength, thanks in part to the NLIHC and several enlightened foundations. But we’ve also seen major setbacks, especially among renters in private housing. In Massachusetts, New York, and California, rent control laws have been substantially weakened.

To move housing to the top of our nation’s agenda, advocates must broaden their constituency and organize more effectively. We must do a better job of shaping public debate, particularly by pushing the mainstream media to discuss alternative policies and local success stories. The housing movement has to become more adept at  building strong grassroots organizations at the city and state levels. The Housing Justice Campaign cannot succeed unless effective pressure is put on Congressional delegations, which includes making housing a “win or lose” issue in their re-election campaigns and helping elect pro-housing members of Congress. It isn’t too early to begin thinking about turning out the vote for the 1996 elections.

A Progressive Coalition

It is often said that during the past decade or so, “the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.”  True. But what’s missing from this cliché is what happened to the middle class. The majority of American workers – including many white collar and professional employees – have seen their incomes decline. Real wages fell by 1.8 percent from l973 to l978, and by 9.6 percent from l979 to l993. A recent Census Bureau report revealed that 18 percent of the nation’s full-time workers earn poverty-level wages.

A progressive coalition must keep its eyes and anger on the rich – the top 5 percent of the population who own the wealth and reap the largest government benefits, including homeowner tax subsidies. Success at forging a progressive housing policy will necessitate appealing to some segment of the middle-class suburban electorate and building  strong links to potential allies among working and lower middle class constituencies – unions, church groups, small business owners, and others.

The Coalition’s analysis of our housing system’s inequities is on target. It points out that most of the $52 billion-a-year homeowner tax subsidy goes to families that don’t need it – those earning over $100,000. It also notes that the majority of middle-class homeowners – those earning between $30,000 and $75,000 – don’t even benefit from the mortgage interest deduction. Is there any way the Trust Fund proposal could offer something concrete to this group? The Fund’s benefits are targeted entirely to the very poor. Could it also provide something to the young working class family earning $40,000 a year, paying one-third, or even one-half, of its income in rent, and unable to save enough to make a downpayment on even a small bungalow?

The NLIHC proposal also begins raising taxes for families earning $75,000. Obviously, any effort to redistribute benefits by some “fair share” formula has to draw the line somewhere. Most families earning $75,000 consider themselves “middle class.” Call it self-delusion or selfishness, but the political realities are that they don’t view themselves as part of the economic elite. How can we attract, or at least neutralize, some of these people without compromising our commitment to the poor and working class?

Expanding the Pie

Government housing programs today are viewed as “social welfare.” If the movement for housing justice is going to succeed, it can’t simply be about redistributing the existing (and shrinking) pie. It also has to be about expanding the pie. Housing activists must ask ourselves, how do we increase the number of families who can share in the “American Dream” of homeownership?

The NLIHC plan correctly includes a mix of funds for new construction, rehabilitation, and vouchers. These funds would generate jobs and stimulate the economy. If progressive forces want to elevate housing to the front-burner, we need to convince sectors within the business community and middle class tax payers of the critical link between affordable housing, jobs, and the long-term future of the American economy.

The housing agenda has made the most headway when the concerns of the poor and the middle class have been joined. In the Progressive era, that meant improving health standards for tenements for immigrant workers as well as building apartments houses for the middle class. In the Depression and the postwar years, it meant building subsidized housing for the working class and shoring up homeownership for the middle class.

Today, the political vehicles to fashion this coalition need to be rebuilt if housing is to move from the margins to the mainstream of the nation’s agenda.

 

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