Fight City Hall – and WIN!
It took almost a year, but solid strategic planning and tenacious grassroots organizing paid off for affordable housing activists in Bloomington, Indiana. After an unprecedented direct-action organizing campaign by the Coalition of Low Income and Homeless Citizens, the City of Bloomington agreed in December, 1995 to set aside $500,000 in seed capital for an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. These trust fund dollars can be used only to build housing that will remain permanently affordable.
This trust fund is ground-breaking in many ways. It is the first time local Bloomington moneys have been dedicated for affordable housing. It is the first community housing trust fund in Indiana (there is a state Housing Trust Fund). It has the tightest restrictions on permanent affordability in the country. And it was the first trust fund created almost exclusively by poor people; poor people designed and led the campaign.
Best known as the home of the Indiana Hoosiers basketball team, the southern Indiana town of Bloomington has a history of progressive social activism spanning back to the 1960s. But today, more than one-third of Bloomington residents live in poverty, and the city has one of the highest housing costs in the state. More than one-fourth of the city’s residents pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing.
Throughout the 1980s and early 90s, low-rent downtown apartments disappeared, one building at a time, as developers speculated on the future value of housing in the city. Gentrification moved forward unabated with the helping hand of city government, which allocated HOME and CDBG dollars to developers who in turn displaced hundreds of low-income people. In one particularly terrible incident, 60 families living in a low-rent trailer park were evicted to make way for a student condominium development.
In early 1995, the Coalition of Low Income and Homeless Citizens decided to attack the problem of affordable housing in a systematic manner. The Coalition scheduled a series of weekend community organizing training sessions and began planning a direct action organizing campaign. Coalition members worked together to select a series of winnable issues to address the affordable housing program. They prepared a campaign strategy that included a broad list of allies, fun and creative tactics, and a clear primary target – the Mayor.
Can People Sleep in a Parking Lot?
Before the campaign got into full swing, the Mayor introduced a bill to the City Council to transfer $750,000 from a fund providing social services and low-income housing to expand convention center parking. The Coalition was outraged. On the evening of the final vote, 30 members of the Coalition showed up to testify against the plan. The City Council ignored the testimony and voted unanimously to build the parking lot. Despite this initial loss, Coalition members felt good about their involvement because it was the first time low-income and homeless people had aggressively addressed the City Council.
The following week, the Coalition held a press conference demanding that the City dedicate $1.2 million of a county tax windfall to an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Over the next two months, the Coalition organized a series of actions at City Hall, knocked on doors of low-income residents to solicit their active involvement, and showed up in large numbers regularly at City Council meetings. When candidates were electioneering at the farmers market, Coalition activists would stand nearby distributing trust fund literature.
Maybe the Trust Fund Should Happen?
By mid-summer, the Mayor and City Council agreed to use part of the tax windfall for affordable housing by allocating $500,000 as seed capital for a housing trust fund. Details of the trust fund operation were deferred to the city Planning Department. Although the Coalition was pleased with the allocation, it still wanted a dedicated source of financing for the fund, to ensure that there would be money once the initial $500,000 was used.
September and October were busy months for the campaign. In rapid succession, the Coalition:
- Organized a “Fund the Trust Fund” rally and press conference, with Mary Brooks of the Center for Community Change as the featured speaker. The Housing Network, an informal group of nonprofit housing advocacy and housing development groups, publicly endorsed the campaign.
- Circulated postcards demanding that the Mayor (the elections were coming in November) support a dedicated funding source for the Trust Fund.
- Accepted an invitation to question the candidates at a mayoral debate and turned the debate into an impromptu accountability session. The night of the debate, an informational picket was set up outside the hall. At the debate, the new mayor pledged support for a dedicated source of financing.
- Recruited new Coalition members by going door-to-door and talking with community residents.
But Should it be Affordable?
After the election, an ordinance detailing how the trust fund would operate was introduced into the City Council. The proposed ordinance, however, did not require that the units produced remain permanently affordable to low-income people. After 20 years (or possibly sooner), the units would not be required to remain affordable. The Coalition felt betrayed. Leaders decided to shift from demanding a dedicated funding source for the trust fund to demanding that the fund require permanent affordability.
Organizers went back to work, developing a series of tactics to put additional pressure on the new Mayor and City Council members. The Coalition:
- Orchestrated a phone call campaign to swing City Council members.
- Organized individual meetings with City Council members.
- Recruited influential allies from Bloomington and statewide to testify before the City Council, one last time before the vote.
Finally, on a cold December night when the vote was scheduled, in the midst of a snow storm, Coalition members circled City Hall with demonstrators, and packed the gallery of the City Council chambers with supporters. Consideration of a substitute amendment requiring permanent affordability was moved from fourth on the agenda to 43rd. When the Council finally considered the issue, Coalition members were still present and spoke eloquently about the need for the Trust Fund to remain permanently affordable. Well after midnight, the City Council narrowly approved the amendment by 5 to 4.
First, Coalition members are still celebrating their new sense of power. Next, the leaders plan to evaluate what worked, what didn’t, and what they should do differently in the future. Third, the Coalition is planning its next steps. Is there a way to get a dedicated revenue source? Will there be efforts to reverse the decision? Whatever happens, this group is energized for the struggles ahead and ready to fight.
- Organizing works. Lots of people cared about affordable housing, but not until the Coalition chose a concrete issue (the Trust Fund) and developed a solid strategy was it able to tap into people’s concerns and involve them in solving the problem. And, people felt a sense of their own power through winning such a concrete victory.
- You don’t need lots of money. The Coalition had no paid staff and ran the whole campaign on $500. The Coalition did have many dedicated low-income leaders who volunteered thousands of hours of time.
- You do need lots of leaders. The Coalition’s organizers count 40 people who stepped up as leaders during the campaign, especially towards the end, to assume significant leadership in implementing actions.
- There are no permanent allies, no permanent enemies. The same Councilman who referred to Coalition members as “a bunch of ingrates” during the summer became the most important ally when he introduced and supported the amendment requiring permanent affordability.
- Flexibility is required. Be ready and able to switch gears quickly.
- If it can’t fit on a bumper sticker, the message is too long. Make the message clear and simple. Coalition members used slogans such as “Homeless again in 20 years” and “Housing for people, not parking spaces for cars” to convey the need for the trust fund to remain permanently affordable.
- Take advantage of election year politics. The Democratic-dominated Council members were much more conciliatory to Coalition demands because of the upcoming November election and their knowledge that the Coalition members were willing and able to embarrass the Council members if necessary.
- Create your own media. Frequently, the media confuse the issues. The Coalition created one-page, doubled-sided news sheets called the Hard Times, which provided updates on the campaign and allowed the Coalition to control the message, keep people informed during all phases of the campaign, and put continual pressure on the targets.
- Know your issue well. The Coalition spent lots of time discussing the Trust Fund. Leaders practiced presenting the issue and explaining it to various audiences. Leaders’ solid grasp of the concept helped people explain the issue effectively to different constituencies and allies and answer their questions quickly.
- Seek supporters across ideological lines. The Coalition won the support of Republicans and Democrats, bankers and homeless people. Don’t assume people’s positions without talking with them.