#086 Mar/Apr 1996

Organizing to Build a Movement

In December 1994, President Bill Clinton proposed converting public housing and project-based Section 8 into vouchers. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Congressman Rick Lazio (R-NY), chairman of the housing subcommittee, […]

In December 1994, President Bill Clinton proposed converting public housing and project-based Section 8 into vouchers. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Congressman Rick Lazio (R-NY), chairman of the housing subcommittee, climbed aboard the voucher bandwagon. And Senator Bob Dole joined the chorus by advocating outright abolition of HUD.

With Bill, Newt, and Bob on the same side, the smart money would bet low-income people were screwed. But in 1995, tenants beat the voucher plan. I can think of no other issue where organizing outgunned the DC three.

How did we win?

For starters, we developed a fun gimmick that allowed mass participation and attracted media attention. Second, we focused on the key target-Republican Senators such as Al D’Amato of New York. Finally, we emphasized tenant leadership development to win the issue and build the movement.

HUD Tenant Organizing: A Growing Movement

Thanks to the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT), HUD tenant organizing has rapidly expanded over the past two years. Starting at the building level, tenant associations-with the support of local organizing projects-organize around basic issues like building conditions, rents, and security.

The creative vision of NAHT has been to coalesce tenant associations through a national organizing drive to make HUD accountable. Every step of the way, tenants have controlled the process. Tenants have made the decisions about what issues are on the agenda, who the spokespersons are, and whom to target. Tenants speak on their own behalf and negotiate directly with top HUD officials.

In December 1994, Clinton proposed his voucherization plan in the HUD Reinvention Blueprint. HUD tenants responded by stepping up already aggressive organizing. One month later, NAHT launched a national campaign. The president lives in federally-subsidized housing-the White House – so NAHT decided to deliver a voucher to the president.

By mid-February, NAHT and local tenant coalitions sponsored 25 local press conferences announcing the voucher campaign. Two weeks later, NAHT received national media attention by delivering a giant voucher, and 20,000 vouchers signed by tenants, to the White House.

The New York Story

The New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition (Tenants & Neighbors) has made New York a HUD tenant organizing hot bed. A movement has been built in New York that has produced victories at the building level and on regulatory issues.

Working collaboratively with New Jersey tenant groups, Tenants & Neighbors has held quarterly meetings with top HUD officials from Washington and local offices. These negotiations typically involve 50 to 60 tenant leaders. The ground rules are simple: tenants set the agenda and run the meeting; tenants do not seek solutions to individual building problems, rather they use these problems to make a point on policy issues.

The results are tremendous. There have been specific changes in HUD policies, and HUD now treats tenants as enforcement partners in their buildings. More importantly, tenant leaders see the direct connection between federal housing policy and their homes; they build strong connections with tenant leaders from other communities; after arguing a point with a HUD deputy assistant secretary, they become stronger leaders in their buildings and in the movement.

The voucher campaign energized New York tenants. We sponsored 10 of the NAHT press conferences and collected 5,000 signed vouchers. And, we kept continuous pressure on Al D’Amato through telephone and letter writing campaigns. Our goal was simple: a face-to-face meeting.

After six months of agitation, we confronted D’Amato at a bookstore where radio personality Howard Stern and he were holding a book-signing media promotion for the Senator’s autobiography. We bought a book and got in line. A HUD tenant leader presented our demand for a meeting and we got a commitment.

A month later, we met with D’Amato in his Washington office. He assured us he would oppose the voucher plan and even signed one of our vouchers to President Clinton, which we later parlayed into media coverage. While D’Amato’s record has not been perfect on tenant issues, so far he has delivered on the biggest issues: opposition to vouchers, maintaining the 30 percent cap on tenants’ share of Section 8 rent, and funding for preservation of HUD-assisted housing.

Organizing Lessons

  1. Demands must be clear and simple. HUD-assisted housing issues are extremely complex. By focusing on vouchers, we kept our demand simple while carrying a broader agenda.
  2. Do not let political purity kill your issue. Al D’Amato is not every progressive’s favorite Senator, but he is incredibly powerful. Through pressure and praise, we got D’Amato to hold the line against both Clinton and the House.
  3. Leadership is priority one. Winning on issues is good, but without a hell of a lot of leadership from low-income people, our communities will be lucky to survive. There is no issue like the one you are working on today for developing leaders.
  4. Regulatory advocacy can be a movement building block. Focusing only on the most local pothole issue does not go far enough. If there is a federal, state, or local government agency responsible for regulating your issue, hold its feet to the fire. But do it as an organizing process controlled by constituents.