In Mid-June, Mary Yeaton, a tenant activist from Boston, testified before the Senate on the Multifamily Assisted Housing Reform Bill (S. 513). Yeaton lives at the Charlesbank Apartments in Boston, one of only two resident-owned buildings purchased through the Hope II program. Her testimony was a change from past congressional hearings on housing, when advocates and social workers testified on behalf of tenants.
Yeaton’s presence may represent a growing acceptance among activists, and even some politicians, that tenants should play a fundamental role in any reform of Section 8 multifamily housing. Yeaton and other HUD tenant leaders who gathered in Washington for a conference following the Congressional hearing are building their own capacity to assert that role.
The tenants at the conference belong to tenant associations that are members of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT), a five-year-old coalition of tenants who organize locally to demand necessary repairs and maintenance and to fight bad management, and nationally to pressure the federal government for policy changes needed to improve housing conditions and support greater tenant control of properties.
Stories of peeling paint, leaking faucets, and other signs of poor maintenance in Section 8 housing are abundant and well-known. Another less publicized yet pervasive problem, according to many HUD tenants, is interference or outright harassment from management when they try to organize other tenants in their buildings. For example, Sharon Belleville, a NAHT board member and organizer with Housing Comes First in Missouri, said she lived in her building for five years before she started organizing, and then suddenly failed her housing inspection.
At NAHT’s conference, experienced tenant organizers – both HUD residents and outside organizers – shared their ideas on effective ways to deal with managers who harass tenants or don’t play by HUD’s guidelines for tenant organizing. Some tenants also reported problems with management-controlled tenant associations. One conference attendee said, for example, that the tenants association in her building is undemocratic and doesn’t hold meetings according to the rules. Bill Good of the Newark HUD Tenants Coalition, and also a NAHT board member, advised her to meet with as many tenants as possible in her building to map out a plan of what they’d like to see happen with the building before calling an election/vote on the tenant organization.
Because harassment is so widely reported, one of NAHT’s focuses has been pressuring HUD to make clear to managers that tenants have the right to organize. NAHT’s board recommended language used in HUD’s management handbook instructing managers on tenants’ right to organize. NAHT also recommended language for a tenants rights brochure that HUD used almost verbatim and published in five languages. Further, NAHT asked Deputy Assistant Secretary For Multifamily Housing Chris Greer to send a notice informing managers to distribute the handbook at least once a year.
This is just a first step, said NAHT’s executive director, Michael Kane. “No one has actually been sanctioned yet for harassment,” he said, but NAHT will continue to pressure HUD at the national level when there are egregious examples of harassment.
Locally, HUD tenants themselves have been working to educate managers on this issue. For example, NAHT’s president, Alice Basey, has arranged to speak to managers in her region in Texas about tenant organizing in their developments. “That’s the next stage we’re now entering,” said Kane. This is one way HUD tenant leaders are moving beyond just fighting bad management to proactively addressing issues.
Forming a Tenant Alliance
In the past three years, NAHT has doubled its membership of HUD tenant groups, to between 130 and 140 tenant associations and committees. NAHT’s board is elected by members from the 10 HUD regions across the country. The board holds conference calls once or twice a month. Kane, the executive director, is not a HUD tenant but a Boston-area tenant advocate who helped get the grants and staffing to start the organization. He first worked under contract with the board through a grant from the Campaign for Human Development. Since that funding ran out in 1995, he has volunteered his time to NAHT.
Before NAHT formally began, Kane worked with the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) to help coordinate national conference calls of HUD tenant groups. Kane also went to NLIHC’s annual conference with tenants, and, during Jack Kemp’s tenure at HUD, began meeting with HUD officials on those visits to Washington. Because tenants proved effective at raising issues with HUD, and more HUD tenants had been attending NLIHC’s conference each year, tenants and organizers decided to form a national organization in which only HUD tenants would be voting members. Kane said some organizers argued against that, but participating HUD tenants desired an autonomous voice to speak more directly to their issues.
However, tenant and housing advocacy groups – those with staff or volunteers who do not live in HUD housing but help organize HUD tenants – can become “associate members,” participating in NAHT’s conference calls and making recommendations to its board. NAHT now has between 30 and 40 associate members. These advocacy groups have, in fact, been important in helping NAHT build its tenant base. After searching the country for good local organizing, NAHT designed an outreach and training program based on that work. NAHT then worked with associate member groups around the country to organize HUD tenants in their areas.
Through an agreement between NAHT, HUD, and VISTA, NAHT has helped place VISTA volunteers in tenant and housing advocacy organizations specifically to help organize tenants in HUD assisted housing. VISTA volunteers assist HUD tenants who are just beginning to organize in their buildings, along with more active tenant groups. Management is often even less welcoming to these outsiders, various organizers report.
The NAHT VISTA project also identifies local HUD tenant leaders, with the idea that tenants will eventually replace the VISTAs altogether. While many NAHT VISTA volunteers are young people just out of college, about 40 percent of the people who receive VISTA stipends and participate in the workshops and training through this project are tenants or older people living in HUD subsidized housing, public housing, or receiving some type of government assistance.
Eyes and Ears
HUD tenants and VISTA volunteers have also worked to address HUD’s inadequate capacity to oversee its privately-owned multifamily properties. Since 1992, NAHT board members have traveled to Washington four times a year to meet with HUD officials, and tenants have also arranged for HUD officials to come to their regions for what have been dubbed “Eyes and Ears” meetings. During these meetings, tenants relate their concerns and propose solutions to deal with problems in their developments. Though organizers help tenants prepare for these meetings and attend them, HUD tenants typically do the talking, according to Dina Levy, an organizer and former VISTA volunteer with the Texas HUD Tenants Coalition, which held an Eyes and Ears meeting with Deputy Assistant Secretary Greer.
The first Eyes and Ears meetings were in the New York-New Jersey HUD region, organized by the Newark HUD Tenants Coalition and tenant groups affiliated with the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, including the Syracuse Tenants Network.
“Within three of these meetings,” Kane said, “HUD staff got into it.” He said hearing from people first-hand about their concerns and then seeing improvements in these buildings makes situations more real and rewarding for HUD officials and staff. “It’s a way to keep tenant issues at the forefront,” he said.
HUD tenant groups in seven of the ten HUD regions have now held Eyes and Ears meetings. Tenants from each region meet prior to these meetings with HUD officials to identify issues and develop a strategy, Levy of the Texas HUD Tenants Coalition outlined during a NAHT conference workshop. Kane said NAHT draws on the union model of collective bargaining, organizing tenants at the local, regional, and national levels to bring collective pressure on HUD, and likewise on members of Congress.
Particularly now, with Congress in the midst of HUD multifamily assisted housing reform, tenant leaders are focused on Capitol Hill. In her Congressional testimony, Yeaton presented NAHT’s recommendations for reengineering multifamily projects with Section 8 or other project-based subsidies.
In trying to advance its concerns with Congress, NAHT has coordinated with other national housing advocacy groups, including the National Housing Law Project and the National Housing Trust. NAHT also participates with these organizations in the Preservation Working Group, which addresses issues related to Title VI preservation, or LIHPRHA [see sidebar].
Dunlap noted that housing advocates on the whole have tended to speak of HUD tenants only as those in multifamily housing with project-based subsidies, to the detriment of the large segment of tenants with Section 8 certificates and vouchers who should also be organized.
“The other thing we tend to do is organize people to fight battles for resources,” she said, “but we don’t build strong resident groups.” She said that in many places where HUD tenants have had the opportunity to purchase their buildings, tenants aren’t greatly involved in managing their complexes. She added that tenant buyouts have been successful in a few places – such as the Northgate Apartments in Burlington, Vermont (see Shelterforce #45) – and there’s now a greater awareness of the need for stronger resident groups.
As part of their effort to build their strength, both locally and nationally, NAHT leaders say they try to ally themselves with tenants in other types of low-income housing. “We’ve not allowed HUD to pit HUD-assisted tenants against public housing tenants,” Mary Yeaton said. For example, while NAHT asks for full renewal of Section 8 contracts, it asks that it not come at the expense of other housing programs for low-income people.
Public housing residents and those in HUD-assisted housing, and organizers of both, have also joined in opposing the Clinton administration’s plan to “voucher out” the public and HUD-assisted housing stock. Because, as Kane put it, “We were concerned that Clinton would lose his project-based assistance,” prior to his re-election, NAHT coordinated a series of local actions, as part of a national Save Our Homes Campaign, to oppose that plan. Kane said NAHT is in contact with the Center for Community Change, which is organizing public housing residents and recently held a similar series of local actions.
Another issue NAHT has decided to address nationally, environmental and health concerns in HUD-assisted housing, also has the potential to overlap with such concerns in public housing and low-income communities in general. Yeaton, who is involved in Health Care for All (a health advocacy agency for uninsured low-income people), proposed that NAHT focus on this issue. She noted that a recent public housing study found that rodent and roach droppings exacerbate asthma, and that mold, sometimes found in fiberboard that may be used in rehabilitation of properties, can have the same effect. With many HUD assisted properties now undergoing rehab, Yeaton said, managers and tenants should know what is in the materials used.
Yeaton said managers and HUD have blamed some of the health problems in HUD-assisted housing on tenants’ lack of cleanliness, but NAHT hopes to send a survey to tenant groups around the country to help document the sources of such problems.
Organizing All Tenants
Some NAHT associate member groups began by organizing tenants in unsubsidized rental housing, and have since branched out. One such group is the Texas Tenants Union (TTU), parent to the Texas HUD Tenants Coalition. TTU got involved with tenants in HUD-assisted housing in 1985, when owners of a local complex, the Web Forest Apartments, started prepaying the mortgage on the 221(d)3 property, with plans to sell the property for development as a shopping center. Anticipating the impending crisis in expiring HUD-assisted housing, TTU then decided to begin actively organizing those tenants, rather than waiting for more tenants to come to them with problems.
Other NAHT associate members that work with tenants in both unsubsidized and subsidized housing include the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition and Tenant Action Group (TAG) in Philadelphia (see Shelterforce #45). TAG has been organizing 41 of Philadelphia’s approximately 100 project-based Section 8 buildings, 35 of which have “strong resident councils,” according to Sharon Thompson, a VISTA volunteer working with the organization. Tenant organizing in unsubsidized and HUD-subsidized housing, however, largely remain separate functions within many such groups.
Kane acknowledged that “we need to do more to coordinate” with other low-income tenants. But NAHT has its work cut out for it to “organize the unorganized” among the approximately two million tenants in HUD-assisted multifamily housing. While NAHT’s recent third national conference drew about 300 HUD tenants and organizers from the 10 HUD regions – NAHT’s highest turnout so far – that’s only a drop in the bucket of the 95 percent of HUD tenants who remain unorganized, by NAHT’s own calculations.
At the conference, though, tenants were clearly excited by their numbers. During the weekend, attendees learned the details of S. 513, held an “accountability session” with HUD Deputy Assistant Secretary Greer, and were coached by Deborah Austin, NLIHC’s former director of legislation and policy, on lobbying legislators. The following Monday, the group protested at the White House and delivered a “people’s check” to President Clinton for $4.5 million – a dollar for each family receiving HUD assistance – to request a meeting with the President. (He was out of town at the time and had not responded to NAHT’s previous requests for a meeting.) The tenants then moved to Capitol Hill for a panel discussion with Congressional staff, including Cheh Kim, Senate Majority Staff member. Kim works for Connie Mack (R-FL), the sponsor of S. 513, which NAHT and other housing advocates generally support.
Though no promises resulted, the meeting nevertheless provided tenants with the chance to question key Congressional staff and try to influence what the final bill will include. Perhaps more important than the details of the legislation, however, the meeting made the point that tenants in HUD assisted housing have the right, and collectively can have the influence, to engage organizers, bureaucrats, and politicians in discussions of what will happen to their housing.