Fair Housing Drives New Party Growth in Little Rock

Two years ago, as part of its Campaign ’96 issue, Shelterforce reported on the early successes of the Little Rock New Party – a fledgling municipal political party in Arkansas’s capital city – in electing community and housing organization leaders to the city council on an affordable housing platform. In the ensuing two years, the Little Rock New Party has expanded its reach by winning its first citywide election and, in partnership with local community and housing organizations, making fair housing and growth policies major political issues in the city.

Campaign Success

In November ’96 the Little Rock New Party won its first city-wide office, electing long-time youth advocate Paul Kelly to an at-large seat on the Little Rock Board of Directors (the city council). Kelly joined New Party city directors Gloria Wilson, a long-time ACORN leader, and Willie Hinton, board chair of the local Community Action Agency, to form a 3-member progressive New Party bloc on the 11-member council.

Little Rock is just one city in which the New Party is building grassroots political power around an affordable housing and living wage agenda. In Chicago, the Illinois New Party participates actively in the ACORN-led Chicago Jobs & Living Wage Campaign that this summer won Living Wage ordinances in both the City of Chicago and Cook County after an intense three-year community/labor campaign. Following up on that victory, the New Party has recruited two New Party leaders to run for alderman in February ’99 against incumbents who have opposed the Living Wage movement and is in the process of recruiting New Party candidates to oppose machine hacks in two other wards. In Minneapolis, MN, and Montgomery County, MD, New Party affiliates are waging Living Wage campaigns as well. The New Party’s strategy is clear – build an independent electoral coalition of progressive organizations and individuals, develop an issue-based program, work at the municipal level, recruit strong candidates, win elections, and then start the difficult process of enacting progressive housing, economic, and environmental policies into law.

The Little Rock New Party has built its electoral coalition to start changing destructive trends in central-city neighborhoods and address planning and growth issues. In working to save central-city housing stock, the Little Rock New Party has made responsible growth a major plank in its platform since the organization’s inception in 1992.

Housing and Growth Issues

Attention to such issues is especially needed in older, low- to moderate-income neighborhoods east of Little Rock’s University Avenue, which have lost more than 6,000 houses over the last 30 years. Businesses are relocating from the area and moving to new whiter and wealthier suburbs built on previously undeveloped land that is continually being annexed to the city by a developer-controlled city board. Older neighborhoods suffer from redlining by banks and insurance companies. The unchecked annexation policy shifts tax dollars from older neighborhoods to pay for water, sewer, police, and fire services for these new subdivisions and creates further racial housing segregation in the city famous for the Central High School school integration fight of 1957. None of this so-called growth has led to an increase in the city’s population.

In August 1995 New Party City Director Gloria Wilson delivered a major speech to her fellow directors and a packed city council chamber on behalf of the New Party in which she called for a reevaluation of existing city policy on land annexations and for real city planning. Each fall, the New Party elections committee interviewed candidates for appointment to the City Planning Commission and made recommendations to the City Board – a first for the city – and eventually saw two of them appointed. In October, 75 people attended a New Party housing and growth forum. In November the Little Rock New Party released a study exposing the pernicious influence of developer campaign contributions on city politics.

In 1996, the Little Rock New Party joined ACORN, the Arkansas AFL-CIO, and Common Cause in sponsoring a statewide campaign finance reform initiative that included a provision enabling city governments to pass ordinances regulating campaign finance, which passed by a nearly 2 – 1 margin. In January 1997, the Little Rock New Party used this new state law to pass a city ordinance that limits when directors and director candidates may collect campaign contributions, thus preventing developers from making large campaign contributions right before a zoning or annexation vote as had been the case.

Over the next year, Little Rock New Party City Director Paul Kelly began implementing the party’s growth plank by drafting and eventually passing a Sustainable Growth Resolution that required the Planning Commission to begin developing an overall city growth policy. As this issue of Shelterforce goes to press, the Little Rock New Party is actively working to oppose another annexation plan being pushed by the owners of one of the major private high schools in the city, founded after the federal courts forced integration of the Little Rock public schools.

Fair Housing Advocacy

Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey  announced in his January 1998 State of the City address his commitment to passing a municipal fair housing ordinance in Little Rock by the end of the year. This came after a year’s worth of fair housing advocacy by Arkansas ACORN Fair Housing, the Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods, and ACORN neighborhood organizations, and was supported politically by the Little Rock New Party.

To keep the pressure on for a tough fair housing ordinance, the housing organizations in the Little Rock New Party seized the initiative and organized a February public hearing on fair housing. Testimony was presented by local housing leaders, elected officials, and experts from Arkansas ACORN Fair Housing. Over 50 community residents attended, and the statewide daily newspaper made it a page-one story.

The fair housing ordinance struggle is currently in the city’s Racial and Cultural Diversity Commission, charged by the mayor with drafting the ordinance. Little Rock New Party leaders have presented the commission with a model ordinance, tracking the City of Chicago’s ordinance and including a strong local enforcement provision. The real estate industry and Chamber of Commerce are organizing strongly against a fair housing ordinance, so Little Rock New Party housing activists know they are in for a long struggle.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

All this work leads to the 1998 city board elections this November. The Little Rock New Party has recruited two New Party leaders, ACORN state chair Johnnie Pugh and community leader Genevieve Stewart, to run for 2 district city council seats on the New Party’s Fair and Affordable Housing Platform. The platform calls for city funding for local LISC and other CDC housing development efforts; a fair housing ordinance; and a Sustainable Growth Fair Share housing ordinance, which would require private real estate developers to construct low- to moderate-income housing in any new sub-division or project.

The strategy of local community and housing groups and their political expression – the Little Rock New Party – combines issue, policy, and electoral organizing. This fall they’ll use the struggle for adoption of a fair housing ordinance to energize the Pugh and Stewart electoral campaigns and, similarly, use these two city council campaigns to build support for the ordinance.

So far, the Little Rock New Party’s model shows promise as a way to use the electoral process to build power and a larger voice in public policy decisions for the affordable housing community. It brings progressive issue- and membership-based organizations and individuals together into a clearly-defined municipal political party that successfully runs grassroots leaders for local elective office around a progressive issue-based platform and then uses that political party to build the community and political support that enables these newly elected officials from our ranks to govern.

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