New Movements for Housing Justice

Years ago, the founders of Shelterforce – the Shelterforce Collective – had a vision. They would unite the middle-class and the poor around a common issue, the right to decent housing for everyone, without exploitation or discrimination. Their ideas were simple: organize people to resist exploitation, provide policy analysis and strategy guidance to make resistance effective, and create a united front to change public policies.

Those were heady times. While the legacy of the civil rights movement and the struggle against the Vietnam War – that people working together could create change – was still strong, the situation for tenants was terrible. Slums could be found in most major cities, communities were ripped apart by “urban renewal,” political bitterness flourished in the wake of the failed War on Poverty, and there were virtually no tenant protections, no matter what their income.

The collective saw that the conditions seemed right for a progressive collaboration that would bring together workers, the middle class, and the poor around the common issue of housing. And it did, at least for a while. Today there are only hints of that inclusive and broad-based tenants movement the Collective envisioned.

Housing justice activists continue the fight, only with very different tactics. Some have focused on the struggle to save the Community Reinvestment Act, others to support the homeless. Some concentrate on homeownership activities; others focus on the needs of tenants in HUD subsidized or public housing. Some concentrate on rural housing issues, others on urban.

This dissection of the housing justice movement brings with it opportunities and problems. By concentrating on segments of affordable housing (tax credit projects, homeownership, homeless assistance), individual interests groups can more effectively pursue and lobby for targeted funding. But without collaboration – a movement, if you will – can there be any hope of ever changing public policy to truly meet the housing needs of very low income Americans? And without a progressive collaboration that includes the working and middle class, can a housing justice movement ever gain the credibility and political strength it needs?

But hopeful signs abound. The labor movement is coming out of its long decline and finding success organizing service workers; living wage campaigns are uniting labor, church-based networks, and community organizations; and environmental (long dominated by middle and upper class progressive activists) and low-income, community-based organizations are beginning tentative collaborations. While tenant organizing in private, non-subsidized housing may have declined, organizing low-income tenants around various issues clearly remains.

Shelterforce Roundtable

Last March, leaders from 10 national housing and social justice organizations formally met as part of the first Shelterforce Roundtable to discuss their views on housing, poverty, race, community development, and a range of issues key to our work. The discussion was hosted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the National Congress for Community Economic Development during their joint public policy conference (another first) in Washington, DC. We will reconvene this group periodically to explore single issues in greater depth.


If any single theme threads its way through each of the articles in this issue it is the idea of collaboration. Clearly collaboration is necessary to sustain a movement for social justice that is more than the sum of its parts. But collaboration is hard. Community groups must face and resolve issues ranging from resource sharing to turf. Kris Smock presents two interesting models of collaboration carried out by community groups in Oregon. Structure, she notes, is a vital element in keeping a collaborative together and functioning.

Collaboration became a saving factor for CDCs in southern California faced with swiftly decreasing resources from government and foundations. In 1997, the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing (SCANPH) began convening its members to examine the problem and collectively develop response strategies. After the convening ended, many organizations continued to collaborate, sharing resources, expertise, and projects.

Bringing Movements Together

A few weeks ago, the benefits of collaboration became clear to us again. Following the publication of “A Meeting of Movements” by Miriam Axel-Lute (SF #103), we began discussions with the Sierra Club on a range of issues that environmental and community development groups share. Not long after that, the Sierra Club announced its support for the Community Reinvestment Act.

Collaborations are hard. But housing justice environmental justice economic justice won’t happen until we can recreate the Shelterforce Collective’s broad-based progressive movement. The signs are good.

Harold Simon is the former executive director of the National Housing Institute and former publisher of Shelterforce.


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