#105 May/Jun 1999

Shelterforce Roundtable: Housing Justice Today

On March 29th, 1999, Shelterforce convened the leaders of ten national housing and social justice organizations to discuss the accomplishments and challenges of the housing and community development movement to […]

On March 29th, 1999, Shelterforce convened the leaders of ten national housing and social justice organizations to discuss the accomplishments and challenges of the housing and community development movement to date. Excerpts from the discussion follow. In future issues, we will reconvene the participants to examine specific topics in greater depth.

Participating in the discussion were:

Joe Brooks, director, Civic Management and Capacity Building, PolicyLink
Sheila Crowley, president, National Low Income Housing Coalition
Mary Ann Gleason, executive director, National Coalition for the Homeless
Chester Hartman, executive director, Poverty and Race Research Action Council
J. Barton Harvey III, chairman and CEO, The Enterprise Foundation
Moises Loza, executive director, Housing Assistance Council
Andrew Mott, executive director, Center for Community Change
Roy Priest, president, National Congress for Community Economic Development
John Taylor, president and CEO, National Community Reinvestment Coalition
Betty Weiss, executive director, National Neighborhood Coalition.

Harold Simon: Over the past three decades, community-based organizations, including CDCs, have produced billions of dollars worth of housing and economic development. At the same time, residential segregation is still pervasive; there has been increasing income inequality; the number of people in poverty has increased; there’s been an increase in housing needs; there’s been an increase in the spatial concentration of poverty in inner cities; and, while the number of CDCs has increased, most are still very fragile and can be easily hurt by changes in federal and state policy, local politics, even small problems in the housing stock that they manage.

What have we accomplished and what does this “mixed bag” tell us?

Moises Loza: The accomplishments certainly are impressive. In rural communities we’ve seen a direct connection between nonprofit federal assistance and a drop in the rate of substandard housing. All those things are impressive and they show that, with some commitment and some resources, a real difference can be made.

Yet we seem to want to get away from the fact that, without subsidy, we’re still going to leave a lot of people behind.

Andrew Mott: The fact that there are more community-based organizations and CDCs and it’s gone up exponentially each year despite the lack of federal support and private philanthropic support of the volume that we all need, is really amazing.

Our biggest failure has been to not marshal enough power collectively to turn around some of the policies so that the heroic efforts of the people at the community level get the support that they need.

John Taylor: I think also the expectations of CDCs have not been realistic. To expect that a handful of CDCs are going to turn around low-income and devastated neighborhoods is just asking the impossible.

People are beginning to understand that there’s a real role for advocacy. If you could draw a curve measurement of what CDCs have accomplished since Robert Kennedy stepped into the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to now, you would see a curve that jumps up appreciably in the 80s and 90s, but you’d see a curve [of] the funding from foundations and government for advocacy headed in the other direction. The actual purging of any type of federal, or for that matter state and local funds, for the purpose of organizing poor people, has been very intentional and very effective.

The result is that we have CDCs that are very busy trying to deal with government, and permitting, and raising money for their shop, developments, dealing with banks, builders, and all the things you do as a CDC director. [E]ither they work with a brother/sister organization that does advocacy and organizing, which doesn’t exist in most communities, or they find money to do it themselves, and that’s very difficult money to find.

I think we’re beginning to see the impact of not getting low-income people and minorities active and getting them to vote going hand-in-hand with our development efforts. I’m kind of hopeful that we’re entering an era now where we’re getting brothers and sisters in the CDC movement to appreciate that we desperately need strong, organized, funded advocates who are bringing low-income people into the equation.

Mary Ann Gleason: However, the advocacy can’t stop at organizing low-income or minority populations. I really believe middle America is somehow a part of this. I also think we’re still in the 18th year of the Ronald Reagan administration, that we’re still very, very burdened by the lack of recognition that the federal government has a critical role to play. And I don’t think CDCs have done that much there. I struggle with Habitat the same way, not appreciating that there’s a very serious role the federal government has to play, particularly in the lowest income populations, because housing policy in this country is fundamentally investment policy, and investment policy doesn’t work for the lowest income populations. Until we say some portions of the housing budget belong in the mandatory side and not the discretionary side of the budget, we’re never really, no matter how much organizing we do, going to be able to get beyond this sort of monster that is much larger than even any organizer can handle.

Taylor: How do you get to that federal change without the organizing, though?

Gleason: Well that’s why I think middle America has to be a part of it, because that is who, unfortunately, politicians more and more pay attention to. They pay even more attention to them than the wealthiest 5 percent. I don’t mean to discount the organizing; I just think it’s got to be along a larger percent of the population than it’s been.

Sheila Crowley: The visible evidence of the work of CDCs in communities is very encouraging, and that’s certainly an accomplishment to give people a sense of possibility. The flip side of that is that, at least in my own experience in the community I worked in for many years, there was a perception by the public that this activity was very positive but that when you had CDCs doing affordable housing, people thought the problems of the poor were being addressed and people didn’t look at and deal with the analysis in any deeper kind of way.

Mott: We’ve had an interesting experience working a lot over the last 3 or 4 years on welfare reform and jobs in the US. What was really liberating was when our board said to us, “Look, you’ve got a 10 or 20 year turn around. Let’s face it, you’re not going to turn around any of these issues unless you think about how we put together over time a strategy that develops a constituency and a program idea, and the national political feasibility so it all comes together.” Unfortunately, we’re back to the start of the housing fight and some of the other fights and we really ought to be thinking of a 10 to 20 year strategy.

Advocacy vs. Development

Joe Brooks: What is it that prevents the PICOs, the IAFs, the ACORNs from embracing CDC work?

Mott: Actually, a lot of the network and organizing groups do a lot of housing and economic development. Northwest Bronx Clergy and Community Coalition, for example, has these relationships with other CDCs and encouraged 11,000 or 14,000 units collectively. And we worked with Sacramento Valley Organizing, an IAF affiliate, which has got 1200 units in the pipeline after only 4 years in existence and has been working on a sectoral economic development project and has nine one-stop centers and so on. They don’t call themselves CDCs, so they’re sort of left out of the conversation.

Their primary goal is to organize low-income people to build power to change society, and as they work on issues, they find that playing a developmental role is often a way of building power and accomplishing what’s needed in the community. But it’s seen as a secondary tool or objective, and the overall one is always building the community-based organization.

Taylor: There is this chasm between the organizing/advocacy community and the development community. Whether you look at DTI or Tufts University or any of the schools that train CDC folks, there’s not a lot of advocacy or organizing or building a membership base or connecting to low-income communities.

Brooks:  Are there not also race and class dimensions of that same dichotomy?

Taylor: We end up with a lot of well-meaning middle-class people who don’t have the personal life experience and don’t surround themselves with people who have the life experience to really get into low-income communities and relate to people. I understand why they concentrate on the proformas and the banks, because they really would be uncomfortable in those other situations, and that does relate to race and class.

In fact, I’ll go a step further and say a lot of CDCs develop segregated housing. It’s not in their consciousness to do anything in the way of integrating neighborhoods.

That’s the point we’re at with the evolution of the field: we have to concentrate resources and training money to help CDCs and the advocates bridge that gap and start to form partnerships.

J. Barton Harvey: There is a role for every aspect that you’re talking about. Thank goodness for ACORN being unreasonable about a great number of things, or John Taylor, in his other life, going out and picketing banks, etc. Thank goodness that that occurs at one end. On the other side, you have to produce.

There’s every problem that you look at in professionalizing – Enterprise is as guilty of this as anyone else – in saying it’s got to be done with accounting, reasonable skills, professional ability, etc. You run the risk of removing the very base of that organization from the group it’s trying to serve. We see all of this. We see groups that can preserve great organizing ability and be in touch and also do development, and others that’ve totally lost it, that have become a professional organization that’s just a developer.


Brooks: Regionalism and smart growth – which will be dumb growth for us if we don’t understand its implications – is an opportunity to begin to connect the inner-city core with the older suburbs, which are middle class and right on the edge. It’s a way for the CDC movement to begin to look at who it can partner with to begin to think about sustainability and generating jobs closer to where the need is.

Roy Priest: I’m a strong advocate for regionalism and metropolitanism and the relationship between what’s happening in the inner city and the older suburbs, and the need for a coalition to be built. But I also wonder how we do it. I don’t think that there is the capacity for a lot of groups that we deal with, the CDCs, to add that to the agenda. Its hard to understand metropolitanism and regionalism when their communities are still suffering and their organizations don’t have a capacity for that. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be exposed to it, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t raise the issue. We should have those dialogues and discussions. But at the same time we need to realize that it’s going to be a long process to get them to the point where they understand the value of that metropolitanism connected to what they do.

Crowley: There’s a very easy way to promote regional thinking amongst community-based nonprofits that receive CDBG and HOME funds, and that’s to provide incentives for folks to do regional Conplans. Next year is the revision of the Conplan for five years, and the fact that the Conplans are done jurisdiction by jurisdiction not only doesn’t make sense from a housing perspective but it is, in fact, an impediment to regional thinking. And so that’s a simple thing to do. And they’ve done that with the homeless money, by saying if you do a regional continuum of care, you actually have the potential of bringing more money into your community than if you do individual isolated continuums of care.

Loza: [R]egionalism can be used as an excuse to avoid targeting the poorest communities, so regionalism needs to be approached carefully. In rural areas we see, many times, a whole county used as a basis for assistance. But it’s always the more affluent part of the county that gets all of the assistance.

Betty Weiss: There’s a real research need here too, because there’s an opportunity with this smart growth agenda that’s moving forward so quickly. There are areas where community-based organizations, including CDCs and neighborhood groups and other community-based organizations and faith-based groups, have come together across the neighborhood boundaries and across the city, suburban, and rural jurisdictions. There are not very many examples but a few where they’ve been able to do that. In Baltimore it’s a sad, desperate situation, but they’ve managed to organize dozens of groups. The groups have to get together.

On smart growth, it’s perceived as an issue of middle class, and it is, socially. It’s about congestion and people spending too much time in their cars. That’s what seems to be resonating with people. Plus an environmental issue. And the environmentalists are very engaged in this issue. But we’re starting to find that you can attach some things from the community to the smart growth agenda and get the environmentalists to support things like Community Reinvestment Act. There’s opportunity there that we could look at.

Harvey: It is a middle class issue. Every mayor I meet with and every city I go to and every county wants the middle class. This isn’t wrong; this is rational. They want the tax base, they want mixed income, they want different policies that will support the middle class and keep them from leaving, all of which is sensible, all of which they’re beginning to use subsidy dollars on, and there is a limited amount of subsidy dollars available.

But something different has to occur. There’s been a whole corps of people who have been right and righteous in what they’re saying, but it hasn’t translated, politically or in another way, and, Lord, we need to find new ways of broadening the base, of talking to different people and finding new connections. Otherwise we are a nice footnote in this country’s history.

Who Do Community Groups Serve?

Taylor: What we’re talking about is leadership, people leading in a way so that they understand the global picture of how they fit into a neighborhood or into a community or into a regional basis. Their responsibility is to bring people along and understand why we collaborate.

You talk about CDCs and ACORN not working together. ACORN doesn’t work with some other advocacy groups. And I don’t mean to pick on ACORN. Then you get CDCs who see another CDC as a competitor rather than an ally in their own neighborhood. We have to open up this discussion. This is not about us, it’s about poor people, and we are not poor. At least most of us. [T]his is about the people in the neighborhoods we’re trying to serve, and therefore, we need a standard that talks about accountability and leadership and who’s speaking for whom.

Crowley: We’ve said “poor people” several times here, and I just want to make sure we’re clarifying what we’re talking about, because I don’t think the CDC movement serves real poor people. I think the CDC movement serves the upper strata of the lowest-[income] group, but does not make its way into the most impoverished folks. That’s a fundamental problem, that we’re putting enormous resources into housing a population that doesn’t in fact have the same housing needs as the folks at the very bottom.

Loza: One of the problems clearly, is that we’re all claiming that we’re helping this very needy population when, in fact, we may or may not be. It doesn’t have to be a problem, if we just recognize what we do, say very straight out what we do, and use each other to support each other in what we do.

Simon: We try to build a lot of collaborations but very few between community-based organizations and labor. Aren’t they a natural ally?

Brooks: I think they are and we’re not there necessarily. There are quite a few community labor councils around the country, about 80 of them that really have good relationships with community based efforts in a variety of ways.

Taylor: Probably 95 percent of the CDC developments are non-union developments. It’s the little things we do as well, and that is who we do business with, whether it’s in a non-union hotel like we’re in now, or whether our publications have that union bug on it; whether we treat our own employees in a way in which they have sustainable wages and the benefits and things that are going to keep them in the industry.

Getting the Message Out

Harvey: Advocacy got a bad name over a period of time because a lot of money went into advocacy and the conditions have changed, they got worse. It doesn’t mean the advocacy was bad. At some point, people get tired of advocating. A lot of them have other jobs and they’re doing other things, and it’s really tough.

You’ve got to prove to the rest of the world that there is a delivery system here that can work through people of the neighborhoods rather than through the government to people in neighborhoods. If people really believed there were solutions that could be carried out by community-based organizations with observable results, you could increase the pie in this country. Part of what we’re trying to do is show that that is possible with enough resources.

So much of what we’ve been doing is based on needs, what we need to have, and the Low Income Housing Coalition and others have said, basically that doesn’t sell. What does sell is success, in what we’ve been doing and what is deliverable.

I think there are enough good people in this country that would vote for that kind of a movement, an organization saying, we can do something about it, be part of something that that’s successful, be a part of something that delivers, be a part of something that engages people, your money will go to good use doing that, and embracing others that want to help.

Mott: There’s the problem of the lack of confidence that government can be an intermediary to get any money to support good things without screwing it up. We all know how badly so many government agencies have operated and we have not found good solutions for reforming them. We don’t have good answers on that.

Brooks: Why do we keep what we do to ourselves? We’re working so hard, why aren’t we consistently tooting our horn? I’m talking about pooling our resources. We need millions of dollars to counter the negative images and coordinated efforts to lift these stories strategically with targets in mind.

Taylor: The problem we have is that the opposite happens; they talk about their success and then show up at a bank hearing – a la Citibank, a la Chase, a la Fleet, a la First Union, a la BankAmerica – and the CDC will say this bank is a wonderful bank. They gave us a $20,000 grant, they funded us to do 40 units – which they should say, that’s a good thing. But they then go on to say, and therefore we support the merger of this $500 billion institution of which I haven’t a clue of how it’s really serving neighborhoods or low-income people or people of color. But I’m gonna stand here anyway, because of what they’ve done for me, and say that they should merge. They hurt communities when they do that.

The Foundation Role

Taylor: If you were to go to a foundation and talk to them about funding advocacy and organizing You asked for examples. I can document a trillion dollars worth of bank commitments, 95 percent of which happened in the last 5 years. Do you think the foundations would fund us or other advocates to do this sort of thing? Heck no. ACORN has to go to the banks to get their money.

Gleason: I think a reason they don’t, though, is again a Reagan legacy. We turned the issue from something that was a systemic problem to something that was an individual problem, and once we made that change, the foundations bagged it. They said, we can’t really fund advocacy because it’s fundamentally an individual pathology, and therefore, funding advocacy, which we used to do for systemic change, isn’t relevant anymore. I think it has far more impact than we have understood. And they need a conversation about that from us.

Mott: Part of the problem with foundations is their unwillingness to deal with controversial topics or people looking for major change.

The program officers in a lot of foundations are looking for ways to hide the fact they’re funding organizing.

Harvey: It’s self-preservation with your board and everything else. Foundation employees are risk-averse of controversy to the board. It’s the toughest thing that you can do. Plus it’s the hardest thing to evaluate whether it’s done well or not, although there are very good measurements and accountability that you can give.

Taylor: Does that hurt ourselves, by cloaking it, by not saying “We’re here to do advocacy and organizing?” Notwithstanding that they work with conservative boards, do we then play into the system that says advocacy and organizing are simply not important?

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Harvey: I’d like to ask Chester – who’s been in this for so long – [for] your observations on advocacy, organizing, how it’s changed over time and where we are today.

Chester Hartman: Back in the 60s, that was a whole other time for the sense of potential, for the centrality of organizing, for really thinking systemically. And we’ve lost all of that. I don’t think we think in terms of “What is the nature of the American system that creates poverty and racism and doesn’t allow that system to change.” It isn’t a question of just building housing, or even getting a wide ranging economic development program going. There’s a whole nature of American society, which we are not willing to look at, and I don’t know how we get back to that. The 60s were a wonderful time for those of us who were involved in it.

Harvey: Were there lessons learned in not achieving that potential? Or was it too great an ambition?

Hartman: I don’t think it was too great an ambition. I think what we didn’t understand was the enormous backlash that provokes in the power structure. People do not want to give up power. People do not want to give up privileges, whether it’s class or race or the nature of the political system itself. Whether it takes more disruption and violence in order to bring that about, I don’t know. That was the way things tended to change in the 60s,  when people stuck something in the wheels, saying it’s not going to keep on turning around as long as we’re here. We’ve lost that ability to screw up the system, to sort of stop it.

Gleason: There was a program recently of 15 to 24 year olds, however, talking to them about what mattered to them, and they all wanted to go to soup kitchens and help homeless folks, but if you made any relationship between that and systemic change, class or whatever, forget it.

I think [these attitudes are] deeply embedded in the corporatism in the United States. I think that’s the most profound thing that changed the 60s. Corporate America basically owns everything, and owns our politicians for sure, and because they own everything, they’ve taken over. I think capitalism is our political system as much as it’s our economic system, and that’s the real bear.

Hartman: There was a piece in the Times in the other day about what’s happening on campuses in terms of activism, and the activism is largely now around labor issues, around sweatshops, living wage stuff, having to do with some of the employees at the university itself. That’s kind of a hopeful sign. There have been sit-ins at Michigan, Harvard, Yale, and a few other places. That’s a big change from 10 years ago.

Mott: If I look back on the 60s, I remember drinking beer late one night with a roommate of mine, who came from a radical background, both of us lamenting that there were no signs of social movements in the United States. And then there was an onslaught of one unpredicted movement after another. And my hope is drawn largely from that remembrance.