Knowledge is (Still) Power

It’s getting harder and harder to call our time a period of record prosperity when the income disparity is as great as it is and so many people are living in poverty. Yes, the rate of poverty has decreased some, but not enough. And our “prosperity” is putting increasing pressure on those at the low end of the wage scale whose incomes have not been able to keep up with rising housing costs.

The latest Out of Reach study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (, shows how great the gap between wages and rents has grown. The national median Housing Wage (the hourly wage it takes to afford a two-bedroom apartment at HUD’s calculated “Fair Market Rent”) is $12.47 an hour, over twice the Federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. This year, as last year, nowhere in the United States – in no state, metropolitan area, county or town – is the minimum wage adequate.

These hard truths of today’s “new prosperity” belie the rosy picture presented by the media and exploited by politicians at all levels. But the truth is there, and it’s up to us to find the facts and make them visible. In this issue of Shelterforce, we uncover some facts and present some ideas to make the search for knowledge (and power) a little easier.

A “Quiet” Crisis

It’s not only on a national level that important trends can stay out of public view. In Baltimore, it took a persistent reporter and a suspicious attorney to undercover a scheme of property flipping – the purchase and rapid resale of property after little or no meaningful rehabilitation.

Despite the fact that Baltimore’s then Housing Commissioner thought homebuyers should just be warned not to overpay, flipping, as Ada Focer explains, involves serious acts of mortgage fraud. It also distorts housing markets in low-income communities, leaving whole neighborhoods suffering from disinvestment and widespread foreclosures. And it’s a problem all across the country. CDCs, Focer says, need to pay attention to flipping in their neighborhoods, or it may undermine all their hard work.

Bringing the Data Home

One of the advantages that those with a lot of power, be they affluent developers or politicians, have historically had is a monopoly on the time, resources, and expertise to do detailed data analysis. Especially on a local level, community organizations have often faced a we-say/they-say battle in convincing authorities of a problem they are facing. Brian Carnahan walks us through the basic principles of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a new type of software that is changing that balance. Famous for map-making, GIS can also be used to answer questions like “How many children live within half a mile of this toxic site?” or “How far do residents of this development have to go to get to a school, or a grocery store, or a doctor?”

GIS can also answer “How many code violations are there on this block?” In Los Angeles it answers questions like that quite frequently these days. Neal Richman and Yoh Kawano show us how a community-university partnership called Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles (NKLA) has used GIS and the internet to create a powerful tool for community access to neighborhood knowledge. One group, the Blue Ribbon Citizens Committee on Slum Housing, has used information on housing code violations and inspections from NKLA to secure a new comprehensive code enforcement program from the city.

Keeping the Fire Lit

Even the most information savvy community organization can’t fulfill its mission without the passion and dedication of its staff. But passion and dedication by themselves aren’t enough. Far too often, people working for a good cause find themselves burning out – frustrated, over-tired, under-compensated, or unable to suffer the dissonance between what their organization promotes in public and how it operates internally. Kim Fellner of the National Organizers Alliance takes a look at some of the major causes of burnout and some steps that organizations can take to address them.

As we move through election season, take a close look at what’s being said and not said. And take some time to look at your organization’s burnout fighting capabilities too – you’re in this for the long haul, and we want to see you make it!

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


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