And The World Keeps Changing

Twenty-five years ago, in the midst of a growing tenant movement, I chaired a meeting at Pat Morrissy’s old wood frame house in East Orange, New Jersey to discuss creating a national housing publication. So began Shelterforce.

Nixon had just been reelected. George McGovern’s “new politics” alliance of the poor, black and white upper middle class was trounced in a landslide. By the end of 1975, a dozen leading Nixon law and order men were under indictment. The Vice President, stern champion of traditional values, pleaded guilty and Nixon was forced to resign. The anti-war and black power movements were on the wane; the environmental, women’s and consumer rights movements were gaining strength.

On the housing front, tenants from New York to California were organizing for fair leases, well-maintained apartments, security deposit protection, and rent control. The New Jersey Tenants Organization (NJTO) had just won the most progressive landlord/tenant laws in the country, including just-cause eviction and rent control for over 100 municipalities. In Boston, thousands of families living in Federal Housing Administration (FHA) apartments were organizing themselves into the Tenant First Coalition. [See Shelterforce #s 1 and 13.]

With articles on organizing, tenant struggles, banking, planning, urban policy, politics, racism and housing policy, Shelterforce provided our activist readers with tools, analysis, information, political strategies and networking to help them understand their local struggles and succeed.

The civil rights, anti-poverty, women’s, peace, black nationalist and environmental movements of the ’60s provided part of the context of our work. The other part was the growing momentum of both the grassroots right wing and corporate power with its growing conservative economic agenda. The brewing anti-government, laissez-faire program of corporate America was a direct attack on the tenant and housing movements and would dramatically limit what was possible in the coming years. But at the grassroots, the less powerful hardly noticed.

The Late ’70s

Like most of the left, Shelterforce saw government policy as too little, too late, part of the problem, or co-opting stronger action. The bad guys were government programs (Urban Renewal, FHA, Public Housing), large corporations and slumlords. The good guys were the people organizing at the grassroots: tenants, squatters, and neighborhood groups who were, as our regular column called it, “Keeping The Heat On.”

Politically, we sided with those who sought to democratize and broaden citizen participation in politics. We disagreed with those activists who believed only in the rhetoric of the fist, hungry for the next dramatic confrontation with the bad guys. Direct action, we urged, had to be joined with research, political action and organizing strategies. We also disagreed with those who only wanted to negotiate and plead for change. To them we urged direct action and politics.

We sympathized with, but were suspicious of, the “New Politics” alliance between blacks and white upper middle class suburban activists. We did want the tenant movement to include the majority of Americans who were neither black nor poor nor radical (or even liberal), believing we would never help the poor or minorities without convincing the majority that their interests were not at odds with more equality.

But we also saw ourselves as progressives or populists rooted in bread and butter issues that addressed the everyday needs of people struggling for a better life. In solidarity with working class communities, we valued community stability and cohesion. We agreed with groups like Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Citizen Action and National Peoples Action that fought around issues like energy prices, unfair banking, and healthcare and targeted greedy corporate interests. We saw the tenant movement, in the words of Harry Boyte, as part of “The Backyard Revolution.”

We mostly, however, reported on and analyzed the tenant and housing movements, while trying to push beyond a myopic perspective by drawing links to other issues. We wrote about housing organizing abroad and connected tenants to issues like the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and redevelopment. In 1978 we devoted most of one issue to analyzing President Carter’s Urban Policy initiatives.

Woody Widrow, who was to become the editor of Shelterforce, kept our collective finger on the pulse of local activism, meeting with tenant and housing activists in 14 cities – from Cleveland to Dallas. His work culminated by creating the National Tenants Union in 1981.

The early-mid ’80s

As the adversarial tactics of the ’70s waned, politicians like Ronald Reagan gained power by bringing the “new right” cultural conservatives together with the free market corporate leaders, promoting government cutbacks and deregulation. Money and corporate power ruled. More than money, however, fostered the corporate domination of politics.

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."

Institutions that supported a civic political culture – labor unions, neighborhood bars, ward organizations – withered or disappeared. So did an organized, coherent left. Homelessness became a more frequent topic in Shelterforce. Later in the decade we would report on disappearing public and subsidized housing. In the mid 1980s, the death of the National Tenants Union symbolized the national tenant movement’s lost momentum. But in states like Vermont, New Jersey, New York, California, and Oregon, local tenant activism remained potent, often influencing elections and public policies.

Despite gains in tenants’ rights, poverty persisted in the inner cities. William Julius Wilson (The Truly Disadvantaged), Nicholas Lemann (The Promised Land), and other writers focused on the complexity of unrelenting inner city poverty. They dramatized the limits of anti-poverty programs and tenant activism.

Aided by small federal programs and the Ford Foundation, community development corporations (CDCs) emerged with their businesslike focus on producing and rehabilitating low- and moderate-income housing [See Shelterforce #47]. Successful CDCs like Mid-Bronx Desperados, Tacolcy Economic Development Corporation in Miami, Hispanic Housing in Chicago, several CDCs in Pittsburgh and Boston and New Community Corporation in Newark provided effective and workable, but ultimately limited, solutions to the housing problem.

In the mid 1980s Shelterforce, now part of a think tank we named the National Housing Institute, added more and more articles on homeownership, public/private partnerships, CDCs, and how cities were creatively scrounging up money for affordable housing and other community renewal projects. For many cities, CDCs – the only ones willing to invest the time and work to save and build affordable housing – were seen as the only option with a potential to reduce poverty.

As the ’80s wore on, it became clear that the economic growth of the ’60s had stagnated, and federal support for anti-poverty programs continued to shrink. The conservative establishment had successfully organized around a new agenda: our economic problems stemmed from government spending, high wages and the Environmental Protection Agency. The same corporate community that had supported (or at worst been indifferent to) the moderate welfare state during the ’50s and ’60s – spending on housing, the environment, education and welfare – was now bent on attacking it. By the late 1980s you could hardly find anyone in the corporate community, or even among liberal Democrats, who believed it was wise to expand the role of government to help the poor.

It was a splendid time for computer engineers, doctors and stockbrokers. For single parents, high school graduates and service workers things were getting worse. For the poor these times were a disaster. The changing economy that brought higher housing prices, declining middle class family incomes and a growing housing crisis seemed to set the stage for a new populist political alliance.

But only a few organizations – Citizen Action, ACORN, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) – could mobilize this sentiment on a national level and they were clearly outgunned. Moreover, driven by funding needs and a lack of vision, most groups narrowly defined their agenda as “poor people’s,” “tenants’,” “third world,” or “women’s.” With the decline of political parties and unions, few groups mobilized for programs with widespread benefits that could bring together low-income and working/middle-class constituencies.

Late ’80s

The Democratic Party’s fortunes declined when it abandoned its traditional commitment to a broad-based jobs and housing program that united people across race and class. A growing number of Democratic consultants and politicians began advocating a return to explicit focus on economic discontent. In his 1987 book The Life of the Party, Robert Kuttner summarized this new advice: “Democrats can regain their status as majority party only by rebuilding a majority coalition of ordinary wage- and salary-earning people whose political and economic interests are not identical to those of the wealthy.” Or as Jim Hightower, the populist from Texas put it: “We populists identify with the people who are down at the Seven-Eleven picking up a Bud and a Slim Jim and not with the yuppies enjoying a midday repast of cold melon melange and asparagus and goat cheese and a delightfully fruity and frisky California white wine.” Yet, unlike the early 1900s, ’30s and ’60s, no populist social movements or left insurgency emerged to force the Democrats to change colors.

Not to be deterred, in 1988 the National Housing Institute released our widely reported national poll, A Status Report on The American Dream, which revealed that the American people overwhelmingly supported an expanded federal role in housing if the program brought opportunities for the poor, working and middle class. And they were willing to raise taxes to pay for it. This was consistent with other national polls that showed that despite the personal popularity of Ronald Reagan, Americans were “programmatically liberal.” A large majority of Americans wanted Social Security and Medicare left intact, military spending curtailed to help cut the budget deficit, and the gap between rich and poor reduced by the government.

Under the leadership of NHI board member David Schwartz, we also planned the construction of a model house for the homeless in Atlanta to be completed during the 1988 Democratic National Convention. We worked with the Campaign to End Homelessness, the International Union of Bricklayers, the Laborers International Union and the South Atlanta Land Trust. Delegates, politicians, party leaders and the Democratic nominee for President, Michael Dukakis, participated. The event was covered by the national media. David Schwartz advised Dukakis on national housing policy.

Dukakis lost, partly because he resisted advice to bash the rich and campaign like a traditional Democrat until the last days of his campaign. In our cities, where most of the poor were housed, only a few Mayors, such as Boston’s Ray Flynn and Harold Washington of Chicago, provided the kind of leadership that attempted to shift local priorities toward rebuilding poor neighborhoods, often partnering with CDCs.

But times were changing.

A New ’90s Mood

From the “Me Decade” of materialism and blind patriotism, a new mood was emerging. President Bush promoted his “thousand points of light.” Americans were concerned about combating powerlessness and promoting values such as community, civic virtue and the imperative of doing good. Millions concerned about homelessness and poverty participated in such events as Hands Across America, Farm Aid and Laugh Aid.

In the early 1990s, nonprofit CDCs were becoming more commonplace, soon to number over 2,000 nationally. Shelterforce reported on and analyzed their capacity, sophistication, and successes, as well as the limits of the CDC approach to neighborhood revitalization. We debated whether these organizations make more than a dent in the housing problems of the poor. Aren’t housing problems symptoms of more fundamental economic problems? we asked.

Sensing the possibilities of the changed mood, Peter Dreier and I began a series of articles, published in Shelterforce and in several other magazines and books, promoting a new national housing agenda. We launched a populist attack against the mortgage interest deduction, or “mansion subsidy.” We focused on vouchers and CDCs and tied our reforms to such values as equality, civic engagement and community. Reflecting the business dominated realities of the time, we also featured a broadly distributed (and now again in demand) special issue on employer-assisted housing.

In 1991, after six years, Woody Widrow handed over the editor’s chair to Pat Morrissy. Shelterforce ran more articles on such issues as banking (savings and loan bailout, CRA, home improvement scams) and housing policy and fewer on tenant organizing. Believing that grassroots activists could do more than “Keep the Heat On,” we now featured “success stories,” such as the Housing Trust Fund campaign in San Diego that won by targeting benefits broadly for both the poor and middle class and by using elections.

The Clinton Era Begins

Bill Clinton won the 1992 election and reasserted the idea of an activist government, reversing two decades of conservative anti-government bashing. The losers in his first proposed budget were the military and the rich. The winners: Head Start, dislocated workers, the hungry and homeless. Clinton expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit. He reached out to the Reagan Democrats when he declared in his State of the Union address: “I believe we will find our new direction in the basic old values that brought us here over the last two centuries – a commitment to opportunity, to individual responsibility, to community, to work, to family and to faith.” The themes resonated with middle America.

Buoyed by Clinton’s victory and his promise of “another of those hundred day periods like Roosevelt,” Shelterforce sent a special issue titled “A Housing Policy for the 90s,” to the White House. (Shelterforce #66) Boston’s Mayor Ray Flynn, Congressman Joe P. Kennedy, the editors of City Limits magazine and consumer advocate Mark Green endorsed our plan. Green published it in his book, Changing America: Blueprints for the New Administration, which was presented to the White House. Versions of these articles appeared in several other magazines and books.

Our focus on the CDC world continued. In 1993 an important article by Bill Traynor warned that it was time for CDCs to re-emphasize organizing. Traynor traced the history of CDCs as they moved toward attracting deal makers while organizing took a back seat. CDCs need to view neighborhood residents “not as clients but consumers of services, products and change itself,” said Traynor. And political power, not technical know how, is the driving force behind change.

But most of the focus on the CDC movement was in praise. Four issues defended CDCs against media attacks by The New York Times (starting with issue #70) including an exclusive article by Vice President Al Gore. (issue #74, first issue online)

Newt & Co.

In 1994, Republicans took control of Congress for the first time since 1952. The Democrats had failed to pass significant investment programs, health care, or campaign finance reform; swing voters saw them as incompetent. Republicans, adroitly using anti-government populism and issues like crime and welfare, pasted together a coalition of free market conservatives and religious fundamentalists, reminiscent of Reagan.

Affordable housing and homeless programs took a huge hit.

Shelterforce reported on the $6 billion cutbacks in federal housing aid (accounting for 60 percent of all reduced spending in 1995), the defeat of rent control in Massachusetts and the attacks on HUD. We tried to dramatize the need for more federal aid with reports on deteriorated public housing, endangered Section 8 housing, and the horrible conditions of immigrants living in the southwest. There was some good news, most notably the effective use of CRA by community organizations to convince lenders to target loans and grants to underserved areas.

From Building Homes to Building Community

But there was a growing concern that government aid on issues such as jobs and inequality would not be enough. Harvard Professor Robert Putnam, in a highly publicized article “Bowling Alone,” argued that solving community problems requires a strong civil society, or what he calls “social capital.” He stressed the importance of strong organizations and networks that promote trust in the community and that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit. Journalists and scholars such as Robert Bellah, Harry Boyte, Alan Wolfe, E. J. Dionne, and Amitai Etzioni added that the situation for the poor had worsened in part because of the breakdown of these mediating institutions. They argued that government needed to address crime, drug addiction, out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy and the rise of the single-parent family. Others focused on the family and its role in raising children to be good citizens.

Putnam and other researchers such as John P. Kretzmann [See Shelterforce #83.] and John L. McKnight demonstrated that social capital enhances the benefits of investment in physical and human capital, suggesting that investments in housing will be more effective when coupled with reinvigoration of community associations. Shelterforce began to take a closer look at nonprofit community housing groups as examples of non-governmental, non-market institutions that not only save inner-city housing but help to reverse the erosion of social capital.

This “community building” perspective continued in 1994 when the National Housing Institute (NHI) hired Harold Simon as our first managing editor. He would soon take over as editor in 1996. In 1995 NHI went on line at nhi.org.

For the next several years Shelterforce looked at the pressures of expansion, comprehensive community initiatives, successful community organizing models, how communities are linking community development to building assets and creating jobs. We had articles by successful community builders such as William Traynor, Marty Johnson, Ed Schwartz and Robert Zdenek and profiled a former CDC director, Tom Murphy, who became Mayor of Pittsburgh. In “Community Baking” we wrote about the Grayston Foundation’s successfully combining housing the homeless with social entrepreneurship, community and faith, and chocolate to die for.

In the first book published by NHI, Saving Affordable Housing (distributed free to Shelterforce subscribers as issue #90), Ellen Shoshkes and I examined six community-based groups that successfully saved affordable housing. Based on those groups’ experiences, we argued for a fundamental change in government policy at the national level: public moneys should be spent in ways that strengthen neighborhood institutions and groups, not weaken them. As Putnam writes: “Conservatives are right to emphasize the value of intermediary associations, but they misunderstand the potential synergy between private organization and the government. Social capital is not a substitute for effective public policy but rather a prerequisite for it and, in part, a consequence of it.”

The following issue of Shelterforce covered a conference NHI cosponsored: “Strengthening Families and Communities: the Role of Leaders and the Civil Society.” That conference brought together leaders of four key civil institutions – schools, faith organizations, community police departments and community-based housing groups to exchange ways to promote civic engagement, build trust, strengthen families and solve community problems.

By the March/April 1997 issue, Shelterforce had clearly become “The Journal of Affordable Housing and Community Building Strategies.” As the economic boom of the late-90’s surged forward, Shelterforce continued to speak up for those not benefiting from the stock market frenzy.

In September/October 1998 we devoted a special issue to one of Shelterforce‘s most enduring themes: community organizing – from confrontational to consensus and from issue-based to identity-based. We hoped to shed a much needed light on organizing’s accomplishments, pitfalls, and potentials. Most importantly, we linked organizing and community building. Ernesto Cortés Jr. sounded that theme for us, saying: “We need to stop the bleeding of our key community institutions – unions, families, political parties, and especially the churches and schools – that have historically connected us and helped make government and corporate entities accountable to ordinary people.”

In 1999 Shelterforce broke new ground when we dedicated a special issue to sustainable development. In a lead article by Miriam Axel-Lute we reported on state coalitions of open space and affordable housing groups who were linking issues into common platforms. This issue led us to a working collaboration with one of the nation’s largest mainstream environmental groups, the Sierra Club.

Also last year, Shelterforce became the only publication in the community building field to tackle the problem of CDC failure in an open and honest form. And we continued to probe housing policy through Washington Editor Winton Pitcoff’s critical look at the HOPE VI program. Each of these articles received widespread attention or reprinting in publications like E Magazine, NeighborWorks Journal, The Tennessean, and The Nation.

Twenty-five years after those heady meetings that gave birth to Shelterforce, I come out of editorial or board meetings enthused. We still have a long way to go to solve the problems that have dogged us for all these decades. But the energy, sophistication, and commitment – especially of the young people who are once again joining progressive movements in large numbers – thrills me. I’m looking forward to the next 25 years.

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John Atlas is a founder of Shelterforce and board chair emeritus. He is the producer of ACORN and the Firestorm, a film directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard and author of SEEDS OF CHANGE: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group. He is also the former executive director of the Passaic County Legal Aid Society.

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