#111 May/Jun 2000

Back to the Streets

April 15th was a busy day in Washington, DC this year. A week of rallies, protests, teach-ins, nonviolence trainings, and preemptive police action was reaching its peak, and mass protests […]

April 15th was a busy day in Washington, DC this year. A week of rallies, protests, teach-ins, nonviolence trainings, and preemptive police action was reaching its peak, and mass protests and civil disobedience were planned for the biannual meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank the next day. The focus of the “A16” protests, like those in Seattle at the World Trade Organization talks, was largely global. From their various perspectives, the protestors were all challenging the wisdom and ethics of giving investor and corporate interests carte blanche in the rapidly developing global economy. But in among the discussions of human rights in China, third world debt relief and the destruction of rainforests was a much more local issue – impending gentrification in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of DC.

Columbia Heights, a mixed ethnic, historically Black working-class neighborhood, has a brand new metro station, making it suddenly accessible from downtown. The opening of the station coincided with a newfound interest in code enforcement that has left several buildings slated for eviction, say tenants and local housing activists. Many are suspicious that the area is being cleared for gentrification, charging that most of the needed repairs could be made without forcing the tenants out. Meanwhile, they point out, DC’s education and public services budgets are cut and privatized, an unelected control board tells the city how to reduce its debt, and public funds are spent on a new convention center. “It’s a microscopic example of what’s going on worldwide,” says Clark McKnight, a Columbia Heights tenant leader and A16 organizer.

Ruth Caplan, of the Alliance for Democracy, agrees that the parallels are striking. She produced a four-page brochure for A16 outreach detailing the similarities between what agencies like the WTO and the IMF impose on developing countries – privatization, cutting of essential services, catering to the needs of businesses, focus on exports – and what governments of all levels impose on poor communities in the United States.

Caplan and the A16 local outreach committee also worked with activists in Columbia Heights to set up a support action on April 15th to harness the energy and solidarity of the globalization protestors. It was a good fit. When Tom Waters, a tenant organizer with New York State Tenants and Neighbors, arrived in DC and learned that a housing action was planned, he immediately saw the similarity between the IMF’s structural adjustment programs and what happened to New York City in the ’70s. “Democracy was basically suspended and bankers told the city what it had to do to get access to credit in the future,” he says. Displacement is a theme familiar to both US housing advocates and third world activists. “It’s peasants and their land in developing countries and working class tenants and their homes in Brooklyn,” says Waters.

The support action drew about 200 people and visited three apartment buildings where imminent evictions had been threatened. Larry Yates of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, recalls, “At each [building], at least one tenant leader – in each case a person of color – came out and spoke to the crowd, each one clearly nervous, excited and heartened by the march’s support.”

Where Were the Community Developers?

Although many grassroots housing activists were in the thick of the action, the housing movement at large – and community developers in particular – were not as visible a part of the anti-globalization coalition as labor, environmentalists, and third-world solidarity organizations. “It’s hard for folks who’ve gotten used to the tasks of actually making a real difference in a specific person’s life to go out to a protest that they don’t see an immediate effect from,” says Larry McNeely, a graduate student who has worked with the homeless in St. Paul, recently participated in the National Congress for Community Economic Development’s Emerging Leaders program, and was arrested for his participation in A16.

Given their already full schedules and limited resources, why should community developers involve themselves with a movement that seems far beyond the scope of their local efforts?

Globalization Happens

The people living in the neighborhoods CDCs serve, occupying the housing they build, receiving their services, and participating in the empowerment processes they facilitate are all being directly affected by the policies and priorities of corporate globalization. For example, community developers have long recognized that it takes more than housing to revitalize a disinvested neighborhood. “Affordable housing isn’t affordable if people don’t have jobs,” wrote Bethel New Life Executive Director Mary Nelson in the last issue of Shelterforce. But as soon as you start talking about jobs, you’ve already gone global. Luci Murphy, a singer-songwriter and one of the organizers of the anti-gentrification march, explains what is known as the race to the bottom: “Depressed living standards abroad together with the U.S. funded repression of ‘security forces’ has led to the export of U.S. manufacturing jobs, and depressed living standards at home. This job ‘relocation’ has caused many middle-class communities to become poor.”

Many people straddling the line between community development and global justice work identify with the parable about standing by a river rescuing drowning child after drowning child, until someone thinks to ask why no one is going upstream to see who is pushing the children in.

“I [wanted] to learn about the nuts and bolts of organizational leadership and community development, so that if there was a chance to get someone a house built or get someone a job, or help a county that was doing badly, I could do it,” says McNeely. “But,” he continues, “I’ve realized that I’m just plugging holes in a dike that’s about to burst. One neighborhood by itself is never going to make this global economy work for them.”

The Shrinking Toolbox

For all those whose work involves trying to give underserved areas and their residents a leg up, challenging the current approach to globalization may go beyond international solidarity. It may be a matter of being able to do their jobs.

Under the WTO rules on subsidies, NAFTA’s Chapter 11, and the as-yet-held-at-bay Multilateral Agreement on Investments, much of what community developers do could become illegal. Though they vary on the specifics, these treaties all define “trade barriers” to include de facto discrimination against foreign companies, even by policies designed to do other things.

According to the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED), this means that first-source hiring agreements (unless they are a direct quid pro quo for a subsidy), minority contracting preferences, living-wage ordinances, the Community Reinvestment Act, revolving loan funds that target small local businesses, many land use and zoning laws, and public job training programs for particular sectors, to name only a few, can be outlawed under these treaties’ provisions. Companies can sue governments over any of these existing laws, and new creative approaches to economic development will be stymied. Even the silver lining – that the treaties also outlaw the outrageous subsidies that states and localities use to steal companies away from each other – is tarnished by the fact that tax breaks are not covered, so the least accountable form of corporate subsidy remains untouched.

These restrictions don’t bring fairness to disadvantaged areas argues Bill Schweke of CFED in International Investor Rights and Local Economic Development. In fact, he says, they can be seen as a way for the nations and communities that have used economic development tools to leap over their competition to now prevent anyone else from using them.

The Power of Organizing

Community Development’s roots are in organizing for justice. “The only way [community development] got to the table in the first place is because people took the streets,” says McNeely. In the face of globalization, continued gaps between rich and poor, and an election season where affordable housing is barely on anyone’s radar screen, many people are raising the volume on a call to reconnect community development to its movement roots.

“It is ironic to me that the roots of many of today’s community development and affordable housing organizations are in the insurrections in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and New York City in the mid-’60s, and one of the major housing and community development tools of the past was the rent strike, but now we measure our success against the performance of financial markets,” says Jeffrey Michael Meyer, an A16 participant and project developer for Virginia Community Development Corporation, a statewide intermediary. “What we’re suffering from is a lack of constituency other than ourselves,” he continues. “We’ve become just one more industry. We have very little impact on policy and allocation of resources.”

Although dialogue about strategy and philosophy also need to occur within the field, collaborating with the new networks opposing corporate globalization can be one piece of regaining a constituency. CDCs have several things to gain from such a collaboration.

First, the networks forming since Seattle and DC are ripe for new allies. Most of the people at the Columbia Heights march were not familiar with housing issues. But they were interested in learning. In fact, one of the most talked about characteristics of this wave of protests is the connections forged between different, but related, causes. “That’s the whole point of large actions,” says McNeely. “You realize you are standing alongside people that despite real differences are fighting the same fight.” A strong presence in these networks could help make affordable housing a more visible issue in the spectrum of progressive causes.

In fact, it may be under this larger tent that community developers can be reunited with their natural allies – tenant organizers and homeless and welfare rights advocates. The Kensington Welfare Rights Union of Philadelphia, for example, has been active in both the Seattle and DC demonstrations making sure the voices of the poor and homeless are heard as leaders.

Another benefit of the new networks is their model of limited, almost ad hoc, coalitions that come together for one specific purpose without needing to agree on every issue or strategy. This could be a good fit with the busy schedules of hard working local activists and developers.

Last but not least, a key part of community development’s heritage is the value of citizen participation in the decisions that affect them. The non-hierarchical consensus-based organizing process of the new networks can provide a powerful tool for that empowerment.

Giving Roots

The CDC movement is inherently place-based, focusing on specific target neighborhoods and sometimes missing elements of the bigger picture. The new movement comes from a big picture perspective, sometimes forgetting what things look like on the ground. But they are both working toward a common goal of a just society based on values other than greed. And both recognize the importance of not just criticizing current policy, but trying to build something to take its place, based on the real needs of real people.

The new networks have focused on building democratic structures and communities that are based on democratic process, local control, and solidarity with each other and the world’s poor. They are skilled at incorporating art, celebration, food and gardening in their work. Place-based groups, from community land trusts to credit unions to co-operatives, are “actually doing alternative models: of housing ownership, local development alternatives” says Matt Siegel of the Preamble Center. “They are examples of people who’ve done it and can make it work.” A16 protestor Daniel Haran is one example. Upon returning to Nova Scotia he went back to work with two cooperatives creating a community economic development investment fund.

Working with the day-to-day needs of poor communities also keeps the reasons for being involved from becoming romanticized or distant. “It feels very grounded to me to be working on housing locally while I’m talking about privatization nationally,” says Caplan, who has stayed involved in local housing struggles in DC since A16. “I feel much more of a place in my community.”

Connecting to community organizations can also help the movement’s image in a similar way. “Without US based interests involved you end up with a campaign that seems critical only of what’s happening elsewhere,” says Siegel. “There’s only so much legitimacy to that.” Connecting to housing advocates and community developers specifically can help activists converging for a large demonstration to connect with particularities of the neighborhoods they are visiting.

It can also help to have a progressive, yet established, institution backing you up. In Seattle, the Low Income Housing Institute – a community developer that works closely with homeless advocates – used its housing knowledge and contacts during the WTO protests to negotiate between the police, squatters who were using an empty building for shelter, and the building owner. LIHI also provided shelter for the squatters – out-of-town demonstrators and homeless alike – when they left the squat.

Next Step Philadelphia/LA?

Globalization is happening. The question to be decided is by whose rules and using what values. “We want people to open up their CDCs, their shelters, their programs, and load the buses and march side by side with their clients,” says Cheri Honkala of the KWRU. KWRU is one of the main organizers of the upcoming demonstrations at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, which will focus on making the connection between global and domestic issues, including economic justice, the prison system and police brutality. Perhaps these will be perfect opportunities for the community development industry to reclaim its movement roots.


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