#112 Jul/Aug 2000

Shelter Shorts

You can lead housing to the candidates, but… On June 24th, attempting to draw Vice-President Al Gore’s attention to housing issues, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) placed a house in […]

You can lead housing to the candidates, but…

On June 24th, attempting to draw Vice-President Al Gore’s attention to housing issues, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) placed a house in front of the New York State Democratic Committee headquarters on Madison Avenue in New York City. IAF has been asking Al Gore and George W. Bush since last October for individual meetings to discuss two issues: a proposal to create hundreds of thousands of affordable homes for low-income Americans and a “living wage” of $25,000 a year for all those employed by firms receiving government subsidies.

Discouraged by the fact that neither candidate had responded to its request, the IAF decided to make housing a very visible issue. The house took up two lanes and the Manhattan Bridge had to be closed briefly to bring the house in from the all-union factory in Brooklyn that turns out affordable homes for IAF’s Nehemiah project. Despite the spectacle – and the traffic jams – the event was only covered by one major daily – The New York Daily News. (Village Voice, 7/5-11/00, www.villagevoice.com/issues/0027/robbins.php)

What happens to a dream ignored?

It’s good that presidential candidate George W. Bush’s $1.7 billion housing tax credit plan is called “Renewing the Dream,” since after his governorship housing in Texas is certainly going to need some renewal.

According to the Washington Post (6/30/00), the two cities in the country with the highest percentage of poor renters living in substandard housing are San Antonio and Houston. The number of Texas families facing the greatest housing need is growing three times faster than the number of affordable housing units created, and 600,000 Texans are paying at least half their income on rent. 

But the story of housing in Texas is worse than just a good faith effort in the face of overwhelming poverty. In fact, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs,  the only agency under Governor Bush’s direct control, is enmeshed in scandal. Several years of allegations and investigations by the FBI have recently resulted in indictments for bribery and theft against the board chair, Bush appointee Florita Griffin. Griffin, who could face 55 years in prison and $2 million in fines for an alleged scheme to direct tax credits to a project in which she was a partner, has refused to step down, thereby endangering federal funding for all of the agencies’ projects. 

Many, including the executive director of Central Texas Mutual Housing Walter Moreau, have long been complaining about such favoritism within the Texas housing agency. Moreau recalls one instance where his organization requested tax credits for a project that had the support of every local neighborhood group, the entire City Council and the County Commissioners. The agency funded instead a for-profit shell whose project involved the former director of the state agency who was forced out under a cloud of suspicion last year, and a developer with a poor performance record who is friends with the tax credit manager. 

Accusations of ineffectiveness and favoritism have also come from people who can’t be accused of sour grapes, including a recent bipartisan panel of the state legislature and developers who have contributed heavily to Bush’s campaigns. The Post reports that the state legislature has directed the Texas housing agency to spend 15 percent of its money on the poorest Texans, but the agency has only managed to direct 4-10 percent their way. 

Apparently the best that can said about Bush’s record on housing is that he hasn’t paid any attention to it. Echoing others, including a legislative aide who admits housing is not a Bush priority, State Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt told the Post simply “Bush’s presence has never been evident on housing.”

The Missing Plank – KWRU Marches for Human Rights

On July 28th, in the poor neighborhoods of North Philadelphia there were very few signs of the impending Republican convention – the festivities and flags remained in the center city. But even here, Bush was getting some attention. On a vacant city-owned lot was a tent city named Bushville. Named in the tradition of the “Hooverville” shantytowns that sprung up in the ’30s, Bushville was a project of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, an organization of the poor and homeless that fights for such “economic human rights” as housing, food, living wage jobs.

KWRU wants the Republicans – and the Democrats – to put “adherence to the UN Declaration of Human Rights” (which includes economic rights) on their agendas, and to stop ignoring the fact that there are poor people in America. But the urge to keep the poor out of sight was apparently still very much in force. Cheri Honkala, KWRU’s director, says they were told their application to do a photo exhibit of the lives of the poor and homeless in a major city park was denied because “it should go somewhere less offensive to the community.” 

“This is what America will look like if [the politicians] keep turning away from the problem,” said René Maxell of the Chicago Coalition to Protect Public Housing, gesturing at the tarp, wood pallet and cardboard structures. “And it won’t be able to look itself in the mirror.” KWRU’s march permit was also inexplicably denied, and the tent city was forced to move once. Bushville’s “Mayor” Liz Ortiz was not surprised. She says they had four possible sites lined up, knowing they were likely to be harassed.

The residents of Bushville were a diverse group. College students provided childcare to poor and homeless children. A large contingent from the Deaf Committee on Universal Human Rights joined the encampment, along with representatives from poor and homeless rights organizations across the country. Local homeless stopped in for food and a dry place to stay. Local children helped paint signs.

For Monday morning’s march from City Hall to the First Union Center, the 300-500 residents of Bushville were joined by up to 5000 more supporters, including the splendidly dressed “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)” whose chants, “We’re bi partisan: We buy both parties” and “Welfare for the wealthy, keep our profits healthy,” brought involuntary smiles to all passersby. 

Despite a week of threats from the police department, and the intimidating presence of over 30 mounted officers and five school buses-turned-paddy-wagons, there were no arrests along the 3.5 mile route. 

Throughout the weekend, KWRU put an emphasis on elevating the voices and leadership of the poor and currently or formerly homeless, like Willie Baptist, KWRU organizer, who summed up the whole struggle: “We refuse to be disappeared. Our voices will be heard.” (KWRU, 215-203-1945)


  • EZ’er Said Than Done

    July 1, 2000

    The Empowerment Zone Initiative is becoming a model program for community revitalization. Will these programs lead to real community empowerment or will they become just a collection of tax incentives for businesses? The initiative's experience to date offers clues and warnings.

  • Learning the Ropes

    July 1, 2000

    At first, John Taylor, education coordinator for Chicago Commons Employment Training Center, had doubts about the idea of partnering with a local bank for a financial education program. The Center’s […]

  • Rekindling Hope in the American Dream

    July 1, 2000

    The East Baltimore neighborhood where Bette Ramsey lived with her adult daughter and 10-year-old grandson was a war zone, complete with drug dealers, gunfire, and crack houses. The Ramseys were […]