Don’t Start Small

It’s often said that organizers should begin with easily attainable goals to bolster their group’s confidence. But Caroline Murray, executive director of the Anti-Displacement Project (ADP) in Massachusetts, calls that kind of organizing a shot in the dark. “[Tenants] fight around getting repairs made and then move on, but there’s no change in power,” she says. “The relationship remains the same.”

ADP organizes tenants differently, almost always with the goal of turning ownership over to tenants through a co-op board or tenant-run nonprofit. This has succeeded at five properties, keeping 1350 units permanently affordable, nonprofit-owned and tenant-controlled. In addition, ADP’s newest member group, the Cathedral Hill Organizing Committee, has just signed a letter of intent with Springfield Diocese Housing Inc. to purchase their 48-unit complex.

Pre-empting a Pre-pay
The buy-out of Whiting Farms Apartments in Holyoke, MA is a good example of ADP’s “aim high” strategy. In 1996, Whiting Farms, a project-based Section 8 property, was in danger; Congress was in the process of loosening restrictions on HUD-assisted housing, and like thousands of private owners across the country, Whiting Farms’ owner was considering opting out of the Section 8 program by pre-paying his mortgage. “It was ripe for conversion to market rate,” says Murray. “The building was next to the mall, in an area near a potential casino.”

ADP identified the problem and organized a tenant association at Whiting Farms. There were several changes of ownership, but each owner was dogged by the tenant association. In November 1999, the tenants convinced the final owner, a for-profit developer, to turn the building over to them in exchange for a developer fee and getting to be the general contractor for the repairs.

The key was understanding everyone’s self-interest, says Murray. “[The developer’s self-interest] was making a buck, and that’s okay,” she says. “Ours was having long-term control.” Of course that doesn’t mean there’s no conflict. Every relationship, and every win, is preceded by a fight for recognition and a seat at the negotiating table, says Murray. The Whiting Farm tenants had to stage direct actions, send busloads of people to meet with the developer, threaten to oppose his tax credit applications, and draw on ADP’s relationships with state senators and Republican appointed officials to press their case.

Asset Control
The contrast between what the Whiting Farms tenants won and a more incremental approach is fundamental. “In more traditional tenant organizing we would’ve been fighting with the owner over repairs,” says Murray. “Now instead, the tenants of that building control a major asset and make day-to-day decisions about rents, repairs, etc. They’re thinking strategically, making sure all bank accounts are in local banks, for example. These tenants are more than tenants; they’re major land holders in the city.”

Aiming for a buy-out also doesn’t mean you can’t achieve more modest goals. At properties where buy-outs didn’t go through, tenants organized by ADP have still managed to preserve 1600 units of affordable housing and win input regarding the rehab of the properties. However, without control over the asset itself, the groups have been less able to progress to other issues.

Like a Family
Aiming for such a big goal takes a different kind of vision, says Murray. “You have to be able to see beyond your leaking shower to owning,” she says, acknowledging it can be a tough step to take.

To help the groups it organizes make that leap, ADP draws on its unique membership structure. Unlike many other institutionally based organizing models, where members are drawn from existing groups like congregations, ADP’s members are all new institutions that ADP helped organize. They still pay dues, however, giving ADP a $70,000 annual dues base.

Member groups participate in ADP-wide strategy teams and help newer organizations get started. For example, leaders from other buildings who had experienced winning a buy-out first-hand went into Whiting Farms to speak with tenant leaders and help them mobilize. Members also turn out numbers for other member groups’ direct actions. “It’s a family where everyone works together,” says Murray. “We try to break down that sense of isolation. We are building a power organization based on poor people.”

ADP is now expanding beyond tenant organizing to new campaigns around jobs, safety and comprehensive neighborhood issues. Currently, this includes organizing a new base of low-wage and contingency workers to target the workforce investment board and planning to open a workers center, which will become an institutional member of ADP.

This multi-issue approach keeps ADP’s tenant-owners thinking about ways to extend their impact. Many buildings, for example, contract out services, so ADP is opening a worker-owned cooperative landscaping company that will work for tenant-controlled buildings and beyond. After all, says Murray, “Now that we’re controlling this money, we can keep it flowing in the community.” Now that’s thinking big.

Caroline Murray, Anti-Displacement Project,
57 School St., Springfield, MA, 01105,
(413) 739-7233,

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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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