Direct Action for Housing

Last November, a group of students at the University of Maryland gave Senator Barbara Mikulski a call. They wanted to know if she would speak at an event promoting the National Housing Trust Fund legislation, which, at the time, was gathering signatures. She declined, saying she didn’t know enough about the issue. The students sent her information on the fund – but also slept out on her office lawn to encourage her to co-sponsor the bill, bringing with them reporters to cover their demands. The senator signed on to the bill the next day.

While the Maryland students were sleeping out, the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness led a “housing reality tour” for more than 600 people – including people living in shelters, congregation members, recent immigrants, and young activists. Starting with a rally demanding support for the National Housing Trust Fund, the group marched past a series of housing hotspots, from a troubled residential hotel to the headquarters of a rabidly anti-homeless newspaper. At the end, Homes Not Jails (HNJ) took over an 85-unit residential hotel that has been vacant for 12 years, demanding that it be turned into affordable housing. They were arrested the following day, and all charges were dropped. The action brought in new members for the organizations, and shortly thereafter the Housing Trust Fund gained some Bay Area co-sponsors.

Both actions were held last November 14 as part of the National Housing Day of Action, or “N14,” to energize housing activists and generate support for the National Housing Trust Fund. N14, which was organized by Housing America, the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, and the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), didn’t make housing into the number one national priority overnight. More than 40 actions were held across the country, but their significance goes beyond local effects. They provide a look at what might be the face of a new housing movement, one that is both broader and more willing to use tactics like direct action and civil disobedience than it has been for many years.

From Protest to Production

Direct action is a general term for high-profile activism that is willing to be confrontational. According to Randy Shaw, executive director of Housing America and author of The Activist’s Handbook, direct action calls public attention to something the target is – or isn’t – doing, and relies on media coverage to generate pressure for change. Housing is among the many causes that share a long tradition of direct action and civil disobedience (direct action that involves breaking a law) in the United States. In the 1930s, the Unemployed Workers Councils led massive anti-eviction struggles, especially in New York and Detroit, physically intervening to prevent thousands of evictions. In the 1980s, squatting movements took over abandoned buildings and turned them into affordable housing – in many cases eventually winning titles to the buildings.

But many feel this tradition was weakened as the housing movement became more focused on production. According to Shaw, the demands of actually developing housing have attracted people with different skills. “There’re so many technicians in the housing field,” he says. “They hire people with advanced degrees who know about finance. Those aren’t the people who are comfortable with the kinds of things required for activism.” Steven Kest, national executive director of ACORN, agrees. “To the extent that there is housing advocacy, community organizations have really ceded that to organizations of CDCs that have a narrow and focused interest and no base,” he says. “There’s not enough clout there.”

Donald Whitehead, executive director of the NCH, sees it as a broader problem. “We got polite in the 90s,” he says, including advocates and service-providers. “People became a little too satisfied with the resources that were available. I believe we have become so accustomed to just asking for things that it’s hindered our ability to really get anywhere.”
That may be changing. As the boom-recession pattern aggravates the housing crisis, and the campaign for a National Housing Trust Fund provides a proactive focus for national organizing, new energy is starting to pour into affordable housing advocacy from many quarters, including multi-issue organizing networks, students, and local homeless organizations. Each group is driven by different housing concerns, and they bring not just numbers but a commitment to direct action that could put some punch behind the tireless work of traditional housing advocates.

Getting Heard

The arguments for using direct action are much the same for the housing movement as for any other cause. Inez Killingsworth, who has worked on housing issues with National People’s Action (NPA) for 30 years, puts it succinctly: “All the people you want to meet with, they don’t listen without direct action. [Negotiation] works once you get an audience that will listen. It’s hard to get that audience.”

Direct action gets that audience, say Kest, Shaw, and others, because it generates media coverage and demonstrates visible pressure from constituents. It’s also empowering. “Virtually any other public forum is stacked against our members, for reasons of class, culture, or race,” says Kest. “Direct action is a forum in which vast numbers can participate.”

According to Shaw, the future of the housing movement is largely in the hands of multi-issue organizing networks like ACORN, NPA, and the faith-based Gamaliel network. NPA was pivotal in the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act in the 1970s, ACORN led squatting campaigns in the 1980s, and Gamaliel has made fair housing a centerpiece of its work. But housing policy, especially beyond the local level, is moving its way farther up the priority list of many organizations like these. “In the last several years the crisis of affordability has provoked an upsurge of organizing around this issue,” says Kest. The National Housing Trust Fund is “one of the few things I’ve pressured all of our 50 organizations to get behind,” says Greg Galuzzo of Gamaliel.

ACORN is closely observing its California chapter as a potential model for building statewide housing rights movements across the country. The chapter has mounted a two-pronged campaign of grassroots direct action and legislation on tenant issues that it hopes to build into a statewide movement. In areas like San Jose, where escalating home prices have led to an epidemic of illegal evictions, ACORN is drawing on the tradition of the Unemployed Workers Councils. When members hear about an illegal eviction, they show up at short notice outside the home and usually succeed in preventing it from proceeding. In Los Angeles last year, ACORN members occupied a construction site and blocked a nearby intersection at rush hour to force a luxury developer to comply with an inclusionary housing ordinance.

Building on these successes, ACORN is helping to organize a statewide coalition, tentatively named Renters Together for Stronger Communities, that so far has more than 36 organizational members, including labor groups and long-time housing and community development advocates. Renters Together is working on legislation to obtain increased eviction notice time, security deposit rights, and a housing bond.

Student Partners

The 600 campus groups that compose the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness are a little newer to this brand of activism than ACORN, says Jen Hecker, organizing director of the national network. Although students are often in the forefront of direct action struggles around issues like peace, fair trade, or sweatshops, most of the Campaign’s member groups began with a service focus. “They want to make an immediate impact,” says Hecker, “so they volunteer at soup kitchens and shelters. Then they learn more about why these problems exist. For several years students have been calling and wanting to know what they can do on an advocacy level.” Following the students’ lead, the Campaign helps connect members to advocacy groups, has hired a DC legislative staff person, and is writing its own political platform for the first time. “We’ll be focusing a lot more on what we can be doing at the federal level,” says Hecker.

Many student groups participated in N14 actions. Some held successful awareness or lobbying events, such as prayer vigils or rallies. Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. held call-in days to their representatives, which resulted in Tennessee Congressman Harold E. Ford, Jr. signing on as a National Housing Trust Fund co-sponsor. Others took the direct action route, organizing tent cities or sleep-outs. Hecker says that in the places where student groups used direct action, it was often community partners – local homeless or housing advocacy groups – who were the driving force behind that choice. Nonetheless, the experience has left her membership ready for more. “More students are becoming politicized, and they want to go the next step,” she says.

Takeover Tactics

The impetus for local homeless groups to engage in direct action is fairly clear. “In San Francisco in the past five years we’ve had 500 people die on the streets,” says James Tracy of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. “If that doesn’t cause a militant fight back….”

Among the many direct action tactics, homeless organizations have often made use of housing takeovers. Some takeovers are not supposed to be high-profile but are rather survival actions, intended to give those moving in a place to live for as long as possible. But many takeovers, especially of government-owned or otherwise symbolic properties, are aiming for publicity and trying to get government or an owner to take action. HNJ, which carried out the N14 takeover in San Francisco, was formed in 1992 to advocate the use of vacant and abandoned housing for people who are homeless. It carries out both overt and covert housing takeovers, and now has chapters in San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Boston.

Takeovers are risky and often result in arrest, but they can be effective as long as they are tied to some specific demands. Jennifer Kirby, of the Washington, DC chapter of HNJ, says the chapter’s takeovers have always forced government to take action on behalf of the people who need housing. Families needing housing participate in both the planning and execution of all the takeovers. “I’m a little biased, perhaps, about the effectiveness of housing takeovers,” says Whitehead of NCH, which gives HNJ office space in the District of Columbia and other support, “but a takeover saved my life.” Whitehead was once homeless. He came off the street through the Drop Inn Center in Cincinnati, which was started through a building takeover.

Housing takeovers were initiated by N14 participants in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Washington, DC. In the District of Columbia they opened up an abandoned firehouse that the city had planned to renovate as a shelter to replace overcrowded trailers serving homeless women. The city halted renovations after protest from a luxury developer who owned neighboring land parcels, say advocates. With the participation of the women living in the trailers, HNJ-DC staged a takeover of the firehouse last summer, which led to new promises from the city and a marginally better facility for the shelter residents. However, no action has been taken on the firehouse property or the promises for a new shelter. So on N14, the NCH, along with City-wide Tenant Action Alliance, Real Change Human Rights Organization, and public housing residents facing eviction through HUD’s Hope VI program, returned to take it over again, incorporating the Housing Trust Fund as part of their demands.

It was unusual for a takeover to include federal policy as part of its demands, but “that’s where I’d like to go,” says Kirby. Shaw of Housing America agrees, adding that you don’t need a takeover to just highlight the existence of homelessness – it needs to be connected to policy change.

Adding Weight to the Housing Lobby

For many in the housing movement, the resurgence of direct action is both exciting and long overdue. “Lack of direct action is one reason we’ve had so little success,” says Shaw, whose own group is focusing on winning support for the National Housing Trust Fund. “The existing network of housing groups hasn’t been willing to take it to the next level. The method of many groups is to ask [an elected official] for support, and if they say ‘No,’ say ‘Oh well.’ ”

Housing direct action activists don’t tend to question the need to develop affordable housing or engage in traditional lobbying, but many question the future of funding for community development without someone again taking up the mantle of direct action for housing.

“We’re in a time where any illusions that you can get things – like a massive housing production program – done simply through polite advocacy are gone,” says Tracy. “If we don’t start to escalate our tactics, we’re not going to win.”

These housing activists believe their actions will add weight to lobbying groups like the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) or Housing California. Tracy says his goal is “a coherent movement where people who put on suits and go negotiate do that in consultation with those holding the barricades, and vice versa.” Whitehead says he’s working toward a “second coming of Housing Now,” the mass march to Washington, DC in 1989. He cited the joint conference offered by the NCH and the NLIHC earlier this year as a first step toward that kind of collaboration.

There is still a considerable gap to close between lobbying groups and direct action organizers. Many housing advocates have mixed feelings. They appreciate the work of direct action activists, but are uncomfortable with the prospect of identifying more closely with them. Robert Reid, executive director of the National Housing Conference, wasn’t aware of the National Day of Housing Action, but says that doesn’t mean NHC is opposed to it. “I think all of those things are supportive,” he says. But, he adds that NHC, which calls itself the “united voice for housing,” is such a broad coalition (it includes homebuilders and Realtors®) that it rarely takes stands on specific pieces of legislation, preferring to focus instead on what Reid calls its “convening role.”

Sheila Crowley, president of the NLIHC, believes that “Every movement should have multiple ways of getting its message across. I think it’s a combination of things that actually makes people change.”

Direct action is not what NLIHC does, says Crowley, and “I don’t think that’s what’s called for by us.” Instead, she says NLIHC is making “great strides by persuasion and direct lobbying, both by us and by constituents. We haven’t done any kind of coordinating with direct action campaigns, and I don’t foresee us doing that.”

Tracy thinks the greatest cure for such hesitation is success. “When direct action gets media and pushes Congress people over a few notches and gets them to become co-sponsors, then the debate changes,” he says. “Then there’s people who return our phone calls who didn’t before.”

Activists caution that it’s important that direct action be part of a larger strategy, not action for its own sake. Amy Schur, the California ACORN organizer, says that when ACORN joined the campaign for the LA Housing Trust Fund (see SF #122) they talked the idea through with the Housing LA coalition. “The key,” says Amy, “is that all parties share a broader vision, and they feel like direct action is part of an overall campaign plan. It helps for some who don’t usually support direct action to see what roles it plays.”

There may always be some tension between those doing direct action and those building relationships in the corridors of power. But many remain hopeful that as long as that direct action component is there at all, a stronger housing movement is in the works.

“We have a broader base than we’ve had since the 1940s,” says Shaw. “We’re on the up-swing.”

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