High Stakes for Public Housing: Organizing Public Housing Residents

The Millennial Housing Commission (MHC) report represents stage two in an agenda to give increased decision-making powers to local public housing agencies, and target federal assistance for public housing away from the very poor. Some of the commission’s proposals were foreshadowed in the 1998 Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, and call for less regulation of local housing agencies and substantial changes in how public housing sites are operated (i.e., conversion of public housing to project-based Section 8 model). The report also supports HOPE VI, which has caused the loss of several thousand public housing units each year since 1993. In light of the commission’s report and a harmful stream of policies enacted over the last few years, organizing public housing residents, and helping them understand and influence the policies affecting them, has never been more important.

In recent years, resident groups have built on the organizing culture rooted in the Saul Alinsky philosophy exemplified by the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Pacific Institute for Community Organizing, and ACORN, among other groups. Traditional organizing strategies – developing short-term and long-term issue campaigns, building people-power and relationships through one-on-one interaction, and house meetings – work well in the compact geography of public housing.

In 1997, the Center for Community Change (CCC), working with resident groups, launched the Public Housing Residents National Organizing Campaign. Now known as ENPHRONT (Everywhere and Now Public Housing Residents Organizing Nationally Together), it is a broad, resident-led network of state delegates and affiliate organizations who represent residents’ interests, coordinate local organizing, and share information. Delegates and affiliate organizations meet via teleconference once a month and alert ENPHRONT when a housing agency plans to demolish public housing.

Last September, Low Income Families Fighting Together (LIFFT), a resident group, and the Miami Workers Center traveled 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, DC. to demand a meeting with top HUD officials to discuss concerns about the Miami-Dade housing agency’s redevelopment plans for two public housing sites. With superb precision, mothers, grandmothers, and children poured off the bus and literally stormed the main entrance of HUD headquarters demanding to meet with top officials. Within an hour, they got their meeting and ultimately halted the agency’s HOPE VI revitalization plan.

Using this and other organizing efforts as models, ENPHRONT is working with resident groups throughout the country to better understand and apply the principles and practices of organizing. Among our most important tasks will be forging new alliances, building the capacity of residents to affect policy, recasting the image of public housing, and obtaining financial support for local and national organizing campaigns.

Finding New Allies

Reaching out to local and national groups not traditionally involved in public housing organizing is important. With approximately 700,000 senior citizens living in public housing, involvement from organizations like AARP and other groups working on issues affecting the elderly and disabled add increased muscle to the new resident movement.

There’s also a logical connection between public housing groups and organizations working on issues of homelessness. Public housing agencies, which were deregulated in 1998, now have the power to set local admission preferences for 100 percent of their housing inventory. Prior to 1998, a percentage of those preferences had to be based on federal standards, which gave admission priority to those most in need, such as the very poor and the homeless. As a result of deregulation, there are opportunities for public housing resident groups and organizations working on homeless issues to come together to ensure that federal subsidies for public housing are targeted in a manner consistent with need.

Other allies lie within the different strands of the subsidized tenant movement. The National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) represents tenants living in multifamily housing that is HUD-subsidized and privately owned. This housing stock has already lost roughly 200,000 units as private owners pre-pay and opt their way out of the program. On October 7, ENPHRONT and NAHT will coordinate a nationwide organizing campaign to preserve HUD-subsidized housing. ENPHRONT is also working with groups organizing Housing Choice Voucher recipients (Section 8 voucher assistance). With 1.3 million units of public housing, 1.6 million privately owned units subsidized with vouchers, and another 1.9 million privately owned units that received project-based assistance, we have the potential to create a five-million household organizing machine. With the right resources and coordination, it can be done.

Understanding and Acting on Policy

In light of the commission’s report, there also exists the need to dissect policy issues in ways that de-emphasize the role of the policy “expert.” Analysis must be clear and appealing to the constituencies affected by the policy.

To deliver that quality of analysis, ENPHRONT is using a technique known as Participatory Action Research (PAR), which involves the people affected by a policy issue in the design and implementation of research (see SF #108). The end of the PAR process can be not only a report but also the start of an organizing campaign. ENPHRONT and the Center for Community Change have already put this model to the test in researching the extent to which public housing agencies have involved residents in producing annual management plans that are used to hold housing agencies accountable. The result was a report, Not Part of the Plan, that illustrated the uneven performance by public housing authorities, many of which did not even attempt to comply with the law regarding the establishment and support of Resident Advisory Boards – vehicles for involving residents in the process of developing annual management plans (see SF #95).

Another report, False HOPE, issued in June, was a joint effort by ENPHRONT, the National Housing Law Project, the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, Sherwood Research Associates, and others to assess the implementation of HUD’s HOPE VI program. Proposed reforms include publishing a list of public housing developments eligible for HOPE VI funds, replacing demolished public housing units on a one-for-one basis, enforcing residents’ right to participate in redevelopment activities, guaranteeing public housing residents the right to occupy units developed under HOPE VI, strengthening relocation rights of displaced residents, and making HOPE VI documents, including progress reports, available on the HUD website. ENPHRONT is also working with CCC’s research unit to interview residents in 10 cities to document how HOPE VI has affected their lives.

Recasting Public Housing’s Image

Public housing has long been stigmatized as a symbol of social misery. The attention given to Cabrini Green in Chicago is a case in point. Robert Rector, an MHC member and a policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, was no doubt drawing on the flawed image that public housing residents are hopeless, without direction, and in need of motivation when he promoted the idea that poor people should work in exchange for getting housing assistance from the government. The truth of the matter is that strong public housing families, many led by women, work to the point of exhaustion (whether at work or at home) every day of the week to make a better life for their children. But somehow, the old images of Cabrini Green swallow up these images and the stories they tell. To reverse this trend, public housing residents need a sophisticated and media-savvy communications machine to influence local and national media networks. Strategies would include meeting with the editorial directors and boards of key television stations and newspapers, and training resident groups in articulating their message in the succinct “sound bites” that get public attention.

Funding

Public housing groups need a nationally coordinated, multi-year funding investment in local public housing organizing. This kind of investment would enable resident groups and their allies to hire full-time organizing staff and set up office space equipped with a phone, fax machine, and copy machine, independent of the local housing agency. These are basic but essential ingredients for building organizing muscle. Although some grantmakers provide this kind of support, a great many do not. There is also little funding to support a large scale, national organizing effort in public housing communities. This thwarts the potential for building an even stronger national infrastructure of local resident groups at a time when the stakes are so high.
False HOPE: A Critical Assessment of the HOPE VI Public Housing Redevelopment Program, is available at www.nhlp.org.

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