The Road to Power

This year, we’ve had to remove our blinders to the notion of “these united states” – a sentiment prescribed by our government since 9/11. This country is not united; it’s divided as never before – and not just in our opinions of Bush and Kerry. We are divided in politics and religion; we don’t agree on civil rights issues or scientific research limits. We debate the merits of changing our health care system, improving national security, funding education and cutting taxes. And certainly, our government is split on how to provide affordable housing to poor people and create well-paying jobs.

Nonetheless, advocates and community-based organizations have battled to make sure that our government – with its many “weapons of mass division” – doesn’t destroy or interfere with the already limited opportunities available to low-income people and communities. Their battles travel along many roads.

Competing Goods
For decades, the federal government has moved away from low-income housing production. The current administration has tried to eliminate HOPE VI, cut support for public housing and resisted the proposed National Housing Trust Fund Act. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program is essentially the only federal program left that supports the creation of new affordable rental housing. During the program’s early years, advocates argued that the tax credit was an inefficient use of federal funds, because the lion’s share of the benefit goes to investors, rather than directly toward housing production. But now the argument has changed.

Advocates in New Jersey and Connecticut have taken their state housing finance agencies to court, contending that the agencies’ decisions have kept low-income and minority families out of more affluent suburbs, and have concentrated poverty and increased segregation in inner cities. Not all advocates agree. Some see the tax credit as vital to creating affordable housing that promotes revitalization in urban areas. Robert Neuwirth examines each of these claims as the stories play out in Camden, NJ, and Hartford, CT.

The tax credit story points to larger issues of housing and social policy, pushing us to ask difficult questions about the intended and unintended outcomes of other programs, such as Section 8. In a recent study, the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance concluded that the Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers “reinforce historic patterns of racial and economic segregation in the Chicago metropolitan region, despite a federal mandate requiring local housing authorities to deconcentrate poverty and affirmatively advance integration and other fair housing goals.” Similar concerns have been voiced by advocates for fair housing in Minneapolis, where Section 8 holders are concentrated in several high-poverty neighborhoods even though vacant apartments are available in more affluent areas.

The frustration for advocates is that no matter where tax credit projects are built or voucher holders directed, there are not enough to meet even a portion of the need. Perhaps, if we can put housing on the agenda again, we can break out of this zero-sum dilemma and find solutions.

The Agenda
However, housing is unlikely to become part of the current administration’s agenda, according to Peter Dreier. Nor, it seems, will any of the other programs that have helped working people prosper in urban areas. In spite of this administration’s lip service to “opportunity” and “ownership,” it has resisted programs that help people move out of poverty, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, increases in the minimum wage and even its misguided signature program, No Child Left Behind, which it does not fully fund.

One program that has survived with only minimal damage is Family Self-Sufficiency. Like the EITC, this program has the potential to create assets for families receiving federal housing assistance. Reid Cramer explains how FSS can change people’s lives and how community-based organizations can partner with PHAs to increase opportunities for thousands of low-income families.

One new opportunity for urban residents is union membership. Although the construction trades have historically been difficult for minorities and women to enter, the combined effects of fewer replacement workers from traditional family sources, increases in state efforts to open the field and aggressive work by CBOs to turn good intentions into long-term change are paying off. In Newark, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice began with a pilot program to prepare urban residents for apprenticeship positions with construction unions. After 10 graduating classes, NJISJ is now part of a larger collaboration to institutionalize its gains.

The Day After
Local organizations are moving beyond creating housing, family assets and jobs. Many are engaged in voter registration and Get Out The Vote (GOTV) activities. Until recently, these groups have been working under the radar, registering millions of voters. ACORN and its partners registered over a million new voters. In Ohio, the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing led a statewide registration program and conducted GOTV outreach up until election day.

Even if all this work results in a change of power in Washington, a new administration will be only a partial indicator of success. The true test will start the day after the election. As Noreen Beatley points out, community groups that understand the importance of political power, such as Addicts Rehabilitation Center in Harlem, make civic engagement an ongoing part of their work. David Jones discusses a similar strategy, noting that in June, 3,000 people attended the first National Hip-Hop Political Convention and gave voice to millions of young people who feel dismissed from the political process but are ready and eager to participate.

Whether we want to put housing on the agenda or progressives in office, whether we want to break down barriers or increase opportunities, collaboration and engagement are the only true roads to power.

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