New Movements for a New Era

Three decades ago, a group of activists came together to create a social justice movement to organize poor and working-class people around the issues of homes and communities. Learning the lessons from the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, this group knew that passion and demonstrations were not enough. To succeed, many parts were needed, including information and a communications vehicle. That group was the Shelterforce Collective. And the magazine you hold (then a newspaper) was created to provide information to connect housers around the country.

As Woody Widrow points out, things change in 30 years. Woody was one of the original Collective members and a long-time editor of Shelterforce. He brought together a number of the early tenant activists to reflect on what first attracted them to their work, how the movement changed, and in what direction social justice and housing activism are heading. We’ve also asked leaders of a few national housing, community development and social justice organizations to identify the challenges we face going forward and the strategies we’ll need to succeed as we wrestle with increasing poverty and inequality in a rapidly changing world.

Old Ideas, New Victories
In 1975, the Shelterforce Collective knew what steps were required to move a social justice agenda. The challenge now, as then, is implementation. In this issue, we present three stories of new strategies built on old ideas.

In the 1990s the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (see SF #97) led a living wage campaign in L.A. They understood that to win a victory they needed more than good solutions or solid information or people to mobilize or good press. They needed it all. And so they built a comprehensive strategy that led to a living wage victory and, later, the first community benefits agreement (CBA) in the country.

The notion underlying CBAs is that public money supporting private enterprise should be accountable to the community. It’s a powerful concept around which divergent interests can coalesce. Nationally, many groups are using CBAs as vehicles to mobilize residents, bring greater accountability to government and the private sector and assure that everyone shares in development’s benefits.

Madeline Janis-Aparicio, executive director of LAANE, describes the complex but elegant elements of a recent CBA campaign in L.A.: “Progressives chose a clear injustice – poverty wages subsidized by tax dollars – and forged a broad-based coalition to address it. Based on credible research, a policy solution was proposed and then advanced through a dynamic organizing and lobbying campaign, while a values-based communications strategy conveyed a powerful message to the public and to policymakers.”

Taking a slightly different approach, ACORN in New York City negotiated a CBA with one of the nation’s largest developers. As John Atlas tells us, the agreement guarantees thousands of units of affordable housing and hundreds of jobs for local residents. Like the CBA campaigns in L.A., ACORN’s research, organizing and communication skills, along with its considerable political clout, assured them a place at the bargaining table. The developer, Forest City Ratner, understood that they could battle ACORN for years, at an astronomical cost, or sit down and make a deal. They wisely chose the latter.

In 1989, contributing editor Dennis Keating wrote about the growing CDC movement and its role in community development (see SF #47). From a few hundred organizations around the nation, to many thousands today, that movement has grown and matured. To support these organizations, a national financing and capacity building infrastructure was created.

But, as more states and localities engaged in community development and the number of CDCs rose to a critical mass in many places, new support systems were needed. The response has been an expansion of CDC networks at the municipal, regional and state levels. Without much fanfare and with little attention from outside their own areas, these networks are taking on increasingly important roles from organizational capacity building to public policy development. David Holtzman gives us an overview of the range of work they do.

Mansion Subsidy
For almost 20 years, NHI has fought to reform the “mansion subsidy,” the deduction for mortgage interest and property taxes that benefit primarily upper-income households. In November, a presidential panel seems to have taken our advice, at least partially. Peter Dreier brings us up to date on the mansion subsidy, looks at how the press has reported on the panel’s work and suggests ways, should the recommendations be accepted, to use these reforms to put real meaning into the administration’s empty “ownership society” rhetoric.

Thanks and Changes
As we end this year, I want to express my thanks to the many writers who have contributed to Shelterforce and to the editorial staff, Nichole Brown and David Holtzman, who’ve done an outstanding job. I also want to thank our board for their steadfast support and wise guidance, our funders and, most importantly, our readers. You’re the ones whose determination, persistence and imagination keep us going. Next year, we’ll be revising our website and Shelterforce. Our website will provide more timely information and interactivity and Shelterforce will be published quarterly, with more pages and longer articles. We hope we’ve been helpful to your work this year and that we can continue to do so in the future.

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Harold Simon is the former executive director of the National Housing Institute and former publisher of Shelterforce.

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