The Struggle for Fairness

On November 7 voters around the nation expressed their disdain for the current Congressional leadership. In January, both Houses will change hands. As the exit polls showed, there were many reasons for the voters’ anger, among them the quagmire in Iraq, an economy that continues to batter the poor and middle class and the general indifference to ethics and fairness exhibited by the party in power. In many places, populist ideas like increasing the minimum wage and strengthening the social safety net drew voters to some candidates as much as broken promises and out-and-out lies pushed them from others.

Around the country, evidence for a progressive agenda was apparent. From California’s successful housing bond proposal and an increase in the state minimum wage, to New York’s election of a governor who made his reputation fighting corporate greed as that state’s attorney general, voters said that fairness and the notion that creating opportunity for everyone, not just the already rich and powerful, should be government’s priority. Even red-state Virginia elected a Democrat, Jim Webb, who explicitly identified the “class struggle” of American workers in the face of growing inequality as the premier domestic issue facing Congress.

The power shifts in Congress, while slim, will have a profound affect. In both houses the new leadership of the committees that oversee housing and community development have a long history of support for those issues. Sheila Crowley of the National Low Income Housing Coalition and John Taylor of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition provide insight into the changes we can expect.

At the state and local levels, legal and regulatory changes can have a huge impact on communities. Senior Editor Nichole Brown offers a few of the highlights from the year’s significant wins by housing and community advocates around the country.

Of course, the news isn’t always good.

The MetLife Corporation is one of New York City’s largest landlords and the owner of two complexes with over 11,000 units of middle-class apartments that it has just sold for $5.4 billion. In the next few years most of the residents will likely be priced out of their homes, further exacerbating the huge inequality we see in cities like New York, which move closer to becoming places where only the very rich or the very subsidized can afford to live. Brad Lander gives us the history of these apartments, including the significant public benefits MetLife received to make them affordable, and shows how stronger rent control and other family-friendly regulations might have changed the sad outcome of this sale.

Without regulatory constraints, MetLife has a “right” to sell its buildings for the highest price it can get. America recognizes this kind of property right. But what if there were also a Right to Housing? How would society arbitrate between these two competing rights? Can we even imagine what a Right to Housing would look like and from what precedents it would derive? Chester Hartman helps us understand why a right to housing is not as far-fetched an idea as one might think, and Rachel Bratt presents us with the implications such a right would have on the work of CDCs, work that is growing increasingly difficult.

So difficult in fact that many CDCs are considering merging. One such merger happened recently in Ohio. David Cramer and Robert Zdenek describe two storied organizations that long ago began the fight to revive their neighborhood while assuring fairness for those with the fewest resources. In response to shrinking resources and changing neighborhood circumstances, they decided to combine their organizational strengths and assets.

While in Boston, two organizations that provided key services to the poor of their once distressed community are now finding their welcome gone. The community’s very typical NIMBY reaction takes on a new twist, Caitlin Gallagher tells us, when it’s the organizations that are “Already In My Back Yard.”

At its very core the movement for affordable housing and community development is a struggle for fairness. For years, many of us have felt like voices in the wilderness. The recent election and the increasingly successful work of community builders (despite the odds) should gives us hope that our struggles are finally being joined.

Goodbye

After two years as associate editor, David Holtzman packed up his notebook and moved South. We’ll miss his calm office presence, but will continue to rely on him as a contributing editor for good stories about the work and ideas that drive our movement.

Hello

This month Carla J. Robinson joins NHI as senior research associate. Carla brings a 20-year blend of rigorous scholarship, practical experience and a passionate commitment to the goals we share. We’re honored that she’s chosen to join us.

Thanks

Every year at this time, we say the same thing. It’s always true and it’s never said enough. One behalf of the board and staff of Shelterforce, we want to thank our supporters who encourage us and help us keep the lights on. And especially thanks to you, our friends, colleagues and readers, who inspire us to do our work and who, year after year, keep fighting toward a simple goal: a just world. Get some rest this holiday season and be ready for the struggles ahead.

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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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