Manifesting Housing Justice Equity Summit 2018: Our Power. Our Future. Our Nation.

Angela Glover Blackwell, in her summit message, “Claiming Our Power, Shaping Our Destiny,” touted the need for “radical imagination” to upend old assumptions and topple the economic, social, and civic structures that hold millions of people back:

“Radical imagination is embedded in the vibrant movement for housing justice. Activists are changing the very notion of housing—more than a dwelling or a commodity to be bought and sold on whim or for excessive profit, housing is a human right and an essential public good to be protected. The majority of residents in the 100 largest U.S. cities are now renters, and the majority of them spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The nation cannot build its way out of the crisis of housing insecurity. By redefining housing, the movement is spearheading innovations in tenant empowerment, community land trusts, and regulatory oversight. It’s a visionary, adaptive response to the dramatic shift away from homeownership and the rise of the renter nation.”

Throughout the housing justice workshops at Equity Summit 2018, hundreds of leaders from around the country unleashed their radical imaginations to build new relationships, pushed forth new narratives and analyses, and set political agendas. A summary of the workshops is provided below.

Aligning Housing Justice Movements for 2018 and Beyond

The housing justice track began with a pre-summit Equity Institute, “Aligning Housing Justice Movements for 2018 and Beyond.” A housing justice delegation—comprising more than 120 leaders and organized by PolicyLink, Right to the City/Homes for All, and CarsonWatch—heard from an array of panelists about efforts to resist federal funding cuts and rollbacks, and the growing movement to connect organizing efforts for housing justice across communities. In response to this urgent call to action, the Right to the City/Homes for All Campaign set a bold goal to bring 10 million more people into the movement and advance a proactive vision of housing as a human right. In break-out sessions, participants from various affiliates, including the Center for Popular Democracy, Partnership for Working Families, Peoples Action, and National Housing Law Project’s Housing Justice Network, shared details about their local work and discussed the need for more equitable access to funding for organizing, elevating community voices, and building coalitions across false issue silos. Subsequently, participants collaborated in a housing justice caucus, connecting with fellow housing justice advocates to share successes, solicit feedback, and benefit from a cross-fertilization of ideas.

Housing as a Human Right

Arts and culture permeated all aspects of Equity Summit 2018, prompting participants to unleash their radical imaginations and find new and transformative ways to engage in the equity movement. Bettina Walker opened “Housing as a Human Right” with a beautifully rendered poem that traced her onerous path from eviction and demolition of her home, to being homeless in Chicago, and she spoke to the herculean struggle so many face with housing security. In the session, which was moderated by Kalima Rose of PolicyLink, Walker’s poem was followed by an array of panelists who, from different vantage points, continued to echo the message of housing as a human right. Connecting this issue to water equity was Monica Lewis-Patrick (We the People of Detroit), who spoke of the disastrous implications that the regional takeover of the Detroit Water District had on water shutoffs, foreclosures, and health risks for thousands of Detroit residents. Guillermo Mayer (Public Advocates) spent time breaking down the increasing commodification of housing by real estate and global capital investors as drivers of the housing crisis, and called for housing to be on community-controlled land—making real the human right to housing as shelter, not as a commodity to be traded for profit. Kennetha Patterson (Homes for All Nashville) recounted her work in building a powerful tenants’ union after her sprawling apartment complex was purchased to be upgraded to luxury apartments, resulting in all tenants being served with eviction notices. Justin Rush (True Colors Fund) brought the issues of LGBTQ youth into the room, noting the high rates of youth homelessness, while lifting up successful policy wins that have brought awareness and new resources to house these youth with dignity and security.

Development without Displacement

Avery R. Young, poet, songwriter, and performer, opened the session with a personal and disarming poem, entitled, ms. margaret on her landline phone with ruth talking about her new neighbors across the street, which he dedicated to his godmother and other women who begin their sentences with the word, “chile”. Young’s poem met with overwhelming gratitude and set the tone for the panel. Recognizing the need for new approaches to navigate development without displacement, this session brought together leaders in housing finance, tenants’ rights, alternative housing models, and the public sector. Lashunda Gonzalez (Preservation of Affordable Housing) discussed her experience as a nonprofit developer partnering with a community in Chicago to save affordable units from demolition and minimize displacement. Ron Sims (Former Deputy Director, U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development) reiterated the importance of forming community coalitions (and organized dissent) when approaching the public sector. Tony Romano (Right to the City) lifted up important alternative models, such as community land trusts, in preserving housing affordability and neighborhood stability in Boston. Alison Johnson (Housing Justice League, Atlanta), whose family had been displaced over several generations, emphasized the importance of intersectionality in organizing for collective power, while powerfully proclaiming that we often talk about changing the narrative, but that “we need to change the narrator” if we want to have collective power that shifts conditions for everyone. Amy Kenyon (Just Cities and Regions, Ford Foundation) continued to lift up key takeaways: the importance of community-centered development, cross-sector coalitions, and community power in preserving and creating affordable housing without displacement.

Rise of the Renter Nation

Renters now represent the majority of residents in the nation’s 100 largest cities, and contribute billions to local economies. At the same time, rising rents, stagnant wages, and disaster-driven housing shortages have created an unprecedented affordability crisis that stymies renters’ ability to contribute to the broader economy. Against this backdrop, Fred Blackwell (San Francisco Foundation) moderated “Rise of the Renter Nation,” where participants shared successes from the tenants’ movements happening across hundreds of U.S. cities. Sarah Mickelson (National Low Income Housing Coalition) began the session with data on the ways in which the housing market under-produces homes for people with the lowest incomes, and argued that any strategy to address the crisis must use a “trickle-up” approach of building homes for extremely low-income people first. Dawn Phillips (Right to the City Alliance) then laid out a three-part strategy to advance housing justice: 1) stabilize renters in their homes through tenant protections, 2) advance equitable development that serves the community, and 3) increase community ownership of land. In response to Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted, set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Marcelia Nicholson (Milwaukee County Supervisor) shared her proposal that would allow renters to reduce rent payments if the home has health and safety defects and to expand funding to keep tenants in their homes. Session participants were encouraged to participate in the upcoming “Our Homes, Our Voices” week of action, May 1–8, 2018.

Shining a Spotlight on Chicago

PolicyLink begins every summit with mobile workshops that provide attendees with opportunities to meet local innovative leaders and dedicated residents working to effect inclusive, sustainable change. In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority rolled out the “Plan for Transformation,” an ambitious initiative to rehabilitate or replace the city’s public housing with an emphasis on creating mixed-income communities. Eighteen years later, the Plan—the largest privatization of public housing in U.S. history—is 97 percent complete, with approximately 500 of the roughly 17,000 families affected by this program still waiting to move to public housing within their community of choice. The tour, “Plan for Transformation: Progress, Pitfalls, and Power in Chicago’s Public Housing” enabled registrants to visit the National Public Housing Museum and two ongoing redevelopment sites, where participants learned about the historical segregation and inequity of Chicago’s public housing, and about the complicated history of the Plan from resident leaders, community stakeholders, and academics.

Leveraging Elections to Advance Housing Justice

The strategy session, “Leveraging Elections to Advance Housing Justice,” pinpointed strategies for bringing housing justice to the fore within campaign discussions and tactics to ensure that housing efforts make it onto the agendas of candidates for local, state, and federal offices. Brad Lander (New York City Councilmember and board member of Local Progress) and Tomás Rivera (Chainbreaker Collective, Santa Fe) walked a crowded room of engaged participants through exercises to use elections to advance housing justice. Strategies included holding candidate forums that asked candidates where they stand on a platform of housing policies, and getting their support on record; working with a 501(c)(4) to support candidates that want to support housing policies; advancing specific housing policies on the ballot, such as tenant protections or housing production bonds; and marrying long-term organizing with get-out-the-vote efforts. Participants left with their own strategy documents to use through the 2018 and 2020 election season. The aim is to have educated and accountable officials in local, state, and federal offices carrying the banner of housing justice across America, with organized constituencies around them.

This housing track and all of its participants passionately defined the type of housing justice they will work on together: tenant protections of just cause eviction, rent control, and right to legal counsel for evictions; community control of land through land trusts and public housing to keep low-income people and people of color in their communities and protected from displacement; expanded investments in new and rehabbed affordable homes; and full funding of HUD to provide housing subsidies to all who qualify.

Stay woke for the transformation of housing rights in America with these organizers driving change.