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Activists Across the Country Are Making the Right to Housing a Reality

Activists are notching wins against landlords and banks profiting off of what should be a human right.

Community members protest against evictions outside the Bronx housing court on August 10, 2020, in the Bronx borough of New York City.

Apryl Lewis is in a housing fight — again. This time, she is pushing to keep dozens of families from being put out of a Charlotte extended-stay motel that is scheduled to be shut down in a matter of weeks. Such motels cost as much as $500 each week, expensive compared to long-term housing. But many of these families are living paycheck-to-paycheck or on fixed incomes, and have no other option.

“They can’t afford the move-in costs for an apartment,” Lewis said. “Landlords want up-front rent and utilities and a security deposit. Now they are even making people pay for rental insurance.”

Others stay at the motel because they are shut out of traditional housing due to a past eviction or criminal record. Some simply can’t find a suitable place to live in a time when rental vacancies are at historic lows.

The good news for the motel residents is that this is not Lewis’s first fight. An organizer for Action NC, Lewis coordinated “Cancel Rent” protests at the local courthouse in the early days of the COVID pandemic, led tenants in chants of “housing is a human right” at various government meetings, and organizes canvassing and phone banks, pulling together tenants to advocate for their rights. A current focus is calling out corporate landlords, like the one in Charlotte who was repeatedly cited for refusing to address rampant mold, vermin and dangerous wiring.

In early September, Lewis and other tenants joined with other organizations that, like Action NC, are affiliated with Center for Popular Democracy, to make an uninvited appearance at the Washington, D.C. meeting of a trade association of corporate landlords. Dozens of tenants took over a conference room, poured themselves glasses of the fancy lemon and orange-infused water, and chanted, “Corporate landlord you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side.”

“We go everywhere,” Lewis said. “We not only go door-to-door, we do banner drops and disrupt official meetings — just be there and be loud so they can’t ignore what is happening to these tenants.”

Lewis has fought for her own housing, too. As a single mom, she more than once had to scramble to keep from being evicted, despite working two and sometimes three jobs. “The rent kept going up, so I had to be pretty crafty just so I could keep my daughter housed,” she said. When Lewis later began working with youth and families as a counselor, the challenges they shared with her kept coming back to housing, far and away the top expense in most U.S. households.

The tenants Lewis works with are not alone. More than 10 million U.S. renters report being behind on their rent, and thus in imminent risk of eviction. Sixty-five percent of those behind on their rent are people of color. These Americans desperately need housing assistance, but unlike Medicaid or SNAP (food stamps), federal housing programs are not an entitlement. Families and individuals may qualify for housing help, but they only get that assistance if there is supply available. And it is usually not available. Only one in four eligible persons are able to receive a federal housing subsidy, leaving over 8 million households eligible but unsupported.

As grim as those numbers are, they may soon be getting worse. Rent prices on average rose more than 16 percent during 2021, and went up more than 20 percent in some cities. A recent study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that every $100 in average monthly rent increases is associated with a 9 percent increase in homelessness. So it is no surprise that, by mid-2022, homeless shelters were reporting a surge in people asking for help, with waitlists doubling and tripling as a result.

Corporate Landlords and Housing Racism

The United States is often referred to as having a free market economic system, but housing in this country does not remotely resemble an unfettered market. Federal, state and local governments have eagerly assumed roles as major players in the housing business. The problem is that the government’s heavy hand in housing is usually placed on the scales on the side of the wealthy. Over the past decade, corporations have taken advantage of significant tax breaks to dramatically increase their holdings of both multi-unit rental properties and residential homes. Institutional owners — corporations or limited liability companies — now own the majority of all U.S. rental units and 80 percent-plus of the properties with 25 or more units.

As Lewis and others familiar with U.S. rental homes can attest, this is a problem. Corporations are demonstrably more eager to evict and less responsive to maintenance needs than smaller landlords. Tenants struggle with out-of-state landlords that leave mold unaddressed, broken appliances and windows unrepaired, trash not picked up, and even fail to pay for water and other services. “And too often they blame the people living there, saying they don’t keep their homes clean,” Lewis said. “Corporate landlords should be regulated like banks.”

U.S. housing dysfunction is grounded in a long legacy of racist housing practices. During the early and mid-20th century, the federal government used homeownership subsidies to benefit whites and exclude Blacks, while restrictive covenants prevented Blacks from moving to the neighborhoods where mortgages were easier to obtain. With homeownership the top means for accumulating wealth in the U.S., generations of housing and income discrimination has left Black homeownership rates — and wealth — far below those of their white counterparts. Housing racism is the core reason why white U.S. households have on average 10 times the wealth of Black households.

The trends continue today. The current scourge of absentee corporate landlords and speculative purchasing of homes is disproportionately visited on Black and brown communities. It is a trend reminiscent of corporate purchases made in those same communities during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. During that recession, Black household wealth — much of it dependent on home values — fell nearly 50 percent.

That all leads to grimly predictable outcomes. Black families are more than twice as likely to be renters as white families. Among renters, Black renters are far more likely to be evicted than white renters, with Black women and children the most likely of all to be thrown out of their homes. Nearly one in five Black or Hispanic children have experienced eviction by age 15. “A lot of things in housing have not changed since the Jim Crow era,” Lewis said. “To address it we have to address the racism.”

A Robust and Growing Movement

Activists like Apryl Lewis have the public’s attention. Polls show both a great deal of contemporary concern about housing and a commitment to remedying the problem. A 2021 survey showed that two-thirds of Americans in growing metropolitan areas are “extremely/very concerned” about homelessness and the high cost of housing, ranking it as their top priority. “Housing is the most critical component for a successful community,” Lewis said. “A lot of issues we are struggling with, like crime, are connected to people not being able to stay housed.”

At a more individual level, housing insecurity is associated with all manner of health crises, from asthma and heart disease to violence and suicide. “If you are not secure in your housing, your mental health is in jeopardy. You are always stressing, you are always at level 10 because you are fighting for housing,” Lewis said. “I can tell you myself that me sitting here in a comfortable position in my housing, my thought patterns are way better than when I was struggling to stay housed.”

So it should be no surprise that surveys also show that three-quarters of Americans agree with the tenants chants in Charlotte and around the nation: safe, secure housing should be considered a human right. Those Americans are not content for that right to be an abstraction: The vast majority of people expressing support of housing as a human right also support expanded government programs to make that right a reality.

Federal-level housing efforts include Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Homes for All Act, which would devote $1 trillion to building 12 million new, permanently affordable public and social housing units. It would also repeal the Faircloth Amendment, which in 1998 responded to the deterioration of public housing by blocking new public housing construction. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition is leading a “HoUSed” campaign to expand rental assistance to every eligible household and create a national housing stabilization fund to provide emergency help.

Meanwhile, there is robust and successful activism going on at the state and local level. Activists using tactics ranging from occupying vacant buildings to canvassing to pushing ballot initiatives have won commitments for expanded affordable housing support in cities like Minneapolis, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Baltimore and Los Angeles. Community activists are engaged in current housing campaigns in Las Vegas and New York. Rent control advocacy is ongoing in California, Florida and Michigan, with a recent rent control victory in Minnesota. San Francisco is now requiring landlords to recognize and meet with tenant associations or face a mandated rent reduction. Activists in cities like Indianapolis are persuading their local governments to follow the European example of directing public real estate and public funding to social housing.

Religious communities are engaged with the movement. The federal HoUSed campaign is joined by Catholic Charities USA, the Union for Reform Judaism and the national leadership of the Episcopal and Methodist churches. As for the Action NC housing effort in Charlotte, it counts as a key ally St. Martin’s Episcopal church.

Several homeless people live on the downtown Charlotte grounds of St. Martin’s, and the congregation welcomes and supports them. After a group visit to the local eviction court and conversations with several of the Action NC leaders, the congregation decided to focus on housing justice. “We wanted to see how we could be of help before a family becomes evicted, before someone becomes homeless,” St. Martin’s mission board president Kay Miller said.

So St. Martin’s parishioners have staffed a tenant crisis hotline and recruited pro bono attorneys to help families facing eviction. A new team has pulled together to do phone canvassing of tenants living in some of the worst corporate-owned housing in Charlotte. They are discussing the possibility of following other churches’ leads in helping low-income homeowners pay off the property tax bills and fines that often causes a family to lose a home, and even exploring how to help create more affordable housing units.

“I give credit to the people of St. Martin’s for showing us how community and faith-based groups can really help the movement,” Lewis said. “I try to push faith groups into action, not just praying, and they are definitely taking action.”

Social, Not For-Profit Housing

A common theme of housing activism is the need to move away from expectations that the private, for-profit market will solve our crisis. The big picture, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has written in her book, “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership,” is that entrusting a human right to profit-seeking entities will inevitably lead to suffering. “Satisfying basic human needs, like the provision of shelter, medical treatment, water or even education run counter to business’s objective of maximizing return on investment or simply making money … One of the most pressing questions has been how to secure the provision of safe, sound, affordable and decent housing for everyone. The obstacles to that goal have always been business’s bottom line.”

Increasingly, activists have been able to convince state and city governments that Taylor is right: the private housing market will never meet the needs of everyone in their communities. States like Rhode Island, Hawaii and Colorado are investing in building government-run housing, as are communities like Montgomery County, Maryland. Governments at all levels hold the power to solve the housing crisis. They can raise revenue for subsidized housing by taxing high-end housing and housing speculation. They can tightly regulate for-profit housing activity and exercise eminent domain, especially on vacant or distressed corporate properties. Governments can significantly increase the resources and power of public land banks to acquire property and transfer or develop it into affordable housing, and pass Community Opportunities to Purchase Act, or COPA, legislation, which gives the first rights of land purchase to tenants and the community. Governments can then subsidize those organizations’ development and maintenance efforts via public housing finance agencies.

Housing activists’ demands like these are often framed with the term “social housing.” Social housing is publicly owned by either the government or non-profit organizations that respond to democratic control by residents. It is decommodified — protected from the profiteering of the private market — and affordable for the life of the building or unit, with no expiration date. Social housing sees housing as a human right, not a commodity or wealth-building tool. Like public education, public safety, our justice system, and infrastructure like roads and sewers and water, social housing recognizes that a place to live is a good that is too important to be left dependent on whether a family has enough money to ensure a profit to a private landlord or a bank.

Apryl Lewis helped advise the Center for Popular Democracy in its manifesto in support of social housing published in March of this year. In Minnesota and New York, activist pressure led to corporate-owned properties being converted to community ownership, while public dollars for affordable housing are being raised in San Francisco via taxes on high-end real estate. COPA legislation has passed or is pending in multiple states and communities, including Washington D.C. and Portland. Baltimore community advocacy successfully forced the creation of a housing trust fund, and North Dakota, Philadelphia and California now have public banks to fund social housing.

One social housing approach enjoying significant current momentum is community land trusts, which have a legacy that traces back to Black-owned projects like the New Communities that grew out of the southern U.S. civil rights movement. In a community land trust, the non-profit trust retains ownership of the land while the resident purchases the house on it. The purchase cost is lowered due to the discount for not buying the land, and the purchase is often supported with subsidies. In exchange for the reduced price and the subsidy, the resident’s resale price is limited in order to make sure the home is permanently affordable. There are now over 225 community land trusts in the U.S., with local governments supporting them by acquiring land and buildings from private ownership and transferring title to the trusts to develop and manage.

The rationale behind all of these campaigns is simple, says Dianne Enriquez, housing organizer for the Center for Popular Democracy. “We just need to prioritize renters the way we have been doing for landlords. If there is a will, there definitely is a way.”

A History of Successful Housing Activism

An impressive history of housing activism supports Enriquez’s optimism. Nations like Finland, France and Singapore have far more affordable housing and far less homelessness than the U.S. The impressive social housing track record in those and other nations came about because of advocacy, including tenant and labor union campaigns in Sweden, grassroots organizing in Germany for expropriating corporate landlord property, activists occupying banks and homes in Spain and a broad socialist movement in Austria.

Finland, Germany, South Africa, France, the Netherlands, and multiple other countries have created legal rights to housing and followed up the pronouncements with programs to ensure their enforcement. In Scotland, for example, which has enshrined a right to housing in its constitution and legislation, homelessness is “brief, rare and a non-recurring phenomenon,” writes Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

The U.S. has its own record of successful housing activism. Rent strikes and community organizing led to rent control measures in 200-plus U.S. cities. Activism created the momentum for the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act in 1975, the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010. The St. Louis rent strike of 1969, the first and still-largest U.S. public housing rent strike, helped shape the Brooke Amendment of 1969. The Brooke Amendment capped public housing tenants’ rent and increased federal subsidies for housing. Like other U.S. housing activism, the St. Louis strike had deep connections to faith communities. The strike was led in part by United Church of Christ minister Buck Jones, and buttressed by broad support from the local religious congregations.

There is a shared theme among these movements: We can and must reclaim our housing system from those whose sole mission is to extract as much money as possible from people who need a roof over their heads to survive. It is a theme Apryl Lewis keeps in mind as she fights alongside her fellow tenants. “Our activism is radical, not violent,” she said. “The violence is what is happening to these tenants. The bills keep coming and they are increasing but wages are not.” And then Lewis repeated what tenants across the nation are saying in public meetings, corporate events and street protests. “At the end of the day, the rent is just too damn high.”