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Housing, Community and Land Are Human Rights

“Without home and without community, nothing else becomes possible, and everything else becomes a crisis.”

A man walks his dog through an empty lot in the Van Dyke Houses, a public housing development in Brooklyn, New York, August 7, 2014. Two city agencies that provide subsidized housing were told in letters that they would receive less from the federal government, a shortfall that could total more than $58 million by the end of the year. (Photo: Damon Winter / The New York Times)

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Janine Jackson: The Trump White House has plans, according to documents obtained by the Washington Post, to cut some $6 billion from HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development: cuts to programs supporting housing for low-income families, for the elderly, for homeless veterans and people with disabilities, for Native Americans — cuts of millions of dollars each from programs that were already overburdened.

That the country faces a crisis of scarcity, and that this means we should take more from those who are struggling, is a bizarre idea that seems to silently undergird much mainstream media discourse. The gutting of programs that keep roofs over people’s heads offers another chance to dismantle that idea, but it would require corporate media giving serious space to other, different ways of seeing the world.

Tony Romano is organizing director with the Right to the City Alliance. He joins us now by phone from Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome to CounterSpin, Tony Romano.

Tony Romano: Hi! Good to be here with you.

Let me ask you, first of all, what do you think would be the on-the-ground effects of this kind of financial cut to HUD that we’re hearing about? Whose lives are likely to be most directly impacted?

The impact is going to be severe and swift if it happens — and hopefully it won’t; there’s great resistance. $6 billion from the HUD budget essentially guts HUD, and HUD right now is the only source of housing and funding for very low-income people, people who make zero to 30 percent of AMI, which could be like zero to $15,000 in a lot of our cities. There is no housing that those folks have access to, other than public housing, or housing where they have a Section 8 voucher.

And if you have public housing or you have Section 8, what’s very important about that is you only pay a third of your income — they’re messing with that formula a little bit, but that’s what it’s been — and that’s the essence: You pay a third of your income, which means if your income declines, you lose your job, you pay less. So the idea is that that’s truly affordable housing. And it’s not a bad measure to say, generally, if you pay over a third of your income, it’s not affordable. Now, of course, we believe if you make under a certain amount, then you don’t have any money to put to housing and you shouldn’t have to pay any.

But with that said, the poorest folks right now in this country — who are retired folks, extremely low-wage workers, folks differently abled — these folks, the only homes where they can live are these homes. So if there are cuts, what it means literally is these folks are on the street. $6 billion means the elimination of hundreds of thousands of public housing units and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Section 8 vouchers. That means those folks are on the street. And if you make $2,000 a year, if you make $10,000 a year, $15,000 a year, there is no place for you to live except under a bridge.

So we’re talking thousands and thousands of additional homeless people. I’m not even talking about the level of crisis right now. And for whatever home housing remains, there’s going to be a whole ‘nother level of burden on those residents, who are likely paying, you know, a third of their income, to paying much more of their income. So we’ll see more and more people in HUD housing that don’t have affordable rents.

Now, it seems enough to say that that’s unacceptable on its face, to be creating homelessness, driving people into having fewer and fewer options. But in case it needed saying, this also has an impact on communities. It’s not to say that if you are not yourself right on that edge, that it won’t have an impact on the community that you live in, because after all, we’re talking about working families, folks who are living in a neighborhood or a city because that’s where they work. So the rippling impact is also important here, is it not?

Very true. And we know that gentrification is rampant throughout the country. We know there’s an eviction epidemic, where thousands of families are being evicted literally monthly in cities across this country. And the one thing right now that allows residents to stay in a community where they’ve been for decades and decades is HUD housing.

The other thing we should note here is, we are in the midst of one of the worst national housing crises in the history of this country. So when we talk about $6 billion in cuts, we can talk about the devastation of people who are in HUD housing right now, right? The thousands and thousands that will be made homeless, the thousands and thousands that will have to pay a lot more of their income to housing, and thus not be able to pay for prescriptions or a bus pass. But what we’re not talking about is the fact that millions and millions of people, one in every two renters in this country, have unaffordable rent right now, and they’re in the private sector.

So actually, at a time when we’ve been pushing the government to step up its role, to support the expansion of truly affordable housing, this is what happened. And it should be noted that it doesn’t evenly impact all peoples and communities. So it’s the black communities, Latina communities, Asian communities that are hardest hit.

I think part of what Right to the City wants to say and emphasize is that it doesn’t have to be that way. So let me just say, it’s clear that this move of gutting HUD, this is part of a bigger plan on the part of the Trump administration. We know that the money that they’re taking out of social programs is going to fund a bigger military, and it’s going into private pockets. They have a vision, if you will, and those of us who want something different have to be just as bold with our competing vision. So I want to ask you, what’s the new vision for housing? How does housing fit into the vision of the world we want to live in, and what do we need to do to get there?

Great question. And for us, everything we do is driven by vision, and how we feel the world should be. And actually, for us, and regular folks out there, working people, it’s not that complicated. Housing and our community are vital to us being able to live and thrive. Without home and without community, nothing else becomes possible, and everything else becomes a crisis. So if something is that important to our lives, it should not be something that’s sold on the market, like a hamburger, where everything is driven by folks that want to maximize profit.

We believe, clearly, housing, community, land are human rights. And our vision and answer has already been proven to work. Our answer is, move housing and land to a place where it’s fundamentally there to serve people’s need to have a stable, healthy, thriving home and community. And we’ve seen that happen. There are places where the land is collectively owned by the residents. Some of the residents are homeowners, some of the residents are renters. What’s unique about those communities is the land is collectively owned by everyone who lives on it.

So let me give you an example. If you look at Boston from 2007, the number of evictions, thousands; the number of foreclosures, thousands; the number of people who have lost their homes, the number of people made homeless, the number of people putting most of their income to housing, is devastating. If you looked at a map of Boston, and there was a red dot for every eviction or foreclosure, it would like like a bloody corpse.

Except there would be one part that would have no red dots, and you would think it must be a lake, right, or a big body of water, because people couldn’t live there. Actually, it’s called Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. It’s a community land trust that’s been there for decades. Because the folks collectively own the land, they have not suffered evictions and foreclosures. And even if someone loses their job, then their rent, or their payments to housing — because the land’s collectively owned — they work [it out] together.


Right? So some homeowners move to be a renter and vice-versa. So it’s proven to work when the land is collectively owned.

Let me tell you the other thing that’s worked. Even if people do not collectively own the land, where people have actually been in place, and been able to be stable and secure and not have a threat of eviction, is when they have rent control.

If people have rent control, then no matter what happens, if there’s investment in the community, which people long for, if there’s development, they get to help shape and benefit from that development. But of course, rent control is being eroded. So for us, our vision is to decommodify land and housing, and to create stability for renters and homeowners.

And what that means is, one, renter’s rights, so let’s expand rent control. How about universal rent control? If you’re a renter, you have rent control. That would prevent rising, ridiculous rents.

And then, second, even beyond that, where people start to have direct control over the land through community land trusts. What does that mean? It means when the cities, the governments, HUD, Fannie and Freddie, are handing over land and properties to developers, we’re saying, hey, we got an idea, why don’t you, right now, put a third of all your land, and turn it over to communities to collectively own the land?


And then they will decide what happens on that land. And they will foster development investment, but they will shape it and they will benefit from it. So there’s some very simple things that can happen in terms of — our demands were to expand HUD funding. And in terms of scarcity versus abundance, we know there’s an abundance. We know the finance capitalists, we know the big corporations, the Blackstones, they are making profits hand over fist, and none of that is going back into folks.

So financial transaction taxes, real corporate taxes — that would generate enough money to definitely allow rents to be stable, allow the HUD budget to be significantly increased, and to allow people to be able to live where they aren’t paying most of their income to housing, and having to literally make a choice of, do I pay rent or do I get my medication? Do I pay rent or do I pay for childcare for my kid? Those are the kinds of dilemmas families are facing every day.

We’ve been speaking with Tony Romano. He’s organizing director at Right to the City, a national alliance of racial, economic and environmental justice organizations. You can find their work on housing and other issues online at Tony Romano, thank you very, very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Good to be here. And if people want to hear and learn more information or get involved in the resistance, you can go to, and that’s F-O-R spelled out. You can also go to And you can join — we’ll support you in starting to organize tenant unions or community organizations, which are the heart and soul of this growing movement, and we’ll also help you connect with existing, very powerful, resident-led organizations in your area.

All right then. Thank you so, so much, Tony Romano.

Thank you, Janine.

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