February 2022

Citizen Organizations are the Engines of Social Change. rhino!UP for February 13, 2022

The trucker blockades in Canada are a perfect example of the confusion in the public mind between mobilization and organization for social change. A mass mobilization of loud voices whether it's at a school board meeting or a bridge crossing or beneath the windows of decision makers in Ottawa, is not a strategy for social change. Like a TV sitcom, mobilizations dissipate when the next show comes on or when the truckers run out of gas, or when their rents come due. (Alinsky Rule 7) The trucker blockaders and the January 6th insurrectionists have in common is a goal of disruption. What they lack is a collective vision and a strategy to achieve it. The root of mobilization is "mob." Citizen organizing is different.

Where bystanders (TV watchers, people assaulted by blockaders, and the general public) get confused is that both mobilization and grassroots organizing rely on collective action to generate change. Where mobilization differs from organization is that citizen activists build on a vision and a strategy, not just disruption. Randy Cunningham captures the essence of citizen action in his recap of activism in Cleveland over the past several years.

"Two more campaigns...have demonstrated the power of the new insurgencies to deliver a punch. The first was the “CLASH” (“Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing”) campaign to make Cleveland get serious about childhood lead poisoning. Past programs by the city on the issue were models of municipal incompetence and neglect. Again, with the gun that is the initiative process aimed at its figurative head, City Hall blinked and passed most of what the campaign wanted. The city hasn’t done much in reality to implement these reforms, but nothing ever comes easy in Cleveland. So, the efforts continue."

In case you missed it, key characteristics of citizen organizations are a vision of a better world and have a strategy to achieve that vision.

Confusion also occurs when bureaucrats list citizen action on a laundry list of "interested parties" as if citizen organizations are just another constituency. This month, the US EPA is conducting Public Comment Sessions on EPA's new strategy for addressing lead poisoning. US EPA has put together a 31 page document designed to show how government plans to address lead poisoning. The draft strategy mentions "community organizations" just once:

"Interventions may include collaboration on funding (e.g., grants, technical assistance); partnerships with community organizations, faith-based institutions, foundations; and coordinated actions to achieve compliance."

This melding of community organizations with other social actors obscures the fact that citizen organizations have been on the frontlines of environmental justice. EPA's plan make it sound like EPA drives the train and citizen activists are in a caboose with other "interest groups." At this week's EPA public comment session, CLASH (described above) will focus on one key point: Citizen activism is the backbone of the movement to eliminate childhood lead poisoning from Flint, to Newark, to Cleveland, to San Jose. It's long past time for public policy makers to acknowledge that lasting change arises from citizen action, not vice versa.

For bystanders who are unable to distinguish between a mob and a citizens organization and for bureaucrats who believe that a strategy is a solution, there are some key points to remember.

  1. The vision in citizen action arises from the people's knowledge of their history and culture. Acknowledging the past is the glue; restoring those values is the goal. (Alinsky rule 2).Strategy arises from a theory of change. Communities which know their history can often identify the change strategy that works for them.

  2. While citizen action benefits from collaborations with experts who can flesh out the people's vision into action steps,experts belong on tap, not on top.

  3. Citizen action is renewed through an on-going conversation with and among frontline people and communities.

  4. Organizers can help manage these steps through a dialogic, not an autocratic, process with community leaders and members.


Footnote on last week's rhino!UP

  • February 17, 2022. JCHS. RENTS HAVE SOARED ACROSS THE COUNTRY, BUT HOME PRICES GREW EVEN FASTER. "The historic rise in home prices throughout the pandemic has substantially affected rental markets. Rising home prices and the limited inventory of homes for sale have prevented many potential homebuyers from becoming homeowners. Instead, these middle- and higher-income households are more likely to turn to rental housing or remain in their rentals longer than planned. As a result, the significant growth in higher-income renter households preceding the pandemic will likely persist, bolstering already high demand for rental housing and potentially pushing up rents for units up and down the rent scale."

  • February 22, 2022. Cleveland Scene. Study: Cleveland Tops List of Cities Where Property Prices Have Most Outpaced Local Wages in Last Five Years."According to research from Online Mortgage Advisor, Cleveland has seen the worst change in property affordability of any city in the U.S. over the last five years. Comparing the difference in square feet that a Clevelander making the average net salary can afford in 2021 compared to 2017, the research found residents can "afford 63 square feet less" on an average salary, the biggest decrease in the country. The study also found Cleveland ranked 7th worst for changes in rental affordability, with the average city resident spending 32% of their salary on rent in 2021 compared to 28% in 2017."

  • Feb. 16, 2022. Channel 19. Large investor landlords buy Cleveland properties, raise rent, evict tenants who can’t pay increase "CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - If you’re a renter, it’s likely your monthly payments are going up. And at the same time for some, living conditions are getting worse. That’s bad for all of us who want to live in a nice neighborhood.

Regulating Housing Investors. rhino!UP for February 20, 2022.

Congressional reaction to the COVID recession didn't create the latest housing affordability crisis, but it sure did open the door.

The economic downturn of 2019 started when businesses were forced to close either by government lockdowns, lack of staff, or lack of customers. To buffer against these losses, some households lost income and needed to be bailed out with supplemental unemployment comp and rental assistance. At the same time, families received economic stimulus payments which were designed to increase economic demand to jump start retail sales and business recovery.

Meanwhile, middle/upper class households, many of whom never lost employment income because they could work remotely, were suddenly flush with cash that they couldn't spend on restaurants, theaters, or travel. Many decided to buy houses...at any cost. It was a classic case of too many dollars chasing too few goods. (Don't blame Biden unless you also blame Trump--both gave stimulus checks.)

At some point, home purchase prices, depending on where the property was located, put home ownership out of reach for many prospective homebuyers. They couldn't buy, but could afford suburban single family rentals (SFR) as the next best alternative. You may recall that the SFR market was created by Wall Street Investors during the 2008 recession. Speculators began buying up blocks of foreclosed homes at sheriff's sales and turning them into rental properties. Many figured SFR was a temporary expedient until the home sales market returned and the homes could be sold to home buyers for a sweet profit.

By 2021, investors, who were empowered by low interest rates and the Trump tax benefits, rushed back into the SFR business. Predictably, as upscale rents rose, the increases rippled through the entire market.

Because the CoronaCrisis was upon us, no one in DC thought to connect the dots between unexpected discretionary income, low mortgage rates, and high purchase prices leading to high rents. In part that's because Congressionals don't understand housing and in part because housing policy in the US is divided among HUD (low-mod income housing), Treasury (low income housing tax credits), and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government sponsored enterprises now managed by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. In other words, no one is in charge.

Wait, it gets worse! When President Biden tells you that the price of groceries, gasoline, and used cars are temporary blips caused by "supply chain disruption" he is not telling you that rent and home prices (about 30-50% of most household budgets are locked in by leases and new mortgages which won't be coming down when the cargo ships are unloaded at the West Coast ports.

Remember all those low and moderate victims of the CoronaCrisis of 2019-20? These are the folks who benefited from eviction and foreclosure moratoriums along with rental assistance and expanded workers comp. Well, the moratoriums ended, the emergency assistance ran out, but the pandemic continues from alpha to delta to omicron. These low/mod households are facing a general consumer inflation. Anoosh Chakelian of Britain's New Statesman has blown the whistle on the dilemma facing ordinary households. "Simply focusing on the inflationary pressure caused by global short-term supply chain issues lets the government – whose previous iterations have presided over a less generous welfare system and sluggish wage growth over the past decade – off the hook. During the recession and then the pandemic, workers have generally been losing out as shareholders and asset owners benefit."

Sherrod Brown could help. As Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, he is in a position, if Democrats retain control of the Senate this year, of producing some real controls over the housing market. The recipe could involve universal housing vouchers, caps on Federal mortgage subsidies, and equalizing taxes on investor and wage earner incomes.


  • 03/18/2022. Politico. Steep rise in housing costs fuels inflation. "The Biden administration has struggled for months to allay Americans’ concerns about the highest inflation in four decades. But when it comes to the single biggest driver of runaway prices, Washington’s hands are mostly tied. Skyrocketing housing costs may create even bigger problems for the administration going forward than oil and food price spikes, which are the result of sudden and unforeseen — but probably temporary — events. That’s because there’s no clear end in sight for shelter inflation." FWIW RHINO has argued for months that the flaw was at the Federal Reserve and the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Both regulatory entities failed to address home purchase inflation a year ago when upper income households, flush with cash and no where else to spend it, started a real estate bubble. The regulatory agencies could have raised interest rates and capped Federally insured mortgages. Now that inflation is locked in by mortgages and rental leases.

Covering Rental Housing News rhino!UP for February 27, 2022

Part 1: Double stereotypes+blood

One month ago, Cleveland was rocked by the story of a Housing Court bailiff who fatally shot a tenant during an eviction. You know the maxim: if it bleeds it leaves. The tenant-bailiff story had a double dose of media stereotypes: the "tenant from hell" vs. "trigger happy cops." The facts are interesting. The Housing Court had postposed the eviction hearing until the owner came into compliance with the City's Lead Safe Certificate law. The owner's efforts to have a professional perform a lead clearance test had been blocked by the tenant who was later involved in the shooting.

Two weeks later there was another Housing Court story about the Northern Ohio Apartment Association and a local landlord bringing a charge against the Housing Court Judge for stalling an eviction because that landlord had failed to certify lead safe last October. The only media coverage was behind a paywall at cleveland.com in February. Advocates found the whole story reprinted by MSN. No "tenant from hell" no "shoot out at OK corral," just landlords refusing to comply with court rules. In this case the article's author is to be commended for a thorough exposition of the issues, but hardly anyone saw it.

Part II: Stereotype and misunderstanding

This week the Associated Press proclaimed: Treasury: Most COVID rental aid went to low-income residents. Well, there's a stereotype and a factual misrepresentation. Four paragraphs below the lede was the "revelation" that the households who qualified for the assistance were low income and minority households most at risk of eviction. But there's more: under the various rental assistance programs, tenants did not get the money. Tenants at risk were required to provide documentation of need...but the funds went to their landlords." Many tenants went through all the hoops only to find that their landlords refused to accept the emergency rental payments. Message sent: low income tenants are deadbeats. Alas, thousands of local outlets will pick up this story in order to have something to put in between the ads.

Part III: Too long don't read

For almost 10 years, RHINO has been following the issue of collusion between multifamily landlords and cable providers. Landlords would sign exclusive contracts with Cable companies to "wire the building." Then the landlord would get a payment (kickback) from the cable provider for preventing tenants from using a different service.

  • Back in 2008, tenants in Ravenna succeeded in getting HUD to intervene in a case where tenants were forced to contract with a local cable and barred, by lease, from installing antennas for the less expensive Dish Network.

  • Another Ohio landlord uses a different tactic. The owner includes the cost of premium internet services into the rent. Theoretically a tenant can choose a different, cheaper package, but still has to pay for the landlord's selected service that is a part of the rent.

Well...here's the story. Two weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a rule designed to provide real freedom of choice for tenants living in multifamily housing. Where could you read about this? The online technology magazine Ars Technica, the investigative site The Verge, and the National Multifamily Housing Council, which decried the decision. Mainstream media seems to believe that this story is not worthy of coverage because it doesn't affect them personally.

Part IV: Two takeaways

1. Rental advocates need to dig to find the stories that affect tenants and then share those stories through a network of influencers. Whether it's a challenge to Cleveland Housing Court Rules, rental assistance stereotypes, or landlord-cable collusion, important stories are lost if not shared. Members of Cincinnati's Affordable Housing Advocates do a good job of ferreting out the relevant rental housing news.

2. Advocates need to make their own news. Take a page from the Realtors who push the virtues of homeownership (The American Dream) through a steady stream of press release stories. Some are just printed verbatim. Others are triggers for alt-media outlets like The Land which follows tips to create in depth stories that aren't covered by the mainstream media. Documenters is another way to uncover unreported news.


  • February 27, 2022. WaPo. This rural news start-up has two reporters and an editor with no broadband. Already, it’s made an impact. "Two photographs tell the story of Cardinal News, a start-up news site in a mostly rural section of Virginia. One shows a lawn chair and small table set up just outside the Fincastle branch of the Botetourt County public library. It’s where editor Dwayne Yancey sometimes goes to use the broadband Internet access that he lacks at his nearby home. When he needs to upload big digital files — particularly photographs he wants to publish on the news site — his mobile hotspot can’t get the job done,"

  • March 1, 2022. TheLand. Teaching renters their rights: Advocates share lessons on organizing for change. "Tenants in disputes with landlords, ranging from a lack of heat to rodent infestation, often aren’t aware of their rights, many housing advocates say. Some of these advocates recently held a 'Renter’s Rights Teach-In' focusing on tenants rights, including free legal representation for low-income renters facing evictions. The 90-minute, online Feb. 9th event pushed for renters to form tenant unions, or organizations, and to advocate for legislation that would provide protections for renters."