Your Organizing Relationships rhino!UP for January 9, 2022
Many advocates1 who are interested in using collective action to address inequality and injustice seek the help of an organizer. Almost weekly, RHINO receives email pleas from advocates (legal aid, social service providers, and others) asking for help forming a tenants organization. But when the advocates learn that an organizer will need to meet with the citizens, the request most often dissolves into a mist of wishing for the Lone Ranger. Quick-where did I leave my silver bullets? Their disillusion with the idea of organizing is the realization that collective action is an interactive process and the organizer is the catalyst for change, not the Lone Ranger or the Magnificent Seven.
Other times, RHINO hears from citizen leaders think they can be both leader and organizer...if only people would do what they are told to do! Many wannabe organizers fail to grasp that organizing a community is different than organizing a closet. In communities, the "clothes" have free will and strong opinions of their own. Leaders rule by consent.
In an organizer's tool kit2, relationship building requires a professional knowledge of relationships built on compromise, consensus, and collaboration. A favorite saying of legendary Councilwoman Fannie M. Lewis is "we don't have to be buddies in order to have a working relationship."
An organizer's primary relationship is with the organization, not a particular leader, member, or issue. The insider way to say this is: "the organization owns the issue, while the organizer owns the process." Another way to tell the same story is: "the organizer is the person who stands in the back of the room and leaves the meeting with the sign in list."
A major part of Saul Alinsky's memoir/organizing manual Reveille for Radicals is an in depth recollection of pulling together leaders from a range of social, civic and faith-based groups in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood. "Even the best outside organizer, one who has democratic convictions and practices them, who has complete faith in the people and their leadership, cannot build a People’s Organization to a complete structure. He [or she, the outside organizer] can serve as a stimulus, a catalytic agent, and render invaluable service in the initial stages of organization. He can lead in the laying down of the foundations—but only the people and their own leaders can build a People’s Organization."
A large part of relationship building is knowing some personal background of the members and some social history of the community or issue. Organizers gather this information through personal relationships before and after meetings and from observing who whispers to whom during the meeting. Every meeting has two kinds of notes. The minutes are the official record of who was at the meeting, what was discussed, and what was decided. The "process notes" focus on who asked a good question that went unanswered? Who sneaked out early? Who was whispering and when? Who didn't show up! Process notes help organizers address the relationships within the organization that build on problem solving or require attention.
What about times when there's no meetings, bars and coffee shops are closed and communications are by phone or email? Organizers may want to substitute an online conversation for video call for email you might send to a leader or member. Or meet outdoors. Build into your video call some time for a social interaction before or after the "business" contact. "Are your children back in school? How are you doing with remote work?"
Relationship means that organizers trust the organization (Alinsky would say "The People") and have confidence in the process. These attributes can be hard to maintain when crises emerge, when a leader goes off the rails, when leaders clash, and when chance reshapes the field of action. Think: pandemic restrictions, natural disasters, and civic unrest.
You will still get anxious calls from advocates who can't organize and leaders who won't organize, but those are moments when you can do some teaching about how organizing works.
1Consult RHINO Glossary for definitions that distinguish advocates, activists, and organizers.
2RHINO's Organizer's Tool Kit also includes a grounded immersion in theories of change, organizing strategies, using outside experts, and democracy, but those are future articles.
Was MLK an organizer? rhino!UP for January 16, 2022
Conventional wisdom places Rev. Martin Luther King Jr at the top of a pantheon of civil rights leaders along with his mentor Mahatma Gandhi and his spiritual heirs, Nelson Mandala and Desmond Tutu. However, there can be no doubt that each of these started as an organizer, invited by oppressed communities to support the communities' efforts to lift the yoke of oppression. Over time, each of these organizers came to embody the issue they facilitated. Wikipedia tells this story of MLK's involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott following Rosa Park's arrest. "Between Parks' arrest and trial, [E.D.] Nixon organized a meeting of local ministers at Martin Luther King Jr.'s church. Though Nixon could not attend the meeting because of his work schedule, he arranged that no election of a leader for the proposed boycott would take place until his return. When he returned, he caucused with Ralph Abernathy and Rev. E.N. French to name the association to lead the boycott to the city (they selected the "Montgomery Improvement Association", "MIA"), and they selected King (Nixon's choice) to lead the boycott. Nixon wanted King to lead the boycott because the young minister was new to Montgomery and the city fathers had not had time to intimidate him." The rest as the cliche goes, is history. In the wake of the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, MLK formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in 1957 as a vehicle to promote direct action organizing strategies to local communities throughout the South.
King's 1964 book Stride Toward Freedom, marked an important turning point in King's career from organizer to national leader. Stanford University's MLK project notes the transition when King, after recounting the history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, shifts his focus to non-violence. "In the chapter 'Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,' King delves into the intellectual influences that led him to nonviolent philosophy. He discusses the impact made upon his thinking by the works of Thoreau, Marx, Aristotle, Rauschenbusch, and Gandhi. King also outlines his understanding of nonviolence, which seeks to win an opponent to friendship, rather than to humiliate or defeat him"
And yet, under increasing pressure to be the face and the voice of "the movement," King continued to work with local organizers with a mix of inspiration and organization. A report written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer by Roldo Bartimole captures the inspiration of King's admonition to local youth. But two months later, King met with Cleveland activists around strategy and tactics to advance the movement. "In a 3-day conference in early June, King and his advisors developed a 4-point plan to organize tenant unions, register voters, improve relations between police and citizens, improve black employment through negotiations, and, if needed, organize direct action protests. " More info on King's work in Cleveland can be found here.
King's last campaign, supporting the Memphis sanitation workers, is another illustration on how King used his inspirational status and his organizing skills to reframe a local labor dispute into an economic justice movement by reframing the sanitation workers strike into the "I am a Man" campaign that included a coalition of civic and religious leaders. King and his organizing entourage brought Black leaders to a new level of engagement. You could call it a combination of inspiration and organization, but the campaign turned into a combustion of inspiration and organization.
An article on the ACLU website makes a strong argument for MLK's organizing skills, noting:
King chose campaign targets strategically and partnered with local leadership.
King developed innovative tactics in service of a cohesive strategy.
King invested in others.
King embraced politics as essential to making change.
The article concludes: "These are just a few examples of the intentionality King brought to his organizing practice, which, married to his moral clarity, made him such a transformative visionary." In addition, RHINO notes that MLK learned to be an organizer step by step, but never forgot what he learned.
Changing the subject...a little
Aren't you sorry you didn't negotiate snow removal before this weekend? Check out rhino!UP Nov 14, 2021
January 19, 2021. WaPo. Nikole Hannah-Jones surreptitiously quoted MLK to show how radical some would find him today. “ 'The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation,' she said in a tweet thread that relayed some of her speech. 'Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance.' The first half of her speech, she eventually told the crowd, had not been her words, but excerpts from King’s work, with the word Negro swapped for Black to not tip off the difference in period-accepted verbiage." Wait...there's more. "The '1619' author said on Twitter that she scrapped her original speech when she learned that some members of the group hosting the event leaked emails opposing her speech and said she wasn’t 'fit' to speak in honor of King’s legacy, labeling her as a “discredited activist....' "
Organize to Own rhino!UP for January 23, 2022
A dilemma for place-based organizers is how to move from small victories to systemic change. Winning unit repairs, the right to sit in the lobby, or better vending machines are certainly of value to tenant members of a place based organization. But how does a place based group change a law or create a new city wide policy? Three recent examples may help social change agents to see a path from place to policy.
Remember Moms4Housing? In 2019, four families in Oakland California began a very public takeover of an empty house owned by an investor which specialized in "flipping." In less than a year, the Oakland Community Land Trust was able to force the investor to sell the home to the Moms4Housing. Make no mistake, while the action was carefully planned by a network of activists with expertise, the Moms made the difference. Shelterforce reports: "When the Alameda County Sheriff finally came to evict the women in January, hundreds of community members filled the street outside the home to attempt an eviction blockade. 'People can see themselves in this...' " This is exactly what Alinsky meant by Rule #2 "Never go outside the expertise of your people." No one needs to explain housing insecurity...they just need to dramatize it.
Then, in September 2020, the California's Governor signed the Homes for Owners, not Corporations Law which, among other things, breaks the corporate stranglehold on foreclosure sales: "...after the initial bids at a foreclosure auction are received, tenants, families, local governments, affordable housing nonprofits, and community land trusts have a 45-day window to exceed the highest auction bid in order to buy the property."
But there's more. Last month, California's Attorney General Bob Bona announced a $3.5 million dollar settlement against the real estate flipper. "Wedgewood is a prominent player in residential foreclosures in California, buying, refurbishing, and selling foreclosed properties at a profit. In order to resell the properties quickly, Wedgewood removes any existing tenants and is alleged to have used a variety of unlawful and harassing tactics to accomplish this goal. Today's judgment will substantially reform Wedgewood's business model to ensure that tenants of Wedgewood-purchased properties are afforded full rights and protections under federal, state, and local laws." No coincidence that Wedgewood was the owner of the property occupied by Moms4Housing.
Also last month, Philly Voice reported that the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) has agreed to sell 20 abandoned properties to squatters who have been occupying the homes for over a year. "The Philadelphia Housing Authority has begun to fulfill its agreement made in October 2020 with leaders of a homeless encampment that was located in the Sharswood neighborhood. PHA welcomed the first families of their housing pilot program into their new homes on Tuesday, following renovations made to long-vacant homes in North Philadelphia that were transferred to the newly-formed Community Land Trust, according to a statement released by the agency."
Squatting has a long history around the world. The current campaign to liberate the housing owned by the PHA started in 2020. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports "It started when a group of people pitched tents on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with support from a grassroots group called Workers Revolutionary Collective. As that encampment grew, Jennifer Bennetch a 34-year-old mother of two who has been protesting PHA relentlessly for the last year, helped another group set up outside PHA’s one-year-old, $45 million headquarters."
Closer to home, Cincinnati activists managed to win relocation benefits for families displaced by a new sports complex. Based on that success, they embarked on a city wide initiative campaign to create a dedicated source for affordable housing. Though the ballot issue failed, the campaign helped a "swing to the left" municipal election in 2021 that will keep affordable housing on the public agenda. WVXU writes this week: "Cincinnati's first-ever committee focused on housing held its inaugural meeting Wednesday. Council Member Reggie Harris is Chair of the Equitable Growth and Housing Committee. 'We want to begin to create the conditions for housing and equitable growth,' Harris said, listing a few priorities: increasing housing stock, revitalizing existing stock, increasing home ownership rates, and addressing absentee and derelict landlords."
Once mobilized and successful, a place-based organization, combined with an activist network, can be the springboard for changes in every place.
Is Housing affordability DOA if it eventually arrives? rhino!UP for January 30, 2022
While President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and the House Progressives have not given up on a BBB Reconciliation bill, there's little sign that Manchin and Sinema will come back to the bargaining table. Even if they do, hopes for a housing windfall are fading. As noted in an earlier rhino!UP (10/10/21), the problem is that none of the Dems are against expanding the supply of affordable units, increasing capital spending for renovations to public and subsidized housing, and funding of more Housing Choice Vouchers for income eligible families. It's just that Ds in Congress like other programs better.
Meanwhile, there's growing concern among housing analysts that the dramatic runup in prices for single family homes is creating a housing bubble. Home purchase price leaps are forcing first time homebuyers to opt for rental housing. And more renters seeking a fixed supply of rental units means that rents are going up. In a column in the New York Times (registration walled), Paul Krugman disputes the "bubble" theory by comparing today's housing market to the 2005 bubble that caused the Great Recession. He concludes that the problem is a supply chain issue--we're just not building enough housing units because of labor and supply shortages. President Biden's original BBB proposal to build 100,000 affordable units *could* have helped by creating supply that investors would be unable to bid up, but even if enacted now, the inflationary damage is already built into mortgages and leases.
The latest study from Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Policy (JCHP) notes that, as usual, the burdens of housing inflation falls mostly on low income and minority communities. "After a cooldown early in the pandemic, rental housing markets heated up again in 2021. With this resurgence in demand, the overall rental vacancy rate dropped to just 5.8 percent—its lowest reading since the mid-1980s. Strong demand also caused rents to increase; asking rents for all professionally managed apartments spiked in the third quarter last year, led by a 13.8 percent jump for units in higher-quality buildings." The hardest hit households *could have* benefited from President Biden's original plan to use BBB dollars to expand the number of Housing Choice Vouchers. That could have worked to tamp down trickle-down inflation by putting a cap on "market rents" that could be charged to voucher tenants. Too late now. the market has already bubbled.
Emily Badger echoes her New York Times colleague Krugman. In her story Something Has to Give in the Housing Market. Or Does It? she quotes an economist from the online realty company Redfin: "My pessimistic view is that the economy is perfectly capable of running with unaffordable housing,' said Daryl Fairweather, the chief economist at Redfin. This was evident over the past decade, she said, when affordability worsened even as the economy continued to grow. And that reality has enabled politicians and the public to largely neglect the issue of housing affordability." RHINO's emphasis is intended to call attention to these facts:
As noted above, no one in Congress is against making affordable housing, but other issues are more compelling.
Everyone in the FIRED industry (see RhinoNews glossary) is making money now, why change?
And herein lies is the irony of expecting politicians to fix with the "housing market." Politicians don't understand housing economics. That's why Congressed outsourced Federal housing policy to two private "banks" (FannieMae and FreddieMac) which eventually collapsed in the 2008 housing bubble and were nationalized.
Whether BBB is DOA or not, the fight for affordable housing continues.
Step 1 is reforming the housing finance system to maximize stability over private profit. President Biden's appointee to the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which oversees Fannie and Freddie, could play a pivotal role. Housing advocates need to make sure that Senator Sherrod Brown understands the need to make FHFA a tool for housing stability, not investors' profits.
Step 2 happens at the grassroots level, Housing affordability needs to be a part of every 2022 Congressional debate. Renters need to tell their personal stories and recommend both supply (build more affordable units) and demand (universal housing vouchers) reforms in the 2023 Federal budget.
Feb 1, 2022, Marketplace. Corporate investors remain bullish on real estate market. "It’s a good time to be a corporate landlord, if Blackstone’s earnings are any indication. The investment management firm reported record earnings last week, driven largely by the performance of its real estate holdings, which include a large number of single-family homes in suburbs where rents have been steeply increasing. Wall Street investors’ role in the housing market started expanding more than a decade ago, with speculators scooping up distressed properties during the housing crisis — and it’s still going strong today."
January 14, 2022. Shelterforce. Doing Their Duty: Should Fannie, Freddie Invest More in Underserved Markets? "Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are under a congressional mandate to improve investment in three specific kinds of housing markets—but Congress didn’t say by how much, and advocates say they could be doing far more." Good explanation of how Fannie and Freddie operate, but it fails to tackle the issue of subsidizing investors seeking to inflate home prices and drive up rents.
Feb. 7,2022. When Private Equity Becomes Your Landlord. "Amid a national housing crisis, giant private equity firms have been buying up apartment buildings en masse to squeeze them for profit, with the help of government-backed Freddie Mac. Meanwhile, tenants say they’re the ones paying the price. [...] "During the past decade, private equity-backed firms such as Greystar have stormed into the multifamily apartment market, snapping up rentals by the thousands and becoming major landlords in American cities, according to ProPublica’s analysis of National Multifamily Housing Council data on the nation’s biggest owners of apartment buildings with five or more units."
May 1, 2022. NYT via WorldNewsEra. The Extraordinary Wealth Created by the Pandemic Housing Market. "It’s a remarkably positive story for Americans who own a home; it’s also inseparable from the housing affordability crisis for those who don’t. For them, rents are rapidly rising. Inflation is whittling away their incomes. And the very thing that has created all this wealth has pushed homeownership as a means of wealth-building further out of reach." Too many people made too much money from bad economics in response to the pandemic.