rhino!UP January 2021

What if you had a tenants organization in your community? January 3, 2020

Advocacy+Activism seem to be the secret sauce when it comes to changing the balance of power between landlords and tenants. Advocate's ideas need activist's energies to propel change. What if your community had an off-the-shelf activist organization that could propel the best ideas of your advocates?

Too many housing advocates think of tenants organizations as being rooted in a particular building or development. That's one model, but a community wide tenants organization that cuts across different rental types, social demographics, and income can be a vehicle for systemic changes.

There's no "one size fits all" but ideally a community based tenants organization follows the four principles for HUD building based groups: Meets regularly, operates democratically, is inclusive of all the tenants in the community, and is completely independent of management.

A community based tenants organization may be a loosely spun network, a formal organization, or a coalition of building-based organizations. How formal depends on the complexity of the issues, the size of the community to be represented, and the life experiences of the members. (Alinsky rule 2)

Leaders, members, and organizers. Every community organization should have a social leader and a task leader. Social leaders focus on relationships among the members, while task leaders focus on the "business" of the organization. Never underestimate the power of relationships within a citizen's organization! Members provide the energy in the form of ideas and action. An outside organizer can provide perspective from a range of groups and issues.

From these basics, the organization becomes the vehicle that mobilizes the needs and interests of the members into collective action. Typically, a community based tenants organization will work on a range of issues that reflects the range of experiences and interests within the membership. Woody Widrow says that every organization needs a set of goals.

Issues that are easy to achieve and have a tangible benefit for the membership.

Two or three issues that will take some work over time, but have real value for the community when they are achieved.

An issue that's "pie in the sky," but keeps members focused on changing the balance of power between landlords and tenants.

Renters live in a world of unmet needs. Many go unexpressed because grassroots people have not been able to imagine beyond the immediate oppression. Take "universal housing vouchers" for example. Tenants have participated year after year in the indignity of signing up for a lottery to get on a waiting list, to win chance of qualifying for a "gold card." For them, housing rights seems like a game show. A community based tenants organization that asks the question: "what if housing vouchers were like food stamps?" can unfreeze the status quo and open the door to change. A community based tenants organization becomes the place where the folks can "own the solution," not just the problem.

There will always be a need for tenant activism at the building level, but a community based tenants organization offers a way for building-based activists to move up the ladder of engagement from lobby rules and leaky faucets to local and national power.

Community based tenants organizations can exercise legal power as legal services clients, or political power as voters, or social power as thought leaders on a range of issues. Next week RHINO will look at system-changing issues that are at your fingertips.


What housing issue will make a difference in 2021? January 10, 2021

Advocates love to claim that, through their efforts, "a thousand more families received help from Program XYZ." It's a standard claim of every year-end fundraising letter in your mailbox. But what about making a big change?

The outcome of the Georgia Senate runoffs signals that there may be movement towards Universal Vouchers this year. On the face of it, providing funding for every eligible household to get a Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) sounds like another one of those incremental changes. Here's why fully funding HCVs will be a transformational change, disguised as a budget modification.

When former President Trump claimed that "Biden will abolish your suburbs" he was talking about a regulation that required cities, counties and states to "affirmatively further fair housing." Full funding for the HCV program is just a budget line item for a program with a proven track record that has been supported by Republicans and Democrats for 45 years. Full funding (universal vouchers) addresses the problem only about 1/3 of eligible households can participate in the program. The households who are left behind are forced to apply for a lottery in order to get a spot on a waiting list to be considered for a voucher. It's a degrading process that can drags on for year, while families are rent burdened in substandard homes. Rent burden is a ticket to eviction court anytime there's a household expense like a broken down automobile, a medical emergency, or a gap in employment.

Here's your pitch to Senator Portman.

  1. Reduced funding for emergency shelters or Rapid Rehousing.

  2. No more eviction prevention studies.

  3. Benefits are scaled to need. Incomes go up, family size goes down, the level of subsidy can be changed.

  4. No more eviction moratoriums and emergency rental assistance.

  5. No new Federal bureaucracy--HCV is managed by your local Housing Authority--y'know: the guys you golf with?

The path to Universal Vouchers is clear. Because full funded HCV is a budget line item (incremental change) means that it can fit neatly into the Budget Reconciliation process with simple majorities in the House and the Senate. Complex rules for reconciliation will mean that increased spending for HCV will need to be offset by spending cuts or tax increases. Since Congress already spent goo-gobs on Rental Assistance this past year, much of the offset is "baked in" to the mix already.

Wait, there's more. Matthew Yglesis points out that Universal Vouchers has some "multiplier" impacts. "According to original modeling by Columbia University scholars, it could cut child poverty by a third, narrow racial opportunity gaps, and potentially drive progress on the broader middle-class affordability crisis in the largest coastal cities as well." And that's just the beginning.

If every eligible family can get a voucher, owners of substandard housing will have the cash flow and the incentive to bring their existing units into compliance with Housing Quality Standards or be forced out of the landlording business. Universal Vouchers will jump start geographic mobility of low/moderate income families to communities of choice. And, finally, a newly empowered renter household will spur new construction of affordable housing in communities where there is a housing shortage. How's that for transformational impacts from an incremental change?

Ohioans have a special role in winning Universal Vouchers. Senator Sherrod Brown will be the chair of the Senate Banking Committee which has jurisdiction over housing. Marcia Fudge will be the Secretary of HUD. Senator Rob Portman is on the Senate Finance Committee, has already addresses some housing issues, and is up for reelection in 2022). The time to act is now.

Footnote: January 29, 2021. CityLab. Can an ‘Activist HUD’ Make Housing a Human Right? "...the Biden administration may go much further: One of Biden’s and Fudge’s proposals could utterly transform the safety net and is intended to make housing “a right, not a privilege,” as the Biden campaign has described it. The president has called for expanding the Housing Choice Vouchers program, more popularly known as Section 8, to be a federal entitlement, meaning that anyone who qualifies for federal rental assistance under the program will receive it. Currently, the Section 8 program is besieged by years-long waiting lists at a time when need is only growing for vouchers that serve as the primary alternative to limited public housing for people who can’t afford housing on their own."

Landlord's right to enter. rhino!UP foe January 17, 2021.

When tenants at a HUD subsidized highrise received a new set of "house rules" from their management company, they weren't surprised to see that their landlord claimed he had a right to enter without notice in order to perform a "health check." Popping in unannounced was a standard practice at the building, but seeing it in writing was irritating. The notice said that tenants were required to sign the rules. Tenants asked RHINO: "What if we don't agree?"

RHINO wrote a letter to HUD asking the Feds to advise the management to rescind the "health check" language because it violated the Ohio Landlord Tenant Law. At first, the management claimed that they had already revised the rule to eliminate the health check. So, RHINO asked for a copy. The landlord said they sent the revised rule out to the tenants, but none of RHINO's contacts had seen it. So the management sent RHINO a copy of the new rule. RHINO suggested that tenants were willing to leaflet the 250+ units, observing social distancing, with the revised rules at RHINO's expense...except for one thing. There was another rule prohibiting "solicitation" (in violation of HUD regulations at 24 CFR 245.115). Shortly thereafter, tenants reported that the corrected version of the House Rules had been delivered to each tenant.

Enforcing the landlord tenant law's protections against illegal entry can be tough. Owner's read Ohio Revised Code 5321.05 (B) which says: "The tenant shall not unreasonably withhold consent for the landlord to enter into the dwelling unit in order to inspect the premises, make ordinary, necessary, or agreed repairs, decorations, alterations, or improvements, deliver parcels that are too large for the tenant's mail facilities, supply necessary or agreed services, or exhibit the dwelling unit to prospective or actual purchasers, mortgagees, tenants, workmen, or contractors."

But they often fail to notice ORC 5321.04 (B) which says: "If the landlord makes an entry in violation of division (A)(8) of this section, makes a lawful entry in an unreasonable manner, or makes repeated demands for entry otherwise lawful that have the effect of harassing the tenant, the tenant may recover actual damages resulting from the entry or demands, obtain injunctive relief to prevent the recurrence of the conduct, and obtain a judgment for reasonable attorney's fees, or may terminate the rental agreement."

When thinking about the balance between a tenant's right to privacy in their rental home and landlord's right to access in their property during a lease, there's a lot of room for conflict. Some common flash points are:

Landlord claims that asking for a repair is a waiver of the right to 24 hour notice. Often landlords will believe that when a tenant asks for a repair, the tenant has waived the 24 hour notice to enter. Courts have ruled that's not true.

Landlord notice of entry is vague. Courts have ruled that a notice that maintenance will enter sometime in the next week doesn't constitute 24 hour notice.

Entry at an unreasonable time. If a landlord proposed to enter at a time which is inconvenient for the tenant, the tenant should propose an alternative time which would be reasonable.

Entry by 3rd parties. A landlord is responsible for anyone who enters on behalf of a landlord. Employees and contractors must be able to identify themselves to tenants before being granted entrance. Real estate agents must give notice before entering.

Intrusive entry. Landlords may not inspect tenants' personal property when entering. Searching in drawers and cupboards are off bounds. Courts have found that photographing tenants' furnishings is intrusive.

Two weeks ago, WTRF-TV in Wheeling reported Belmont County Landlord facing charges for breaking into his own house. This would be a comedy of errors if it weren't so serious. It could have been a tragedy if this landlord was shot during a "break in" when the he thought the unit was empty. Remember:

  • Always give a written notice, except in case of an emergency.

  • Always knock and wait before entering.

  • Don't argue with the sheriff when he tells you to use the eviction court instead of a "self help" approach.


Practicing democracy, 'til we get it right. rhino!UP for January 24, 2021

Advocates for progressive change could be hampered by the January 6th Capitol Insurrection. For the moment, the moderate middle seeks "unity," nevermind about injustice and inequality. In reality the "unity" within our democracy is the allegiance to a process for resolving differences. In the US, unity is our allegiance to the Constitution and "the rule of law." The term "the loyal opposition" refers to parties with different views, constituencies, and interests, who are nevertheless loyal to the principles in the Constitution.

Ironically, the HUD guidance on tenant organizing provides a microcosm for these "constitutional" principles. In an era when many citizens have not had the benefit of high school civics or student councils, joining a citizen's organization may be the first opportunity for learning the principles of civic engagement.

Principle #1: Meet regularly, not just when there is a crisis or when it's convenient. Structured interactions in groups provide an assurance that belonging matters. Unlike mobs or movements, citizen organizations have a stability that maintains stability.

Principle #2: Operate democratically. In citizens organizations, this means creating a set of ground rules (bylaws or charter) that define who owns the organization and sets up a deliberative process for how decisions are made. The document which operationalizes these principles of majority rule and minority rights is created before conflicts arise.

Principle #3. "Inclusive of all the residents" operationalizes the definition of "who owns the organization" in the founding document. Citizen organizations are challenged to make that definition as broad as possible or risk becoming an affinity group. Saul Alinsky's organizing practice was based on harvesting the activism of homogeneous social clusters into a broadly inclusive "people's organization" which could speak with authority.

Principle #4: On its face "be completely independent of management," seems to contradict the principle of inclusivity. In reality, distinguishing between the public interest of a citizens organization and private interest of a business is a practical recognition of the structural differences that exist between the public and private interests

Alas, Constitutional decisions have undermined this distinction in our national life and contributed to much of the present polarization. Granting "person" status to corporations has led to unrestricted financing of political campaigns and businesses winning the right to claim legal exemptions on the basis the corporations' religious beliefs!

Unexamined calls for "unity" can carry the risk of further eroding the power of citizen engagement. Almost before the ink was dry on the Constitution, founding parent, John Adams supported the creation of the Alien and Sedition Acts to deal with his political opponents. In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus (arbitrary incarceration) in DC and General US Grant expelled Jews from areas of the South. In the wake of WW1, zealous politicians promoted the Red Scare to quash the aspirations of Labor and Civil Rights organizations. Within days of the Capitol Insurrection, NYC police arrested peaceful BLM demonstrators who were too close to City Hall. A fearful moderate middle seeking "unity" can provide an excuse for repression.

What unites citizens as Americans is our commitment to resolve our differences Constitutionally. It's symbolic that we celebrated MLK Day one week after the Capitol Insurrection amidst a National Guard lockdown. Dr. King never gave shelter or comfort to the enemies of justice even as he claimed the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. In the Letter from a Birmingham Jail King wrote:

"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice...."

Footnotes to today's rhino!UP

  • JAN 22, 2021. Slate.com. The GOP Is Complaining That Joe Biden Is Being “Divisive” by Governing Like a Democrat. JORDAN WEISSMANN explores the relationship between unity and difference. "...the whole point of Biden’s inaugural was that we need to coalesce around some of the basic civic and democratic ideals that Donald Trump tried to shred so that we can go back to disagreeing about policy without trying to murder one another. As the president put it: “Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.” He asked Americans to relearn how to love their neighbors; he did not promise to make Republicans happy with every executive action. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous."

  • Jan. 23, 2021. Washington Post. Smart people say better civics classes will cure our political ills. Really? "Giving good teachers more time to explore civics with their students can’t do any harm. But I suspect how we vote will be more affected by slow changes in who we voters are than by better civics lessons for us in school" RHINO argues that everyday civic engagement will teach the civics principles that most citizens need. Your thoughts?


Representative Fudge's Confirmation Hearing for HUD Secretary. rhino!UP January 31, 2021.

RHINO watched the Senate's confirmation hearing, so you don't have to. However here's the link if you're interested. You can read her prepared remarks here.

The headlines from Representative Marcia Fudge's confirmation hearing focused on Republican rancor over some intemperate remarks she made about her Republican colleagues. Meanwhile, Democratic Senators were unstinting in their praise and affection for the HUD Secretary-designate. Even Senator Portman expressed a willingness to overlook Fudge's "end of a long day" sort of comments about her colleagues. But honestly, that's not the real news.

HUD Secretary-designate Fudge addressed the Zoom panel of Senators from a sunny room at Cuyahoga Community College with friends and family in the background. She danced around the questions about her past remarks without denying or retracting them. On substantive questions, she seemed well briefed and conscientious. Throughout her prepared statement and responses to questions she promoted issues that would get her full attention if confirmed as HUD Secretary.

  • COVID 19 Assistance. Regarding President Biden's proposal for a COVID Stimulus and Relief bill, Ms. Fudge echoed the meme "Extraordinary times call for extraordinary actions." Democrats cheered her on, while Republicans were largely silent, except for Senator Portman who cited "the pain and inefficiency" in our present system of eviction.

  • Increasing affordable housing opportunities. Rep.Fudge opened her remarks on affordability citing an important statistic: "only 1 in 5 eligible households is receiving Federal Housing assistance." She explicitly supported expansion of Housing Choice Voucher program and using downpayment assistance to help first time minority home buyers. When asked about relieving regulatory barriers to homebuilding, the Secretary-designate skillfully dodged by saying "everything is on the table." Hawaii Senator Brian Shatz later picked up on this theme saying that HUD should support homebuilders who were fighting local NIMBY laws that prevented more affordable housing.

  • Fighting lead poisoning. Before Ms. Fudge had a chance to raise the issue, Sherrod Brown laid the foundation by asserting that addressing lead poisoning was a hometown problem in Cleveland, but affected children throughout Ohio's Appalachian communities. Secretary-designate Fudge echoed his concern as part of her agenda for HUD action. Then Senator Reed of Rhode Island chimed in, calling lead poisoning a key housing issue for his constituents, especially at a time when children were spending more time at home. Senator Brown, soon to be chairman of the Senate Banking and Housing Committee, said that there was "hardly anything more important...." None of these advocates, however, mentioned the Lead Safe Housing for Kids Act by name.

Republican Senators raised some substantive housing issues beyond Ms. Fudge's inflammatory comments from the past.

  • Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey expressed the hope that President Biden's orders to HUD to review regulations regarding Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) and disparate impact would not mean simply returning to cumbersome, expensive Obama rules. Secretary-designate Fudge assured the Senator that she would adhere to the rule making process for AFFH and disparate reviews.

  • Senator Scott and other rural state senators asked Ms. Fudge to commit to supporting the manufactured home industry. She said she recognized that manufactured homes were a source of affordable housing in rural areas.

Shifting from the practical to the ideological, Senator Tom Cotton, a 2024 Presidential hopeful from Arkansas, asked the Secretary-designate to distinguish between equality and equity in policy making. These linguistics are an up and coming conservative attack on Biden. Clearly the Secretary-designate needs to sharpen her response so that non-ideologues can understand that treating rich and poor equally perpetuates inequality. To punch home his underlying message, Cotton asked: "Is it ever fair to treat people differently based on race?" Fudge said succinctly "No."

Footnote

March 19, 2021. Wapo. HUD secretary may have violated ethics law by championing Democrats in Ohio Senate race at White House. "Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge may have violated the Hatch Act this week in the White House briefing room when discussing the 2022 Senate race in Ohio and promoting Democrats’ chances to win the seat, experts said Friday. Fudge, who recently resigned her seat in Congress to join President Biden’s Cabinet, declined to answer a question Thursday about whether she would endorse a candidate in the special election to fill her seat, but then engaged in a follow-up question about the race for the seat of retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)." RHINOs may recall that Secretary Fudge's off the cuff political comments were a source of consternation in her confirmation hearings,