This is an excerpt from Freedom Now! Struggles For The Human Right To Housing In Los Angeles And Beyond (Freedom Now Book, 2011) edited by Jordan T Camp and Christina Heatherton.
Rhonda Y Williams is a professor in the History Department of Vanderbilt University. She focuses on low-income black women’s and marginalised people’s experiences, everyday lives, politics and social struggles.
Privatisation, housing and human rights
In September 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Wall Street Journal quoted Republican Congressman Richard Baker of Baton Rouge telling lobbyists: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” While Baker expressed what he regarded as an ordained cleansing of the city’s public housing (and it would seem its residents), the urban theorist, activist, and author of Planet of Slums, Mike Davis, rendered a blistering critique of the earthly decisions that too often subjugate the public good to the market.
Condemning “the predators of New Orleans” and their “catastrophic economics”, Davis stated: “It is no secret that its business elites and their allies in City Hall would like to push the poorest segment of the population, blamed for high crime rates, out of the city. Historic public-housing projects have been razed to make room for upper income townhouses and a Wal-Mart … The ultimate goal seems to be a tourist theme-park New Orleans, Las Vegas on the Mississippi, with chronic poverty hidden away in bayous, trailer parks and prisons outside the city limits.” Davis continued: “Not surprisingly, some advocates of a whiter, safer city see a divine plan in Katrina.”
Over a year later, New Orleans’ housing officials had announced the demolition of 4 500 government-owned apartments. The natural, or heavenly, intervention asserted by Baker benefitted from extraordinary earthly aid. Extremely concerned about residential displacement in the aftermath of Katrina and future access to affordable housing in the city, public housing residents in New Orleans raised their voices. They argued, as Davis had, that municipal officials did not want poor black people to move back to the city. Sharon Pierce Jackson, whose housing complex was slated for razing, declared: “The day you decide to destroy our homes, you will break a lot of hearts … We are people. We are not animals.” The anti-demolition efforts continued in August 2007 when dozens of public housing resident-activists occupied housing authority offices. In response, the police and military surrounded the building. During this 21st century “sit-in”, a former resident of St Bernard public housing complex, Sharon Sears Jasper proclaimed: “We are not going to stop. We refuse to let you tear our homes down and destroy our lives.” Referring to the upset of thousands of residents as a result of Katrina, Jasper continued: “The government, the president of the United States [George W Bush], you all have failed us. Our people have been displaced too long. Our people are dying of stress, depression and broken families. We demand that you open all public housing. Bring our families home now.”
The public debates, tenant protests and the eventual tearing down of public housing complexes in New Orleans, including St Bernard, exemplify a broader decades-long trend in federal housing policy, and starkly expose the nexus of race, economics, place and power. For at least five decades, housing policies have privileged demolishing and privatising low-income housing, presenting such approaches as models for progress. The 1950s and 1960s brought urban renewal and increased subsidisation of private and commercial development. In the 1960s and 1970s, the reclamation of low-income housing for the private market accelerated with the moratorium on building family public housing and the initiation of the Section 8 programme, which provides government vouchers for qualified low-income residents to rent in private, market-rate apartments. While offering varied housing opportunities, under this programme, tenants are at the behest of the market and the whims of landlords who can opt out of the programme. The 1990s became renowned as the decade of displacement and reclamation of the city, often cast in the rhetoric of “Hope”. Under the Hope VI programme, Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere, which sought to develop mixed-income neighborhoods, demolishing public housing (without one-to-one replacement) represented a core component of the revitalisation efforts, as did provision of vouchers for renting in the private market. Many tenants did not feel Hope VI brought them hope, but dispersal leading to what Jasper conveyed as displacement and what psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove has termed “root shock”.
Even as she acknowledged the maintenance and safety issues that troubled her family’s high-rise apartment building in Baltimore, Barbara “Bobby” McKinney anticipated the implosion of the Lexington Terrace in 1996 and equated it with the dismantling of community. She voiced a fear that numerous tenants continue to unwaveringly express now, despite their cities of residence: the lack of the right of return after the desired renaissance. In 2001, Baltimore became the first major city to gain the auspicious accolade of imploding all of its family high-rise complexes in the Hope era. In the United States, 1.2 million families live in public housing. Since 1996, hundreds of thousands of private and public housing apartments have been removed from the affordable housing stock, even as waiting lists burgeon. This trend toward privatisation, alongside the reduction of traditional public housing continues, thereby further restricting the options of low-income and homeless people. One of the latest federal privatisation proposals was the Petra bill, or the “Preservation, Enhancement, and Transformation of Rental Assistance Act of 2010”, which proposed transforming public housing into market-rate Section 8 housing in order to attract private lenders to fund capital improvements. A petition campaign opposing the bill produced 2 500 signatures, which were entered into the Congressional Record.
Susie Shannon, of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, a grassroots advocacy group for homeless individuals and families, as well as low-income tenants, testified during a hearing on the bill on 25 May 2010: “Public Housing is the most stable affordable housing stock in America. We are concerned about the continued loss of public housing units and the precedent already set with the 100% disposition of public housing in the cities of San Diego and Atlanta. To date, not one study has been done on the impacts 100% disposition has had on low-income communities in either one of these cities. It is presumptuous and reckless to move forward with Petra legislation in the absence of any study.” Undoubtedly in an age of deindustrialisation, globalisation, rising unemployment, the increasing gap between rich and poor, foreclosures, the dearth of affordable housing, the demise of public housing and the market-driven mechanisms through which it is being achieved, raises other salient issues: That is, who has a right to cities? Is housing a human right, and to what degree ought it be provided to the most marginalised in our society? Susie Shannon’s words as well as the testimony of tenant rights groups at multiple Petra hearings also raised another alarm.
In the 1960s, even as privatisation efforts were underway, tenants’ rights movements emerged. In particular, public housing tenants, who had a landlord in “Uncle Sam”, asserted their rights to organise and to actively participate in the decisions structuring their lives. A former Baltimore public housing tenant leader who served on the citywide resident advisory board and as a regional National Tenants Organization (NTO) officer, Shirley Wise, shared how housing officials often labelled her a “troublemaker”. Insisted Wise: “But the same people utilises their rights to deal with their beefs, you understand … I don’t see no difference … There’s a set of rules for everybody to operate under … If you follow those rules, wouldn’t be no need for Shirley Wise, the Resident Advisory Board, tenant council or none of that. But there’s a need, because somebody is not following the rules.”
Like Shirley Wise, many tenants over the decades, including countless subsidy-reliant black women during the era of the black liberation struggle and afterward, agitated for their rights through local resident councils, citywide resident advisory boards and the National Tenants Organization. HUD’s rule 24 CFR part 964 and part 245 provide residents with the right to organize in public housing and multi-family housing respectively. Under the Petra bill, tenant advocates argued that these very hard-won rights such as the recognition of resident councils, the receipt of money to organise tenants, and anti-retaliatory eviction and grievance protections (won as a result of a lawsuit brought by public housing tenant Joyce Thorpe in 1967 against the housing authority in Durham, North Carolina) were threatened. Grassroots and political efforts challenging and halting Petra – including the support of Rep Maxine Waters who pronounced: “I am not about to be a part of privatising public housing” – exemplify demands for preserving subsidised housing as a public good.
Such demands, moreover, not only necessarily publicise contemporary efforts to protect the right to housing despite race, class, gender and place of residence, but also appreciably honour the legacies of low-income women’s struggles against urban inequality – thereby contesting staid and dehumanising depictions of low-income people. The grassroots campaigns and political statements of diverse women, such as Sharon Pierce Jackson, Susie Shannon and Rep Waters, in their resistance to the privatisation of public housing and the erosion of tenant rights, also speaks to what remains at stake: the enduring battle for the valuation of residents’ life experiences, the recognition of residents’ voices, their vital input into public policy, and as a consequence, the dire and persistent need for citizen engagement.