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March 16, 2020

Essence: The Growing Movement For Housing Justice

“Having a safe, quality, affordable home was the necessary foundation to allow me to be who I am today,” Celeste Scott, an organizer with the organization Pittsburgh United told a crowd gathered outside the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) last week. “I am proud of my public housing upbringing. That upbringing allows me to stand here today,” she explained. Scott was one of over 100 grassroots housing justice leaders, organizers, and advocates from across the country who gathered at HUD to release the Housing Justice National Platform and hand a copy to Secretary Ben Carson’s office. The platform and action were in response to the ongoing housing crisis impacting households of all income levels across the country. 

Just over a decade after the foreclosure crisis turned millions of homeowners into renters and wiped out over half the wealth of Black and Latinx communities, a new crisis of renter instability and unaffordability has emerged. Today, nearly 40 million families are being charged more than a third of their income just to keep a roof over their heads.

Despite housing being a basic human need, America’s housing market is built upon a foundation of discriminatory policies and practices—from the theft of land to redlining to over-taxing households to predatory lending—that have made achieving or maintaining homeownership especially difficult for Black households.

As a result, Black families have less than 10% of the wealth of white families, and Black homeownership rates are at a 50-year low as redlining and housing discrimination continue. Despite this, the Trump Administration is actively working to dismantle measures to fight housing discrimination established through the Civil Rights Act and finalized under the Obama administration.

“In the South, our communities have been built on the exploitation of natural resources and the resources of Black and Brown communities,” Trenise Bryant, an advocate with the Miami Workers Center, explained to the crowd. “We need HUD to stop attacking our fair housing laws and regulations, and take seriously their mission and mandate to make every community breakdown and end barriers to full inclusion.”

Fortunately, a powerful and growing housing justice movement is securing major wins and changing the conversation across the country. Just this year, Moms 4 Housing – a small collective of Black mothers – made headlines for occupying a vacant home in Oakland, CA – a city where there are four times as many vacant properties as there are unhoused people. Their efforts highlighted the grip big banks and real estate speculators have on housing, and has forced Wedgewood Properties – a home flipping giant that owns the home the Moms occupied – into conversations with the women and the city over selling the home to a local community land trust.

Such grassroots leaders influenced the National Housing Justice Platform, which outlines an agenda for ensuring housing is a human right, not simply a commodity to be bought and sold for profit. The platform was jointly developed by national grassroots networks including Center for Popular Democracy, People’s Action, Right to the City, MH Action, and Alliance for Housing Justice, and has been endorsed by over 80 organizations.

Specifically, the platform outlines five pillars: create millions of new, non-market housing units that are community-controlled; protections for renters and homeowners from displacement; redress for decades of racist housing and land policies; a call to decommodify housing and regulate Wall Street; and a Green New Deal for housing that would rehabilitate millions of homes and create good jobs in the process.

The specific policies outlined in the platform are bold, yet proven solutions. For example, under the renter protections pillar, the platform calls for rent control, which protects tenants from excessive rent increases. If rent control were adopted across the country, 42 million households could be stabilized. In addition, just cause eviction policies prevent arbitrary evictions by stating that landlords can only evict renters for specific reasons, such as failure to pay rent. In many cities and states, landlords can legally evict tenants to attract wealthier renters at higher prices, or even out of retaliation to tenants who request repairs. This would particularly help Black women, who are more likely than any other group to face eviction.

As local momentum continues to grow, members of Congress are taking notice. Drawing on the tenant organizing occurring across the country, a group of congressional leaders – including members of “the squad” – announced a set of proposals to address housing and homelessness called The People’s Housing Platform. “I know firsthand the challenges faced by those of us who were left out of the housing conversation – families like mine that were headed by a single parent and impacted by both redlining and mass incarceration,” Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley stated In a press release.  “Access to safe, decent and affordable housing is a fundamental human right and the displacement of families should be regarded as the public health crisis that it is.”

As the action at HUD concluded, no one from Ben Carson’s office would pick up a copy of the platform. Instead, they sent someone in charge of the building’s maintenance to receive the policy platform. But as the movement for housing justice continues to grow – and local leaders pass policies that protect tenants and fight displacement –  it will be harder for the powers that be to ignore today’s housing crisis.

You can join the movement and make your voice heard by demanding HUD fight housing discrimination. You can also ask your institution to endorse the National Housing Justice Platform.