How to Stop Gentrification and House a Nation

Photo by Tim Hettler | CC by 2.0

In San Francisco, New York City and other huge cities hundreds of thousands of people have been evicted from their homes. By 2017 grass roots political movements against gentrification have grown across the U.S. that have agreed on one important principal:  the nation, which now treats housing as a commodity to be bought and sold, should instead treat housing as a public right.

The fight for decent housing started in the U.S. in the 1880s when Jacob Riis exposed the horror of people crammed into tenements in his book How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York, published by Scribner’s Books in 1890. Riis’s book was the first to have illustrations and halftones photographs of the squalid, overcrowded slum houses as well as calls for reform. How the Other Half Lives was a success and praised by newspapers in many cities all over the country; many of these newspapers called for housing reforms in their cities that Riis had outlined in his book.

Theodore Roosevelt, then President of the N.Y. City Police Board, was a fan of Riis’s book. The two men worked together to establish the Tenement Housing Commission in 1894, to get the eight-hour day with prevailing wages passed, and got passed in 1895 the New York Tenement Act, which outlawed rear tenement houses. Riis’s book inspired people to struggle for more nationwide. Housing reformers then got the New York Tenement House Act of 1901 that specified the amount of light in living quarters, more fire safety regulations, more ventilation, and increased room space. Housing reformers in New York City, Chicago, and other cities kept up these surveys and agitation for the next 30 years electing Roosevelt as a reform Democratic N.Y. Governor.

During the 1930s millions of people in the U.S. lost their homes. When a family was evicted and their possessions put on the sidewalk, a crowd would return their possessions to their apartment. Housing activists worked to elect Roosevelt as the U.S. president. Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration hired photographers like Dorothea Lange who carried on Riis’s photographic work of documenting people in living in tents or shack or just sleeping out by the side of the road. These photographs and protests helped inspire New Deal housing reforms starting in the 1930s.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, the New Deal’s housing programs had government insuring mortgages to help people buy homes, offered V.A. loans, and also built many public housing projects to give enough homes to the nation by the 1950s. The huge flaw in New Deal housing programs was in home mortgages which encouraged whites only to buy homes in the suburbs as home mortgages were following segregated patterns of home ownership.  The 1960s civil rights movement got housing segregation outlawed nationwide with the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 outlawed  “any creditor to discriminate against any applicant, … on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, or age” and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975 demanded disclosures.  Both laws add more protections against housing segregation but didn’t completely abolish it.

By the late 1970s the federal government had cut out their programs for insuring housing loans and quit building new public housing. In New York City and other cities in the 1980s governments—city, state and national—started helping real estate firms, developers, financiers, and landlords get huge profits from real estate through evicting the poor and then evicting the middle class to house the rich–gentrification.

Since 1990 the government housing agencies have destroyed more than 250,000 units of public housing nationwide. In 1992 Clinton’s Hope VI by 2010 had given $6.1 billion to 132 housing authorities that destroyed public housing projects for the poor. Clinton’s Hope VI destroyed 100,000 units of public housing replacing them with 60,000 of mixed-income housing (only a fraction for the poor).  Funding for HOPE VI ended in 2010, and then Section 8 vouchers are given so renters can rent in the private sector housing, but in many cities like Los Angeles people with Section 8 vouchers spend years on waiting lists for an apartment.  The New Republic states that New York City alone 200,000 families are on the waiting list for public housing.  Housing Authorities should allocate money to repair existing public housing apartments and build many more public housing projects.

The new city West Hollywood in Los Angeles, started in the 1980s, was one of the few cities with leaders who thought people with HIV, low-income seniors, and the homeless needed affordable housing. They established the Housing Trust Fund to buy and rehab 17 older apartment buildings and build four brand-new apartment buildings for very low-income, seniors, the disabled, or the homeless.  The city hired architect Patrick Tighe who designed the Sierra Bonita Apartments, which has won over 14 international, national, and local awards.  The building has solar panels on its roof and sides; an inner green courtyard with bamboo, plants, and walkways; and rain water collection that irrigates the drought-resistant plants. In the past public housing projects have been criticized for awful exteriors and poor construction, but West Hollywood has shown that it can make lovely public housing apartments.

Cities need rent control to keep housing affordable. The coalition starting West Hollywood included gay leaders and senior citizens had many tenants’ rights activists who worked the Coalition for Economic Survival to establish strong rent control. West Hollywood along with the powerful tenants’ rights movement in Santa Monica passed some of the strictest rent control in the state. The real estate industry struck back against these two cities by getting the California state legislature to pass the Ellis Act which allows owners to evict if they are going out of business or transforming their units into condos (many are illegal evictions) and the Costa Hawkins Act, which allows huge increase in rents. The Ellis Act and the Costa Hawkins Act should both be abolished as the two acts help thousands of rental units be taken off the market during a severe shortage and remaining units have soaring rents.

San Francisco also had tenants’ rights movements to stop gentrification. Randy Shaw, Executive Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in S.F., writes how the really poor Tenderloin area in S.F. next to high-priced touristy Union Square and Civic Center has remained multi-racial and low-income. In Shaw’s June 24, 2016 Shelterforce article he describes how people and non-profit housing groups organized in the Tenderloin as a powerful political force, getting the city to enact laws to protect the Tenderloin:  they got “residential down zoning to reduce upscale development, strong protections for single room occupancy hotels (SROs), and stronger housing codes that prevented owners from displacing tenants by allowing buildings to fall into disrepair.”

Furthermore, nonprofit housing groups bought land and buildings, so nearly a third of the housing is “insulated from the private market.”  Tenants’ activists passed rent and eviction control measures in San Francisco and Oakland to protect tenants. Also in San Francisco a coalition put on the 2014 ballot an anti-speculation tax imposed on windfall profits of real-estate speculators who flip buildings—buy low and sell high within a few years—but the voters rejected the anti-speculation tax.

In Chicago housing activists established a non-profit Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago (NHSC), in 1975, which for 42 years has worked in Southside Chicago and other areas. NHSC offers “forgivable” loans up to $25,000 for homeowners with modest incomes to fix up their homes. NHSC has made $1 million in interest-free loans which are erased a little each month that the recipients stay in their home. Homeowners have used the money for a new roof, doors, windows, plumbing, electrical, heating, or new paint. NHSC have helped educate 40,800 potential home buyers as well as loaned $613 million to borrowers to buy, fix, or keep their home. Part of their work is helping homeowners prevent foreclosure by providing counseling as well as helping 9,630 families avoid foreclosure. NHSC also have bought and rehabbed 1,400 troubled properties as part of their goal of stabilizing neighborhoods.

In the Roxbury neighborhood in Boston Neustria Comunidad began in 1981 when absentee landlords abandoned their properties. A small group of Puerto Ricans formed Nuestra Comunidad to rebuild lost homes to bring back Roxbury. They have created 800 apartments, built and sold 80 moderate-income homes, and educated 2,700 to buy their own homes. In their businesses they use local workers with 60% people of color in their construction jobs and 87% in their property management jobs. After redlining divested Roxbury of businesses, Nuestra Comunidad built 80,000 square feet of space to house dozens to local small businesses.

Also Nuestra Comunidad became part of a citywide coalition against gentrification in 2014. For example, the Chinese Progressive Association fought the Millennium Tower Development which was trying to build another huge tower in Chinatown which was already packed with big towers.  The CPA aimed at establishing control over the remaining public vacant land in Chinatown to build affordable housing.  Labor unions joined the housing struggle by arguing higher wages will help workers avoid eviction from rising rents.  Boston’s new mayor Marty Wash issued a housing plan in late 2014 saying the city should build 20,000 middle income homes, help 5,000 families (particularly people of color) become homeowners, and create a loan program for senior homeowners to energy retrofit their homes.

Decomodifying housing has been successfully done through community land trusts (CLT) such as Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, New York’s union developed Penn South, or mutual housing association found both in the U.S. and in other countries. Community land trusts lock the land up with long-term leases usually for 75-years and offer low mortgages so people can more easily buy homes.  In Boston the Dudley Street area had 1,300 vacant lots because of white fight, arson fires, disinvestment by 1984. Since Dudley Street residents were afraid the city of Boston, wanting more tax revenue, would build hotels and offices, they organized the nonprofit Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in 1984 to create a new urban village without displacement.

DSNI got authority for eminent domain, buying 60 acres of land from private owners, establishing a CLT.  The CLT built 225 units of permanently affordable housing with low mortgages, parks and gardens, a community center, a school, a community green house, and a number of urban farms including leasing land to nonprofit Food Project that runs farms for youth. DSNI’s board structure includes all neighborhood stakeholders democratically-elected, and “they have built a community across diverse languages, ages, races, and ethnicities. “

Nationwide 96 CLTs have been established that by 2011 had created 10,000 units of housing.  The nation’s largest CLT is the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont, that has 2,000 units of condos, rental apartments, and single-family homes. In 2014 in Philadelphia labor, community, and religious groups formed a coalition Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land which passed a city ordinance establishing a land bank as the sole owner of Philadelphia’s 40,000 vacant parcels to manage and sell the parcels to “weight community benefit, and not just price, when deciding potential buyers.”

In Los Angeles, the Union de Vecinos started in 1996 in Boyle Heights the neighborhood to try to stop the destruction of the Pico Aliso public housing projects. Over the years the members including low-income tenants, seniors, families, youth, working-class homeowners, and movement veterans have created a Network of Neighborhood Committees that try to preserve housing, promote economic and environmental justice, and build stable communities. Their tactics are popular education, community organizing, and direct action.

Since 2004 Beverly Grove in mid-city near Wilshire Boulevard has organized in No More McMansions to stop McMansions destroying their neighborhood. During their 12 year struggle they were joined by 19 other small R-1 or single family home neighborhoods in No More McMansions getting protection from McMansions from L.A. City Hall. In Boyle Heights area Defend Boyle Heights is a coalition of activists fighting against gentrification and BHAAD (Boyle Heights Art Washing Alliance and Displacement) is an alliance of organizations that fight for “authentic affordable housing for low-income people, emergency housing for homeless people and people displaced by gentrification, a laundromat, a needle exchange or harm reduction center, an affordable grocery store ….”

Another problem in California and many other places is millions of low-income tenants pay over 30% of their income or 50% of their income for rent, not getting health insurance.  Wages have stagnated in the U.S. for decades while rents and the price of homes have steadily increased a huge amount. Theodore Roosevelt and other reformers of the turn of the century fought for increase in wages as well as for unions to end sweatshop wages, and so housing activists should support union organizing and raising the minimum wage.

Lastly, we need to tell record stories of how people are committed to their neighborhoods. In Detroit Cornetta King heard gentrifiers call her neighborhood Core City by a strange new name: West Corktown. King organized a bike tour called Core City Tours of her neighborhood. On the tour people stopped where Core City residents sit on their front porches and tell their stories about childhood in Core City as well as “their resiliency and commitment to the neighborhood.”

We need to tell stories how neighborhoods are gentrified.  In San Francisco poet laureate Alejandro Murguia in his memoir The Medicine of Memory and his short story “The Other Barrio” gives us magical stories of the Mission District in S.F. he loves and also its gentrification. And we need stories of our 140 years of people fighting to house a nation. In many cities for the last ten years housing reformers, tenants rights activists, and civil rights activists have empowered themselves improving housing in their cities and striving to desegregate housing, but now they should elect at least one state government like Roosevelt in New York to make more pioneering reforms in housing. Then a nationwide movement to get federal power like the New Deal is needed but an improved version can change housing policy from Maine to California.