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If we want Housing Justice, then it must be lead by those impacted by the housing crisis, not by developers, politicians or non-profits

March 12, 2018

All across the US, there is a housing crisis. The crisis is complex, but it is not difficult to understand. Gentrification is impacting virtually every city, with “urban renewal” taking the form of white flight. However, unlike the 1950s and 70s, white flight is white people leaving suburban areas to taking over core urban spaces that currently are made up of communities of color.

The gentrification is causing massive displacement and the re-investment of urban spaces, because white people now want to live there. This has caused the housing market to skyrocket in costs, both for those seeking to buy homes and those wanting to rent. Rent costs have doubled in the past 5 – 10 years, depending on which community you live in, making it virtually impossible for people making minimum wage to afford current rent cost. This current housing crisis is particularly felt by single families, particularly black and brown families, which often cannot afford to purchase a home or afford rental fees. 

The same housing crisis that is facing communities all across the country, is also happening in Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids has seen the cost of buying a home soar, the cost of rental fees explode and the impacts of gentrification felt in just about every neighborhood in the city. The difference has been in how Grand Rapids is responding to this crisis, as opposed to how many other communities are responding.

Grand Rapids lets developers and non-profits decide

There have been numerous efforts to organize around the housing crisis in Grand Rapids, but the one that has received the most attention, is the Mayor’s housing task force that was developed nearly two years ago.

This task force is made up of city staff, numerous commercial developers, some non-profit housing organizations and social service providers. In other words, there is no one on the Mayor’s housing task force who represents those most impacted from the housing crisis.

This lack of representation from people experiencing the housing crisis, is clearly reflected in the recommendations that the task force came up with, linked here.

Many of these recommendations benefit developers, with either incentives or by allowing development to determine outcomes. Other recommendations have to do with zoning or other government enforcement mechanism. What we don’t find in the recommendations are specific to tenants and their needs, particularly around rental costs and tenant power, which is exactly what has been developing across the country by those most impacted from the current housing crisis.

When tenants and those impacted from the housing crisis decide

The national Homes for All movement, which is led by those most impacted from the housing crisis, engages in a theory of change, which uses strategies and tactics that directly result in challenging the real estate industry, landlords and property management companies.

Every month, tenant unions and other campaigns focuses on housing and land issues across the US, are using direct action to achieve their goals by winning rent freezes, winning rent controls, exposing landlords/property management companies and organizing grassroots power that is led by those most impacted by the housing crisis. You can read about these victories in the Homes for All Press Room section on their website

The Homes for All organization has lots of great resources available for tenants who want to organize in their community, with reports and fact sheets that can be modified by any community to address the housing crisis.

One recent report put together Homes for All and Right to the City, is entitled, Communities Over Commodities: People-Driven Alternatives to an Unjust Housing System.

This 80 page report, linked here, is full of great strategies and examples of people organizing around housing justice over the past 80 years. The report begins with an introductory section on the current housing crisis, that provides important analysis on how it came about. 

However, most of the report provides information and examples of how to De-Commodify Housing. The four areas/strategies for de-commodifying housing are:

  • Limited Equity Cooperatives
  • Community Land Trusts
  • Tenement Syndicates
  • Mutual Aid and Housing Cooperatives

Limited equity cooperatives, or LECs, are a model of affordable cooperative housing that exists today in at least 29 states in the United States and in several other countries, including Canada and throughout Europe. In LECs, like with all housing cooperatives, member-residents jointly own their building, have democratic control and bene t socially and economically from living in and owning the cooperative. As a prominent type of affordable housing cooperative in the United States, LECs seek to ensure that the housing remains affordable for the long term.

Community Land Trusts – There are close to 300 CLTs in the United States in rural and urban settings, all of which share the basic objective of providing affordable and stable housing in perpetuity, as well as community investment in upkeep. CLTs began in the United States during the civil rights movement as a means to support the independence and self-determination of Black Americans in the South.

The Tenement Syndicate model is unique in its creation of a “circular model” that uses the limited liability company structure to keep houses afford- able, ensure legal security, and prevent houses from being resold on the speculative market.Today there are 128 house-projects in Germany that typically each have 10 to 20 units,  and several initiatives throughout Europe that follow this model.  Common to all is a vision of long-term affordability of living and working spaces that are transformed from for-pro t entities into spaces of self-determination, community and collective ownership.

Mutual aid housing cooperatives are founded on the principle that housing is not a market commodity, but rather a communal public asset. They exist in several countries in Latin America, the first such cooperatives having been founded in the late 1960s. Unlike the other three alternative housing models discussed in this report, in mutual aid housing cooperatives, residents participate in build- ing their own houses. Most mutual aid housing cooperatives not only strive to provide affordable housing, but to also foster self-management and political mobilization of the community.

Grand Rapids doesn’t have to follow a failed organizing model

Some people might say that Grand Rapids isn’t Chicago, New York or Minneapolis, when it comes to how people organize. However, Grand Rapids does have a radical history and can continue to be part of radical change, if, and only if, the grassroots movements it builds is made up of those who are being oppressed.

Next month, we celebrate the 107th anniversary of the furniture works strike in Grand Rapids. That strike was lead by workers who were being exploited. Today, movements like Cosecha GR, an immigrant justice movement, is being lead by immigrants and fighting for justice. If we truly want a housing justice movement, then it must be led by those most impacted by the gentrifying housing crisis.

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