Data and Politics Combine to Finance Affordable Housing








New Orleans   I’ve been carrying around an article from the housing magazine, Shelterforce, in my bag for a year. I finally noticed it and moved it to my book, where I’ve toted it for a month or more, meaning to do something with it. Originally, I had torn the article out of the magazine to share with the local organizers because it contained an article by a New Orleans reporter about how healthcare facilities and legal aid were partnering in the city. Some kind of kismet though allowed me to find the treasure behind the door where an article on the back page talked about a fascinating strategy for creating and activating a political base for funding affordable housing.

In the scrap of the piece I had saved, Sharon Cornu, the political director of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, described the organizing plan she constructed to create an electoral base of tenants to support affordable housing. Here’s her plan in a nutshell:

“…NPH matched a list of subsidized apartment addresses to California’s voter database and then shared targeting lists with property managers. In an off-year municipal election, low-income, senior, veteran, and disabled affordable housing residents voted at nearly the same rate (43.3%) as the general electorate (45.5%).”

Realizing such mobilization could impact elections and create a viable political base of engaged tenants with a vested interest in affordable housing, they build a regional data base in 2016. With some help and technical support, NPH identified 52,000 registered voters living in developments managed by its member affiliates. She goes on to argue that initiatives they were able to support are producing $2 billion in financing for affordable housing.

Her strategy depended on organizing property managers and organizations that owned affordable housing complexes, but it seems to me the general strategy could be adapted by community organizations as well by doing the same database matching between subsidized and affordable housing complexes in any city and voter file addresses to identify tenants for organization, voter registration and GOTV efforts. With or without the managers’ cooperation, site-specific organizing committees could be established to visit other tenants in the complex.

Cornu adds that “reviewing the hard data about the number of registered voters by property revealed opportunities to broaden the electoral base, expand to new locations, and improve existing programs with low rates of registration. Measuring is the first step in identifying how to improve…”

Add her insights about data assemblage and targeting to basic community organizing methodology, and a deep, motivated voting block of tenants is waiting to be organized to demand more affordable housing to meet the crisis in cities around the world.


Martin Luther King Jr’s Warning about Liberals and the Poor Peoples’ Campaign

New Orleans   By favorite passage from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written April 16, 1963 is worth remembering on this day when we are confronting blatant racism from the White House, obfuscations and fabrications from US Senators Tom Cotton from Arkansas and David Perdue from Georgia who suddenly rushed to his defense curing an earlier memory loss about President Trump’s remarks, and the quandary of so many who are trying to find sure footing, and unlike the Senators haven’t lost their memory or integrity.

King’s passage was pointed, when he wrote,

“First, I must confess that over the last 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 the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er 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; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I thought of his words often when ACORN was under attack and deserted by so many allies and friends some years ago. I also thought of this passage as I listened to discussion recently by some organizations and activists about participation in the latest version of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, planned for this spring and summer at the 50th anniversary of the first campaign convened by King, the SCLC, and others.

The question under debate went to the heart of the call for a “moral crusade” and civil disobedience in the coming campaign. Organizations and others were uncertain in their response, because they were confused at this stage in the planning at the lack of available details that would focus the campaign. Would there be action against the attacks on the poor or in the words of one minister, would the local events of the campaign just be “pep rallies?” Some were hopeful that the platform of the campaign would be more focused as more detailed plans emerged.

A more pointed critique goes to the heart of King’s letter. Several people pointed out that the big event in 2018 is the midterm election and the organizing focus already pointed at the prospects of flipping control of both houses of Congress. The essential argument many made was how could a campaign or crusade be effective if it lacked political content and focus. Was the campaign already suffering from a failure of will that would distract attention from the resistance witnessed in the Alabama Senate race upset? Were the good church people so often both the backbone and bane of King’s struggle also trying to dilute the impact of the campaign by appealing to morals on the spiritual side, rather than rolling up their sleeves and jumping into the more divisive grounds of hard political fights which could both protect and advance the interests of the poor?

We might fairly ask in these times, “What would Martin Luther King have done?”

There seems little doubt from his courage in the civil rights struggles, and then his opposition to the Vietnam War and his embrace of class concerns with the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, that he would not have shied from condemnation of the Trump system and leadership in the political resistance of this moment as well.