Waking up the Sleeping Giant and Building a Renters’ Voting Block

us-hr-ageBuckhorn, Ontario  It is hard to escape the feeling, country to country, that low-and-moderate income families, and, just possibly, even families with more money, are rapidly consolidating into a permanent class of renters. Certainly in some cities around the world like New York City, Toronto, London, and elsewhere, this has long been the case. In the United States though it is a bumpier transition because the dominant narrative in the vast expanse of the land is that the American dream includes home ownership. Increasingly that dream comes with a disclosure now that you better be ready to move to smaller towns, cities, and rural areas if you want to live that dream.

In the US, the number of renters, and therefore potential renter’s votes, are rising. Renter votes increased 49% between 1996 and 2012, while owner votes only increased 23%, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data. According to data reported by the Wall Street Journal:

Nonetheless, just 22% of votes cast in the 2012 election were by renters, according to the analysis. But as the renter population grows, Apartment List [a rental leasing website] estimates that one-third of eligible voters in this election could be renters. Based on historical voting patterns, renters would likely cast about one-quarter of the votes—a small but meaningful increase from the last election.

This sleeping giant traditionally has not stirred much around Election Day. Renters are often seen as more transient, though some data interestingly finds that voting rates are as low for stable tenants as they are for frequent movers. They are also young, and poorer, none of which are huge vote movers. Furthermore, owners vote more consistently than renters. Another statistic in the Journal piece points to a potential game changer as anger over cost and affordability continues to rise.

The number of cost-burdened renters—those who spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent—has risen by 3.6 million since 2008, to a historic high of 21.3 million in 2014, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In the meantime, the number of cost-burdened owners has declined by 4.4 million since 2008 to 18.5 million.

The Presidential campaign is silent on the issue of renters and rising rents and housing prices are at the heart of the entire Trump business model, so we shouldn’t be surprised. Either way, if any of them have a plan, it’s a secret.

There’s a way to change this though and wake the sleeping giant: put issues directly on the ballot in cities and states wherever possible that allow the people to step in with solutions where politicians fear to tread on campaign contributions from developers. Just as ACORN did earlier in place after place on living wages, we need to start crafting initiatives from our renters’ bill of rights from rent control to dedicated spending for public and subsidized affordable housing. Organizationally, we need to craft proposals that meet the crisis and the interest of tenants and bring them out to polls in force to alter this landscape.

We need to make sure there are consequences as well. As campaign discussions wound down on the prospects of winning a comprehensive and enforceable landlord licensing ordinance or bylaw in Toronto, ACORN’s head organizer there, John Anderson, noted flatly that either the Council passed the measure this fall or they would likely see the issue as the largest issue in the next election. As the votes of renters are triggered in just that way everywhere the issue is rising, that’s not a threat or a promise, but virtually a take-it-to-the-bank prediction.

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Renters’ Rising

banner_fb-page001Buckhorn, Ontario   It is starting to feel like we’re getting real traction in what has become a global fight for tenants’ rights. Not only has ACORN built an effective organization for tenants to resist the arbitrary, capricious, and sometimes dangerous and unhealthy practices of landlords in an often uncertain legal environment, but as importantly we are developing real programs for real protections from government and policy makers. As I was crossing the Atlantic to attend an ACORN head organizers and staff training session in Ontario, there was evidence of this kind of progress for tenants on both sides of the ocean.

In Bristol, in a conference attended by hundreds, ACORN organized a wide-ranging discussion on steps that needed to be taken to shore up and advance tenants’ rights not only in Bristol but throughout England. Launching a new campaign, Renters’ Rising, with actions and events throughout England, ACORN is calling for a country-wide Renters’ Union. Similar steps are being taken by ACORN Scotland on the wake of their parliamentary victories on security of tenure and rent control.

The crisis in affordable housing in the United Kingdom touches through virtually every city. London is now world famous for the breadth of the issue, but ACORN chapters in Newcastle, Reading, Birmingham, and of course Bristol and London have organized meeting after meeting where members are demanding solutions and are determined to take action. The collapse of social housing and the dramatic increase of private landlord tenancy has created an environment where protective rules and policies for tenants has not caught up, giving too many landlords the upper hand which they are exploiting. ACORN Bristol’s promotion of an ethical letting charter and its support by the Bristol Council as well as several letting agencies themselves has given momentum to these campaigns.

On the other side of the water the progress in Toronto in winning a landlord licensing regime with real teeth in enforcement after a campaign with ups and downs over more than a decade is finally at the finish line. ACORN has already won initial support by the full council but the devil is in the details and is now rounding up council support in anticipation of the staff report and final votes on implementation. Organizers reported real progress pretty much across the board with strong support from various council allies who are essentially telling us, “We got this!” Nonetheless, members are involved at every step along the way and will be present in large numbers at every opportunity. ACORN Canada President Marva Burnett was realistic in a recent interview on what the approval of landlord licensing would mean. She noted both her disappointment at the Toronto Council’s rejection of the proposal in 2008, as well as her expectations and hope for the final vote on the plan this fall.

Burnett’s points are inescapable. None of this is easy and, given the power of landlords, these fights are won through persistence. But the factor on ACORN’s side on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be that politicians cannot ignore reality forever. The rental market is out of control and that demands effective regulation. The other point that is equally inescapable whether Canada or the United Kingdom is that tenants can neither fight nor win without effective, mass organization and that’s what they have built in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada and that ACORN is now building with is Renters’ Union in England.

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Activist Cooperatives are Building in Hamburg

Sight of Squatting Campaign

Sight of Squatting Campaign

Hamburg   It had rained all night and most of the morning in this large, northern port city in Germany where I was scheduled to talk to activists and organizers later in the evening. More depressingly, I had spent the morning finishing the second report on rural electric cooperatives in the South where the data seemed to establish a connection between financial self-interest of the directors and their resistance to democracy and diversity in their cooperatives, when Christoph Twickel, a local journalist and activist, showed up to give me a walking tour around the St. Pauli neighborhood of the work accomplished by activist campaigns and, thankfully, cooperatives of different shapes and sizes.

Not far away and close by the River Elbe and the port, we came upon a colorful array of buildings that had been the site of a multi-year squatting campaign commemorated by a giant mural. After a long struggle to evict, the city finally retreated, and the units are still affordable to a largely migrant population. Several blocks away we met Christoph Schaffer, a local artist and activist, who had been a central part of the community fight to preserve a small park along the river opposite the port to prevent city-supported developers from taking over the waterfront for high income housing and condominiums. This has been a three-year struggle more than a decade ago. Schaffer pulled out his key to a small shed along the park which he called the archives, and inside in a silver case marked “action kit,” were some of the old drawings of the park used to get input from other residents along with an old Polaroid camera, and other tools. A steady stream of people were walking by during this break in the clouds. Young people, he told us, are starting to call the park “plastic palm” after some of the colorful plastic palm trees along the walkways. Sure enough, Twickel pointed out a modern, sweeping gray building across the street by Twickel as the most expensive housing in Hamburg.

park won by community in fight against developers along river and port

park won by community in fight against developers along river and port

Christoph Schaeffer and Christoph Twickel talking about the community benefit campaign - Plan Buda -- at the Esso Hausen

Christoph Schaeffer and Christoph Twickel talking about the community benefit campaign – Plan Buda — at the Esso Hausen

We then walked over to the container box for Planbude, which Schaffer had referred to as a “reckless” project a cooperative of eight people had spearheaded along Reeperbahn, the main avenue of St. Pauli. An Esso gas station had been sold to a developer consortium along the street and it had looked like 6000 square meters of affordable housing and shops were going to be lost to high-end development and gentrification. Planbude was an effort over several years to force the developer and leverage the city into a community benefit agreement to push the space in different directions. If perhaps a 1000 people had had input on the park, this effort involved more than 2500 complete with sketches, architectural competitions, and constant agitation. The results will include a hotel to make the developers happy, but three times the housing space, including some social and affordable housing, room for artists and others, a skate park, small business area and more. While we were looking, a passerby saw the door ajar and poked his head in for an update. By 2020, the full project should be complete.

Esso to come

Esso to come

 Armory building being converted to community space by the cooperative

Armory building being converted to community space by the cooperative

Twickel and I then walked over to look at the last mega-project being undertaken by a cooperative of 200 people. They had bought an old armory that had also been a former jail, police station, and SS operation on multiple floors with over 10,000 square meters of space. They had bought it from the city for 1.5 million euros. Walking with Twickel from floor to floor was a tour through their field of dreams. To keep their eyes on the prize there were pictures on some floors of what had been there, so a visitor could see the progress. Guest housing for up to thirty was rushing to completion, a dance space, work space after work space, and on and on, including the meeting space where I would talk later. The financing is complex involving various city requirements since the space is historical, as well as what we would call “tax credit” financing in some parts. Some of the building construction is contracted and some is sweat equity by coop members.

Cooperative slogan

Cooperative slogan

Walking through the space I couldn’t help imagining where an ACORN office might fit nicely in some of the rooms, and where we might hold and house a future meeting of all of our ACORN Europe organizers, but like all of this building that’s something to contemplate for the future. This was my first trip to Hamburg to lay the foundation for a different kind of building, organization building, so who knew where that path might wander.

bunks coming

bunks coming

offices

offices

ready to talk about ACORN to Hamburg organizers and activists

ready to talk about ACORN to Hamburg organizers and activists

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Gentrification Assault, Oakland Housing Market Out of Control

DARWIN BONDGRAHAM - Martin and activists outside of Community Realty's offices in April after delivering a letter requesting a meeting with Marr.

DARWIN BONDGRAHAM – Mr. Martin and activists outside of Community Realty’s offices in April after delivering a letter requesting a meeting with Marr.

Vicksburg, Mississippi   It was hard to believe a friend’s claim that Oakland, California has now become one of the three most expensive cities in the country in no small part because the housing market has gone berserk. He said that Oakland now only followed New York City and San Francisco, and had bypassed Seattle, San Jose, and other famously, exorbitant cities. What happened here? Oakland used to be where people moved for affordable housing who couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco, famous for its port, industry, and blue collar grit, and Jack London. The city where Gertrude Stein famously stated, “there’s no there, there.”

But, now they are all coming there. Suddenly, it is also one of the most diverse cities in the country with the population almost evenly split between Latino, African-Americans, whites, and Asian-Americans, so much so that one controversy, when I recently visited, had to do with racial profiling of neighbors in the Nextdoor.com application that is used by one-third of this highly connected city, exposing the well-known, little discussed racism that stalks almost all of these sites with their constant alerts of anyone with a hoody and a tan.

Not without a fight though. Visiting the weekly paper, the East Bay Express, I picked up a recent issue featuring a cover story on one of Oakland’s biggest landlords, Michael Marr, who had specialized in vulture investing of foreclosed properties after the 2008 real estate crash, ending up with 333 houses and apartment buildings in the city with 1300 rental units under management. Now he’s in federal court though for what the FBI characterized as a conspiracy to “rig foreclosure auctions” along with eleven other East Bay real-estate investors who “made a pact not to compete with one another at foreclosure auctions.”

Marr is letting his lawyers handle that mess and meanwhile is trying to jack rents in some cases by more than $1000 per month. Rent controls in Oakland only cap increases for homes built before 1983, as the impact of such increase would cause massive displacement of many long term residents. It was good to see that standing in the way and organizing the tenants was the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, known as ACCE, and formerly California ACORN. The tenants and the organization have demanded a rent freeze while the court case is pending, a sale of Marr’s ill-gotten properties to the Oakland Land Trust, and action on lingering issues with mold, bedbugs and other problems. ACCE is not only fighting these issues in Oakland either. Fighting a foreclosure with a late night rally at a vulture investor’s house in Los Angeles has found them defending their free speech and association rights in Los Angeles as well.

ACORN has recently won rent controls in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland with the Living Rent Campaign, and more landlord accountability in Toronto and Bristol, but there is little in any of our arsenals to prevent sweeping gentrification without a public and governmental commitment to diversity and affordability in a city. Oakland could become the battleground where we have a chance.

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Banks Creating Housing Squeeze Even More than Gentrification

atlantic yards before construction

Atlantic yards before construction

New Orleans   It seems like it has taken forever, but the first units of affordable housing as part of the victorious, but controversial, agreement negotiated between ACORN and Forest City Ratner to be built as part of the Atlantic Yards project, are finally coming to fruition, better late than never, thanks to the 2007-8 housing financing meltdown.

DNA Info reported:

Applications are now open for the first units of affordable housing at the Atlantic Yards Pacific Park complex. The modular tower built by Forest City Ratner Companies is the first building in the 22-acre Pacific Park development (formerly Atlantic Yards to join the city-run affordable housing lottery. The Dean Street property will contain half market-rate apartments and half affordable housing; the tower has 363 units in total.

Rents … will range from $559 per month for a studio at the lowest income requirement bracket ($20,675 to $25,400 per year for one person) to $3,012 per month for a two-bedroom at the highest income bracket (between $104,915 and $144,960 per year, depending on household size), the lottery requirements said.

As the country-and-western song goes, “that’s something to be proud of…,” but the larger issue continues to be in New York and most other cities in the US and around the world how unaffordable housing is. Ironically, as much as the delay at Atlantic Yards had to do with the meltdown in bank lending because of the housing bubble, banks are still at the heart of unaffordability.It’s not /just /gentrification, in fact, the gentrifiers are as much an effect caused by banks as they are a trigger for rising prices.

Stuart Melvin, ACORN’s head organizer in the United Kingdom, shared a piece from the New Economics Foundation with me several months ago.They noted that:

 

In advanced economies, banks’ main activity is now domestic mortgage lending. A recent study of credit in 17 countries found that the share of mortgage loans in banks’ total lending portfolios has roughly doubled over the course of the past century –from about 30% in 1900 to about 60% today.

 

This is how banks are making money everywhere, rather than through direct lending to consumers or businesses, partially because the land is a solid asset serving as collateral, meaning they can foreclose.  Where the land is scarce as it is in New York, London, San Francisco, and, well, lots of big cities, this makes each parcel more valuable and the next thing you know on the rollup, houses are costing nine times average  annual income throughout England and twenty times annual income in southeast England for example and that’s true for many other cities as well.

All of which squeezes housing developers even more, especially if they are not heavily subsidized by the government, when it comes to providing decent and affordable housing. The same level of bank profits cannot be gained compared to mortgages, so prices balloon, and the available customers who can handle the weight become smaller, and richer, until the whole bubble bursts again.

We countered this in New York through land trusts or mutual housing arrangements, but that is only partially successful. The scale of the issue is too large. Other countries and communities have tried land banks or public corporations.Unless we change our public policy around housing though this is a problem accelerating once again until it crashes against the wall, and in the meantime, low and moderate income families find themselves left with fewer and fewer affordable opportunities for decent housing.

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Affordable Housing Versus Any Housing at All

16th_m_post_card

http://www.sfbarf.org/pages/pictures.html

New Orleans    There’s starting to be an emerging pressure confronting housing activists and organizations, or so it seems: the fight between affordable housing versus any housing at all. The fight is particularly pronounced in the “executive” cities where most people can no longer afford to live, like New York, London, San Francisco, Vancouver, and the rest, but it also is being waged neighborhood to neighborhood under pressure of gentrification.

A recent article in The New York Times featured a self-proclaimed anarchistic, contrarian voice from San Francisco called BARF, the Bay Area Renters’ Federation. Yes, they thought the name was funny. These activists, what can you say? Essentially, they had adopted a position in the desperation of the situation in San Francisco that was essentially “anything goes,” as long as it means more housing, affordable, luxury, whatever. Longstanding tenant organizations in San Francisco called BARF, the “Tea Party” of housing groups in the city, which pretty much defines a “how low can you go” put down.

There may be worse though, and I stumbled on these notions reading a column in The Economist reporting some of the bright ideas that economists have. This is The Economist though so don’t be surprised that the argument starts from a position, similar to BARF, that development is good, and even alleges that everybody loves development, the problem is that no one wants it where they live, they want it somewhere else in the city.

Nonetheless, the ideas were, to say the least, novel. One was a straight “pay to play” proposition. Developers wanting to build in a particular area where they might counter community opposition would offer to pay neighbors in the area in cash money for the inconvenience and upset they had about the development. The exchange there was almost the equivalent of paying for “mental anguish” or some such. Taking it a logical next step though, neighbors willing to have their silence or support bought could also try to trade their position for whatever they believed the loss of value in their property might be.

In some ways this proposal isn’t so novel. Forever big developments in rural areas have bought out landowners wholesale to split communities. Developers reportedly buy out tenants in cities where they have protected leases in order to redevelop buildings in “executive” cities now, so what may seem on its face absurd, actually may be a more common practice than we realize. Many so-called neighborhood associations are so dominated by local real estate interests and individuals that it can be hard not to see them already as developer lapdogs. And, of course, when politics and money mix, this kind of business is also routine. The Mayor of New Orleans in a pique over a competing developers complaint that another developer won a bid to deal with a city building, is trying to get legislation through the state that would force any litigator in the future to have to put up a bond for the lost revenue, etc, etc, etc. You get the picture.

Another unique proposal offered was a sort of community “blackmail.” If a neighborhood fought a development in their area, essentially an ordinance or statute would require them to support a development elsewhere in the city of equivalent value and impact. The premise behind the proposition is, once again, that all development is good and beneficial, any opposition is narrow and selfish, so if you protest, you eventually pay the piper and have to saddle up to screw another community elsewhere in the city. Either way, the one thing that is certain is that the development gets built.

We might think some of these proposals are just ridiculous, but doing so is at some peril. Take a quick look at the political contributions in virtually any city for the municipal officeholders, and usually you will see the who’s who of all the local and many national developers lining up with cash, usually for candidates on both sides in the election so that they have markers down on all the candidates, as well as of course the eventual winner.

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