ACORN Tenants Taking Charge, Running for Seats on the Board in France

Grenoble         Every four years social housing tenants in France have the opportunity to run for seats on the board of their city’s housing authority.  Admittedly, the seats allotted for tenant representation are a minority of the board positions, because in France, as elsewhere, a voice for tenants is preferable to allowing real power for tenants.  From conversations with organizers, leaders, and members of ACORN’s French affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, in Grenoble and the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers, that may be about to change.  Members of the Alliance have put forth slates of candidates in three different housing districts, two in Grenoble and one in Paris and have begun to campaign in earnest.

In various meetings throughout the week the plan has shaped up.  In Grenoble where the voting pool is 17000 families, we have been wrestling with the mechanics of the election.  There is a voting period of roughly two weeks in which tenants have to return mail ballots to be counted in the election.  A list of tenants is available as well as a map of all buildings in the system, but the exact time of their availability is still uncertain, making it difficult to make a comprehensive week-by-week plan.  Nonetheless, Alliance candidates have an advantage simply because they are running as a team, backed by the organization, and in some cases partnered with a local union as well, but that advantage only works if we are all able to come to consensus on a plan and then do the hard work of campaigning for the almost eight weeks until the voting closes in December.

After conference calls throughout the week, I attended a meeting of the candidates, organizers, and key organizing committee members in a common space meeting room in one of the housing projects of Grenoble Habitat, where over potato chips and apple juice the plans were being hashed out.  Like all campaigns and organizing the focus was first on lists and building an organizing committee.  Regardless of when – or if – a list is supplied by the housing authority, the key first topic on the agenda of the meeting was how to use the list we have and how to build it larger in advance of the election.  In the smaller election, we have 800 names and in the larger one we have closer to 1500.  There was agreement that the committee would divide up the list, report on daily progress, and commit individually to spending 10 hours on the phones to contact all 2300 names in order to reach 800 to 1000.  The objective was to use the calls to identify building representatives as organizing committee members in as many buildings as possible.  Those campaign representatives would commit to circulating the literature, building a list of building tenants, joining the candidates in doorknocking in their building, and organizing a building wide meeting to meet the candidates between now and the election.

The literature drop would be in the following week, and staff and the planning committee committed to developing a week-by-week plan until the election to be discussed and decided on at the regular weekly meeting.  There was agreement that the concentration would first be on identifying and turning out our base to vote before trying to expand to buildings in the suburbs and elsewhere that we had not previously organized.  These elections are decided by only one or two thousand votes, so the GOTV and multiple “touches” to make sure the ballots are filled our correctly and mailed is central to victory.

This is the first time the organization has embarked on an election campaign of any kind, so it’s exciting and heady stuff.  The one thing that is certain is that the leadership and organization will be stronger once the votes are counted, win, lose or draw.  The other thing that is clear will be that if the Alliance/ACORN members are elected, change is coming to housing authorities in Grenoble and Aubervilliers as tenants join their voices together to create power on the boards that will not be denied.

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Please enjoy Southern State of Mine by Sugarcane Jane.

Sarah Borges & The Broken Singles’ Get as Gone Can Get.

Thanks to KABF.

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Making it Right with Brad Pitt in the Lower Nine

New Orleans     The Lower 9th Ward became iconic as part of the story of catastrophe, struggle, and recovery in New Orleans and around the world after Hurricane Katrina.  Now there are new candidates in more cities where climate and nature have combined to expose humanity at its rawest, weakest, and sometimes best.  Here, the L9 is in the news again, still in the shadows of Katrina, over issues with one of the most widely publicized of the rehabilitation projects, Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation.

Pitt and his wife at the time, Angelina Jolie, had stepped up in the wake of the storm to use their star power to raise money to build new houses there after the storm.  For a while they had a house in the French Quarter and were seen here and there.  Pitt, an architectural aficionado, had commissioned famous architects, here and abroad, to design the homes, and more than one-hundred have been built.  In my book, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, the Rebuilding of New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster, I have some issues with Make It Right based largely on planting high-priced, subsidized houses in the L9, designed more as showpieces than structures that fit in with the vernacular of the area or were sustainable.  Nonetheless, I never questioned Pitt’s sincerity and in fact when pushed by ACORN, including our organizer Tanya Harris and ACORN leaders to do the project in the real heart of the L9, rather than the rapidly gentrifying Holy Cross area near the Mississippi River, he quickly agreed and lived up to his word.  Harris in recent years has worked for the Make It Right Foundation, which also says good things about it.

In recent days some Foundation homeowners sued the operation because of shoddy construction, water leaks, system failures, black mold, and an array of issues.  One of the local papers, the New Orleans Advocate, did an editorial recently calling on Pitt to Make It Right.  Now the Make It Right Foundation has sued the architect, John C. Williams, for $20 million for design flaws that caused these problems, alleging that Williams and his firm have known about the problems and failed to correct them.  Maybe there will be a trial, but likely they’ll settle, which might work for the homeowners, but will leave the citizens less informed than they might need to be about John Williams and his practice.  Based on our experience with Williams, I’m siding with Pitt and the foundation on this one.

Williams in my book was the classic case of a believer in the mantra that a crisis is an opportunity, mainly for someone like him to cash in.  ACORN would run into him like a car passing a vulture on the highway at one hearing and meeting after another.  With some skullduggery he unraveled a contract won by ACORN and our associates to be the planner for the 9th Ward recovery with false allegations and charges of conflicts of interest, after we beat him in the competition, so that he could in fact be both planner and architect in a full-bore conflict of interest.  Maybe he did some good work, and maybe he did some bad work, but he was a corner cutter, back-room-whisperer motivated by total self-interest rather than commitment to the community.  Brad Pitt versus John C. Williams is a no brainer:  Pitt at least wants to “make it right,” while Williams often has no idea of “what is right.”

Vanessa Gueringer, long time ACORN leader in the L9, chaired an event a local church there to discuss my book when it came out several years after Katrina.  John Williams showed up for a hot minute.  Shook a few hands and bought a book to see if his name was in it.  He got his money worth.  He was mentioned in the book.  I doubt that he liked what was said about him there any more than he is going to like having to defend his work in the Lower 9th Ward now that the houses he built are already crumbling around him.

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