Tag Archives: affordable housing

Beacons of Hope in the European Housing Crisis

Amsterdam      A housing conference took place in a workers’ center built in the heart of a neighborhood in the 1930s in the midst of the worldwide depression that the conveners thought underscored the possibilities even in the midst of the current European affordable housing crisis.  Guest presentations were made by representatives from Liverpool, Berlin, and Heerlen in the Netherlands that included architects, community representatives from land trusts, tenant organizers, and members of the German political party, Die Linke.  The conference was organized by the Socialist Party in the Netherlands with over two-hundred participants.  The ACORN organizers from the United Kingdom, France, and the United States along with The Organizing Forum (TOF) members from Belgium were observers.

I couldn’t help but notice that even with all of these moving pieces, the moderator, an SP member of Parliament from the northeastern area of the Netherlands, began the conference precisely on the stroke of eleven, as advertised, showing real organizational discipline.   We had headsets for direct translation when the presentations were in Dutch, but the audience, young and many much older, had none, even when most of the presentations were in English in a deep tribute to the multilingualism of the Netherlands.  The Dutch don’t fool around!

Granby team, leader and architect from Assemble

The first presentation focused on the work of a community land trust over several decades in the remnants of Granby, a historically multiracial community in Liverpool, England.  Twelve old Victorian houses had been acquired and rehabbed.  A community center was on the drawing board.  A winter garden and market of sorts had been organized. An architectural and design collective based in London called Assemble had won a Turner Prize for its work with the land trust and community.  I mistakenly had thought that prize had to do with the American media and ranching billionaire, Ted Turner, but it seems it is a very prestigious, British art prize. The project had cost about 750,000 pounds, which approaches a million dollars.  It was an impressive piece of work, but hard to scale.

On the other hand, the Mietenwahnsinn Coalition of several hundred tenant and community groups in Berlin was an effort at hyperscale.  Tenants compose 85% of the Berlin population and the coalition had been able to mobilize this mass base to confront huge landlord concentration in the housing market by companies with tens of thousands of units under management and ownership and rents which had risen as much as 20% in a recent year.  A march of 25,000 and a host of other activities had already won them an effective freeze on rents for five years in an amazing feat.  They now have a pending referendum undergoing constitutional review which, if successful, would expropriate the units of all private landlords with over 3000 units and move them to public control and ownership.  Regardless of how difficult it might be to duplicate these achievements; the campaign has been impressive and groundbreaking.  Certainly, ACORN has followed it closely from afar, so we were delighted to get firsthand knowledge.

Berlin tenant campaign organizer

Before leaving for our own meetings, we heard an amusing and insightful presentation by the architect that had transformed the city center of Heerlen in the southern area of Holland, near the German border.  Several months earlier, I had gotten to walk through the completed development which included more than one-hundred units of affordable housing, community and shopping areas, office space and more in a creative and lively construction.  The project had replaced an area of the city center that had been the main marketplace for several thousand heroin users and homeless.  This project was also the fruit of decades of political struggle in order to move forward.

None of these projects were easy to achieve, but the conference did its job of educating and inspiring participants – and for our part, I can add, observers as well.

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The Dollars Driving Landlords to Evict Aren’t Big Time

Little Rock      The landlord ideology about tenants is based on a narrative mythology that whenever they evict, it is because their tenants are deadbeats and scofflaws.  Landlords having powerful local and national organizations and a much louder voice than their tenants have been selling this swill for centuries.  Researchers are now digging deeper into the real facts, not the “alternative” facts, and finding that a significant number of evictions are, in their view, based on relatively paltry sums.

A story in the New York Times recently highlighted the fact that there are a significant number of families that are evicted for sums that are less than $600.  Note that that’s $600 all-in, including rent owed, late fees, court costs, etc., much of which is larded onto the rent owed, meaning that the actual rent that led to this crisis, potentially making a family homeless, was way, way less.

Before we get much deeper into this eviction situation, let’s note that this is about as far from a surprise as knowing that dawn comes the day after dusk.  When the Federal Reserve banking survey in May 2019 widely reported finding that 40% of Americans did not have $400 in cash or credit to deal with any financial emergency, whether health, transportation, or whatever, it was obvious that at least that number would potentially face eviction if they were facing a $600 notice from their landlord and his gang.

The Times notes that in Virginia 23% of eviction judgements were less than $600, in North Carolina 32% of the judgements were for sums that low, Delaware 20%, and Rhode Island at 8% were also in that range.  The median money judgement was higher, about $1200, inclusive.

This is the tip of the iceberg.  The data underlying these numbers comes from Lexis/Nexus as verified by the Princeton Eviction Lab, which notoriously undercounts the number of real evictions because the figures are drawn from legal proceedings.  Matthew Desmond, the head of the Eviction Lab, acknowledged this flatly in his widely read book and award-winning book, Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in America.  The vast majority of evictions never end up in court filings and certainly not in actual judgments.  Suffice it to say, the numbers of de facto, rather than de jure, evictions are much, much higher.

If a family doesn’t have $400, then $600 is a higher mountain.  It may look like peanuts, through the window from the outside, but looking at that figure from the family’s viewpoint, it might as well be millions.  Some legislators are proposing an emergency rent fund.  Others seem to think that talk, rather than money, will solve this problem, and have proposed more mediation between landlords and tenants.  The experts acknowledge that the problem is structural, but are trying to carve out at least a Band-Aid solution to deal with this gaping wound.

The problem is bigger than this of course.  The Times notes that “between 1990 and 2017, the national stock of rental housing grew by 10.9 million units…Over the same time, the number of units renting for less than $600 a month in inflation-adjusted dollars fell by 4 million.   All net growth in rent housing in America, in other words, has been for higher-income tenants.”

The solution here is higher wages, a better welfare system, and a real national housing policy for low-and-moderate income families, but the policy proposals tend to skew towards throwing pennies at the wall, rather than putting dollars in peoples’ pockets and roofs over their heads.  The proposals are packaged to save public authorities money by preventing the higher costs of shelters and homelessness.  They might sell this to some, but families facing evictions won’t buy it, and neither should we settle there.

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