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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Right to Housing but a Catch-22 for Tenant Rights in England

picture taken by ACORN in the Newham borough of London where we are organizing

picture taken by ACORN in the Newham borough of London where we are organizing

London   Meetings with the director of the newly formed Tenants’ Foundation, the director of Generation Rent, and ACORN United Kingdom’s organizing coordinator and head organizer in London yesterday was a deep dive into tenant rights — and wrongs — in England. The big picture is dire for tenants throughout the country, and most intensely in London. For most low-and-moderate income families home ownership is a myth expect perhaps in Northern England, so the trick is how to survive as a tenant in a time of dramatically escalating housing values, and therefore soaring rents sucking up increasing levels of family income.

The maze is yet harder to navigate with the drastic reduction in social or public housing units where rents are lower therefore moving people into tenancy under private landlords where rents are unlimited and rights are more constrained. For lower income families the imposition of the “universal credit” program with hard caps at 26000 pounds and likely falling to 23000 pounds including all forms of assistance from housing benefits, unemployment or other support, regardless of family size or circumstance, often means disaster.

If we often argue that property rights are the most fundamental and foundational rights in the United States, we may only be guessing at how sacred they are in England. I was most confounded by what seemed institutional “redlining” and legalized de facto discrimination against benefit recipients or claimants, as they are known in England. Nominally, there are non-discrimination laws in England offering protection from discrimination based on race, gender, religion, nationality, and sexuality. There is no protection for discrimination based on income or employment status, so it is in fact legal for private landlords to refuse to rent to benefit claimants.

England allows mortgage lenders and insurers to redline by charging landlords more if they rent to claimants, thereby directly discriminating against poorer or displaced families in wholesale fashion. A housing rights website notes the painful paradox:

[England’s] anti-discrimination legislation protects people from both direct and indirect discrimination. Indirect discrimination occurs where a policy, which is not discriminatory in itself, if likely to impact disproportionately on people who are protected under equality laws. Some people may argue that this type of policy could be seen as indirect discrimination if, for example, housing benefit claimants were predominantly female or predominantly from an ethnic minority group. However, this type of discriminatory practice can be legal if it can be reasonably justified. A landlord whose mortgage lender imposed these conditions on him or her would be justified in adopting this practice.

Private landlords have reveled in being able to discriminate and are taking it to the bank. Their own testimony indicates how rapidly they have decreased available housing stock for the poor or dislocated. In testimony their association has said, “…in the last three years there has been a 50% drop in the number of landlords taking people who are on benefits. It is now down to only one fifth; 22% of our landlord members whom we surveyed say they have LHA tenants, and 52% of those surveyed said they would not look at taking on benefits tenants.” Almost as bad, different from US section 8 programs, landlords do not apply and are not inspected to insure that their housing is safe and meets habitability standards, so rule the roost completely.

Because there is a “right to housing,” if evicted, and evictions are going through the roof, a family can go to their local borough council and ask for housing. With lengthy or frozen lists for social housing and recalcitrant landlords acting with impunity for the highest dollar in a tight market, such families have to be housed by the council, but often can’t be accommodated in the borough or even in the area so some uproot people and send them away, paying for them to stay more cheaply in Birmingham or anywhere they can find. They are also putting families up in bed-and-breakfasts, hostels, and just about anything this side of squats at a national price of between 25 and 30 million pounds, which many refer to as a private landlord subsidy.

Something has to give, but the backs being broken first are tenants, especially those who are the poorest, while inequality increases and London and other cities in England become harbors for the rich and simply way-stations and holding areas of others. All of us were talking about organizing, but, soberly, with the recognition that there are mountains to climb any direction we look from the bottom to the top, far past our sight-line.

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