Policy Discussions in the Weeds

St. Etienne     You have to be careful what you ask for, even in meetings of organizers from ACORN affiliates all around the world.  One of the requests from the meeting last year near Somerset, England, was that some of the discussions give some greater sense of strategy around policy in addition to actions and skills.  Our French affiliate, the Alliance Citoyenne, was especially interested in such a discussion around housing.

We aimed to please.  The discussion started with a detailed power point from ACORN Canada about the various aspects of the affordable housing campaigns they had fought in Ontario in recent years.  Judy Duncan, the head organizer, zeroed in on the importance of defining affordability in their negotiations on inclusionary zoning between determinations based on a percentage of average market rent versus a percentage of tenants’ income.  Even figures that look favorable, as we have found in London and elsewhere, of 80% of average market rent end up pricing out low-and-moderate income families when gentrification encroaches and rents skyrocket.  The breakdown of ACORN Canada’s work in Toronto on affordability that looked at the impact on various income levels from welfare and disability payments up to family income near 80,000 as a percentage of income and the percentage of rent payments from more than 50% of total income down to the policy goal of 30% underlined the point.  ACORN’s work there focused on inclusionary zoning parceling out percentages that set aside affordable units within these income groups and was clearly articulated in the plenary.

Contributions from Scotland’s fight on rent-pressure zones and how our Living Rent affiliate had managed to migrate their campaign in Parliament from initial concerns around security of tenure or lease terms and affordability and progress on a form of rent control, added fuel to the fire.  Comments from our German associates on the complexities of affordability there were useful as well as their explanations of the new tactics being tried in Berlin to define housing as a public good allowing seizure of affordable units from developers.

There was discussion of the financialization of the housing market with the growth of REITs and private equity’s invasion of the housing markets in Canada over the last twenty years and in the United States especially since the 2007-8 recession.  Judy showed a slide on the number of housing units controlled by REITS now in Canada, including some like Timbercreek, the target of our campaign in Ottawa.  The French went through their efforts around “democratization” of public housing to prevent privatization and gain some voice in governance and transparency.

We discussed the prospects for a Section 3 campaign for public housing tenants in the United States for jobs and training and whether there might be a way to move on similar issues in social housing in the UK, Canada, and France.  The ACORN Home Savers Campaign and contract purchases made an appearance in the discussion.

We were “in the weeds” on policy.  In the evaluation at the end of the day, some of head organizers were arguing that the skills workshops were the most engaging for their staffs.  As I said, you have to be careful what you ask for!

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Class Conflict on the Creek?

one of the fishing buddies on the Creek
one of the fishing buddies on the Creek

Rock Creek, Montana   More is changing on the creek than the climate, it would seem. Having just finished Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, I found her whispering in my ear as I tried to get my arms around the changing scene in this beautiful spot, where I’ve found so much peace in the past.

This is my seventh season on the creek, reading, fishing, writing, working, hiking, and visiting with family and friends. These have been special times that I associated with being a dozen miles off of paved road, off-the-grid, away from the rat race, and virtually in a parallel universe that rose and set with the sun and the rhythms of living with fish jumping, eagles and hawks soaring, deer running through camp, chipmunks bold and brassy, walking eye to eye with the occasional moose, and even new sign of bear. I had come to believe, even as jaded and cynical as I remain, that this was a place apart.

The son of a friend and comrade for decades commented to me as we leaned against my pickup that “gentrification is coming.” Visiting another friend who runs the local office of the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, he commented that he had been around the area almost 40 years and remembered when people living up the creek were just seen as “white trash,” and now prices had skyrocketed along the paved road and were moving up the creek. Sure enough there were now For Sale signs posted all around the bridge gate. Last season we were surprised that a less-than-modern plywood cabin up the road was listed for over $120,000. Now it is just one of three houses for sale on our small island of sorts. Close by, a neighbor was trying to sell their place for $246,000.

Even here where we are planted, there have been improvements aplenty. In 2010 when the Silver Bullet arrived there was nothing but a shed and a tent pad. We were an upgrade. Now there are two tiny cabins and one two-story cabin, a washing area, a cooking area, art projects, talk of a well and a second outhouse, and at least at this moment still one tent pad and our Airstream. Even in the quiet, as we read in the trailer in the morning, we could hear someone passing by on the road repeating to someone else over and over that this whole property looked like a “Hooverville, a Hooverville, do you hear me?” Well, yes, I heard you. If this Shangri-La is now her idea of a “Hooverville,” what’s happening here, Mr. Jones, and does class have something to do with it?

This is Montana where the myth is that your land is your land and your business where you can do what you want, and privacy and respect is always warranted and expected. Much of this nose sniffing in the air and tongue wagging seems to have found a home to roost, focused on our trailer. Isenberg is brilliant in her book on trailers and we “trash” who embrace them. She sees them in the American “cultural imagination” as “a symbol of untethered freedom” on one hand and on the other as associated with “liberty’s dark side: deviant, dystopian wastelands set on the fringe of the metropolis.”

Isenberg dates much of this trailer antipathy to the war years when the sudden mobilization of available labor for production was magnetized into war centers without adequate housing and trailer parks in places like the shipyard of Pascagoula, Mississippi where 5000 were housed that way. Or she cites the building of a steel mill in Pennsylvania that provoked an outcry of fear that it would reduce “property values.” Isenberg writes, “The construction workers were deemed trash not because of their class background per se, but because they lived in trailers. It was their homes on wheels that carried the stigma.” Manufacturers tried to reduce the stigma by rebranding trailers as “bungalows-on-wheels” to erase how they were seen in the vestiges of the war years, but it never has quite taken.

Zoning restrictions and the fact that the FHA did not agree to insure mortgages on mobile homes until 1971, “proved difficult for the trailer to compete with the tract home.” Isenberg notes that by “the late fifties, more mobile homes were built than prefabricated homes, yet municipalities continued to look down on them,” including prohibiting them from many city limits. A jurist writing a dissent in a New Jersey case “exposed the dangerous implications of this decision: ‘Trailer dwellers’ had become a class of people, he explained, through which discrimination was tolerated under the vague language of protecting the ‘general welfare.’” She tells the story as well of a project to build a trailer park community in Yorba Linda, California, that was finally approved only after the developers “added one final touch: a five-foot high wall around the entire complex.” She goes on to report, “Another local resident, without any apparent shame, admitted, ‘we call them the ‘people inside the wall,’ and we’re ‘the people outside the wall.’” Finally, the historian in an editorial voice asks, “Was there any better symbol of an undisguised belief in class stratification than the construction of a wall?”

Where’s the space and place in America where class does not trump nature and the ability to live freely, even for only several weeks a year? I look forward to many more seasons on the Creek, but wonder if it becomes a matter of keeping up with all of these Joneses, whether I’m simply – and literally — outclassed and need to start looking for some other place to drop my line, read my books, write my words, and visit with friends and family?

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the fishing buddy who actually brings in the fish
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