Reflections as Take Back the Land Sunsets

Last Friday we had the opportunity to attend Left Forum and hear a panel put on by some of the inspiring organizers involved in the Take Back the Land Movement. Participants hailed from Chicago and Baltimore Take Back the Land affiliated groups, the ACLU, and the L.A. based Labor/Community Strategy Center.

The panel, themed around “Left-Transformative Organizing,” had chosen this moment to “sunset” operations for the Take Back the Land Movement. Take Back the Land emerged in 2007 when organizers recognized that the real estate boom was actually a harsh wave of gentrification and displacement as experienced by low-income communities. In 2008, when foreclosure crisis struck, the goal became to move “homeless people into people-less homes.” Through the efforts of Take Back the Land, many evicted homeowners have re-claimed housing by moving back into their foreclosed homes. Read more about the principles and objectives of the movement here. On Friday, panel participants reflected on strategies developed and lessons learned from the past five years of fighting for the human right to housing.

There were several key takeaways we’d like to remember. First, “the law is for suckers.” The really wealthy and powerful don’t pay attention to it (Barack Obama this week I’m looking at you!) and so the really well organized shouldn’t pay attention to it either — specifically when the law is immoral and against human rights. (Read about the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign for more.)

Second, the “The Shield, the Sword and the Stool” model of organizing, popularized by City Life/Vida Urbana to create tenant-associations to fight foreclosing lenders. In this model, similar to what we do at UHAB, the “Shield” is legal defense for tenants, the “Sword” is organizing and direct action, and the “Stool” is a preservation offer supported by residents. Read about it in more detail here.

Finally, be ambitious in setting goals, as “you can’t build a movement around a mortgage principle reduction.” In this foreclosure crisis, much organizing around affordable housing focused on targeting banks to write down bad debt. That goal should remain a step along the path towards much larger and more important objective: to establish community controlled land and actualize a human right to housing.

Even as Take Back the Land is closing its national operations, local chapters will, of course, continue to fight for housing justice. Just today, Take Back the Land Rochester was successful in forcing Fannie Mae to cancel the eviction of Renee Madison from her long-time home! And Occupy Our Homes is doing great work throughout the country preventing evictions and bringing national attention to the unjust housing crisis.

Friday’s panel was interesting and inspiring to us, particularly as we think back to the early days of UHAB. UHAB began in the 1970s by doing similar work — reclaiming abandoned, government owned properties for cooperative, community-controlled ownership. Squatters used sweat-equity to make burned-out housing in the Lower East Side and Williamsburg livable again. Our executive director, Andy Reicher, remembers those days fondly, and fears that the movement away from limited equity cooperatives (controlled by low-income residents) is bad news for permanent housing affordability in New York City. He’s right — some of the only housing that remains affordable in the LES and Williamsburg is housing that residents reclaimed for themselves.

As organizers at UHAB today, we hope to keep learning from the wisdom of those who came before us, and continue to support this incredible and radical local movement.

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