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.


The Housing Rights Movement: A Conversation at the “Left Forum”

Last weekend, the annual  “Left Forum” at Pace University in Manhattan gathered together a motley crew of academics, professionals, activists, organizers, and visionaries to exchange knowledge and strategies with one another through participation in panel discussions covering a variety of “hot button” topics.

I attended the forum eager to learn about new issues, as well as to deepen my analysis of the issue that I agonize over daily: how to build a thriving, progressive housing movement.  The distinguished Peter Marcuse moderated of panel of representatives from the National Association of HUD Tenants (NAHT), Take Back the Land-Madison, Community Voices Heard (CVH), National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), Picture the Homeless (PTH), Public Housing Tenants Association, and the Community Service Society (CSS).The discussion between these groups centered on several questions which have been critical considerations in my time as an organizer with UHAB.

Spatial Issues

The first question focused on spatial issues of organizing: when people affected are not physically together at one place and time. As a city-wide (rather than community-based) organization, UHAB confronts this challenge regularly. Although we generally focus our organizing efforts on specific building campaigns, we recognize that the issues in affordable housing units are systematic.  The same issues that plague low-income tenants across New York City also face the country at large.  Sometimes we organize campaigns around a portfolio of buildings that might be scattered in location, but connected by a common mortgage holder and/or owner. Other times we partner with community-based groups to form larger tenant/organizer/advocate coalitions that mobilize around collective issues that most affect members of these groups.  One such coalition that UHAB participates in is the Partnership to Preserve Affordable Housing (PPAH). In this way, UHAB takes a very multifaceted approach to organizing across space.

Questions of Scale
Some of the groups on the panel, such as Take Back the Land and CVH,  rooted their work exclusively on a building, neighborhood, or community level, focusing energy on creating inviting spaces that mediate inner-group tension, or engaging in localized direct action. Other groups, such as NAHT and CSS, fight their battles on the policy level, carting groups of tenants off to lobby in Washington D.C or other state capitals, or convene for a press conference on the steps of City Hall (as UHAB has done many times).  But one thing that all groups had in common was a desire to move the conversation from individual issues to one about the bigger issue of threats to affordable housing. This essential big-picture component of tenant organizing is what unites and enhances housing struggles everywhere, regardless of their spatial orientation.

Compromise vs. Negotiating
Another question which elicited strong reactions from some panelist asked about compromise and negotiating. Who decides what to ask for, what is feasible, and what constitutes a successful outcome? Interestingly, groups such as Take Back the Land, CVH, PTH, Public Housing tenants, and NESRI (all of which are led directly by the constituents they represent) spoke of compromise as a “curse word.” It was, however, agreed that negotiating and collective bargaining are not forms of compromise.  While recognizing the importance of strategic partnerships with groups that will sit down with public officials to discuss often “watered down versions” of their demands, the aforementioned groups preferred to stand their ground “…all day until you get what you want.”

As the 2-hour time slot allotted for the panel drew to a close, the panelists continued to raise questions about the relationship between organizing and negotiating, the differences between coalitions and alliances, and the complicated task of establishing solidarity and networks of mutual support despite differences in mission and strategy.

Although no definitive conclusions were made about best practices, one panelist left the audience with an intriguing challenge: “Say No, and…” In other words, housing organizers and advocates need to be able to think creatively and concretely about the solutions that they want to see and in doing so build a strong movement of people who can face the powers that be and say “No. And this is what we need.”