Reasons to see The Pruitt-Igoe Myth from UHAB Organizers

The Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis is generally considered a stunning example of public housing gone wrong. The above photograph of its demolition in 1972 is a now-iconic image of the end of public housing. From 1972 to 2006, cities across the country tore down project after project. (New York City is unique in that NYCHA housing still stands, as the New York Times discussed a couple weeks ago.)

But when Pruitt-Igoe first opened, it was paradise. Filmmaker Chad Fredrichs tells the story of what happened to this famous project in St. Louis in his documentary, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History.” After a successful run at the East Village Cinema and at IFC, the film announced that it will be returning to New York to the Municipal Art Society and the Anthology Film Archives. We strongly encourage all of our readers to go see this movie. Here are some things about The Pruitt-Igoe Myth that really resonated with the work that we do at The Surreal Estate:

  1. Use of grassroots story-telling techniques to describe the experience of living at Pruitt-Igoe: Some of the most impactful scenes in the Pruitt-Igoe Myth are interviews with former tenants of the project. In one such interview, we were shocked to discover that families were torn apart as a direct result of a social policy that required all male recipients of public housing be employed. Former tenants of the project recounted how their fathers and uncles would choose to leave the state rather than stay with the family, specifically to secure safe shelter for their children. In figures, this is reflected as a profound number of single-mothers living in Pruitt-Igoe.  This goes to show that there is often more to reality than statistics can show. With this in mind, we are encouraged to keep visiting buildings, talking with tenants, and learning the whole story from them.
  2. The Problem with Over-Leveraging: Typically we understand over-leveraging to mean that building income does not cover mortgage payments. If we step back to understand over-leveraging more loosely as Income < Operating, Pruitt-Igoe was, in effect, over-leveraged. Though governments at federal, state and local levels provided funds to build the project, no money was set aside to maintain the massive buildings. Public Housing rental income did not nearly cover operating costs for the project. The model here is certainly different than the model of speculation and inflated lending that we have been fighting in New York City. However, the film eloquently illustrates how tenants suffer, through no fault of their own, when building owners (in this case, the government) do not develop responsible, long-term financial plans for buildings. We will continue to fight for sound underwriting and careful financial planning in affordable housing. 
  3. Tenant organizing is important: Every day we are inspired by the resiliency of tenants who continue to fight despite compromising living situations. Chad Fredrichs tells the story of tenants who, faced with quickly deteriorating conditions at Pruitt-Igoe, organized the thirty-three eleven story buildings into a tenants association and conducted a rent strike against their landlord, in this case the City of St. Louis. Tenants will always stand up for their rights: for safety and security, humane living conditions, and affordable rents.

Learn more about the film at www.pruitt-igoe.com

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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.”