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.


Friday News Round-Up!

Needless to say, this has been an eventful week– not only at UHAB, but throughout the country! Here are some of the prominent stories:

  1. Romney eloquently belittled 47% of the country this week! Mother Jones leaked a video that featured Romney claiming that 47% of the country is “dependent on government” and believe that they are “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” What Romney fails to realize is that most people don’t want to rely on government, but due to many more complex forms of marginalization and injustice, they need government subsidies to help. He also overlooks the fact that the “47%” do contribute to society– while the contribution is not in the form of income tax, it is in the form of payroll tax.  Interestingly, most of the “47%” folks pay a higher percentage of their income tax than Romney: “Among the American who paid no federal income taxes in 2011, 61 percent paid payroll taxes—which means they have jobs and, when you account for both sides of the payroll tax, they paid 15.3 percent of their income in taxes, which is higher than the 13.9 percent that Romney paid.” Perhaps Romney should do some more research before he makes such accusations next time…
  2. This past week marked the 1 year anniversary of the Occupy movement, started right here on Wall Street.  After some exciting days of protest, folks have organized a Free University! Over 130 workshops have been scheduled between September 18th to the 22nd, ranging from “Take Back the Land” to a “Strike Debt” workshop series to “Occupying Language.”  To us at UHAB, this has been one of Occupy’s greatest strengths: generating conversation about activism and alternative ways of structuring our world.  To participate in the final days of Free University NYC and to learn how to reconnect with that movement that once made you want to quit work and live in the street, check out the schedule of workshops here.
  3. Yesterday, the New York Daily News released a story asserting that New York is a great place to find quality affordable housing. In New York City, many tenants receive Section 8 vouchers which allows tenants to “pay one-third of their income as rent.” The article illustrates the “top 5” Section 8 apartments in NYC, including spaces in West Harlem, Union Square, and the Bronx, and expresses that there are an additional 93,000 available Section 8 units in the city. However, there is an 124,000 person waiting-list to receive this government subsidy and the government is threatening to cut additional funding to this program. Our hope is that they offer more Section 8 vouchers in homes that look as good as these!

These are just some of the stories of the week! We’ll return next week with more news. Have a great weekend!

Tomorrow: May Day “General Strike”…No work, No School, No Housework, No Shopping, No Banking….

Tomorrow is May Day, marking the the126th anniversary of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, turning this traditionally Celtic holiday into a lefty labor rights anarchist immigrant rights prison justice anti-corporate Occupy everything holiday.  This year, there is a nationwide call for a General Strike – “A Day without the 99%” – encouraging people not to go to work, to school, to shop, or to buy anything.  Like in 2006, El Dia Sin Inmigrantes, the general strike will demonstrate just how powerful collective organizing can be. We see the power of collective organizing every day.  Tenants join forces through group lawsuits, building-wide petitions, and even by the simple act of coming together and brainstorming solutions to building problems, tenants improve their buildings and establish community. May Day is not only a time to assert people-power, but to assert labor and immigrant rights.  Tenants we work with are almost exclusively low-income immigrants or people of color, and all are effected by the racial implications of policies like “Stop and Frisk,” “Operation Clean Halls” and the would-be “Secure Communities” program.  Tomorrow is a chance to band together across racial and class lines to assert an anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-sexist agenda.  There will be a plethora of free food, music, art supplies, educational teach-ins allowing for us to live one day in without participating in the system (capitalism) which promotes policies that hurt our communities. Check out Occupy Wall Street’s website for a full list of May Day activities and organizational endorsers. A few events we wanted to highlight:
Tenants and Neighbors:

This May Day, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) will be voting on a proposed range of rent adjustments for rent stabilized tenants. Every year since it came into existence, the Rent Guidelines Board has voted to raise rents, usually to levels that are unaffordable to many rent stabilized tenants.  This year, join us in expressing our collective frustration with the Rent Guidelines Board and demanding that it be made to be more accountable to the millions of New Yorkers who want the city to remain affordable to low and moderate income people. The meeting is at 5:30 at 7 East 7th Street; we will be rallying outside at 5:00 PM. For more information or to RSVP for the rally, please contact Sam Stein at or 212-608-4320, ext. 316.

Take Back the Land:

The Free University at Madison Square Park is an open invitation to educators around New York to participate in May Day. Lectures, workshops, skill-shares, and discussions will be held — all open to the public. University professors will bring their classes to the commons. Join Robert Robinson,  representatives from Take Back the Land and from Organizing for Occupation for a teach-in and conversation about the current housing crisis and the growing movement of communities taking positive action to collectively secure the human right to housing.

positive action (direct action) to collectively secure the human right to housing

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice:

2pm – JFREJ joins GOLES to support Public Housing residents taking their struggle to the streets! Meet: NE Corner of Houston and Avenue D, New York Sick and tired of being left out of decisions that affect the future of their homes, Lower East Side residents have decided to take to the streets — marching from Houston to 14th street to raise awareness about the New York City Housing Authority’s proposed policy changes that will affect the future of public housing. The LES has always been a safe haven for immigrant and low-income families – public housing is one of the few affordable housing options left. Protect what we have! March with LES public housing residents to Union Square where we’ll join the masses for the Unity Rally.

For the massive solidarity rally, we will be meeting at 4pm in Union Square, and at 5:30 we’ll be marching to Wall St.! We hope to see you there.

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.”