Apryl Lewis is in a housing fight — again. She is trying to stop dozens of families being forced out of a Charlotte extended stay motel that is set to close in a matter weeks. These motels can cost up to $500 per week, which is a lot more expensive than long-term housing. These families often live paycheck to paycheck or on fixed incomes and have little choice.
“They can’t afford the move-in costs for an apartment,” Lewis said. “Landlords want up-front rent and utilities and a security deposit. Now they are even making people pay for rental insurance.”
Others stay at the motel as they are unable to find traditional housing. a past eviction Criminal record. Some simply can’t find a suitable place to live in a time when rental vacancies are at historic lows.
The good news for the motel residents is that this is not Lewis’s first fight. An organizer Action NCLewis coordinated “Cancel Rent” protests at the local courthouse in the early days of the COVID pandemic, led tenants in chants of “housing is a human right” at various government meetings, and organizes canvassing and phone banks, pulling together tenants to advocate for their rights. Current focus is on calling out corporate landlords like the one in Charlotte. repeatedly cited For refusing to address rampant mold, vermin and dangerous wiring.
Lewis and other tenants joined forces with other organizations, like Action NC, to make a surprise appearance at the Washington, D.C. meeting, a trade association for corporate landowners. Dozens of tenants took over a conference room, poured themselves glasses of the fancy lemon and orange-infused water, and chanted, “Corporate landlord you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side.”
“We go everywhere,” Lewis said. “We not only go door-to-door, we do banner drops and disrupt official meetings — just be there and be loud so they can’t ignore what is happening to these tenants.”
Lewis has fought for housing herself. Lewis was a single mother who had to fight for her housing, even though she worked two or three jobs. “The rent kept going up, so I had to be pretty crafty just so I could keep my daughter housed,” she said. Lewis became a counselor for youth and families, and the issues they shared with each other kept coming back to housing. the top expense In most U.S. homes.
Lewis’ tenants are not the only ones he works with. More than 10 million U.S. renters Tenants who are behind on their rent and at imminent risk of being evicted report that they are. Sixty five percent of those behind rent are people of color. These Americans need housing assistance urgently, but unlike Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps), federal programs are not an entitlement. Individuals and families may be eligible for housing assistance, but only if there is enough supply. And it is rarely available. Only one in four eligible persons You may be eligible for a federal housing subsidy. This means that over 8 million households are eligible, but not supported.
These numbers may not be as grim as they seem, but they could get worse. Rent prices on average rose more than 16 percent during 2021In some cities, the increase was more than 20%. A U.S. General Accounting Office report found that every $100 increase in the average monthly rent was associated with an increase of a 9 percent increase in homelessness. It is therefore not surprising that homeless shelters reported mid-2022. a surge in people asking for helpWaitlists doubled or tripled as a result.
Housing Racism and Corporate Landlords
The United States is often called a free market economy system. But housing in the United States does not resemble an unfettered market. The major players in the housing market have been federal, state, and local governments. The problem is that the government’s heavy hand in housing is usually placed on the scales on the side of the wealthy. Corporations have taken advantage of this trend over the past decade. significant tax breaks To dramatically increase their holdings Both residential and multi-unit rental homes. Institutional owners — corporations or limited liability companies — now own the majority of all U.S. rental units 80% plus of properties with 25 units or more.
This is a problem as Lewis and others who have been in the US rental homes know. Corporations are demonstrably more eager to evict and less responsive to maintenance needs than smaller landlords. Tenants struggle with out-of-state landlords They leave mold untreated, break appliances and windows unrepaired and trash uncollected, and even fail pay for water. “And too often they blame the people living there, saying they don’t keep their homes clean,” Lewis said. “Corporate landlords should be regulated like banks.”
The long history of racist housing practices is the root cause of America’s housing problems. The federal government used homeownership subsidies in the early and middle 20th century to benefit whites and exclude Blacks. However, restrictive covenants kept Blacks from moving into areas where mortgages were more easily obtained. The benefits of homeownership top means for accumulating wealth in the U.S., generations of housing and income discrimination has left Black homeownership rates — and wealth — far below those of their white counterparts. White U.S. households are on average disadvantaged by housing racism. 10 times the wealth Black households
The trend continues today. The current epidemic of absentee corporate landlords speculative purchasing of homes Is disproportionately visited on Black and brown communities. It is a trend that reminds me of corporate purchases made in those same communities During the Great Recession 2007-2009. During that recession, Black household wealth — much of it dependent on home values — fell nearly 50 percent.
This all leads to very predictable outcomes. Black families are more than twice as likely To be renters as white family members. Black renters make up the majority of renters. far more likely to be evicted Black renters are more likely to be evicted than white renters. Black children and women are the most likely to be evicted from their homes. Nearly one fifth of Black and Hispanic children have been evicted. by age 15. “A lot of things in housing have not changed since the Jim Crow era,” Lewis said. “To address it we have to address the racism.”
A Strong and Growing Movement
Activists like Apryl Lewis have the public’s attention. According to polls, there is both a lot of current concern about housing and a willingness to address the problem. A 2021 survey found that two thirds of Americans living in growing metropolitan areas are concerned about their housing situation. “extremely/very concerned” about homelessness and the high cost of housingThey ranked it as their top priority. “Housing is the most critical component for a successful community,” Lewis said. “A lot of issues we are struggling with, like crime, are connected to people not being able to stay housed.”
Housing insecurity can also be associated with individual issues. all manner of health crisesThere are many causes, including asthma and heart disease, as well as violence and suicide. “If you are not secure in your housing, your mental health is in jeopardy. You are always stressing, you are always at level 10 because you are fighting for housing,” Lewis said. “I can tell you myself that me sitting here in a comfortable position in my housing, my thought patterns are way better than when I was struggling to stay housed.”
It should come as no surprise that surveys show that nearly three quarters of Americans agree to the tenants chants in Charlotte, and across the country. safe, secure housing should be considered a human right. These Americans don’t want that right to be abstract: The vast majority of Americans who support housing as a human rights also support expanded government programs to make it a reality.
Federal-level housing efforts include Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Homes for All ActThe $1 trillion would be used to build 12,000,000 new, affordable, public and social housing units. It would also repeal Faircloth Amendment, which was passed in 1998 to address the decline of public housing. This amendment blocked new public housing construction. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition leads the charge. “HoUSed” campaign To increase rental assistance for all households eligible and create a national stabilization fund for housing to provide emergency assistance.
There is a lot of successful activism happening at both the state and local levels. Activists employ a variety of tactics, including occupying vacant buildings From canvassing to pushing for ballot initiatives, community activists have won commitments to expand affordable housing support in cities like Minneapolis and Oakland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Los Angeles. Community activists are involved in current housing campaigns New York and Las Vegas. The ongoing fight for rent control is underway in California, Florida MichiganWith a recent rent control victory in Minnesota. San Francisco now requires landlords recognize tenant associations and meet them, or face a mandated reduction in rent. Activists in cities like Indianapolis are convincing their local governments that they should follow the European example of directing public money and public real estate to social housing.
The movement is supported by religious communities. Catholic Charities USA and the Union for Reform Judaism are part of the federal HoUSed effort. The national leadership of the Episcopal, Methodist and Episcopal churches is also involved in the campaign. As for the Action NC housing effort in Charlotte, it counts as a key ally St. Martin’s Episcopal church.
Several homeless people live on the downtown Charlotte grounds of St. Martin’s, and the congregation welcomes and supports them. After visiting the local eviction court together with conversations with several Action NC leaders, the congregation decided that housing justice would be the focus of their efforts. “We wanted to see how we could be of help before a family becomes evicted, before someone becomes homeless,” St. Martin’s mission board president Kay Miller said.
So St. Martin’s parishioners have staffed a tenant crisis hotline and recruited pro bono attorneys to help families facing eviction. A new team has been formed to phone canvass tenants who live in the worst corporate-owned housing in Charlotte. They are discussing the possibility of following other churches’ leads in helping low-income homeowners pay off the property tax bills and fines that often causes a family to lose a home, and even exploring how to help create more affordable housing units.
“I give credit to the people of St. Martin’s for showing us how community and faith-based groups can really help the movement,” Lewis said. “I try to push faith groups into action, not just praying, and they are definitely taking action.”
Social, Not For-Profit Housing
One common theme in housing activism is the need for us to abandon our expectations that the private market will solve our problems. The big picture, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has written in her book, “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership,” is that entrusting a human right to profit-seeking entities will inevitably lead to suffering. “Satisfying basic human needs, like the provision of shelter, medical treatment, water or even education run counter to business’s objective of maximizing return on investment or simply making money … One of the most pressing questions has been how to secure the provision of safe, sound, affordable and decent housing for everyone. The obstacles to that goal have always been business’s bottom line.”
Activists are able to convince state governments and local governments that Taylor is correct: the private housing market will not meet the needs of all residents. States like Colorado, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Hawaii are examples. investing in building government-run housingMontgomery County, Maryland, is another example. All levels of government have the power to address the housing crisis. They can tax high-end housing and housing speculation to raise revenue for subsidized housing. They can tighten regulation of for-profit housing activity. exercise eminent domainParticularly for vacant or distressed corporate properties. The government can significantly increase the power and resources of public land banks to acquire and transfer property or develop it into affordable housing. They can also pass Community Opportunities to Purchase Act (COPA) legislation that gives tenants and the community the first rights to land purchase. Governments can then subsidize those organizations’ development and maintenance efforts via public housing finance agencies.
Housing activists’ demands like these are often framed with the term “social housing.” Social housing is publicly owned by either the government or non-profit organizations that respond to democratic control by residents. It is decommodified — protected from the profiteering of the private market — and affordable for the life of the building or unit, with no expiration date. Social housing considers housing a human right and not an investment or a way to build wealth. Social housing, like public education, public safety and our justice system, recognizes that a place for one to live is an essential human right that cannot be dependent on whether a family can make a profit to a bank or private landlord.
Apryl Lewis assisted the Center for Popular Democracy with its advisory services. manifesto in support of social housing This publication was published in March 2009. New York and Minnesota were the first to see corporate-owned properties taken over by activists. converted to community ownershipWhile public dollars for affordable housing in San Francisco are being increased via the San Francisco via, taxes on high-end real estate. COPA legislation Multiple states and communities have passed or are pending legislation in this area, including Washington D.C. as well as Portland. Baltimore community advocacy led to the creation of a housing trust fund, North Dakota, Philadelphia, and California now have public banks To fund social housing
One social housing approach is enjoying significant current momentum is community land trustsThese have a history that goes back to Black-owned projects such as the New Communities grew out of the southern U.S. civil rights movement. In a community trust, the trust retains ownership of land while the resident purchases it. The discount for not purchasing the land reduces the purchase price and often the purchase is supported by subsidies. In exchange for the reduced price and the subsidy, the resident’s resale price is limited in order to make sure the home is permanently affordable. There are currently over 225 community land trusts in the U.S., with local governments supporting their acquisition of land and buildings from private owners and transferring title the trusts to develop or manage.
All of these campaigns are based on a simple principle. says Housing organizer for the Center for Popular Democracy, Dianne Enriquez. “We just need to prioritize renters the way we have been doing for landlords. If there is a will, there definitely is a way.”
A History of Housing Activism Success
An impressive history of housing activism supports Enriquez’s optimism. Countries like Finland, France, and Singapore have much more affordable housing and far fewer homelessness than the U.S. Advocates, including labor union and tenant campaigns, have made it possible to achieve a strong social housing record in these and other nations. in Sweden, grassroots organizing in Germany For expropriating corporate landlord properties, activists occupying banks and homes in Spain a broad socialist movement in Austria.
Finland, Germany and South Africa have also been represented. created legal rights to housing They followed up on the pronouncements with programs to ensure that they were implemented. In Scotland, for example, which has enshrined a right to housing in its constitution and legislation, homelessness is “brief, rare and a non-recurring phenomenon,” writes Eric Tars from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
The U.S. has a history of housing activism that has been successful. Rent strikes and community organizing were the catalysts for this success. rent control measures in 200-plus U.S. cities. Activism created the momentum For the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. 1969 St. Louis rent strike, which was the largest U.S.-wide public housing rent strike. helped shape the Brooke Amendment of 1969. The Brooke Amendment capped public housing tenants’ rent and increased federal subsidies for housing. Like other U.S. housing activisms, the St. Louis strike was deeply connected to faith communities. Buck Jones, a United Church of Christ minister, led the strike. He was supported by large numbers of local religious congregations.
These movements share a common theme: We can and should reclaim our housing system. It is not up to those who only want to make as much money as possible out of people who need shelter to live. Apryl Lewis is mindful of this theme as she fights alongside her fellow tenants. “Our activism is radical, not violent,” she said. “The violence is what is happening to these tenants. The bills keep coming and they are increasing but wages are not.” And then Lewis repeated what tenants across the nation are saying in public meetings, corporate events and street protests. “At the end of the day, the rent is just too damn high.”