Issue #144, November/December 2005


The Tenants Movement and Housers

How the tenants movement of the 1970s and 1980s evolved into the housing and community development movement of today

By Woody Widrow


Much has changed in the last 30 years about both Shelterforce magazine and the housing movement. Shelterforce, which began as a tenants’ rights and organizing publication, is now more broadly focused on housing and community development issues. And while there are still some strong local tenant organizations around the country, they have been drastically reduced in numbers, replaced by CDCs and other related agencies. Many of the existing tenant groups have expanded beyond tenant rights and organizing into tangential activities to support their operations or to enlarge their focus.

On the 30th anniversary of Shelterforce, it’s important for readers to understand where the tenants and housing movements intersected then and now. Twelve people who were leaders in their local tenant organizations in the 1970s, and are still involved in housing today, were asked to provide their perspective on their tenant work and to reflect on what opportunities and challenges lie ahead in support of affordable housing.

The Tenants Movement Then
In describing how the tenants movement fit into larger social justice movements during the magazine’s early years, the housing activists provided an excellent context of the times.

“Social justice movements were borne, at least in part, by the commonly held belief that poverty was a national issue and had to be dealt with, mostly, by an activist federal government,” says Michael Bodaken, president of the National Housing Trust. He noted a series of events from 1963 to 1975 that included President Johnson’s War on Poverty and the 1965 March on Washington, as well as the establishment of HUD, Legal Aid, Community Action, CDBG and VISTA.

Mike Rawson, staff attorney for the California Housing Law Project, notes the local nature of the tenants movement. “The nature of tenant organizing differed from organizing around other issues because of the unique nature of housing in people’s lives,” he says. “It’s harder to get folks to come together and see common causes around housing, except in cases where entire neighborhoods are put up against the wall by a common enemy like redevelopment. This is one reason many tenant groups added local electoral politics to their efforts. It allowed them to rally entire communities around issues like rent control and just cause eviction.”

In Philadelphia, tenant organizing groups were neighborhood-based and guided by theories of political change that the Black Nationalist movement, Saul Alinsky and others had developed, says Eva Gladstein, director of neighborhood transformation for the city of Philadelphia.

“The tenants movement was more aligned with other economic justice movements [such as] welfare [and] jobs and not as close to the anti-war and peace movement,” she says. Only rent control campaigns brought out a broader base that included the middle class.

The tenants movement had three different aspects, says Phil Star, a board member at the Cleveland Tenants Organization. Tenant organizing in public housing focused on discrimination against minorities, which made it an extension of the civil rights struggles. There were also communities that emphasized empowerment and focused on slum landlords who were destroying neighborhoods through disinvestment in their property. Since most of the victims were low-income minorities, many of these campaigns had a social justice aspect to them and the focus was on the racial distinctions and injustices that poor people faced as renters.

The third aspect was the consumer rights approach, as in rent control campaigns and tenant unions in college towns that responded to a long history of rent gouging and lousy conditions. Their work led to the uniform landlord-tenant law and campaigns to change landlord-tenant relations. Rather than social justice, the emphasis was on fairness. But these tenants had to form tenant organizations and use tactics like rent strikes and picketing, which made them look very much like the other social justice movements of the time.

From Tenant Activists to Housing Developers
The tenants movement exists today on a national level mostly through the work of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT), says Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Texas Tenants Union. The NAHT is most active among tenants in privately owned, HUD-assisted housing. Beyond that, she hasn’t seen much activity on a national level since the demise of the National Tenants Union in the 1980s. It has been difficult to sustain tenant organizing and organizations in the face of insufficient resources, she says.

Tenant groups seem better integrated now with other housing and community development advocates than in the 1970s, says Ralph Scott, community projects director for the Alliance for Healthy Homes. He believes some of this is due to diminished funding for tenant groups, but also because many of these groups saw housing development as the logical next step for them.

Housing has not been a significant issue in presidential and congressional elections, says Dennis Keating, chair of the Department of Urban Studies at Cleveland State University. But despite federal cutbacks, neighborhood-based nonprofit housing development has grown.

Gladstein sees this growth of the community development movement replacing tenant advocacy. She points to the example in Philadelphia of an active affordable housing coalition that has created a housing trust fund that includes emergency grants to prevent homelessness. Still, she adds, “Without the constant presence and pressure of an organized tenant constituency, this coalition would never take up such issues.”

In the 1970s there were few nonprofit housing developers and affordable housing was either publicly owned or subsidized, notes Carole Norris, a housing consultant and member of the National Housing Institute (NHI) board. Also, there were few protections for private tenants. Today, most major cities have some tenant protections and thousands of nonprofits build and own rental housing.

The tenants and housing movements were significantly different at first, with the tenants focused on improving living conditions and self-empowerment, and the housers on increasing the supply of affordable housing, says Star. Over time, the two movements became less distinct from each other. Rawson notes that the tenants movement became the housing movement as it evolved to focus on long-term solutions in addition to fighting day-to-day displacement battles.

But this transition got complicated when part of the housing movement became the neighborhood movement, says Star. An early tension was created by the Alinsky organizing, which focused on the decline of ethnic working class neighborhoods and white flight from cities. These organizers looked to homeowners as the appropriate people to organize and treated tenants as transient members of the community. Tensions now exist in some neighborhoods, as CDCs work to repopulate them by developing and selling housing, and make minimal efforts to support decent housing for renters, particularly low-income renters.

Are Housers Part of Social Justice Movements?
“We need to keep in mind the difference between charity – that which we do because we believe in humankind – and working for social justice,” says Bodaken. “In my mind, those who advocate for social justice are trying to devise structural change. Nonprofit housers do terribly important work but they are typically not seeking systemic changes. That’s generally not their job. As housing development has become increasingly more sophisticated and technical, the role of the organizer and the developer has increasingly been separate.”

Nevertheless, many people working at CDCs and other housing agencies consider what they do to be very much a matter of social change, says Scott. “Without debating which of our strongest social justice advocacy efforts … are truly ‘movements,’ it’s clear that labor, women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, immigrant rights, peace and environmentalism/environmental justice are all important spheres of social justice work,” he says. “There has been successful collaboration between labor and affordable housing advocates (including tenants). More recently, the connections between housers and environmental justice have been growing and would seem to have high potential. Housers play some role at least in anti-discrimination and immigrant rights efforts.”

There was a period when both the tenants and housing movements lost people’s attention as young would-be activists focused on other issues, says Karen Hiller, who heads Housing and Credit Counseling, Inc. in Topeka, Kansas. “We had so many fabulous and committed people come out of the ’60s and early ’70s – people with a lifetime commitment to making a difference,” she says. “Those folks are still around, doing great things – some still with grassroots and nonprofit roles, and some in government and the private sector and serving as great resources there. But in the ’80s and ’90s, it was hard to recruit. Young people seemed to be more focused on getting MBAs, etc. Today, there seems to be a new generation of very eager, talented folks in their twenties and thirties emerging, both in the grassroots and nonprofit sectors as well as in private industry, who are very eager to learn and are committed to actively ‘doing the right thing.’ It is so exciting to see!”

And tenant activists continue to see a link between their work on housing issues and the struggles of other social justice movements. Rollins highlighted a rally that the Texas Tenants’ Union planned for October 2005. “There’s a new peace movement, thanks to the Bush administration. We are planning a rally next month and intend to highlight the administration’s hurricane response failure, housing, the war and other misguided policies.”

Housers Today
So how can housers fit into the broader work for social change? “I think that the ‘regional equity’ conversation/movement is beginning to bring together a number of issues that we care about: taking into account an equitable distribution of resources, promoting sustainable development, preserving the environment, and cutting across issues of race, class, urban vs. suburban and rural concerns,” says Gladstein. “More of this discussion is at the academic or policy level and less at the practitioner level – how do we actually do this? However, it is a start. Would the answer be the same if we asked the question in reverse: how can today’s social justice movements make themselves relevant to today’s housing movement?”

“We remain relevant by keeping our eye on the prize and helping others to see it – social and economic equality is unattainable without decent, affordable housing, protected from the heartless fluctuations of the market,” says Rawson. “There is a housing aspect to every issue. We need to help connect the dots.”

“I think that we use our energy and political acumen wherever and whenever we have an opportunity. Many of us are building affordable housing; many of us are working to change public policy, from the inside as consultants to local government, or through political change through electoral politics,” says Norris.

“There are two things that occur to me – the first is to continue to write,” she says. “We have a perspective that has relevance – books, op-ed pieces and continuing to force public debate on the issues that most affect low-income people. Secondly, to build opportunities for families to become self-sufficient through asset-building programs.”

Pat Morrissy, who directs HANDS, Inc., in Orange, NJ, and was one of Shelterforce’s founders, believes CDCs have tremendous potential to be catalysts for change, especially in poor urban communities. But John Atlas, now president of the NHI board, offers a caveat. “The CDC potential…will never see the light of day, until our public interest organizations – the nonprofit community service organizations, anti-poverty think tanks, and activist groups – develop the capacity to mobilize grassroots organizations,” he says. “We need organizers who will build civic groups [with] local chapters funded by dues-paying members, [and] national federations willing to recruit men and women across lines of class and place.” He pointed to nationwide organizations like the American Legion that were prominent in the U.S. during the mid-20th century and gave people the capacity to lobby and engage in electoral politics.

As is apparent from the observations of these long-time housing advocates, there has been a shift in energy to deal with a number of objectives, including housing, social justice and economic equality. The shift reflects the larger vision and mission that are necessary to build decent affordable, healthy housing and livable communities.

Woody Widrow worked for the Newark Tenants Organization and the East Orange Tenants Association in the 1970s. He was a member of the Shelterforce Collective and served as editor of the magazine. He was also a founding member of the National Tenants Union. He currently is the director of the Texas Asset Building Coalition and a board member of NHI.


Shelterforce is Born

In 1974 John Atlas, his brother Ron, Pat Morrissy and Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, all New Jersey tenant activists, began talking about setting up a committee to create a national magazine to increase communications among fellow activists in the movement. The small committee grew rapidly to include a number of other local activists. They had been organizing tenants, building citywide groups and linking them to the New Jersey Tenants Organization. Atlas believed we needed a national voice and power to make a real difference to the poor. The plan was to use the new publication as an impetus for eventually giving the left-leaning populist movement a national voice.

Morrissy suggested the name Shelterforce, in part reflecting upon another publication, Workforce, which was dedicated to jobs in social change organizations. “It was our belief that shelter was a basic human right and we wouldn’t achieve that without exercising political power,” he says. “Many people said at the time that Shelterforce overcame a sense of isolation that they were feeling and made them feel part of a larger movement. Clearly it provided a valuable ‘cheerleading function.’”

As the Vietnam War was winding down, many activists were looking for a way to channel their socially responsible and political energies, says Marty Bierbaum, another tenant activist who was involved with the magazine early on. “Housing issues seemed to resonate, and tenants’ rights was closely related to the civil rights movement and emerging questions related to social justice.” Atlas saw Shelterforce in an educational role, encouraging activists in the tenants movement to build powerful local groups that would enlarge the constituency of the working poor and lower middle class. “I wanted to build on the power of the anti-war and black power movements, which I did not realize were on the wane, and the environmental, women’s and consumer rights movements, which were gaining strength,” he says.

Carole Norris, who was organizing tenants in California in the 1970s, noted that “Shelterforce was key in allowing the tenants movement to become national in scope, where we could learn from one another through success stories or strategies for overcoming difficulties, whether in New Jersey, Detroit or San Francisco.”

W.W.


Still on the Scene

The people interviewed for this article were active in the tenants movement at the time of Shelterforce’s founding in 1975. A few still work in tenants groups, but the majority have found new ways to affect the housing field.

Michael Bodaken was active with the United Tenant Organization, Topeka Housing Information Center and Topeka Legal Aid. He is now the head of the National Housing Trust.

Eva Gladstein was the executive director of the Tenants’ Action Group (TAG) of Philadelphia. She is now on the board of directors of TAG and is the director of Neighborhood Transformation for the City of Philadelphia.

Karen Hiller was a staff member of the Topeka Housing Information Center. It became Housing and Credit Counseling, Inc., where Hiller is now executive director.

Dennis Keating was active in the Berkeley Tenants Union and CHAIN (California Housing Action and Information Network), the statewide housing coalition that defeated the landlords rent control preemption initiative. He currently is the associate dean and chair of the Department of Urban Studies at Cleveland State University.

Carole Norris was active in tenant work with the Berkeley Tenants Union and the Tenant Action Project. She was also president of CHAIN. She now works for ICF Consulting as a housing and community development consultant and is a board member of the National Housing Institute (NHI). She is also a member of the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Mike Rawson was active in tenant organizations in California including the Isla Vista Tenants Union, Santa Barbara Rent Control Alliance, Oakland Tenants Union and CHAIN. He currently is a staff attorney for the California Affordable Housing Law Project.

Sandy Rollins was a member of the Texas Tenants’ Union and still works there as executive director.

Ralph Scott worked for the Hyde Park Coalition on Housing and Tenants Rights in Chicago. He currently is on staff at the Alliance for Healthy Homes in Washington, DC.

Phil Star served as the executive director of the Cleveland Tenants Organization. He is now on the board of trustees of CTO and is the director of the Center for Neighborhood Development at Cleveland State University.

John Atlas, Marty Bierbaum and Pat Morrissy were founding members of the Shelterforce Collective. Atlas was a board member of the New Jersey Tenant Organization (NJTO). He is currently the president of NHI. Bierbaum was active in tenant organizations in the 1970s and now directs the Municipal Land Use Center at the College of New Jersey. Morrissy was active with NJTO and the East Orange Tenants Association and was director of the Ronald B. Atlas Essex County Tenant Resource Center. He is currently the executive director of HANDS, Inc., in Orange, NJ, and board member of New Jersey Citizen Action, Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey and NHI.

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