Taking Charge: Public Housing Tenants Organize
By Lucia Hwang
The problems affecting the Cooks Bridge complex in Needham, Massachusetts, in 1990 were the kind typically associated with troubled public housing: lack of or poor maintenance and drug-related crime. After meeting with indifference from the local housing authority, the Cooks Bridge Tenant Association realized they would need to act independently to make the playground and drug-free environment they so desired a reality.
"The housing authority didn't care," said Paulette Turner, a resident of Cooks Bridge and now an elected member of the Needham Public Housing Board of Commissioners. "They didn't live here." Turner and fellow members of the tenant association eventually raised $25,000 in private contributions for playground funds and approached the police department themselves for help in driving out the drug dealers. Today, Turner describes her home as a model development.
It's an understanding of the results organized public housing tenants can achieve, coupled with the public housing restructuring two impending Senate and House bills would order, that have mobilized community organizers to focus on building a national public housing resident movement. Two national groups, the Center for Community Change (CCC) and ACORN, are major players in this effort and have established campaigns to organize public housing residents across the country, while other organizations, like the Community Service Society of New York, are bringing tenant associations together at the local level.
"The recent harsh federal policy proposals provoked the current efforts," said Othello Poulard, coordinator of CCC's Public Housing Residents National Organizing Campaign. "But beyond that provocation, residents have all along recognized that they needed to be organized."
Both CCC and ACORN launched their projects on the premise that only a tenant-driven and tenant-controlled movement could truly benefit the millions of people living in public housing. "They're the primary stakeholders," said Poulard. "The policies that tenants generate are much more legitimate and resident-friendly than even advocates can propose."
Poulard's reasoning seems so logical and obvious that some observers of public housing administration might think any other arrangement would be ludicrous. Yet in the vast system of public housing which encompasses approximately 1.3 million units governed by 3,300 public housing authorities, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office only a handful of residents are determining policy and managing their own communities. The Campaign's goal is to increase this number, to help move tenants into positions of power and influence, whether it be by helping tenants win seats on public housing boards of commissioners or transforming resident councils into effective lobbying and policing groups.
Jennifer Anderson, co-coordinator for CCC's public housing campaign, said that other organizations have for many years been trying to persuade HUD to push Congress to pass housing legislation that requires a simple majority of residents on every housing authority board. But no such language has been adopted so far. "They don't want a resident to have that kind of power," said Anderson.
Paulette Turner's own experiences with the Needham Board of Commissioners and her local public housing authority (PHA) reveal the motives of some players in the current system of public housing management. "A position on the board is perceived as a step into the political field," explained Turner, who serves on the Campaign's steering committee. "They don't really care about the seat, it's just a stepping stone. They're all lawyers, doctors, and people with their own businesses. They have no education about low-income people. They have no idea what they're talking about because they don't live it."
The main thrust of both the ACORN Tenants Union's (ATU) and the Campaign's work involves helping tenants network and providing them with information about proposed federal and state policy changes. CCC has in past years convened resident leaders from around the country in Washington, D.C. to help them develop their own plans or responses. Likewise, ATU does much of the research tenants use in formulating strategy and arranges meetings for tenant associations with elected officials, according to Sharon Bush, an ATU organizer who works mainly in New York and New Jersey.
"We're trying to help them get more organized, more active," said Anderson. "We're figuring out ways in which they can connect with other residents and create some momentum toward getting responses from legislators and policy makers that are more resident-friendly."
Since its inception in January of this year, the Campaign has organized a March 27th nationwide speak out on public housing, a number of demonstrations and marches on Memorial Day, and a national letter writing campaign on H.R. 2 and S. 462. Its steering committee of resident leaders met in July, and they plan to hold their first southeast regional conference in late October or early November.
"We're digging deep," said Anderson. "We're trying to find ways to get invitations to every resident and asking how we can help them get to the conference."
The ACORN Tenants Union, according to Sharon Bush, works mainly with developments on existing problems and helping residents find solutions. In the process, tenants educate themselves on their housing rights. Bush says that nine times out of 10, tenants are completely unfamiliar with the grievance process. Most of her recent cases have involved residents about to be displaced through Hope VI demolitions who were unaware of their relocation rights.
Since ATU was founded in 1995, it has expanded into seven states and represents about 2,000 residents in 10 developments, according to Bush. A national board of six public housing residents forms ATU's top layer, and varying numbers of tenants serve on local boards, she said.
Many housing organizers have found that what residents lack most in successfully combating legislative attacks on the supply and condition of their housing is reliable information. For both groups, this need translates into publishing a newsletter that briefs residents on legislative actions and developments.
"The first thing that the residents felt needed to happen was to create a newsletter that was editorially controlled by tenants that was either no cost or at a very low cost," said Anderson. The Campaign's newsletter is scheduled to debut in October and will inform residents on decisions affecting housing at the national level, on their rights under tenant participation regulations, actions they can take at the local level, and on a myriad of other details. ATU's bi-monthly newsletter also updates residents on other tenant associations' activities around the nation.
Other local groups, like Community Service Society (CSS), an anti-poverty organization in New York City, have started acting as information clearinghouses for public housing residents as well. Over the past couple of years, CSS has been assembling resident council leaders for forums and briefings. They also publish a newsletter and send out alerts on pending legislation.
"Residents have been kept in relative ignorance of major plans to change legislation affecting public housing by public housing authorities," said Victor Bach, director of housing policy and research at CSS.
Both CCC and ATU face plenty of challenges in organizing public housing residents at the national level. According to many residents, the main obstacle they must hurdle to successfully organize is clear. "It's always the housing authorities," said Bush. "They start harassing the residents once they get educated on issues. They say, `Don't work with an outside groups, it's illegal,' which is completely false."
Helene O'Brien of ATU in the Bronx said that in New York, ATU has written letters and complained to HUD about hostility from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). For example, notices were distributed to public housing residents in the Bronx and some in Manhattan that charged that ACORN is headed by outsiders to public housing who "will tell you anything to get inside the development...and seek to divide us against each other and against NYCHA as well." The notice is on letterhead from the Bronx Association of Resident Councils and the Bronx Borough Management Office of NYCHA. The letter, signed by the Bronx Association of Resident Councils' chairs and co-chairs, urges residents to instead work with their elected resident representatives.
ATU reciprocated with a notice signed by members of various local tenant associations, defending ACORN's work in the community. This kind of division, between public housing residents who work with their housing authorities through resident management councils and those who seek to organize independently of their PHA, is not uncommon. From O'Brien's perspective, however, most residents don't trust the housing authority.
Kevin Marchman, HUD Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing, could not be reached for comment on HUD's policy toward outside organizing groups. Gloria Cousar, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Real Estate Performance in Public and Indian Housing, said that HUD was aware of the Bronx situation and was looking into it. But she said that overall, HUD encourages the formation of strong resident organizations in public housing, and most public housing tenant groups do have partnerships with housing authorities.
Even if most housing authorities are not openly hostile to resident organizing, those wanting to organize in public housing still face another big obstacle: a lack of money. Anderson said that although tenant participation regulations, under HUD's Tenant Opportunity Program (TOP) require housing authorities to set aside $3 per unit toward resident councils' operating expenses, "in very, very few cases does that money ever get to a resident organization."
"If residents cannot work with their housing authorities, then space becomes an issue, and they've got to go out and find space to rent to set up an office," added Anderson. "Making flyers also becomes a problem if the housing authority won't let you borrow their Xerox machines."
Cousar, however, emphasized that HUD plans to start soliciting Tenant Opportunity Program (TOP) grant requests soon. Tenant organizations that haven't received TOP funds of over $100,000 in the past can apply. Nonprofit organizations and intermediary organizations that work with residents, like ATU and the CCC Campaign, are also eligible.
The effect of these organizing efforts on public officials and policy is not yet fully clear. Although O'Brien said one of ATU's goals is definitely to sway public officials on housing policy, she could not yet point to any concrete examples that this has happened. And Poulard said CCC is taking time to establish a solid foundation of resident support. "We're doing it the hard, inefficient way," he said. "We're building it from the bottom up."
Poulard pointed to one example that CCC's Tenants Organizing Campaign has helped shape policy. He said Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) introduced some amendments to the Senate housing bill at the urging of residents involved with the Campaign. The first provision is that tenants receive 90-day notice before demolition of a complex, and the second is that if residents are given vouchers and told to move, the housing authority may not send them to a "less desirable" building or neighborhood or someplace where they would have to pay more rent.
Poulard also touched on the flip side of organizing residents on public housing issues. Although he feels their perspectives and proposals are much more effective and legitimate than non-residents', he said tenants' positions are often criticized as "too extreme."
Some people say, `You can't win this position in a congressional debate,'" said Poulard. "Oftentimes, positions that residents advocate are not politically sophisticated." For example, he said, the pending House and Senate bills would cut the number of units available for the poorest public housing residents in favor of moving toward mixed-income housing. "But residents want all of public housing reserved for people who want it most," said Poulard. The campaign will ultimately need to determine to what degree it is willing to compromise on such issues.
Although most people who work with public housing residents agree that tenants need to be more involved in monitoring and improving the system, not all agree that organizing them at a national level is the best way to accomplish this. "CCC has the idea of bringing people together in Washington, D.C., but that's really pretty expensive," said Wayne Sherwood, a public housing consultant who works mostly with government agencies and was previously a research director at the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. "Many residents cannot travel much or be away from home much. Whatever they do has to be relatively close to home." Sherwood says he believes CCC's dollars would be better spent arming residents with information and suggesting how to use that information to apply pressure on their local congresspeople.
"They need to get one or two pages that say, 'This is happening,' 'This is how it'll affect you,' and 'Go call such-and-such representative,'" said Sherwood. "Hardly anyone in D.C. has the staff to collect this information and translate it into useable form for tenants."
Residents like Paulette Turner, however, say tenants need campaigns with a national scope to develop leadership and connect the millions of people in public housing. "CCC's been very good as far as being there at the right place at the right time," said Turner, who got her first taste of the national spotlight when she was asked by CCC to testify at a congressional hearing. She now speaks nationally on public housing issues.
"I want to write language for public housing," she continued. "They have all these aides in Washington writing up stuff they have no idea about. We live here and we want to do it right."
Lucia Hwang is a freelance writer in New York City.
(Photo courtesy of the Center for Community Change)