Lessons Learned from the Road: A Vision of What Justice Could Be & the Challenge Ahead

Today we report on the immense challenge posed by a fortified oligarchy, the inspiring work of activists on the ground, an emerging new vision of what REAL transformation could look like, plus a shot at the lack of vision & courage of Dem. Party centrists.

Look, Listen & Learn Road Trip Update: Why the Work Is So Hard.  All along the trip so far, we are meeting with activists, elected officials, program directors, and advocates. Three things are becoming abundantly clear:

  • Lesson One: No matter what the issue, to achieve meaningful, sustainable change requires a constellation of factors to align. We will discuss these factors in more detail ina future blog:
    1)  Elected officials who are firmly committed to social justice, not as “a” priority, but “the” priority; 2)  continuity of leadership, especially among local elected officials and administrators; 3) a strong coalition of organizations with funding to support administrative functions that facilitate and sustain the coalition and enable it to effectively advocate on a number of social justice initiatives; 4) a clear set of priorities that guide advocacy, a platform or a set of specific set of shared principles; and 5) at the very least, a benign state government that isn’t set upon blocking and/or reversing the work of local cities and activists, and ideally a state government that is leading the effort to advance justice on multiple fronts.
  • Lesson Two: In the absence of these five factors, every local advance is going to be challenged, stalled, undermined, and threatened by the plutocracy in the form of law suits; lobbyist-written state legislation limiting local jurisdiction options; alt-fact media assaults; and manipulation of local and state elections.
  • Lesson Three: To free ourselves from the never-ending struggle of achieving modest progress and then having to fight hard to retain those advances, a new socio-political system must replace the “democracy” we have (such as it is) and and we must invent an entirely new economic system to replace capitalism.

Today, we present what we learned from our visit with housing, transit, and employment activists in Nashville and present at the bottom of the post a video of a panel discussion organized by a project of the Democracy Collaborative, The Next Systems Project. The challenge going forward is to balance working locally, as they are in Nashville and so many other cities across the Nation and as Retake and others are doing in New Mexico, while continuing to flesh out the longer-term vision of a new system. The blog and our radio show will try to maintain that balance: what we can do now and here and what the future should look like…and soon.

Gentrification & Housing Squeeze Leads Advocates to Form Coalition to Press City to Expand Commitment to Affordable Housing

Nashville’s explosive growth and resulting shortage of affordable housing is well documented. According to some news reports, the average monthly rent increased by more than 50 percent between 2011 and 2016—from $897 to $1,372—while average income increased by just 8 percent. A quarter of homeowners and almost half of the city’s renters are cost-burdened, according to a housing report from the Mayor’s Office.The situation mirrors that found in Santa Fe, where over the past decades housing costs and development decisions have displaced thousands of low-income residents and former residents.

According to official estimates, the booming city of Nashville will need to create or preserve 31,000 units of affordable rental housing in the next seven years if its current residents are going to continue to be able to live there. With a population of over 650,000 in the city itself and 1.9 million in the greater metropolitan area, that 31,000 unit goal is similar in scale to the challenge faced by Santa Fe, a city 1/8th the size of Nashville but needing 6,000 units of affordable housing to address its housing needs.

From an article in Next City, I learned that: “Nashville has sought to address the housing shortage in various ways. Since taking office, Megan Barry has promised $25 million in bond proceeds and committed an additional $10 million a year to The Barnes Fund, the city’s housing trust fund, which makes grants to nonprofit affordable housing developers. The administration announced last year that it would, in fact, pursue a community land trust, which would be able to hold land indefinitely and maintain affordable housing or other community uses.” It also enacted a modest inclusionary zoning program meant to incentivize developers to build affordable units alongside market-rate housing.

A new coalition of housing advocates, unions, business groups, and political organizations say the city isn’t moving fast enough.

From Next City:  “We’ve been getting promise after promise from the city, and we’ve received very little results in terms of actually moving the needle on affordable housing,” says Austin Sauerbrei, an organizer with the tenant advocacy group Homes For All who is helping to coordinate the campaign. “So let’s get as many groups in the room as we can that have been pushing in the same direction … Let’s get a policy platform together and push for some very specific policies.”

In February 2018, over three dozen groups announced that they were joining forces to draw more focused attention to the city’s housing needs, and to push for a handful of specific solutions. The new Welcome Home coalition is focusing on four primary goals:

  • Dramatically increasing the city’s dedicated funding for affordable housing construction and preservation,
  • Establishing a citywide community land trust,
  • Creating a municipal land bank, and
  • Getting the city to issue a quarterly scorecard tallying the number of affordable units lost, gained, and saved.

The coalition is calling for the city council to pass a funding resolution dedicating at least $775 million in general obligation bond proceeds to affordable and low-income housing construction. That amount is about 15 percent of the $5.2 billion that the city is hoping to dedicate to a transit plan that will go before voters in May.

From L-R, Kennetha Patterson, George Davis, Brenda Gadd and Paul. Emily Sellers had to leave before we ended the meeting and took the photo. Photography by Roxanne.

We had read about these plans before meeting with Kennetha Patterson, Emily Sellers and George Davis from Homes for All Nashville and Brenda Gadd from Welcome Home Nashville. We discussed how they were doing in advancing their advocacy efforts related to housing, transit and employment. What we found informed our summary at the beginning of the blog — they face most of the challenges that can stall any effort to advance equity.

First the Mayor, who had pledged to create a Community Land Trust and include 15% ($775M) of a $5.2 billion general obligation bond to construction of new affordable housing, resigned after pleading guilty to a felony for misuse of public funds. The Vice-Mayor served as Mayor for 2 months until a special election selected a Mayor who will serve until the next election in 2019. In short, continuity of commitment to the housing reforms from the Mayor’s office went out the window with the felony conviction. The current Mayor is in the process of “studying the issue.”

Second, the State of Tennessee is very conservative and is dead set against allowing any local progressive initiatives to succeed and gain traction. The City of Memphis passed a local minimum wage of over $11, then the state passed legislation that prohibited cities from raising wages above the Federal minimum wage. Mandatory inclusionary zoning is a tool that can be used to set aside land for low-income housing and provide tools to developers to increase the proportion of affordable housing, but state government in Tennessee has passed a law prohibiting it.

Inconsistency in local leadership among local elected officials and blatant opposition at a state level make the work on the ground more difficult. It also virtually ensures the need for sustained advocacy to protect any modest reforms “allowed” by the powers that be, distracting advocates from using reforms achieved to serve as launching pads for still greater advances.

In Nashville’s Section 8 program, we found another example of impeding advances in social justice is that as soon as some gains are made, efforts unfold to undermine or reverse those advances. Designed to subsidize the rent for very low-income individuals, Section 8 tenants have been so systematically undermined that a Tenants Union has been formed by Homes for All. Among the strategies used to displace Section 8 renters to allow for market rate rents:

  • if a renter complains about the need for repairs in their unit, the landlord is only required to respond to issues related to heating or plumbing but even here, they were able to stall or avoid repairs if they could cite high costs as an issue. What’s more Section 8 tenant’s with open requests for repairs can lose their voucher if repairs are not made. In effect, if you live in affordable squalor and complain about it, your reward is eviction. No doubt then, funding for improvements would be found and a market rate renter would take your place.
  • In another example, a Section 8 renter, Anthonie Carter, a father of five living at Park at Hillside was recently attacked and injured on Park at Hillside premises. Due to injuries from this attack, he fell behind on a rent payment and now is being told to move even though he has the back payment in full! And this is at one of the housing developments, Elmington Capital, that has a good reputation for committing to affordable housing.

Having to fight one pitched battle after another distracts advocates like George Davis and Kennetha Patterson from creating new paths to justice, as they must fight to preserve the rights of those oppressed by a system that is guided by profit, not equity.

As we will present on Saturday, even in the heartland of America, this act is playing thin. Polls are showing a plummeting of support for Trump at the same time they are showing huge gains for unabashedly progressive candidates in states such as Kansas. And now we read that a coalition of farm groups is launching a multi-million dollar ad campaign against Trump and his tariffs…in the heart of the farm belt. Somehow the mainstream of the Democratic Party remains numb to the opportunity presented, failing to support progressive candidates and abandoning any efforts in historically red states, leaving it to Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other progressives to stump in these states.

We need to win small battles to sustain the movement’s momentum, but we also need to begin to formalize the real prize, a substantive transformation of the political and economic systems that imprison us mentally, economically, and politically.

On our Road Trip we have met with and/or communicated with many activists conducting the ground work needed to achieve and defend different forms of justice while also meeting with and reading about people who are in the process of inventing “the next system.”

A New Vision for the Economy of Land and Housing

We need more people to become deeply educated about an expanded vision of what is possible. In the panel discussion below, members of the Democracy Collaborative, the Next Systems Project, and European housing advocates discuss options only recently considered in the US. We will continue to provide more resources from the Next Systems Project, as they are fearlessly examining a far wider scope of strategies to achieve social, economic, environmental, and racial justice. To preview some of Next Systems’ thinking, click here.

In solidarity,
Paul and Roxanne

One thought on “Lessons Learned from the Road: A Vision of What Justice Could Be & the Challenge Ahead

  1. Request permission to reprint the 3 lessons learned and share with TaosProgressives. This is exactly what liberals and progressives need to understand. Change may be painful, but it only takes a small percentage of people to alter the direction of change.

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