Opening night of NLIHC’s 2014 Housing Policy Conference featured a documentary film about the plight of tenants in foreclosed properties that have been neglected by the old and new owners, a panel discussion with one of the film makers and tenant organizers featured in the film, and an innovative spoken word performance written especially for the NLIHC conference.
The Sunday evening program began with a screening of Faile Street: The Human Cost of Foreclosure. The short documentary film is set in the Bronx, New York, where foreclosures on apartment buildings left thousands of mostly lower-income renters living in buildings that were stuck between the foreclosing bank and the auction block. These tenants found their homes deteriorating around them, threatening health and safety. The film follows four tenants and the housing advocates they turn to for help as they struggle to keep their homes livable and their families safe.
Following the film was a panel consisting of John Light, film director; Kerri White, Director of Organizing and Policy, Urban Homesteading Assistance Board; Celia Weaver, Assistant Director of Organizing and Policy, Urban Homesteading Assistance Board; and Thomas Waters, Housing Policy Analyst, Community Service Society of New York. The audience was distraught to learn that many of the residents featured in the film had not secured the repairs they were fighting for or more stable housing. However, the panel discussed the opportunities that working with the media can present advocates with in raising public awareness of low income housing issues.
The evening program concluded with an inspiring, one-of-a-kind performance by Split This Rock. Split This Rock’s 2014 DC Youth Slam Team members Zayy Capone, CiCi Felton, and Chyna McCombs delivered a moving poem about the struggles faced by many low income residents and the theme “IMAGINE.” Following the performance, Sheila Crowley moderated an open discussion of the performance with the audience. The evening concluded on a high note with the young poets receiving praise and thanks from the audience for their uplifting performance, and the audience and participants energized to start the conference.
2014 marks the 40th anniversary of NLIHC, which was founded in 1974 by Cushing Dolbeare. The noon plenary on Monday was a look back at the origins of NLIHC and the evolution of federal housing policy with a panel composed of former HUD Secretary Carla Hills, Special Assistant to the late HUD Secretary Patricia Harris Stephen F. Coyle, NLIHC founding board member Moises Loza of the Housing Assistance Council, and Belinda Mayo, a tenant organizer from Philadelphia who was on the board of NLIHC’s partner organization, the Low Income Housing Information Service (LIHIS). Secretary Hills is now the co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Coyle heads the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, Mr. Loza is the CEO of the Housing Assistance Council, and Ms. Mayo is about to retire as Director of Neighborhood Program Coordination and Community Development, Office of Housing and Community Development, City of Philadelphia. NLIHC President and CEO Sheila Crowley moderated the session.
The conversation opened with a question about how the political environment today compares to the 1970s. Secretary Hills talked about the tumult of the 1970s with anti-war protests and double digit inflation, but said that more elected officials were in the middle politically and there was no polarization like there is today. She said that when President Ford was sworn in in the summer of 1974, he knew what needed to be done. The first bill he signed into law was the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. Mr. Loza recalled the divisions of the times, especially over the war in Vietnam, but that they were very different divisions than those we have today. People had deeply held views about what was right and wrong, but policymakers wanted to see what would work.
Remembering Cushing Dolbeare, Ms. Mayo recalled how empowered she felt by the information that NLIHC and LIHIS provided that enabled her to “challenge every rule and regulation—not only in DC but in Philly.” She said she knows “Cushing is looking down on us and keeping us accountable.”
Mr. Coyle cited data that showed that in 1978, HUD programs represented 24% of the non-defense discretionary budget and today is only 9%. He and Secretary Hills discussed the volume of housing produced in the 1970s. During the Ford Administration, HUD supported the production of 575,000 units of affordable housing. Mr. Coyle said that between 1976 and 1980, there was more affordable housing produced than in all the years before and all the years since. With the LIHTC and New Markets Tax Credits housed at the Department of the Treasury, HUD programs are less important. Mr. Coyle said HUD and issues of housing justice “have gone from the center to the periphery” of public policy.
Mr. Loza offered two pieces of advice he learned from Cushing. First, “back up your passion with data.” Second, create broad coalitions. “Cushing said you can’t leave housing decisions just to housers.” Finally, Ms. Mayo said that voting was key to leveraging political power and that public housing residents could be a huge voting bloc if residents were educated about the issues and organized.
NLIHC President and CEO Sheila Crowley gave the keynote address at Tuesday noon plenary on the theme of moving forward. She said it was disheartening to look back at the last decades because we have “lost so much” since the 1970s when the country “had the momentum to add more and more units.” Now, with the impact of the sequester and the Budget Control Act, “we are struggling mightily to protect what we have.” And “the insidious thing about the struggle is that we get into petty skirmishes” with one another over which policy or program is more important because we do not have the resources to do what is needed. “Meanwhile,” Ms. Crowley said, “the forces that are squeezing us are going on unchecked.” She cited the concentration of wealth in the United States and growing inequality among income groups, and reported on research that shows those with concentrated wealth also have an unequal share of political power. A new study shows that 99% of wealthy people vote.
The future, Ms. Crowley said, must be about figuring out where the real money is, above what is possible in annual HUD appropriations. “Why is NLIHC so involved in housing finance reform?” Ms. Crowley asked the audience, “Because the banks have money!” The funds provided by the Johnson-Crapo bill would be the first new money for housing targeted to the very poor in decades. Identifying the real money has also led NLIHC to tackle the tax code, Ms. Crowley said, “That’s where the money is!” Changing the mortgage interest deduction is how housing advocates are involved in reforming the federal income tax code.
Ms. Crowley told the audience that in order for us to move to the next level where we can truly address need, we must “listen more closely, dig deeper to understand the details of issues, think broadly, and act boldly.” Ms. Crowley also called on those assembled to multiply, to bring ten more people with them the next time they come to Washington saying that as our numbers grow so will attention to our issues. She said to “imagine what could happen if 99% of low income people voted. Ms. Crowley ended with a quote by Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”