NLIHC Hosts “We Are the Ones” Tenant Session at Housing Policy

NLIHC has long offered tenant sessions to provide learning and networking opportunities for low-income tenants prior to the start of its larger Housing Policy Forum. This year, the pre-Forum Tenant Session, “We Are the Ones,” included tenant and community leaders engaging in thoughtful discussions about tenant rights and protections and tenant advocacy focusing on federal housing policy to achieve housing justice for all. For the first time, NLIHC extended the tenant session to two days, holding sessions on both the afternoon of March 20 and the morning of March 21. 

The session began with a welcome from NLIHC board member Loraine Brown, president emeritus of the 334 East 92nd Street Tenant Association and a resident of New York, New York. NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel and NLIHC SVP for Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Renee Willis then spoke about NLIHC’s tenant engagement work, as well as opportunities and roadblocks ahead.

The first workshop of the Tenant Session, “Community Healing as a Pathway to Liberation,” was led by Rebeccah Bennett, founder and principal of Emerging Wisdom. In a society addicted to supremacy and stratified by racial, economic, and social caste systems, inclusion is a figment of our collective imagination without real work towards community healing. According to Rebeccah, “repressive behavior, sadistic power relations, competitive greed to exploit, dominate and humiliate – and our accommodations to these insults – are by now conditioned into the nervous systems of each member of our ‘civilized’ societies.” “Whatever our stations,” said Rebeccah, “the ubiquity of our wounding is breathtakingly inescapable and manifests as the high prevalence of personal dis-ease and societal distress.” Rebeccah told the audience that changing our current state requires an intentional focus on individual and community healing. Tenant leaders were introduced to an emerging framework for community healing that is arising from racial equity movement work, pandemic response initiatives, and deep-seated cultural practice. Rebeccah also shared insights to help tenant leaders process social harm and build transformative resilience.

The Tenant Session continued with a discussion featuring Mrs. Shirley Sherrod, co-founder of New Communities and president of Southwest Georgia Project, which focused on reclaiming land, space, and power. More than 50 years ago, Shirley Sherrod co-founded New Communities Land Trust as a haven for Black farmers thrown off their land during the civil rights movement. Today, New Communities, which is credited as being the country’s first Community Land Trust (CLT), continues to help Black farmers in southwest Georgia and serves as a model for solving the nation’s affordable housing crises. Ms. Sherrod currently sits on the Biden administration’s USDA Equity Commission, which studies systemic racism within the Department, and she helped co-found the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education with her late husband, civil rights leader Rev. Charles Sherrod.

NLIHC Tenant and Community Cohort Leaders Kafi Dixon and Willie “JR” Fleming led the conversation with Shirley Sherrod, who shared heroic stories of triumph and power in the face of individual and systemic racism. Tenant leaders learned how Black resistance took shape in southwest Georgia. Kafi, who is founder of Common Good Cooperative and a resident of Boston, Massachusetts, and JR, who is executive director of Chicago Anti Eviction Campaign, NFP and a resident of Chicago, Illinois, shared how Black resistance shows up in Boston and Chicago and explored how tenants could reclaim land, space, and power in their communities.

Vincent Reina, senior policy advisor for housing and urban policy with the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Chang Chiu, special policy advisor with the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at HUD, also joined the Tenant Session for a conversation on tenant protections. On January 25, 2023, the Biden-Harris administration released a Blueprint for a Renter Bill of Rights, which articulates key principles of resident-centered housing provisions. These principles include (1) safe, quality, accessible, and affordable housing; (2) clear and fair leases; (3) education, enforcement, and enhancement of renter rights; (4) the right to organize; and (5) eviction prevention, diversion, and relief. In addition to releasing the Blueprint, the administration unveiled several new actions that agencies will take to strengthen tenant protections and avoid unnecessary evictions, and it launched a Resident-Centered Housing Challenge to encourage Congress, state, local, and tribal policymakers, as well as private housing actors, to enhance or adopt policies and practices that promote fairness and transparency in the rental market.

Tenant leaders heard directly from the administration on what to expect from the White House and the agencies charged with implementing the strategies outlined in the Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights. NLIHC Tenant Cohort members focused on recommendations offered in their letter to the administration on December 5, 2022. Tenant leaders also took the opportunity to let the administration know what else must be done.

The first day of the Tenant Session concluded with a joint Tenant Leaders and State and Tribal Partner Dinner. Mrs. Loraine Brown joined Diane Yentel in welcoming partners to the joint dinner. NLIHC board member Dr. Bambie Hayes-Brown, who is president and CEO of the Georgia Advancing Communities Together, Inc. and a resident of Atlanta, Georgia, introduced guest performer Ms. Rutha Mae Harris, an original freedom singer who performed at the March on Washington. Singing was integral to the civil rights movement of the early 1960s and helped bring young Black Americans together to work for racial equality. Originally from Albany, Georgia, Ms. Harris has dedicated her career to advancing the civil rights movement. As a faithful member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she remained focused on using her music to educate people about civil rights. Throughout her career, she has performed songs of freedom from the country’s smallest towns to the White House. NLIHC as honored and delighted to have Ms. Harris perform at the joint dinner.

The evening concluded with a presentation of gifts to Ms. Rutha Mae Harris and Mrs. Shirley Sherrod for their heroic work in the movement. NLIHC board member Zella Knight, a member leader of Residents United Network Los Angeles and a resident of Los Angeles, California, joined Kafi Dixon in presenting the gifts to the honorees.

Rebeccah Bennett kicked off the next day with reflections from the first day before introducing a panel on “Tenant Power in Action,” which was moderated by NLIHC board member Geraldine Collins, who is executive director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants and a resident of New York, New York.

This session featured tenant leaders who are using the power of media, organizing, and advocacy to effect change. Participants learned how tenant leaders from Washington, New York, and Virginia are preparing and empowering tenants to enter contested spaces; advocating for more effective housing programs and policies; and holding policymakers accountable to the communities they serve. The panel included Danny Barber, president of the Citywide Council of Presidents and a resident of New York City; Joy Johnson, founder and chair of Charlottesville Public Housing Association of Residents and a resident of Charlottesville, Virginia; and NLIHC board member Mindy Woods, member leader of the Resident Action Project and a resident of Seattle, Washington.

Online participation for these sessions was overseen by Tenant Cohort Leaders Laura Ramos, the president of Everyone for Accessible Community Housing Rolls! Inc. and a resident of Clinton, New Jersey, and Linda Soderstrom, a board member of the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing (MICAH) and a resident of St. Charles, Minnesota.

The final tenant session, “Visioning a Healed Future,” was led by Rebeccah Bennett, who put participants in groups tasked with envisioning a healed future through song, art, and story. The session concluded in song. Rebeccah Bennett taught tenant leaders the lyrics to the song “We are the Ones,” which was written and performed by the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. The lyrics come from a poem by June Jordan:

We are the ones

We are the ones

We’ve been waiting for