Making Housing a Human Right

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<em>This article originally appeared at <a href=””></a>.
are about to take this house over, okay?” shouted Reneka Wheeler, speaking
slowly and emphasizing each word as she stood in front of a vacant house in
southwest Atlanta two weeks ago. It wasn’t really a question; the home had
already been cleaned up and secured, and the only thing left to do was turn the
key. It was a small, pastel-pink bungalow in the middle of the Pittsburgh
neighborhood in Atlanta,
the type of community where more plywood boards than children’s faces peek out
from first-floor windows.</p>
small crowd gathered in front of Wheeler cheered in affirmation. The woman —
flanked by her partner, Michelene Meusa — bounded up the front steps and
entered her new home with a quick jangling of her wrist. Their children, Johla
and Dillon, soon followed. Dillon exposed a buck-teeth smile and Johla’s pink
hair beads tossed from side to side. The last six months hadn’t been easy for
the two children; since July, the family had been shuffling from shelter to
shelter, where Dillon and Johla often found that other adults didn’t approve of
their mothers’ relationship.</p>
<p>M&T Bank — a commercial bank
headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y. — claimed to own the house, an
allegation it would soon enforce. But, for the moment, Meusa and Wheeler had
enacted a new vision and definition of housing rights — not by petition or
proposal but by altering the reality on the ground.</p>
going to change the way we do business,” declared Doug Dean, a former state
representative from Pittsburgh,
Ga., on the women’s new front
lawn. “Whether you agree with how we’re doing it, the fact of the matter is
that freedom is not free. We must take back our community.”</p>
December 6, the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Homes movement, Meusa and
Wheeler were only two among thousands of people who gathered for coordinated
direct actions focused on the human right to housing. Building on a year filled
with eviction blockades, house takeovers, bank protest and singing auction
blockades, the anniversary of Occupy Homes demonstrated that the groups were
still committed to risking arrest to keep people sheltered. Yet, even more
significantly, the day’s events demonstrated a crystallization of the
movement’s central message: that decent and dignified housing should be a human
right in the United States.</p>
Woodland, Calif.,
Alma Ponce and supportive community members from various Occupy groups rallied
inside and outside Ponce’s
home, which was scheduled for eviction on December 6. In Minneapolis,
John Vinje, a veteran who had been evicted from his family’s home by U.S. Bank
and Freddie Mac earlier this year, worked with Occupy Homes MN
to take over a bank-owned home on the south side of the city. In St. Louis, a
handful of housing advocates temporarily occupied a Wells Fargo branch and
began auctioning off the contents of the bank — including the Christmas tree,
paintings and computers, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho! Corporate greed has got to
go!” Other actions occurred in Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Mendham, N.J., and cities
across California.</p>
actions appear to be snowballing. In Atlanta,
Occupy our Homes took over a second house on December 8. In Minneapolis, the group opened up another
house on December 23 in an action led by Carrie Martinez, who refused to
celebrate Christmas with her partner and 12-year-old son in the car where
they’d been living since their eviction in October.</p>
the first Occupy Homes day of action on December 6, 2011, the events
demonstrated a high level of coordination and communication among housing
groups in various cities — this time drawing on the language and tactics that
had been successful throughout the past year.</p>
the small crowd marched to Meusa and Wheeler’s new home, for instance, people
chanted, “Empty houses and houseless people — match them up!” This was a
refrain that echoes the rallying cry commonly used by J.R. Fleming, chairman of
Anti-Eviction Campaign. (His wording is to match “homeless people with
peopleless houses.”) Later, after much of the fanfare had died down, Johla and
Dillon began planting flowers and vegetables in the front yard, an action that
is reminiscent of when Monique White, a mother in Minneapolis, planted a massive garden in the
weeks before her scheduled eviction to demonstrate that she was not leaving.
(U.S. Bank caved and canceled the foreclosure.)</p>
in Woodland, activists covered Alma Ponce’s lawn
with tents — an allusion to the fall 2011 occupations that has also been used
in eviction blockades in Alabama and Georgia over
the last year. Ponce’s
home had been the site of successful eviction blockades in May and, given the
heavy activist presence on December 6, the sheriff refused to show up.</p>
important shift evident on the anniversary is that Occupy Homes groups have
started rallying more and more behind a rights-based framework to explain why
they are pursuing direct action.</p>
is a human right, not for the banks to hold hostage,” Michelene Meusa said a
few days after the action, when, at M&T Bank’s request, the Atlanta Police
Department arrested her and three others for criminal trespassing. When she
refused to leave, she made an explicit comparison between her civil
disobedience and the actions of the civil rights movement.</p>
shift towards a human-rights framing of the housing movement and away from
following the Occupy movement’s focus on economic unfairness — i.e., “Banks got
bailed out, we got sold out” — is significant. The human rights framework is
often more powerful in movements led by people of color, drawing strength, as
Meusa did, from the civil rights era and cutting through the class divisions
that plague housing in a way that movements focused only on mortgage loan
modifications cannot.</p>
get explosively excited about organizing to protect their rights,” said Anthony
Newby, one of the organizers with Occupy
Homes MN. A year ago,
Newby and the Minneapolis
campaign were more focused on organizing for principal reductions and holding banks
accountable while setting aside more confrontational actions like outright home
liberations for a later date. Yet, as John Vinje’s home liberation in south
Minneapolis on December 6 showed, the group had transformed over the course of
the year into one that is willing to challenge the logic of class-based housing
discrimination: a logic that denies that access to decent housing is, in fact,
a right to be protected rather than a privilege to be bought — on credit, of
she waited for the sheriff inside her home in Woodland, Alma Ponce expressed a similar
commitment to the rights-based framework. Explaining that the rest of her
family doesn’t speak English, she said, “They’re very scared and I know I’ve
been — what is that word? — taken advantage because I am Latina, and they think I’m not going to be
able to defend myself.” Switching to Spanish, she later added, “We Latinos have
to come out and defend our rights. Because we do have rights here in California, and if we
unite, we can keep moving forward.”</p>
the continued onslaught of foreclosures across the United States, the question
remains: How much will these movements have to scale up to make structural
changes, rather than just individual changes?</p>
organizing during the Great Depression provides some instructive parallels. The
economic devastation since 2008 has been quite similar to what the nation
experienced throughout that period. In 1933, for example, banks foreclosed on
an average of 1,000 homes every day. In 2010, the rate of displacement was
comparable: The average number of foreclosures was more than 2,500 homes a day,
and the population has increased two-and-a-half fold.</p>
scale of housing organizing during the early 1930s, however, dwarfs what we
have seen so far today. Crowds of hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of
people, mobilized to stop evictions in New York,
Chicago, Detroit,
Gary, Youngstown,
Toledo and
other urban centers, mostly under the direction of the Communist Party. As in
much of current housing organizing, women were often on the front lines. Masses
of these women filled the streets as others climbed to the roofs and poured
buckets of water on the police below. Women beat back the police officers’
horses by sticking them with long hat pins or pouring marbles into the streets.
If the police were successful in moving the family’s furniture out to the curb,
the crowd simply broke down the door and moved the family’s belongings back
inside after the police had left.</p>
were times that landlords were saying, ‘You can’t evict anymore in the Bronx. These people control the streets,'” says Mark
Naison, a professor at Fordham
University and one of the
nation’s leading researchers about housing organizing during the Depression.</p>
communities also formed anti-foreclosure organizations, combining the fight for
housing with the fight for fair wages, especially in the sharecropping South.
Hundreds of thousands of farmers came together to form anti-eviction and
tenants-rights groups like the Farm Holiday Association in the Midwest, the
Alabama Sharecroppers Union in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and the
Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which stretched from Tennessee to Texas. The
groups descended on farm auctions en masse to intimidate investors and speculators
and then bet on the property with absurdly low prices — a penny, a dollar —
until the property was returned to the owner. They also banded together to do
eviction defense, which, in rural areas, was simple and classically Southern.</p>
was people with rifles standing there and defending the house,” said Naison.</p>
encampment protests called Hoovervilles spread across the country, entirely
built, governed and populated by the displaced. Accounts of the mutual aid and
self-governance in these encampments testify to the similarities between
Hoovervilles and the Occupy encampments in 2011. The only difference, perhaps,
is the former’s longevity; one of the largest Hoovervilles, located in Seattle, stood for 10
years, housed more than 1,000 residents at its peak and held its own elections
for the community’s mayor.</p>
movement achieved substantial legislative gains. Housing policy became a major
part of the New Deal, culminating in the National Housing Act of 1934, which
established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to provide affordable
loans to spur homeownership, and the Housing Act of 1937, which established
public housing authorities across the country.</p>
the era’s housing activists like Catherine Bauer were involved in the drafting of
this new legislation, the laws were far from full victories. The FHA, in
particular, was a highly conservative and often racist lending agency whose
main objective was reigniting housing construction rather than helping
individual homeowners — a mission that led to massive and ongoing federal
handouts to industry. Still, the establishment of public housing systemically
changed the landscape and ideology around housing in the United States
and was “one of the most successful federal programs in the 20th century,”
according to Damaris Reyes, the executive director of the public housing
advocacy group Good Old Lower East Side.</p>
this measure, the Occupy Homes network and aligned housing movements still have
light-years to go — a reality that many organizers acknowledge. Yet the
conditions have changed since 1930s, suggesting that what we need are not
massive federal construction and lending programs, but rather a shift in the
way housing rights are perceived and enacted in the U.S. Rather than coping
with the scarcity of the 1930s, the United States now confronts vast,
unprecedented wealth and gaping economic inequality — a condition that is
perhaps best illustrated by the fact that there are upwards of a dozen empty
and unused houses for every homeless person in the nation.</p>
more than enough wealth and roofs to provide safe and dignified homes for the
country’s population, the challenge today is to demonstrate that this situation
of desperate need coexisting with wasted excess is not one we need to accept.
Doing so requires the protests of people like Reneka Wheeler, Michelene Meusa,
John Vinje, Alma Ponce and Carrie Martinez who are willing to defy the law — on
camera and unafraid. And it will take these actions happening again and again.
As John Vinje in Minneapolis explained, “If the police come and decide that
they’re going to kick us out, we’ll make our stand up to the point where if we
have no option but to retreat, we’ll just go and find another one. And take it
over. And hopefully we’ll wear them down to the point that they’ll quit trying
to come and kick us out.”</p>
resilience is just what the Occupy Homes network showed on December 23, with
the city’s second home takeover led by Carrie Martinez. And, while questions of
strategy and ability to scale remain, Martinez
reminds us that the purpose is always to enact the human right to housing — one
family at a time.</p>
happens, we’re just grateful not to be living out of our car and to have
somewhere warm to spend our holidays,” Martinez
<em>Image by</em>
<em>Mark R. Brown/<a href=””></a>.</em>

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