Give Us Shelter!
Across the country, DSA chapters are responding to a national housing crisis. This edition of Chapter and Verse reviews some of these efforts. More reports from around the country, including legislative victories and tenant organizing in Connecticut, trans-Atlantic lessons learned in Philadelphia, and a socialist running to transform Austin’s eviction courts, can be found online at democraticleft.dsausa.org.
Winston-Salem DSA, Coalitions, and Residents Rally to Protect Public Housing
Crystal Towers occupies a valuable piece of real estate. The public housing building serves a group of people ill-served by the housing market: the poor, elderly, and disabled. They do not fit into a profit-driven vision of the future of downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina, setting up these residents and their allies—including Winston- Salem DSA—for an ultimately successful fight to keep the building in public hands.
The boomerang-shaped, tannish-yellow building rises 11-stories tall right on the edge of downtown. It has stood there since 1970—even as the surrounding neighborhood “practically became a gated community,” catering to the affluent, in the words of Phillip Carter, a member of DSA and a core member of the grassroots local group Housing Justice Now. The sale of the building, announced by the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem in 2018, threatened to complete the transformation of the area.
“If they [had] sold Crystal Towers, it would have been renovated, it would have been made into luxury apartments, and there wouldn’t have been… any low-income people in downtown Winston,” Carter said. “We did not want to see that.”
The housing authority justified its plans by citing an eye-watering $7 million figure to maintain and modernize the building. Some digging, however, uncovered that this figure was not all it appeared to be: that sum represented an estimate of the building’s needs over 20 years. More research disclosed another concerning discrepancy. The housing authority had committed to rehouse the roughly 200 residents of Crystal Towers elsewhere—but given the already long waiting list for public housing in the area, its ability to fulfill that commitment seemed doubtful.
This research formed part of a multi-year campaign to keep the building in public hands, including the organization of a tenant organization, Crystal Towers United, with the help of DSA and Housing Justice Now members. Residents were ready to seize the moment when a surge of federal COVID relief dollars took away any excuse that local government could not afford repairs. In January 2022 the housing authority officially scuppered its plans and announced plans to partner with the city to start paying for repair and renovations, starting with $1 million to fix the building’s often broken elevators.
Building on its success in the campaign, Winston-Salem DSA is currently trying to organize tenants across Winston-Salem, and pushing state laws to protect the rights of renters. And the chapter continues to track the situation at Crystal Towers with the goal of helping residents make sure the city follows through on its commitments. Because DSA sees the connection between the housing system and capitalism, Carter said, it is able to identify the shared interest of working people in fair provision of housing.
“Don’t just think that this affects your traditional marginalized people. It’s affecting everyone. If you’re not a part of those that have, your head is in the guillotine, bottom line,” Carter said.
Portland DSA Readies Campaign to Get Eviction Representation for All on the Ballot
It wasn’t even close. Supporters of Preschool for All in Multnomah County, including Portland DSA, needed a simple majority. They got 64 percent of the vote in the November 2020 election. Now Portland DSA and its allies are looking to replicate that success as they try to guarantee representation in eviction court.
The Eviction Representation for All (ERA) ballot measure would fund attorneys for anybody facing eviction with a .75 percent capital gains tax, which is expected to raise $10 to $15 million. A newly created Tenants Resource Office of the county government would also be responsible for a rental registry, tenant education and outreach, and funds for crisis payments to help reach settlements in eviction cases and to pay liens against tenants due to court costs.
Organizers say going directly to the ballot box can provide distinct advantages over pressure campaigns targeting elected officials. It allows proponents to put forward as aggressive a design of the policy as they think a winning coalition will support, instead of compromising to allay the concerns of jumpy legislators.
The local context in Portland— where elected officials have shifted to the right in the face of a cycle of protests in 2020—also recommended the approach. In an otherwise disappointing period at the ballot box, the passage of preschool for all had been a big win for working people.
“We had no hope that we could see, or at least the path that we saw was going to be so compromising that we were not ready [to try to secure the right to counsel by lobbying elected officials]. We wanted to have the most robust, most progressive plan we could have in this city,” said Evan Burchfield, DSA’s co-coordinator for the campaign. “DSA and a lot of other organizations that were part of universal preschool knew that we could do that through the ballot measure, the initiative process.”
The measure could appear on the ballot in November 2022 or May 2023, depending on how quickly the campaign finishes the process of gathering the necessary signatures. If the bill does pass, more work will need to be done to make sure the county government follows through. The coalition is already planning an implementation team and tightening the ballot measure’s language to make sure it allows as little wiggle room as possible, according to Colleen Carroll, the policy coordinator for the ERA campaign.
The ballot measure will put voters face-to-face with an alternative to the fear mongering about homelessness that has become a staple of right-wing politics.
“[Displacement] is a real issue in Portland. It is very often what gives the right wing that poses as Democrats in this city and in this county the ammunition they need to pass regressive policies,” Burchfield said. “They call out our houseless neighbors as a blight on the city when, in fact, those people are residents of this city, people who have been evicted, people who have nowhere else to go. Instead of passing policies that prevent displacement, what they do is they pay for more cops.”
“If you’re actually concerned about our houseless neighbors—not just about your streets being dirty—but you think it’s a crime that there are… people on the streets without homes then you should support eviction representation for all.”
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