The Only Way Out is Through

By Barbara Knight- former resident of St. John USVI 

For those of us who have experienced a Hurricane, we know we will never forget how it feels: as if the energy has ahold of you, a forcefield, a strength that cannot be measured, that cannot be contained or avoided. And if you were as lucky as I, you were blessed with a diverse group of amazing souls thrown together in a serendipitous way for this event, some of us doing our best to keep a heavy moment feeling light. While bunkered together in the downstairs laundry room, water rising around our feet, the wind roaring like a jet plane crashing, the concrete walls moaning and vibrating, we cracked storm jokes, reminisced of times together, talked about the first thing when we would do when we got out of that room and some of us turned to song and danced to old show tunes in an effort to distract us from our reality. The hours passed and the storm continued to rage giving us one simple knowing – our beautiful island was being ripped and torn into shreds and our lives, our existence there would never be the same. I kept a never-ending loop, a mantra in my consciousness, “this is temporary, this is just a moment, today is not the day my soul departs this world, the only way out of this is living through it.”

On September 6, 2017, Irma decided not to turn north as predicted but take its path directly atop the Virgin Islands, at a strength the Caribbean had never seen. My home, my island life of the past 18 years shifted from paradise to despair. As we go along this road called life, there are times we find ourselves in unexpected situations, detours without choices, where all we can do is buckle up, hang on and stay the course for the ride. As we speed along our journey to reach destinations of who we think we are and who we hope to become, the fabric of our identity along with everything we had created and all we owned, was gone, erased as if it never existed.

The next day the sun does rise as we gather each morning at Mongoose Junction to hear the latest news, who or what has been located, whole, alive or dead, who is still missing, and the prioritizing of the most pressing of needs at the moment.  A natural rhythm of how we can be of service to each other forms as we divide ourselves into various teams. There are the announcements from government officials imposing curfews, search and rescue updates and when we can anticipate the arrival of supplies and aid.

Knight Pic 8

A house I cleaned to stay in

In the aftermath that follows there is a grace within the necessity of momentum, the activity that survival brings forth, a call to action to participate with your community to create the basics of food, shelter, and unity. You realize that your days in scouting and summer wilderness camp and the wise advise the Rastas taught me about island bush skills were now being put to the test. It is day three and I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I made it to a safe and dry space for the night, walking up steep hills to reach my destination. I have with me a styrofoam container full of food for the night and snacks for the morning and a precious bottle of drinking water. As the sun is setting, and without distraction, without a way to connect to anyone or anything, no movie to watch, no book or emails to read you come to the painful realization that you must reserve what battery power your phone has until you can recharge again. This device that thankfully was spared destruction becomes your everything: clock, flashlight, camera, recorder and a true blessing, your music library. It is in the silence when I begin to recollect what just occurred, questioning all that I am and what could have been done differently and wonder what tomorrow will bring as darkness creeps in with the setting sun.

It is day 5 and I must find a new dwelling to keep what is left of my belongings, a place to sleep as the property management company needs to put their employees there so other arrangements must be made. Most of my original hurricane roommates had departed the island, evacuated as they were bound to prescribed medications that would shortly run out and those of us choosing to remain had to scramble to find friends with space for us. Everything and everywhere we went was wet, the outside yards full of whatever had been inside, lots of broken glass and the interiors, floors, and walls covered in foliage and mud, all to be cleared so we could exist. We joked that our new best friends were whoever had a roof and owned generators. Most of us now in the mix had decided whether to evacuate due to health issues or family needs or to stay for the long haul – to be part of the recovery process as we heal and rebuild together. The smallest of blessings and the greatest of victories, never a shortage of hugs and helping hands. Money, especially in the form of banking or ATM was of no use as without electricity, as no one could power their systems. Cash for gasoline and diesel for generators was essential, but food and clothing were available at no charge. Immediately, restaurant owners and those of us in the foodservice and hospitality industry banned together and collectively took inventory and stock of all essential and viable products and transported them to three functioning locations where we had the ability to serve three amazing meals a day keeping the island fed. Clothing stores and retailers allotted their inventory so everyone in need could have a clean and dry t-shirt or other items of clothing to wear. Parents and caregivers created daycare for children to play, eat and be cared for while their parents worked. We pulled together despite ourselves, processing shock, disbelief, and grief. As the death toll rose, ‘survivor’s guilt’ rose too, and the most difficult for me to navigate was ‘hero’s complex,’ fighting for control to prove my value.

St. John was starting to receive news of tremendous financial help coming our way from the celebrities who use the island as a way to market their brand and the multimillionaires who own the villas and financial companies residing for corporate and personal income tax avoidance. As lines of communication began to open up, our families and loyal visitors that come as often as possible and call St. John their home away from home were preparing to send us goods and money, though we had no way to access these funds. Puerto Rico and St. Croix were the first to arrive with the National Guard and SWAT, which were coordinating efforts with the Coast Guard, establishing order where necessary, clearing roads, conducting search and rescue and establishing a medical facility and base from our hospital, as St. Thomas’s facility had been destroyed. On Day 7 came FEMA and Red Cross, agencies we were told would give aid in this process, only to find out most were coming to profit from our calamity. We had no idea that an official looking shirt and tags with FEMA translate into a subcontractor or NGO. I am not sure we ever had any real FEMA representatives on the island.

On Day 9, signs went up and the rumors started to spread that FEMA had ordered a mandatory evacuation of ‘unnecessary’ residents as another storm approached. They said we would be transported to San Juan or Fajardo to be taken to the airports where we would wait and be airlifted to the USA. Having not lived in the continental United States for 18 years, where would they take me? What if you had nowhere to go? Did they not understand that the worst had already been done to us and that if Maria did affect us, there was nothing else to come down? How were they going to get us all out of Puerto Rico when Maria’s trajectory was rapidly speeding up? There wouldn’t be enough time to evacuate us all. They were going to be placing us in greater harm, yet no one would listen. We later realized that the motions that had been set in place were based on captains who were contracted and paid by FEMA. FEMA wanted us out as it would mean fewer people to feed, telling us they would not be able to keep us with resources so we had to go.

The next day, Sunday, September 17, the military and personnel that had been assisting us vanished. With FEMA and Red Cross attempting to reorganize us, giving us new instructions daily and disrupting the life-sustaining food supply, ordering the closure of our established food services and replacing them with MREs. They were sending out people to order those of us without homes or jobs to be at the National Park dock to evacuate, telling us we would only be able to take one bag. I did everything to refuse these orders until the end when a ranger from the Department of Interior carried all 3 of my remaining bags in his vehicle to the boat along with my dog, completely against my will ordering me to depart. I had been labeled an unnecessary resident, how could that be after 16 years of residency? That one act by FEMA was the beginning of a very long journey that took me to remain on Puerto Rico for 7 months, homeless, forgotten by officials, scrambling for safety on an island where I had no association, no friendships, no money and little knowledge of the Spanish language.

When the boat they put us on arrived in Puerto Del Rey in Ceiba, we realized that FEMA contractors had betrayed us. We were not in Fajardo or San Juan and all that was waiting after hours of sitting on the boat with the captain not allowing us to disembark, was ICE, DEA and Border Patrol treating us like animals and then literally caging us behind a chainlink fence for a meal that again, a catering crew was hired by FEMA to feed us. We were left at the wrong port, without the facilities or transportation promised to fend for ourselves, and over a hundred people and as many animals not knowing what was next. Those who possessed cash could access their accounts by private taxi, again people making money to transport us charging 5 times the normal rate to take us to the airport. I am a single white female, 58 years of age, left to survive my second hurricane in less than 2 weeks without the safety of my community network, without resources, with 3 suitcases and a dog. Where was I going?

I set myself, my dog and my belongings outside the fencing on a grassy spot in the shade and called my son, who coordinated his siblings to send money to get me through. The caterer was kind and hearing my story, contacted their relative who operated an Airbnb and made arrangements for me for the night, driving me to their home. It was a charitable consideration shown to me that night that ultimately got me through what would become and still is the most disruptive year of my life.

It was another Airbnb my family found in Cabo Rojo that got me through Maria. I was homeless and moved to 12 different homes for temporary shelter until awarded my Temporary Shelter Assistance (TSA) hotel on December 8.  FEMA applications being misconstrued, learning to navigate the process as you learn everyone is denied and must reapply over and over again as the rules kept changing as more disasters around the USA diluted the resources. I was denied food stamps, and then finally awarded $105 a month because I was not legally a resident and in Puerto Rico, and you need a permanent home address to be approved. The stories and circumstances are endless as are the miracles. In the end, Disaster Recovery Center personnel became my hero and Disaster Case Management became public enemy of the people. HUD was there trying to help and then one day they were gone. We never were really informed or educated as to what was truly going on as allotments and rules pertaining to them changed day to day. Puerto Rico did not know what to do with me and all I asked for was to be returned to St. John so I could be part of their system. Why couldn’t someone just pick up a phone and call FEMA there and say, “hey, we have one of yours here and we are going to send her to you?” On Oct 10, they announced that the airports would not be taking people with pets and the ports and supply vessels were for supply transportation only. Now I had no way to leave. I tried hard to get a job so I could financially support myself and stood in line for 3 hours only to be denied a job from FEMA because I am not bilingual, though FEMA was bringing workers from the states without the ability to speak Spanish. My emergency unemployment could not be filed through their labor department, as I could only apply in person on St. Thomas. I could not find employment and without employment did not have a way to secure an apartment.

In February I received Rental Assistance from FEMA, however, landlords would not honor it and without steady income again I was denied. Disaster case management representatives are not well trained within the system yet their position is to help us find the resources necessary to rebuild our lives, to fill in the gaps.  They would appear at the hotel, go over our progress and never keep their word to implement the plans of which primarily consisted of contacting charities and NGOs. Each time we would be assigned a new Case Worker and have to start all over again. I was eventually denied TSA renewal due to a Case Worker writing a felonious memo stating that he had found me a ticket to travel back to St. John. If only that was true! And no matter what proof the DCR Managers or I provided TSA or FEMA they would not reinstate or give me further assistance leaving me literally homeless and nowhere else to turn.

The system failed me as it failed most of us. It’s like a big bowl of spaghetti that no one can seem to find a way to sort out. I was caught up in the chaos determined to return home. I had been displaced and am now living in the USA, still without work, moving from friend to friend, and now at my daughter’s home in Denver.

What is the aftermath? What is starting over? Hurricanes come and go, they are storms that momentarily disrupt our lives, destroy material possessions and are largely inconvenient.  We are trained to weather the storms but none of us had any training or knowledge of how to weather FEMA and its all-encompassing NGO’s and Contractors. They were the real Hurricane, a never-ending storm that takes you in and spits you out over and over again. It could have been much simpler for us all, temporary housing, food, water, and a few dollars to hit the reset button.  The most important element is housing, the foundation for everything else to follow. All the hours I spent moving, walking miles to reach DRC centers and government agencies for help only to be turned away, looking for places to live with my days consumed with survival, an unnecessary struggle with endless promises to be broken and people in offices in faraway places making decisions to place me on a boat and leave me homeless on Puerto Rico, to finally give me a hotel room only to displace me again, to be left to fend for myself. Will someone please explain to me why did they take me down this crazy journey?

A year later & I’m still trying to recover from Hurricane Harvey

By Pam – a current Texas resident

I lost everything in the storm; my car and my apartment were gone. Losing our personal possessions was devastating, but using this to motivate change is why I’m telling our story.  Months before the storm even hit, I sustained multiple injuries in a devastating car accident, forcing me to rely on a walker for mobility. Then I developed a blood clot in my right leg as a complication from those injuries.  When Hurricane Harvey hit, disabled, I watched in horror as contaminated storm water surged up through the foundation, bathtubs and toilets and under doors, floors and walls. The water rose higher and higher until our belongings came together as ‘soup’, in a place we had called home for seventeen years.  The loss was unbearable as I watched precious home videos of my beloved mother with my only child destroyed; birthday mementos, pictures, valuables, and my treasured antique furniture collection inundated by water. An entire life time washed away in the blink of an eye. To complicate matters, my disabled son, born with multiple autoimmune deficiencies, asthma, and severe allergic reactions to cats and cigarettes was thrust into danger by the rising water and the loss of his safe haven.

After 54” of torrential rain, we were trapped inside our apartment; three feet of water outside my front door and parking lot under six feet. My upstairs neighbor, whom I had never exchanged more than a passing ‘hello’ with, heard me beating on our front window to help us escape the flood waters. His heroic effort saved us as he waded chest deep to carry me up to his second floor apartment. We were overwhelmed by his generosity to allow us to sleep on his couch even though he already had several family members and friends, escaping the storm, camped out in his living room.  We all huddled together until high water rescue vehicles came several days later to take us to higher ground, but since the shelters could not accommodate our special needs, we stayed a few more days until we could reach my office, a homebuilder’s model home.

Since thirty five other employees with our company had suffered the loss of their homes during the storm, the company generously offered us the use of the model homes to live in until we could find suitable FEMA transitional shelter to accommodate our special needs. The storm was over and the recovery had begun but the hardest part of this whole ordeal was trying to explain our special needs to those who did not care or want to comprehend the seriousness of our situation.

We found a hotel room, but were quickly forced out after only being allowed to stay one night.  The dishonest hotel manager claimed he had overbooked the rooms and needed us to leave immediately. Later, I learned he had charged FEMA and me for the one night. We went back to the model home for another week until FEMA found a new hotel to accommodate our special needs.  We faced numerous hurdles living in the hotel room from September 2017 until April 2018. Some of those hurdles took the tenacity of a bulldog, as my family lovingly refers to me.

One hurdle was the cost of rent in our old neighborhood skyrocketed. Landlords saw the opportunity to increase rents which forced us out of the area. That same size apartment today rents for $1500, nearly twice as much as our previous rent.  Another hurdle was being ripped off by an unscrupulous landlord taking advantage of the crisis after the storm.  To rent an apartment that met our special needs, I was forced to purchase special paint and pay a contractor to paint the walls. The contractor exchanged our expensive paint with another toxic paint, exacerbating our asthma, and rendering the apartment uninhabitable for my son and I. FEMA allowed us to return to the hotel but we were still legally liable for a lease on an unlivable apartment. With the help of Lone Star Legal Aid and Fair Housing, we overcame this hurdle and were released from our lease, but our FEMA rental assistance was lost to this dishonest apartment manager.

Finally, we found a much smaller apartment in a 55-and-older community but were displaced from our old community and the social connections we had made over the past 17 years.  Now we reside in an area that feels unsafe and inconvenient. Furthermore, since rent is adjusted for income, I fear once I start working full-time again, I might be kicked out. With this hanging over our head, we’re afraid to make this our permanent home as we don’t know what the future holds.

Even though shelters didn’t want us because of my son’s health issues, and landlords were reluctant to take a chance on us, most of our hurdles were aggravated by FEMA’s slow, archaic practices.  Take for instance their Disaster Hotline. We sat on hold for up to 9 hours to receive an answer to questions only to discover it was misinformation; forcing us to travel up to 30 miles to a FEMA satellite center. There we encountered contract workers who didn’t have the necessary tools to process our claims while being forced to use a fax machine to transmit our claims from their centers to FEMA’s main process center, thus, causing massive delays and lost claims. Even though FEMA has an on-line presence, their computerized system doesn’t match their request for information to quickly process your claims as the documents needed to qualify can’t be uploaded. Instead you’re forced back to a community center. As a result of their inefficiency, FEMA kept denying my requests for assistance and my appeals. Once more Lone Star Legal Aid stepped in and was successful in their filing of an appeal to FEMA for more funds to help me get back on my feet.

It has been a year since Harvey hit and we are still struggling to overcome this disaster. Although FEMA provided monetary assistance, the funds we received were a mere pittance of what we lost – over $60,000 in damages. And the sentimental value of our losses and the months of misery and uncertainty we endured could not be compensated for by any means. Nevertheless, we are extremely thankful for the generosity of neighbors and friends who supported us during our time of need.

Blazing a new trail for housing justice: A Q&A with New York City’s Right to Counsel Coalition

By Isaiah Milbauer, NLIHC Field Intern

New York City eviction proceedings have long been a tale of the powerful versus the powerless. Historically, renters hardly ever receive legal representation in eviction court proceedings, but landlords almost always do. (And this is true in housing courts everywhere across the country!) As a direct result of tenants lacking legal representation, in New York City, thousands are evicted each year, allowing landlords to raise rents for the new renters who move-in to newly vacant homes. Due to complex and sometimes inaccessible legal barriers, marginalized families often are unable to challenge deplorable living conditions in court—even if, in the worst cases, low income children have been poisoned by lead exposure in their homes.

To remedy a major piece of this injustice, renters in New York City led by the Right to Counsel Coalition (RTC NYC) waged a 3-year campaign to institute a civil right to counsel for low income renters facing eviction. In 2017, RTC NYC’s organizing efforts led to the passage of Intro 214-B, which cleared the New York City Council and was signed into law by Mayor Bill DeBlasio. When fully implemented over the course of 5 years, the law will ensure that all income-eligible renters in New York City facing eviction are represented by attorneys. Currently, an estimated 400,000 renters would be eligible for protection under Intro 214-B. The law is anticipated to prevent 5,000 families per year from experiencing homelessness, and save the city $100 million annually, due to decreased homeless shelter costs. “This new law is a historic step forward in the fight against unlawful evictions,” said City Councilman Mark Levine, lead sponsor of Intro 214-B, at the law’s signing ceremony.

RTC-2

But the passage of Intro 214-B did not happen overnight. It required years of building tenant power and sustained community organizing. And it required the engaged leadership of low income tenants—especially those who had experienced evictions. One such story comes from Randy Dillard, a father of five from the South Bronx and a tenant leader at CASA, Community Action for Safe Apartments. Randy shared his story at NLIHC’s 2018 Housing Policy Forum: Building the Movement.

In 2013, Randy was hospitalized for two months with emphysema. He returned home to find eviction papers for rental nonpayment. Luckily, Randy found a legal clinic that defended him in housing court, which helped his family narrowly avoid becoming homeless. Randy became a CASA member following this experience with near-eviction.

Also in 2013, CASA and the Urban Justice Center released a report recommending reforms to New York’s housing court—including the right to counsel for New York renters facing eviction. RTC NYC formed soon after, in 2014, as a partnership of more than 100 tenant organizing groups, tenant advocates, academics, senior advocates, disability advocates, homeless advocates, labor unions and legal service providers, including CASA, to spearhead the passage of a right to counsel law. That proposal became known as Intro 214.

RTC NYC’s organizing efforts included a daylong forum, drawing crowds of close to 500 people, featuring speakers such as New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, New York City Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks, and New York Law School Adjunct Professor Andrew Scherer. RTC NYC also collected thousands of signatures on petitions, received support from 42 community boards, got the backing of 100 faith leaders, received a New York Times editorial board endorsement, arranged numerous rallies and press conferences, and coordinated eight hours of City Council testimony.

NLIHC was honored to recognize RTC NYC’s organizing and accomplishments with the 2018 Trailblazer Award at the 2018 Housing Policy Forum: Building the Movement. We look forward to the benefit these accomplishments will bring to low income New Yorkers, and the positive ripple effect for movements elsewhere across the country taking inspiration from RTC NYC’s work.

-Isaiah Milbauer

Isaiah Milbauer: How did you recruit organizations to join RTC and incorporate the leadership of low income tenants?

Right to Counsel New York City Coalition: Well the leadership of tenants who are directly impacted by evictions was always central–the coalition really started that way.  So at every coalition meeting, where there were attorneys, paid staff, organizers, etc., there were always tenant leaders. We also had a decision-making structure that prioritized the organizing groups voices on issues where that was really necessary—so in terms of negotiating the legislation, or planning a press conference, etc., the organizing groups who are accountable to members took the lead on those decisions.  In terms of building the membership of the coalition, we built relationships with folks and we also knew that this isn’t a “tenant issue,” because our members are just tenants! They are seniors, workers, folks with disabilities, etc. And housing is such a central issue in NYC, that we knew a broad based coalition would be possible and we also knew it was necessary because of the fiscal impact of the legislation and because the Mayor and Speaker did not voice support for the legislation for the first few years—they agreed with the idea but said it was either too expensive or that it was the state’s responsibility.  Most people told us we would never win this—that it was so big, so expensive, such a sea change—it just couldn’t be done. So, centering the leadership of tenants who were fighting evictions kept us on track to say we can’t accept that and also pushed us to build a coalition with the power we needed to win.

IM: How did you build consensus on how to approach the issue of a right to counsel in eviction proceedings? How did you coordinate efforts between member organizations?

RTC NYC:  Honestly, that wasn’t hard.  Studies show that anywhere from 50-80% of tenants who are evicted today, wouldn’t be evicted if they had an attorneys.  That is thousands of families. thousands of workers. Many of whom end up in the shelter system. And many of whom are evicted from rent stabilized housing.  Not to mention that evictions are a precursor to suicide and incredibly traumatic. So, evictions are about power. The idea that we put people on the streets, as a solution to honoring landlords right to get rent, is unacceptable.  Now you have that on top of the fact that there are people who are on the street that the law should protect? That’s a really strong indicator of who and what we value in this country. So we really saw eviction defense as a part of the fight for housing to be a right.

But to answer your question, we had monthly coalition meetings and working groups that would meet in the context of those meetings, in break out groups.  That way different folks can participate at different levels but everyone can be a part of the larger work of the coalition. We met monthly, though there were times during the campaign, where we met every two weeks or more often if we needed to.  We did our best to make decisions by consensus, though recognizing that not all voices are equal as I mentioned earlier, and we also did different things like developing principles for the coalition that folks signed on to, had different levels of participation for members vs. supporters, etc.

IM: How will RTC NYC’s work continue through the implementation of Local Law 136?

RTC NYC: The administration committed to funding legal representation or attorneys but not organizers.  So while the city will do outreach and advertising, it didn’t fund community based groups to do outreach and organizing.  And because of our work, we know that you can’t address power and inequality with outreach and advertising. You need to build relationships and confront power and isolation with the community and collective power.  So, we are working to coordinate the organizing efforts in every neighborhood that has RTC, so that folks know they aren’t alone when landlords threaten them for “lawyering up,” and also that they know other tenants who have decided to fight, and that they know they are worthy of fighting.  There is a lot of shame in evictions—and we have to confront that. Also, we have to fight evictions, collectively, as a political issue. There are landlords who sue everyone when they buy a building as a business practice, threaten everyone with calling ICE, etc.—so we are working with community groups to really strategize about organizing to claim the power of eviction defense and also to use it to build other organizing strategies.  We are also working on the court based implementation—everything about how the court works is changing. We are working on helping to develop a pipeline of movement attorneys to do this work and we are actively working with cities throughout the country who also see eviction defense as a tool in fighting displacement, gentrification and for community control and community power.

IM: Who were the unspoken heroes of this campaign?

RTC NYC: Something we were always mindful of during the campaign was that people were being evicted every day. Deciding to fight is also deciding to take a risk—and without RTC so many people took that risk.  Many lost and many won. All of them are heroes. And all of the tenants today who are deciding to fight to stay and to build this city are heroes.

IM: What’s next for RTC NYC? Does the coalition plan to tackle right to counsel in other metro NYC jurisdictions? Will you turn your attention to other housing justice issues in the city?

RTC NYC: Definitely–when we are asked to! We want to be a resource to organizing groups in other cities who want to have the right to an eviction defense.  So when cities reach out to us, we are happy to share everything we have because we know that oppositions actions and narratives are often similar. We know the context in other cities is different but we think that if we can do this is the real estate capital of the world, the place where it’s most expensive to do it, we can do it anywhere.  We are really excited to be collaborating with the San Francisco Tenants Union, who has RTC on the ballot and the Homes for All Campaign in Newark, who recently got an endorsement of RTC from Newark’s Mayor. Really exciting! In addition to those cities, we are talking to folks and sharing information in about a dozen more cities. We just created a new civil right—that shouldn’t be exclusive to NYC.  To help support that work, we are working on raising funds to create a campaign toolkit and a documentary about our campaign, that hopefully will be good resources for folks in other cities. And of course, RTC isn’t the only housing issue we work on! Many members of the coalition work on strengthen the rent laws, fully funding public housing, creating community land trusts, etc. The work doesn’t end with eviction defense of course–we have to address the underlying causes that create the system of housing as we know it today.

IM: What advice do you have for organizers and coalitions in other parts of the country advocating for citywide solutions to housing injustices?

RTC NYC: Demand the impossible!! Often we lose because we accept compromise, thinking it’s all we can get.  We have to demand what we deserve and what we need. And then build the power to win it. It might mean we lose along the way, but as long as we are building power as we move along, we can do anything.  I also think that now is a critical moment in our history where the crisis is so deep, that we have to offer solutions and alternatives and I think they have to be solutions that don’t just demand more from the private market but that question the market’s ability to deliver needs, like housing.  There are no great solutions coming from anywhere other than from us.


This post is part of a series featuring interviews with 2018 NLIHC Organizing Awards winners and top nominees. 

It’s Time to Broaden the Affordable Housing Movement

OSH_Logo_small_CMYK

By Mike Koprowski, Campaign Director for Opportunity Starts at Home 

A safe, decent, affordable home is a foundation of opportunity, but it’s out of reach for far too many.  The evidence is quite clear that we are witnessing a severe housing affordability crisis in America, and its consequences are spilling over into many other sectors such as education, health care, civil rights, homelessness, and economic mobility.  As acclaimed sociologist, Matthew Desmond, explains: “It is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need.  Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country.  The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”    

I’ve recently taken on the role of National Campaign Director of Opportunity Starts at Home, a new multi-sector housing campaign to meet the housing needs of the nation’s low-income people.  The National Low Income Housing Coalition launched this campaign together with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Children’s HealthWatch, Make Room, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and with a steering committee of partners including the Children’s Defense Fund, Community Catalyst, Food Research and Action Center, NAACP, National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Association of Community Health Centers, National Education Association, and UnidosUS. 

The driving idea behind this campaign is that a diverse range of stakeholders from various sectors will be necessary to make affordable housing a national priority and to effectuate federal policies that protect and expand affordable housing.  The federal government already plays a significant role in addressing the housing needs of low-income families, but it is not nearly strong enough considering the magnitude of the problem.  Today, only 1 out of 4 eligible households receive the help they need.  Contrary to the myths and false stereotypes, only 6% of households receiving housing aid are “work able” but not employed.  The problem is that wages are much too low to afford a decent rental home without financial help.  In fact, there are only 12 counties in America where a full-time worker on minimum wage can afford a one-bedroom rental.

The time to act is now: the housing affordability problem has reached disastrous levels; federal housing assistance is chronically under-funded and faces unprecedented threats in the current political climate; housing advocates are increasingly realizing that they can’t do this work alone; many other sectors are increasingly realizing that housing is inextricably linked to their own priorities and goals; and the research continues to mount that housing is fundamental to nearly every social and economic outcome that matters to our country.

Perhaps surprisingly, I personally arrived at these conclusions through my experiences in the education sector – specifically, as the Chief of Transformation and Innovation for the Dallas Independent School District.  There, I became convinced that many of the challenges we face in the education field – low college readiness, yawning achievement gaps, inequitable funding – actually have their roots in housing-related issues.  Like most major cities, Dallas is experiencing a growing affordable housing problem and has long experienced crushing levels of residential segregation, which we know lies at the core of educational inequity.

Through my time on the ground in Dallas, I became convinced that, as scholar Richard Rothstein said, “School reform cannot succeed without housing reform.”  I remain an enthusiastic supporter of many important education efforts, such as raising academic standards, increasing funding for high-poverty schools, investing in professional development and better teacher pay, and focusing on early childhood development.  But still more is needed.  As former Massachusetts Secretary of Education, Paul Reville, said: “Even when optimized with high expectations, strong curriculum, and expert instruction, today’s schools have not proven powerful enough by themselves to compensate for the disadvantages associated with poverty.”

Research consistently shows that achievement differences between students are more attributable to out-of-school factors than in-school factors.  After all, children spend the vast majority of their time in and around their homes.  We know that poor children in affordable housing do better on tests than poor children in unaffordable housing – if rent doesn’t eat up parents’ hard-earned paychecks, they can more easily invest in their child’s development.  We know that poor children who constantly change schools due to housing instability struggle academically and suffer later as adults.  And we know that affordable housing options located in “high-opportunity areas” can lead to mixed-income neighborhoods, which, in turn, can lead to mixed-income schools that consistently produce strong academic and social outcomes for affluent and low-income students alike.

If you look at my résumé, you might see someone who “switched” from the education field to the housing field.  But I reject this notion.  For me, the fight for affordable housing is also very much a fight to advance student success.  It’s time to re-think the artificial organizational silos we’ve created.  The complexities of modern-day challenges require us to be more fluid, to look beyond our respective lanes, to acknowledge our interdependencies, and to implement solutions together.  These issues are too complicated and difficult for one sector to solve alone.  Education advocates ARE housing advocates – and the same could be said for health care advocates, civil rights advocates, veterans advocates, anti-poverty advocates, and many more.

That’s a big reason why I joined this multi-sector housing campaign.  I am enormously grateful for the chance to lead the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign, and I look forward to working with our stakeholders to ensure that low-income people have access to safe, decent, affordable housing in neighborhoods where everyone has equitable opportunities to thrive.

Learn more about the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign at: www.opportunityhome.org

One Boston Family Gets New Opportunities Thanks to the RAFT Program

By Kat Feliciano, Metro Housing|Boston

 

KAT photo

Kat Feliciano, Housing Supports Operations Administrator at Metro Housing | Boston

People often ask me to describe the typical family that we assist. In truth, no families are alike. Circumstance, personalities, challenges, disabilities, job prospects – all of these lead to very different stories.

After experiencing homelessness and living in her car with her two children, Sharon was grateful to have finally found a place to live in late 2017. That feeling of gratefulness would not last, however. The owner of the building that Sharon and her family were staying failed inspection for code violations. The landlord was given multiple chances to bring the apartment to code but failed to do so. Rather than making the necessary repairs, he told Sharon she needed to move out. 

With Christmas approaching, Sharon struggled to find a safe and decent place to live and was fearful that she would be spending the holiday in her car. When she visited our offices in mid-December, I knew I had to act quickly because she was just weeks away from being evicted.

When families are about to be evicted from their homes, or when they are behind on rent or electricity or heat, or when they need help to move to a place near family to help care for a sick family member – while their stories are different – there is one solution they have in common.

Since 2013, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has funded a homelessness prevention program called RAFT (Residential Assistance for Families in Transition). Metro Housing|Boston administers the program for 29 communities in eastern Massachusetts. In 2017, we helped 1,474 families – some like Sharon’s – stay securely in their homes.

I filed an emergency RAFT application and Sharon was approved. I was able to get her moved into a better apartment with her and children before Christmas with an apartment that was habitable for her and didn’t put her at a health risk.  The RAFT funding was able to cover the first and last month rent, plus security deposit.

The help that Sharon and her family needed is among the most common among families since the program’s beginning – first and last month’s rent and security deposits – behind rental arrearages. Statistics suggest that Sharon won’t need RAFT assistance again – fewer than 4% of families who received RAFT last year had received assistance the previous year.


Who qualifies for RAFT?

To qualify, your income should be at or less than 50 percent of the area median income ($46,550 for a family of three in Boston) and have a dependent child under the age of 21 or are pregnant and the head of household.

Reasons can include:

  • Eviction. Have received a court summons or are already involved in the court process.
  • Foreclosure. Notice from mortgage lender stating their intent to foreclose.
  • Doubled-up at a friend or family member’s house and have been asked to leave.
  • Violence or abuse in the household.
  • Utilities are at risk of being shut off or have been shut off.

I was very happy that I was able to get such a quick turnaround for a family that thought they were never going to be able to move because they couldn’t afford first and last month rent plus security, even while saving every last penny.


Read More About Metro Housing|Boston’s Homelessness Prevention Program at: http://nlihc.org/article/field