Monday, October 16, 2006

The Pan-African Perspective: The Housing Crisis: What Next?

The Pan-African Perspective
The Housing Crisis: What Next?

In South Florida and across the country, poor people suffer under a crisis of affordable housing. The shrinking housing stock forces people to commit desperate acts just to access decent and safe housing they can afford. The impact on the Black community is devastating, as gentrification moves us out of our long time neighborhoods to make room for wealthier, lighter people.
As the crisis worsened, instead of increasing the amount of affordable housing, local governments worked hard to decrease the number of units, directly, and intentionally, contributing to the crisis in the process. Far from being an ally in the fight for decent human housing, the government, in the pockets of wealthy developers looking to become even wealthier, made the crisis worse.

In response to the crisis, community organizations and individuals tried in vain to meaningfully impact public policy through engagement. At least since 1998, we organized residents, met with commissioners, developed alternative policies and plans, attended meetings, supported initiatives of elected officials and even protested. We addressed HOPE VI, vacancies in public housing, the destruction of rental units by the city of Miami in Liberty City, improving conditions in public and low income private housing, increasing Section 8 vouchers, increasing affordable housing, supporting small locally owned businesses and other measures designed to increase the housing stock and stop gentrification.

The activists did everything "responsible" people should: engaged decision makers with a combination of sweet talk and pressure, relying on logic, statistics and appeals of conscious, urging a public policy which benefits the common good. Running up against the interests of developers and the power of their lobbyists, the community stood no chance.

Elected officials dissed us, the media ignored us and the people suffered. Nonetheless, it cannot be said that the community did not work within the system to seek meaningful change. We tried that route, in good faith and over time. The system failed us, and, therefore, we can not rely on it to solve our most fundamental problems.

As gentrification and the housing crisis have re-emerged in public discourse, spurred by the exposure of scandal inside Miami-Dade County government, it is clear that three distinct issue areas exist:

         Corruption. Government officials and developers engage each other in immoral, unethical and illegal ways. Corruption prevents the public from getting the most for their tax money and officials from making decisions with the best interest of the people at heart. Corruption is a severe and pervasive problem in South Florida government and business life. However, it is important to recognize that corruption did not cause the shortage of affordable housing, it only exacerbated an existing crisis.

         Public Policy. Even without an ounce of corruption, there would still be a housing crisis. Government policies on affordable housing promote the interests of developers at the expense of the poor, thus advancing the crisis. For example, during the crisis, officials voted to raze 851 units of public housing, and replace it with 80 new public housing units and 450 units total, all against the wishes of the impacted community. The HOPE VI plan deliberately reduced the number of affordable housing units, granting developers millions in contracts and empowering landlords to raise rents on the shrinking affordable renting stock. This and other government policies intentionally promote the housing crisis.

         Economic and Social System. Corruption and public policy aside, the real question is this: does the economic and social system directly benefit from maintaining a permanent underclass? If so, is the system itself capable of providing that class with housing and social services? The structural issue of the relationship between poor Black people and the land they occupy, but do not own or control, is at the heart of segregation and gentrification.

The surface issues we confront are gentrification and housing, however, as the system and structural questions imply, the fundamental issues are really land and power. We must fundamentally change the power relationship between people and land in order to avoid being segregated into and gentrified out of our land, at the whim of those who benefit from our misery and the officials who do their bidding.
So, what is the next step in the fight? Historic and recent experience demonstrate that defending our community against gentrification and ensuring housing for all, demands we circumvent the powers that be and exercise direct control over land. That is the only viable option remaining.

Max Rameau
The Center for Pan-African Development


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