The Right to Affordable Housing
Let the sheriffs come and drag me out.” So said Yen Hom, an elderly tenant and resident who stayed to fight evictions at the Pacific Renaissance Plaza (Pac Ren) when she and other residents of the 50 affordable housing units in Tower II of the Plaza received eviction notices. As the struggle to keep the housing intensified, Art Hom described his mother’s strategy: “In the 60s, we conducted sit-ins. Well, for the last six months, my mom has been conducting a live-in.”
In April 2003, over 150 people started moving years of belongings, memories, and hopes out of the heart of Oakland Chinatown, scattering to senior housing, market rate and other apartments in Oakland, and as far as Fremont and Los Angeles. Like Mrs. Hom, the elderly tenant who had witnessed the spectacular evictions of elderly manongs from the International Hotel nearly 30 years earlier, those who stayed became the soul of a community struggle for the right to affordable housing in an era of rampant gentrification and housing speculation.
This struggle links them, and us, to prior displacements of people of Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese descent, low-income communities of color across the nation, and to larger movements for justice, dignity, and human rights. We, Chin Jurn Wor Ping (CJWP) or “Moving Forward for Peace” in Cantonese, are a collective of people of Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwanese heritage with progressive political worldviews, working together in the Bay Area for peace and social justice.
While the current recession has trapped countless people under the weight of a foreclosed home, unexpected loss of employment, or the evaporation of a life’s savings, those who were struggling before this economic meltdown to meet their basic needs are more vulnerable than ever. This is certainly the case in Richmond, California where the housing crisis has resulted in more than 2,000 foreclosed properties, most of them in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Simultaneously, cutbacks in public transit services, fare increases, and the related dependence on automobiles, oil, and freeways are increasing the isolation of poor communities. At Urban Habitat, while continuing our long-term commitment to land use issues, equitable development, and regionalism, we have also been working hard to win basic rights in the two key arenas of housing and transportation.
As a founding member of the Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI), a diverse coalition committed to ensuring that the city’s low-income people and communities of color benefit from development policies and financial investments, Urban Habitat has been advocating the right to affordable housing for Richmond residents for over four years.
When President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the United States Congress in January 1941, he called for “a world founded upon four essential freedoms”—freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Popular conceptions of rights at the time moved beyond the constitution’s narrow framing of civil and political rights to include basic social and economic rights.
Commentary by T.J. Johnston
The Oprah Winfrey Show threw a spotlight on Sacramento’s tent cities in March 2009. Now, more than 100 homeless people will move from encampments to apartments and other temporary housing as part of a compromise between the city, its homeless residents, and area nonprofits.
The homeless folk will be allowed to bring their stuff along this time—and given safe storage for it.
A year and a half prior to this settlement, a class action suit was filed against Sacramento for civil rights violations incurred when police and sheriff’s deputies confiscated homeless people’s belongings during sweeps. Usually, homeless people are issued citations for “abandoning property” and sometimes their belongings are destroyed. Often, this is standard procedure in most cities nationwide.
Interview by B. Jesse Clarke
- Juliet Ellis, Executive Director, Urban Habitat
- Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, Executive Director, Green for All, Former Director, Working Partnerships USA
- Dorothy Kidd, Co-Chair of Media Alliance and Professor of Media Studies, University of San Francisco.
- Adam Kruggel, Director, Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization
- Shalini Nataraj, Vice President of Programs, Global Fund for Women
- Renee Saucedo, Community Empowerment Coordinator, La Raza Centro Legal
Clarke: One of the themes that we’re trying to investigate is whether you make a rights framework (tenants’ rights, workers’ rights, immigrants’ rights) part of your organizing work. The United States has a long tradition of civil rights with a certain level of successful organizing, particularly to gain equal rights for African Americans and overcome the legacy of slavery. But people organizing around the right to a job or the right to housing have a much more challenging environment. It’s not a given that people believe that you actually have a right to housing or a right to a job or a right to freedom to control your own social and economic participation.
Housing or geography is at the core of the opportunity structure in America. Where you live largely defines what type of people you will be exposed to on a daily basis, and hence, who you have the opportunity to relate to. It defines what schools you will go to, what employers you will have access to, and whether you will be exposed to a host of models for success.
Atchison Village Mutual Homes sits less than a mile from a shoreline park with postcard-perfect views of the San Francisco Bay—and on the edge of the “Iron Triangle,” one of the hardest-hit areas of Richmond, California, a city deserted by industry and ravaged by violence.
When you walk around the Village on a summer Sunday, you smell meat grilling and hear the buzz of lawn mowers and the bells of an ice cream truck playing,“Do your ears hang low?” Neighbors chat about gardening and kids play soccer or baseball in the park at the heart of the Village. A family might be setting up for a quinceañera in the wood-floored and paneled community building, where the Village also holds its meetings.
The federal government built Atchison in 1941 to house workers streaming in from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and the deep South to work at the Kaiser Shipyards, building ships for sale to Great Britain.
Every morning, Irma Cardenas watches her brother wake up at 4 a.m. to begin the four-hour commute to his construction job. “My brother leaves every day at 5 a.m.,” states Irma. “Sometimes, when there is a lot of traffic, he can be back by 10 p.m.” Irma and her family live in the Monument Corridor neighborhood in Concord, California. Located in Central Contra Costa County, northeast of Oakland in the Bay Area, Concord has a well-deserved reputation as a suburban, middle-class community. Nevertheless, for those who live in “La Monument,” an imaginary wall seems to surround their neighborhood.
In Texas, when they talked about “smart growth,” they said it would limit suburban sprawl but it was just gentrification. Sprawl hasn’t stopped. As they began to develop downtown, they pretended that there were no people of color downtown. Those people who were supposed to be our allies are running us out of our communities.