Does the Disability Rights Movement Offer A Model for Housing Activists?

Posted by Randy Shaw on August 1, 2016

The Republican and Democratic National Conventions are over, and the nation’s affordable housing crisis has struck out. Not a single primetime speaker even uttered the words “housing crisis” or relayed stories about working people unable to obtain a safe, healthy, and affordable place to live.

President Obama noted that veterans’ homelessness has been cut in half and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey referred to 2.3 million homeless persons in America. But there was no housing policy discussion and none of the personal stories about the crisis from “average” Americans that dominated the Democratic Convention.

A person watching both conventions could easily conclude that housing is not among the many problems besetting working people. Yet whenever cities do polls on the biggest problems people face, housing is inevitably at or near the top.

Why this stark disconnect?

The nation’s history since the mid-1970s shows a direct connection between the withdrawal of federal housing assistance and the emergence of widespread homelessness. The federal government provides housing assistance to a smaller percentage of eligible recipients than ever before. The lack of federal housing aid is widely recognized as a chief cause of homelessness and the inability of working people to obtain affordable housing remains off the national political radar.

On Jan. 28, 2016 I wrote, “Why the Presidential Race Ignores Urban America.” This was still at an early stage in both parties’ primary process. Unfortunately, the situation did not improve. No question about the nation’s affordable housing crisis was raised at any of the many debates. Even debates that had questions from “real people” rather than from the media ignored the housing crisis.

Given this pattern of exclusion, when Hillary Clinton’s convention speech offered a laundry list of action plans for her first 100 days I did not expect to hear a call for one million new Section 8 vouchers or an emergency $10 billion appropriation for new affordable housing construction. I was right. But I was struck by Clinton’s focus on people with disabilities.

This was no accident. Disability rights activists have long worked with the Clinton campaign to get their issues into her stump speech. The disability community kept up the pressure at the grassroots level with activists launching an impressive social media campaign to encourage candidates to address concerns of disabled constituents. Using the hashtag #CriptheVote, the initiative held Twitter chats, and its founders—activists Alice Wong, Andrew Pulrang, and Gregg Beratan—gave interviews and wrote about a wide range of issues disabled voters care about in an election year.

So when disability rights activist Anastasia Somoza spoke to the Democratic convention Monday night, and when Clinton then referenced her during her convention acceptance speech, it was the culmination of a focused campaign to get disability rights on the national radar. It’s no wonder that some concluded,“2016 is the year disability rights broke through in national politics.”

I understand that focusing on disability rights at the convention dovetailed with Clinton’s early personal history of helping to secure the right of disabled kids to attend public schools. But Tim Kaine was a fair housing attorney for 18 years and a founder of a Virginia organization seeking to reduce homelessness. Yet this aspect of his background did not trigger any primetime DNC discussion of policy proposals in these areas.

Disability rights vaulted on to the national stage and the affordable housing crisis did not because advocates for the former more aggressively and unceasingly pushed for a spot at the table. I say this not to criticize the millions of activists working on affordable housing and homelessness issues; rather, disability advocates’ success shows that activists can get the affordable housing crisis on the national stage if it becomes a top priority.

A Fall Strategy

Injecting demands for national action for America’s housing crisis into the Clinton and Trump campaigns will not be easy. The campaign scripts have already been written and this is by all accounts an unusual election.

Yet there is still an opportunity to force housing to get attention when any of the four candidates topping the national tickets come to your town. Consider how cameras at the DNC could not avoid regularly showing delegates holding "No TPP" signs. It didn’t matter that most primetime speakers bypassed the issue; the message was delivered to millions.

A large turnout of housing activists wearing “Fund Housing” or another slogan at presidential campaign events might not cause candidates to talk about affordable housing, but the signs may well end up in media photos of the event. Or a housing rally could be called within the campaign event or nearby. Housing advocates have to start somewhere. When decades have passed without affordable housing being part of presidential campaigns, creating visibility is an easy first step.

Housing activists should also seize the opportunities made available by the many competitive U.S. Senate and House races. Both contests often include smaller public debates where questions about House opposition to HUD funding can and should be raised. And activists can prepare media to push the candidates on their position toward increasing affordable housing funding.

And housing needs a hashtag. Just as #CriptheVote mobilized disabled people and their allies to push the disability rights agenda, housing advocates should seize the tools that social media offers to galvanize voters and influence decision-makers. Whether it be #FundHousing, #HousingRights, or something else, activists need a hashtag that can unite all those who support national action on the affordable housing crisis.

Other Priorities?

Housing activists spend so much of the year protesting evictions, building support for housing developments, and dealing with local state and governments that it seems there is no time left to focus on federal campaigns. Presidential events are often scheduled on very short notice, so activists cannot spend weeks or even months preparing as the anti-TPP folks did for the DNC.

But the past four decades have shown that the absence of federal action has caused the nation’s affordable housing crisis to steadily worsen. Housing advocates must get the crisis back in the national conversation, even if the path seems daunting.

This means that housing activists must do what disability rights folks did: push, push, and keep pushing to demand their agenda reaches the national stage.

The price of inaction is too steep.

(Photo credit: Petit Louis via flickr, CC BY 2.0)

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For more on the 2016 Election, click here.

About the author more »

Randy Shaw is executive director and supervising attorney of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco, as well as editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco's alternative online daily. He is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, and The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, all available on the NHI Bookshelf at Powells online.

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