I have a good friend and comrade, Gary Delgado, who used to quip about “being too old to doorknock and too young to die.” As we age, I hear none of that. Furthermore, it’s funny, but it’s just not true!
In fact, I’ve seldom felt more alive than in recent months when I’ve had the opportunity to join teams of doorknockers with the Home Savers Campaign and put flesh to the wood in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Akron, and, more recently, in Detroit. It was exhilarating to be part of the most fundamental level of our organizing process again, as it was heartbreaking to listen to the families we were visiting who were caught in a maze of confusion and exploitation as part of various forms of land purchase contracts.
Despite the slick talk and dense legalize of the contracts, many families suspected the worse even though they were hoping for the best. Many were crestfallen when we sat there, knee to knee, with their contracts between us and explained that they really only had an option to buy after a certain number of years, rather than the full ownership they thought they were gaining. The stories we heard about the “as is” conditions of the homes offered by one company after another were horrific. No plumbing. No electricity. No furnaces. Room and ceiling cave-ins. Costly repairs. Unpaid taxes and insurance. On and on. One family with several children described “camping” in the home under these conditions for more than six months. Where there were “warrants of habitability,” they were not enforced by municipal authorities. Where there was no such thing, this was simply predatory, plain and simple. In Detroit, Philadelphia, and an increasing number of cities, ACORN and the Home Savers Campaign have found people glad to organize and ready to fight, and we are doing
so by trying to block these kinds of companies from FNMA auctions and local tax delinquency auctions, as well as forcing them to renegotiate the agreements fairly.
But, we’ve also found that there is much more to all of this than families finding that home ownership is a mirage. The crisis underlying all of this is not simply the credit desert that has emerged since the 2008 Great Recession in the US, although that’s part of it. The other edge of this sword is the inability of families to find affordable housing to the degree that “decent” is left out of the equation, because there’s more month than money for many of the families we visited. There are now 21 million people paying more than 30% of their income for rent and 11 million paying over 50% for rent. The level of evictions in Atlanta, Cleveland, Milwaukee and other cities has skyrocketed. Evictions have accelerated in units owned by corporations, but so has the corporate and hedge fund ownership of rental units.
The issue is also global. ACORN in Canada won landlord licensing in Toronto after a decade’s long campaign. ACORN organizations in Scotland and England are increasingly more tenant unions than community
organizations. ACORN’s affiliate in France is fighting one housing issue after another in Grenoble and the lower income, heavily immigrant suburbs of Paris. Our major campaign and victory in Rome was focused on
renters. Our Facebook pages and websites are filled with fights to stop evictions in Edinburgh and Bristol and win rent controls in pressured neighborhoods and a code of conduct for letting (rental) agencies. ACORN
organizers are in London as I write working with tenant organizations in the wake of the tragic Grenfell apartment block fire.
The real American dream and global aspiration may be to create a tenants’ union in city after city. Hitting the doors it seems that’s the demand everywhere now is both be part of a Home Savers Campaign and to restore the inalienable right to safe, decent, and affordable housing for all.
Wade Rathke is the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (1970-2008), and Founder and Chief Organizer of Local 100, United Labor Unions (ULU).