Organize

Change begins at home.  Organizing means taking collective action.
The "why" of collective action.
First, a few definitions. “Act collectively” means that people agree to work together to achieve a goal. Key words here are "people agree". There is no magic formula for what an “agreement to work together" looks like. Agreeing to work together could be a by-laws, a constitution, a manifesto, a motto (“Black Lives Matter”), an event, or meeting.  

“Organizing" is the process of getting people to agree to work together. An “organizer" is someone who's primary mission is helping people find ways to act together. Since acting together is a voluntary activity and no one is required to participate. Therefore “working by consensus” is the best way to bring people together. “Working by consensus” means that everyone has a “say” in the process and the agreement reflects the needs and interests of all the participants...not just the loudest leaders. “Consensus” takes time, patience and practice. Here's one of the best reasons to use an organizer to manage the process. 


When asked to define herself or himself....probably the last thing a tenant will say is: "I'm a tenant. Tenants will tell you their religion, race or ancestry, age, height (not weight), and family relationships (wife, parent, grandie) before they'll say "oh, and I rent." Since renting is not a primary personal identifier, organizers tend to rely on locality (where you live) and issues (what's happening to your home) to be a basis for collective action. 

How is a community-based organization different from a property based organization? In Ohio, property based organizations are the most familiar. That's where all of the prospective members live in the same property—a building or group of buildings in the same area with the same ownership. Community based organizations can be more diverse. Community based organizations may be built around localities like neighborhoods or cities, but an also be built around housing type (project based or public or vouchers), demographic characteristics (students, seniors), or issues like code enforcement, court reform, or new rental rights. Anything folks share.

Stay social & get digital. All human organizations have a “social” component. That's the kind of animal that humans are. Every group, no matter how problem focused, needs to have social activities that bind members together. During the Rainbow Terrace Rent Strike in 1973-75, tenants created a community garden and held neighborhood festivals to keep hope alive. That was then. Increasingly, in today's world, it's harder for people to invest a lot of time in social activity, given the demands of work and family. Tenants organizations can use social media as a 21st century alternative to coffee time in the community room. Facebook and other social media can keep people in touch with the group between meetings. Having separate "task" and "social" leaders can be very helpful too. The task leader focuses on the issue or goal and the social leader makes sure that the members stay “connected."

Develop a change menu...not just a single issue. Multiple issues give the organization a broader appeal. Staged goals give the group the opportunity to have some early successes while working on the hard stuff. Example: Supporting the state wide Ban the  Box campaign with petitions and letters to elected officials can show success, while meeting with landlords to design more inclusive rental policies for returning citizens will take a little longer. Like kindergarten, idle hands are the devil's workshop.  Keep your members busy.

Make room for many different ways to “belong”. Not everyone who is a supporter is a traditional member. Throw away the idea that “if you're not with us, you're against us.” The old requirements of paying dues and attending meetings will limit the organization's appeal. Every organization has constituents that range from the core group (“they would show up if you held a meeting in a parking lot in the rain at midnight”) to the passive bystanders. All should be considered part of the effort. Many organizations fail by leaving out people who are interested or could be supportive, but aren't in the communications. Using social media, mass media, and large open meetings are ways to keep the bystanders :nvolved" in the organization, even if only as a "silent majority." Avoid isolating any member of your community and turning her/him into an opponent.

Making room means keeping meetings informal and open. A few simple rules like “don't interrupt” and “don't disrespect” go a long way to encouraging participation. There's more tips on successful meetings here. Keep in mind that simple doesn't mean sloppy. Keep good records of decisions (especially about spending) and always present an accurate account of funds spent. Voluntary organizations can be easily undermined by details. 

Keep your focus. There's a million good ideas out there. Leave some for other groups to work on. Support those other groups for two reasons, whenever you can. Reason one: you can ask them to support you. You can learn from the successes (and failures) of other groups.                                                     
Posted March 27, 2016.


The Power of Home: Whether I rent or own, the place I live is home.

    A story about the mental health costs of the Flint catastrophe reminds us of how much we depend upon "home" to be a "haven" from the risks of the world. In the broadcast, Dr. Vicki Johnson Lawrence, a professor of public health and health sciences at the University of Michigan-in Flint talks about the mental trauma imposed by the invasion of lead into the lives of her neighbors and co workers. One of the four founding principles of RHINO back in 2011 was "household stability," in recognition of the fact that tenants need a level of control over their dwellings that is comparable to the control of a "home" owner. In fact, that sense of control is the secret sauce that transforms a dwelling into a home. 
    Recently, housing advocates have focused on locality as a key factor in family success. The zip code is destiny mantra has been supported in study after study. Living in low crime, high opportunity communities improves life outcomes for low income families. But too often, housing advocates minimize the emotional cost of living in a dwelling where a tenant cannot protect his or her family. That emotional insecurity is a fact of life for most low income and minority renters across the country. But moving to safer localities is not the whole answer.  
    In considering the mental health costs of lead poisoning that can haunt a family's life for decades to come, advocates should not overlook or minimize the impact of all of home health issues that shape the experience of living in a place where tenants cannot control their living conditions. Vermin, mold, and bed bugs can have a devastating toll on low income renters, sometimes amounting to PTSD. And yet, professionals can't easily measure these psycho-social impacts and so once the extermination has taken place, the problem is "solved." For housing advocates, "healthy homes" (RHINO priority 4) must include mental health impacts that can persist for decades. 
    A destabilizing factor in rental housing is harassment by management staff. Here's a typical example. "My wife and I live in HUD Section 8 Project based housing. We are in our 5th year. Management here treats tenants as if the tenants are management's 'charge'. As if they are our tutors or our kindergarten teachers. We have a chapel that they are dismantling ...with the excuse it will be a recycling center (yeah! sure, right!).. They never asked us." It is hard for households to feel at home when management operates like an occupying power!
    Harassment can be subtle like hallway cameras, intrusive inspections, or casual and persistent disclosure of personal information by management staff. But harassment may be overt as yelling, name calling, blaming, threatening, doing self-help eviction, making quid pro quo sexual demands, or imposing arbitrary restrictions...what one tenant calls "house arrest." HUD is making some strides at addressing the worst of these abuses with new guidance on harassment, but too many properties are run by little dictators. 

    Besides relying on the Ohio Landlord Tenant Law, Fair Housing laws and HUD regulations to stop "unreasonable" and "discriminatory" treatment, advocates might want to think about Ohio's laws against Elder Abuse. Many of the cases that come to RHINO's attention are cases where senior citizens are being harassed and intimidated by management staff in ways that might violate the Ohio Elder Abuse statute. (ORC 5101.60) which defines elder abuse as "...the infliction upon an adult by self or others of injury, unreasonable confinement, intimidation, or cruel punishment with resulting physical harm, pain, or mental anguish" and lists a wide range of social service professionals who are required to report suspicions to Adult Protective Services (APS) to investigate. APS staff seem pretty familiar with addressing physical abuse, but may need to be convinced that "mental anquish" is another type of elder abuse. When a tenant slips a note to a public health nurse that "living here is like being in jail" more inquiry is warranted. 
    So where can advocates begin to address the tenants' need to feel in control of their dwellings so that the dwelling can become a real home and not just another form of shelter? 
  • At a practice level, rental advocates need ready to help tenants resist arbitrary or capricious rules that are designed to undermine a tenant's control over her/his home. The tenant who is not allowed into the community room with her support animal must be supported in challenging the manager who is clearly in violation of the tenants rights. The manager who insists on her right to attend any meeting of tenants should be challenged. Tenants whose friends and family members have been "banned" from visiting should be supported rather than encouraged to move. Too often well meaning advocates take the attitude that tenants should put up with these dehumanizing rules in order to keep a roof over their heads. 
  • Organizing tenant communities (another original RHINO goal) is another way to re-balance the interests of owners and tenants. But in most cases tenants don't organize until there is a crisis and advocates aren't laying the groundwork for organizing in anticipation of a "Rosa Parks" moment.  Without strong organizing support systems, who are you going to call? 
  • New legal protections (RHINO Goal 2A) could be critical. Even though the prospects of enacting "just cause" protections, or mandatory legal representation at eviction, or stronger retaliation provisions are Sandersque right now, this is the time to start laying the foundation for legal reforms that will contribute to rental housing stability. 
    Change arises at opportune moments and may be propelled by catastrophes like Flint, if advocates are prepared to act when the time is ripe. Other times, change is propelled by the slow accumulation of evidence, like the Gautreaux project, which has been on-going for 50 years. Sometimes a timely judicial decision will bring a big change...like last year's Supreme Court decisions on landlord liability for damages to tenants and guests from known hazards...but only if someone wants to challenge the conventional wisdom.