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Organizing HCV

Organizing HCV tenants can help protect households and increase housing opportunities
Are you in a voucher household? Join RHINO Tenants & Advocates
As soon as we have a "critical mass" of HCV tenants, we'll start a special on line community!

Organizing HCV Households to fight for their interests
     Why organize HCV households? Housing advocates are anxious to preserve the benefits of the HCV program, to expand the coverage, and  to streamline the program to make it more efficient. Advocates ("do-gooders") are always stronger when there are active tenant organizations that support their work. Landlords know this. They are already organized pushing for their interests. Just look at today's Columbus Dispatch article.  
    There's lots of renter advocacy work to be done. This past week, HCV tenants in California won a victory in a class action case over subsidy cuts back in 2012. California HCV tenants overcome illegal change to payment standards.  Lynda Carson writes: "It was Section 8 tenants’ Michael Nozzi, and Nidia Pelaez, along with the Los Angeles Coalition To End Hunger And Homelessness, that sued the housing authority for illegally cutting the subsidies for around 20,000 section 8 households. The illegal cut-backs to the rental subsidies for the poor Section 8 tenants resulted in many elderly and disabled residents, including families with young children, paying much higher rents that averaged around $104 more per month, the court said. Because the court ruled in favor of the Section 8 tenants in the class action brought by the Los Angeles Coalition To End Hunger And Homelessness, in a report in the LA Times, Barrett Litt, an attorney for the recipients, said damages would run in the millions. " Clearly the advocates needed some outspoken organized tenants to bring the complaint. 
    Other issues facing HCV households include maintaining or increasing Federal funding levels, fighting discrimination against HCV voucher households, and adjusting local policies/procedures to give HCV households time to find and certify eligible rental units. Housing authority procedures sometimes reduce mobility and cluster tenants into "traditional" areas and block tenants from moving in to some communities. Because HCV households are often stigmatized, especially when moving into non traditional areas, organizing activities are important for self defense and social acceptance.
    There are three reasons why HCV households are hard to organize. 
  • First, they are often not located at a single property or neighborhood. Scattered means that HCV households are harder to find and harder to stay in touch with. 
  • Second, they are busy! "Busy" means that HCV households are often families where household members are out of the home working or going to school. Their "connections" to a neighborhood are often looser than their non-employed neighbors and friends, and they often have less time in the day to attend meetings or engage in social activities. 
  • Third, HCV households are often reluctant to "rock the boat" or call attention to themselves. Obviously we're talking stereotypes here, but the obstacles to organizing are real and overcoming them requires some innovation. 
    Here's some ideas for RHINO members who are interested in building HCV organizations.. "Organizer" in this case means anyone who carries out outreach, engagement, mobilizing, and organizing activities. Organizers may be social professionals or tenant leaders/activists. 
    Outreach steps. 
1. Make personal contacts. Many organizers meet HCV household members on a regular basis at church, in school, in the office, in the grocery store, or at social events. Sharing information about the HCV program is important. Use a fact sheet that shows that describes the HCV program. Offer approval and acceptance to help overcome fear of being stigmatized. Personal working relationships are the basis for social change organizing. 
2. Organizers can encourage voucher holders to become RHINO members. Belonging to an on line network permits householders to get information without going to an office during business hours or to a meeting. Membership in an on line network also provides anonminity for voucher holders who may still be nervous about stigma. RHINO can provide up to date information about HCV issues and news about HCV work in other communities. Information helps remove barriers to taking action. 
3. HCV members and organizers can use Facebook to help HCV tenants give voice to their concerns. Here's an example
4. Ask your local Housing Authority to help you identify potential members. Most Housing Authorities have newsletters or regular mailings to HCV households under their jurisdictions. If you are offering something of value, they may be willing to include information about your efforts.
    Engagement steps 
5. Organizers can offer services that have direct value to HCV households. One big issue is the homesearch process. Another helpful service is a personal advocate who is familiar with program rules and procedures and who can review housing authority documents or go with an HCV householder to meetings with the Housing Authority. Working with a local legal services office can help organizers develop some expertise. Legal service staff should be willing to help train administrative advocates because resolving problems before they become legal issues will save time and money. In offering services, organizers want to be clear that they are creating an exchange relationship: services in exchange for participation in the organizing campaign. Here's an example of a pretty comprehensive service program.  
6. If the organizer has established a working relationship and has provided "value" in that relationship, it's time to ask the HCV householder to make a commitment to participate in collective action. Collective actions are usually focused on HCV issues that affect "the community" of HCV householders, not just the individual. Organizers usually have a set of small steps for potential members to undertake around specific issues. Sign a petition. Write to a Congressman. Come to a meeting. Talk to another member. Organizers call these steps the ladder of engagement,
a process to move from personal advocacy to collective action. Action is the key word. Your prospects become members by doing something. 
    Organizing steps 
7. Work with your new members to create an organizational structure that is simple and transparent. If the organization has a lot of rules, people will argue over the rules. If an organization has money, people will argue over the money. Goal to the organization is to make HCV program work better for members. 
8. Every organization thrives on campaigns-short term projects designed to focus on a single issue or need and delivering a tangible outcome. Success builds membership so don't be shy about promoting your victories. 
8. Don't neglect the social component. Organizers and leaders need to give members opportunities to share social relationships.
 What's News
3/10/16 Become a RHINO member!  

RHINO regularly visit and comment on the PHT(S8) Facebook page where housing voucher holders ask questions and seek housing. Here's a couple things that RHINO notices:
1. Voucher holders' most frequent questions are "where can I find housing that will accept my voucher?" and "how can I get an extension on search time?"

2. Voucher holders are not much interested in Voucher Policy issues like increasing payment standards, streamlining portability, and providing homesearch assistance. In fact, most voucher holders don't know the difference between HUD (the funder/overseer of the voucher program) and the Housing authority (administrator of the local voucher program.) 

Here's the pitch: you can shape the policies of your local housing authority when it comes to how the HCV program operates. You are the leaders that you have been looking for! Become a RHINO member and start learning and acting in your best interest.

12/24/15 If you can't protect HCV households from discrimination, here's some things cities can do.
      Last year the City of Austin, Texas passed a Source of Income ordinance protecting HCV tenants from discrimination. Landlords packed up their millions of dollars and headed down to the State Capitol and got the legislature to prohibit Austin from passing laws to protect voucher holders. Case closed? Maybe not. 
     Texas Houser put out recommendations that local officials can take to protect HCV tenants. Here's RHINO's adaptation of these ideas.
1. Establish a fund to indemnify landlords from lost rent or damages caused by Housing Choice Voucher tenants. A sort of super-security deposit paid by the City if a landlord can show damages beyond normal wear and tear. Oregon has done this. Overcoming landlord fears of unrecoverable losses removes an argument against enacting SOI protections.
2. Improve HCV management. Oregon also has a housing choice advisory committee that includes both landlords and tenants. Another reasons that landlords give for not participating in the HCV program is cumbersome procedures. Tenants complain too...all the time. So give them a chance to help fix the system.
3. Aggressively enforce existing fair housing laws in order to root out landlords who discriminate against voucher families as a smoke screen for illegal discrimination based on race, ethnicity, family size or disability. Because proving "disparate impact" is more complex than traditional testing, some funds to private FH agencies to support investigations would make an impact. Maybe a role for local foundations?
4. Provide incentives for affordable housing “conservation buyers” who could purchase rental property in high opportunity areas or places on the verge of becoming high opportunity areas and then operate the property as a "mixed income" development. This idea is modeled on "conservation buyers" programs developed by wildlife habitat organizations. Tax credits, direct no interest loans, and other financing options could be used to make conservation purchases work. National Housing Trust Fund dollars could help!
5. Adopt “small area fair market rents.” Since voucher rents represent a median value, with some rents being higher and some being lower, they present something of a one-size-fits-all approach to the market. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is considering offering housing authorities a way to fine-tune voucher rents so that what voucher holders can pay is competitive in submarkets of the local community. 
6. Raise payment standards so that voucher holders can move beyond inner city neighborhoods. This is controversial because paying higher subsidies reduces the total number of vouchers (and the administrative fees going to housing authorities.) One angle might be to push local Congressional Representatives to push for more HCV funding with the understanding that payment standards could be raised. Another angle would be for local jurisdictions to allocate a portion of their HOME funds to their PHA to raise payment standards. 
What are your ideas about how local governments can reduce resistance to HCV households?        

December 2015 Columbus Dispatch Columbus landlords push back against inspection
Columbus Dispatch reports that some landlords are going public against inspections by ColumbusMHA. Too arbitrary, they say... Authority officials have participated in a meeting with the Ohio Landlord Association once this year to address questions and are willing to do so again, he said. 'We try to maintain good communication with our valued landlord partners,' Brown said."
    Too bad there's no HCV Tenants Association in Columbus! Think about this:
1. With rising rent levels in Columbus (and most of the Ohio Metro areas) landlords can rent units that are less than perfect.
2. CMHA needs their "landlord partners" because they are free to discriminate against HCV households.
    Over the last year, the loss of participating landlords is pretty small, but CMHA needs to take this seriously by standardizing the inspection protocol to emphasize health and safety issues, reach out to the broader community to recruit new landlords into the program, and work with tenants to win "source of income" protections in City law.