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.
By B. Jesse Clarke
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.
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.
The economic justice movement has historically focused on income equality. To the extent that attention was given to assets, the assumption was that once families’ incomes are not consumed with basic needs, asset accrual will follow. While some gains have been made in narrowing the earnings gap, today wealth inequality is higher in the United States than any other industrialized country: the wealthiest one percent own one-third of the nation’s wealth. As with all inequality, it is important to recognize the racial and gendered elements of the disparity. In the United States, families of color own just one-tenth of what white families own.
Lack of wealth is both a cause and an effect of low income and poverty, and the two are highly correlated, creating a cycle of economic instability. Without adequate income, poor people—who are disproportionately people of color and women—are unlikely to acquire assets, whether purchasing a home or saving. Similarly, lack of asset ownership limits income opportunities, such as seeking advanced education or starting a business.
Asset ownership and wealth are in many ways a more elemental measure of economic well-being than income. Income is a short-term measure and is certainly critical for meeting daily living expenses. In contrast, wealth—which is more likely to be affected by previous generations—allows families to weather financial hardships, such as economic downturns and unexpected periods of unemployment. More profoundly, wealth creates opportunity and allows families to move from poverty to long-term prosperity.
On March 20, 2008, hundreds of people filled the hall at Bannings Landing in the Los Angeles port community of Wilmington to witness the Los Angeles Harbor Commission adopt a Clean Trucks Program to reduce air pollution at the Port of Los Angeles. The program’s goals were straight-forward: replace and retrofit approximately 16,000 trucks in order to meet the 2007 federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emissions standards by 2012.
Once implemented, the Clean Trucks Program—which faces stiff opposition and pending lawsuits from industry—would require trucking companies which service the Port to hire truck drivers as employees rather than relying on independent truckers. With this model of doing business, the city hopes to reduce truck emissions, create a stable workforce, and set up mechanisms for community and government accountability.
Picture this: In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, union leaders link worker organizing rights at the Penguins’ Stadium to neighborhood demands for a grocery store and community investment fund—and score a victory. In Bayonne, New Jersey, a coalition of faith, union, and environmental leaders persuades local officials to link good jobs, affordable housing, and sustainable practices to the redevelopment process at the Military Ocean Terminal. In the Southside section of Atlanta, Georgia, long-time residents and union leaders protest the closure of a fire station in one of the city’s poorest communities and demand to be part of the budget review process to identify responsible alternatives. And the list goes on.
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