If there's one issue bringing people into Arise for Social Justice these days, it's housing.
Today a Navy veteran with a nine year old autistic son needed some help in finding out where she is on the list for subsidized housing. She'd call HAP the other day but they misunderstood what she was asking and they told her they're not taking new applications because there's a ten year waiting list! She feels as if the family members she's been living with are running out of patience with her because her son is not easy to live with, but her income is under $900 a month in SSI for her son and TAFDC for her so she hasn't been able to find anything she can afford.
Another woman last week was never notified by her landlord as to which bank is holding her security deposit, and now that's she's moving, she wants to know where it is-- minor in the light of things, except that she needs the money to put down on the new apartment.
Of course we see our fair share of bad housing issues, the occasional case of sexual harassment by a landlord or other tenant, pending evictions because not having the rent money, and a steady stream of single men and women looking for an efficiency apartment they can afford. People are feeling shell-shocked and discouraged yet somehow they keep on with the struggle.
Funny how even living poor, you can be so shocked by the situations of others. Arise was started in the mid-eighties by four of us on public assistance, so we all knew something, but I still remember the day I found out that there were so many homeless families, they had to be put up in motels. I still remember the day I first heard someone say, "How can there be empty buildings when the shelters are full?" And I remember the day I figured out that rents had gone up 161% in just three years.
This was just a few years before the savings and loan debacle, where buildings were emptied and boarded up as their overextended owners, who thought they could just keep flipping buildings at higher and higher prices, with no chance ever to be able to meet a monthly mortgage payment based on tenants' rents, finally faced the bursting of their own housing bubble.
Arise was involved in the one and only development project we've ever undertaken just after that bubble burst-- we built a coalition of organizations and agencies and purchased the old Rainville Hotel on Byers St., a building that defined the word seedy. It had been taken over by the Resolution Trust Company, a Government-owned asset management company. and we turned it from a 60 some odd unit dump into forty-three efficiency apartments for homeless people "ready for independent living." I write these words so blithely, but it took three years of difficult development work to make it happen, and we have now provided housing for ten years. Never again, we decided.
But just because we don't want to do housing development doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.
We at Arise have taken no particular opinion at this point on the proposed development of Longhill Gardens, a controversial affordable housing rehab, except, of course, to be aware of how many of the project''s opponents seem to believe that poor people are indistinguishable from criminals. But the cry of "No more affordable housing!" begs the question: affordable to whom?
I had an amicable conversation with a project opponent at an candidates' training sponsored by Arise. He said that Longhill Gardens would be designed for people who make 60% of the median income, as if that was a terrible thing. I asked him what that was and he said it was about $20,000. Well, I'm an intelligent person and I've worked all my life but I'm not college-educated and the work I do tends not to be valued very much. For all but three years of my working life, I qualify to live in Longhill Gardens.
So here we are, 24 years after Arise was founded, with homeless families in motels, unaffordable rents, and streets so riddled with boarded and abandoned houses they look like the site of a natural disaster.
A federal law that gives tenants in foreclosed properties some rights was just passed this May, and we're getting ready to do door to door with information because not knowing you have a right is the same as not having it. We learned that one a long time ago.
Although (because?) Arise is primarily an organization that organizes, we also do a lot of advocating. It's time to bring the people we advocate with plus our members together so there's a vehicle to spread information about people's rights. What are the other issues people will bring to the table? I have a pretty good idea, but we'll find out.
There's strength in numbers and it's time to form a citywide tenants organization.
Join us on Wednesday, June 24, from 6 pm to 8 pm, at 467 State St., Springfield, for the first meeting.
Graphic by Eric Drooker.