By Colin O´Malley
For nearly two years, members of Buffalo Class Action have been examining how, as anarchists, we can fight to ensure that all people have decent housing. While there are dozens of different types of community non-profits that are working on similar efforts, it is with a city-wide tenants union that I feel people have the greatest hope of truly ending inequality and desperation in their housing situations. The city-wide tenants union represents the possibility of a powerful mass movement capable of fighting the immediate crises that people face in their struggle to hold onto safe, affordable, and quality housing. But, of equal importance for anarchists, I believe that the tenants union also holds a genuine possibility for mass, revolutionary direct action.
The Situation in Buffalo
The city of Buffalo is in the top five of the nation’s poorest large cities every year. As a typical Rust Belt city, living costs aren’t very high. In fact, most housing is incredibly cheap when compared with the rest of the nation. However, the local Homeless Alliance of Western New York questions how affordable our cheaper rent really is. According to them, 55.8 percent of Buffalo renters pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent,1 often considered the standard threshold defining affordable housing. Meanwhile, the supply of subsidized housing in the city, state, and nation is rapidly diminishing. Between 1983 and 2006, public federal funding for housing has dropped by $54 billion annually.2 This has resulted in the loss of thousands of units of affordable housing in Buffalo alone, over the last two decades. At present, there are around 2,000 people throughout the city unable to afford housing at all, and who are homeless as a result.
None of this should lead anyone to believe that money isn’t being spent on development. Millions of dollars are being handed out by the state to massive private development corporations to build hotels and luxury condos, and to turn low-income housing developments into “mixed-income” developments. Just recently, the State University of New York at Buffalo purchased the land of the McCarley Gardens affordable housing project,3 which will likely displace 500 residents to build a medical campus in a rapidly gentrifying part of the city.
Even in the deindustrialized wasteland that much of Buffalo has become, with thousands of abandoned properties and vacant lots, gentrification is still an issue. Waterfront development is turning a large portion of the working class Lower West Side into a battlefield between luxury condos, development agencies, and the communities that have lived there in affordable housing for decades. The state subsidized Shoreline apartment complex is slowly being redeveloped with federal funding to move into middle-income and market rate housing, thus helping the ownership avoid being burdened with keeping their nearly 600 unit complex affordable. The Marine Drive Apartments has recently seen a shift from being a totally city-owned public housing complex of some 700 units, to being partially owned by large development firms, a clear sign of their intention to develop the area around the harbor into a profit-making venture.
In poorer areas further away from the waterfront, neighborhood organizations working to improve their communities through support for local businesses, community gardens, neighborhood clean-ups, and co-op housing are being forced to ask difficult questions about whether the work being done in their localities will lead to improved neighborhoods or more expensive ones. While it is absolutely clear that the city of Buffalo, particularly its poorest neighborhoods, needs drastic revitalization, these community improvement organizations don’t fully answer the question.
It seems to me that gentrification plays an incredibly important role in our discussions about housing as anti-capitalists. But this conversation shouldn’t take on the identity-politic, yuppie-bashing tone that it so often does in progressive circles. Gentrification should be a reminder to us that the working class and poor are left with no decent options when housing is a commodity for trade in a capitalist market. The working class and poor in my city have two choices: they can continue to live in degrading conditions that are unsafe and horribly maintained, but marginally affordable; or they can work hard to improve their neighborhood only to be pushed out by increasing rent.
It is in this contradiction that anarchists should be organizing. We can explicitly point out the failings of capitalism to provide the very basic necessity of proper housing while building an organization that can begin to challenge the premise that housing should be a commodity rather than a right. We should be building such an organization that can fight for the immediate needs of our community. In Buffalo’s case, we are organizing around the potential displacement of the 500 residents of McCarley Gardens and organizing residents of the Shoreline complex to question the type of redevelopment happening in their area. At Shoreline we also helped to develop a Tenants’ Platform that demands greater maintenance of the building and more community input into security issues.
Through discussions about gentrification I’ve seen a great deal of success in bringing tenants to an anti-capitalist perspective. People seem to very intuitively understand that housing as a market is the problem, not simply their landlords. It’s in this context that Buffalo Class Action has begun organizing Buffalo Tenants United alongside the tenants associations of a couple of buildings. I see in this work an ability to create genuine popular power to address tenants immediate needs as well as a greater possibility for mass, revolutionary direct action.
After months of conversation about how best to address some of these problems, it became clear to us that a Tenants Union was the best way to move forward. While we clearly aren’t the first to come up with such an idea, it didn’t seem that many people in the anarchist movement were involved in a similar sort of organizing effort. I believe that this is a great space for anarchists to begin developing leaders and strategically engaging in tenant association fights.
We have started thinking primarily of organizing public, affordable housing complexes. This is in part because these groups of tenants are still largely under attack by a constantly deteriorating federal support system for housing. Also important to our beginning efforts in public housing is that there are already pre-existing organizations. In many cases, tenants associations are required to exist by law. So far, our experience has shown them to be isolated and lacking organizational experience or resources. But the organizations are there nonetheless, and many tenants are accustomed to participating in them. I am quickly discovering that one of our best roles is just in bringing these various organizations together which would enable them to understand and know how to support one another’s struggles.
Out of this need for connectedness between different tenant associations, it became clear that one of the first roles of Buffalo Tenants United would be the distribution of agitational propaganda. We began distributing a short newsletter door-to-door in these complexes and are receiving positive responses and new contacts. At the same time, the newsletter has helped in supporting the struggle of McCarley Gardens tenants whose problems are detailed above.
We are beginning to see the need for solid educational efforts and are hoping in time to develop a monthly educational series for tenants throughout the city. These educational events will include information about gentrification, the attacks on affordable housing, tenant’s rights, HUD and the structure of affordable housing, as well as specifics on how to organize and strengthen your tenants association.
There is some discussion now taking place about developing a phone list of people willing to help participate in eviction blockades as a method of support between tenants associations to help fight unjust eviction efforts. I expect that we will begin to see real growth when we can show the successes of such direct actions to protect people from retaliation by landlords and management agencies.
In the meantime, we are dedicating some of our members to attending tenant association meetings in a couple of different complexes and building long-term relationships with the active tenants in those buildings. I hope that these connections will help us to develop active building delegates to the union effort.
Small Homeowners and the Homeless
In the future, I am hopeful that we can also expand the tenants union to include small homeowners and the homeless. Buffalo has great organizing opportunities for both of these groups, and there are ways that we can work to build their identification as different types of tenants. The small homeowners will likely be the tenants of a bank. It appears that there has been great success with the Boston Bank Tenant Association in preventing evictions after foreclosure, and we hope that we can learn from their efforts and build something similar in Buffalo.
The homeless, on the other hand, are the tenants that have lost their access to any sort of housing and we shouldn’t abandon them in our efforts. In fact, I think that solidly organizing the homeless can help alleviate fears among tenants that getting evicted for their activities means homelessness. In Buffalo, there are thousands of abandoned properties, many of which are city owned. Homeless organizing in this city could likely take on the role of occupying abandoned city-owned residential structures for making cooperatives of the formerly homeless.
Capacity for Direct Action
It isn’t only with the homeless that the possibility of expropriation is present. I firmly believe that there are serious possibilities for developing potentially revolutionary direct actions within the frame work of a tenants union. This has been obvious since early rent strikes. But, rent strikes against publicly owned housing projects have the further ability to be a tool to target any political issue based out of the city. We should encourage the use of this tool an incredibly powerful tactic to help win gains in one’s housing situation and to use the strike politically in support of other struggles.
At the same time, I intend to continue using the space provided in tenants associations to argue against the need for landlords and for our ability to expropriate the housing complexes in which we live. As gentrification shows us that there is no real answer for the working class when it comes to housing justice under capitalism, we need to be continually making the case, as anarchists, for the democratic takeover of these resources and for a just redistribution and management of housing stock.
Tearing at the Cracks
While these possibilities may seem overly optimistic, the time is now for the anarchist movement start thinking larger than it has been. I believe that in our struggle for housing justice we can create a space to develop a clear platform for how society should be justly reorganized and how we can get there. An obvious crack is present in the logic that capitalism will ensure a better living for all of us. And it’s in these cracks that we should be feverishly organizing popular power organizations with a clear program for how to begin building toward social revolution.
- Homeless Alliance of Western New York http://wnymedia.net/activism/2010/04/really-how-affordable-is-housing-in-wny/ [↩]
- Western Regional Advocacy Project: Without Housing http://www.wraphome.org/index.php/campaigns/without-housing [↩]
- YNN News http://buffalo.ynn.com/content/top_stories/500837/ub-buys-mccarley-gardens-property-for-medical-campus-expansion/ [↩]