It’s already been a busy and inspiring day at Netroots Nation in New Orleans!
The first panel I went to this morning was titled Housing Touches Everything Progressives Care About, So Why Aren’t We Talking About It?
Moderating the panel was Chantelle Wilkinson, the National Campaign Coordinator for Opportunity Starts at Home. The panelists were Mike Koprowski, the National Campaign Director of Opportunity Starts at Home, Andreanecia Morris, Executive Director of Housing NOLA, and Allison Bovell-Ammon, Deputy Director of Policy Strategy at Children’s Healthwatch.
To set the stage for the conversation, they first showed a video from Opportunity Starts at Home which discussed how federal housing assistance is underfunded and that many sectors need to come together to push for policies that protect and expand affordable housing. Leaders from organizations focused on issues such as health care, hunger, education, and civil rights spoke about how affordable housing is key to adequately addressing the causes they are fighting for.
Wilkinson then gave a short presentation on Opportunity Starts at Home.
Their long term goal is that “through more robust and equitable federal policies, we will end homelessness and ensure that the most vulnerable low income households can afford the rent.” Housing touches every aspect of life.
Koprowski said ignoring housing is not good policy for progressives.
As he put it: “You can’t fully accomplish the other things on the progressive agenda with the foundation of affordable housing.”
Koproski highlighted the two major issues when talking about housing: affordability and segregation. Segregated neighborhoods mean segregated schools and less access to opportunity for people of color and people living on low incomes. “Housing segregation is the mother or all inequities,” Koprowski said, and noted how the issues of affordability and segregation are inextricably linked.
Morris agreed that issues of housing affordability are rooted in racism, from things like the GI Bill and redlining, which served to block people of color from being able to get loans and buy homes in most neighborhoods. She continued by pointing out the housing is “held up as the ultimate prize, when it is in fact a basic need.”
Morris talked specifically about the situation in New Orleans, a city that has far more renters than homeowners. New Orleans has an overall vacancy rate of twenty percent, and in some neighborhoods it’s as high as 30%.
“Why the hell does New Orleans have an affordability crisis? We have a broken system that refuses to address this,” he told attendees.
Low voter turnout and perceived voter apathy, Morris said, are partially because people are working two and three jobs to be able to pay for their housing, and also because candidates and elected officials are not talking about the things that people need, like housing. “People will show up and vote for progressive candidates, if progressives start talking about housing. If no one is talking about your needs, you don’t have a lot of options.”
Bovell-Ammon pointed out that progressives care a lot about healthcare, as we should. But argued that we should really care about health, not just access to healthcare. We should focus on the things that make people healthy, which includes shelter. Everyone should have a place to call home.
Housing is one of the items that is referred to as the social determinants of health. The reason the United States spends so much on healthcare but has some of the worst health outcomes in the developed world is because of our poor performance on social determinants of health.
“If we really care about health, then we should also care about housing,” said Bovell-Ammon. She gave an example of a client with heart failure who did not have stable housing, but was bouncing around staying with different friends and family. No matter all the medical interventions they provided, he was not getting better, but once they helped him to gain stable housing, his health improved enormously. “Health systems can’t do it alone,” she declared. “We can’t manage chronic illnesses if people don’t have a stable place to live.”
Wilkinson then posed the question as to why a cross-sector aspect of the campaign is important. Koproski said that we can’t work in silos because the real world does not work like that. He used to work in education, and realized that the best thing that could be done to improve education is to address neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. The silos that people have been working in have not been created overnight, he said, and that it is going to take time to break them down.
But that breakdown and integration is already starting to happen.
“People from other sectors are starting to realize that they can’t accomplish their goals without people having safe, decent, affordable housing,” Koprowski said, noting that most organizations in the Opportunity Starts at Home coalition are not housing organizations that work on ending homelessness.
Wilkinson then suggested that affordable housing is trigger phrase in some ways. “Why is that?” she asked. “Does someone lose if we have more affordable housing?”
Koprowski said that generally our country has connected in their mind affordable housing with negative stereotyped rooted in race and class privilege. We need to debunk the myths around affordable housing coming to a neighborhood bringing down property values and increasing crime, he said.
“Progressives are being hypocritical,” Koprowski continued. Some of the most progressive cities and neighborhoods are not only not fighting for affordable housing, but are actively preventing the expansion of affordable housing, he pointed out. As a resident of the greater Seattle area who works in the issues of housing and homelessness, I was nodding vigorously in agreement.
When asked if progressives are really living their values when it comes to housing, Morris replied with an emphatic “No.”
She referenced New Orleans as a prime example, a solidly blue city that is in the midst of a housing affordability crisis. The reason for the crisis comes down to policy choices, she said. “Density is a dirty word among certain progressives.”
She said people use their privilege to fight increased density or having affordable housing located in their neighborhoods.
“Affordable housing is the last frontier in discrimination,” she said.
An audience member asked if housing is something where local and state policies can make a big impact, or if it’s something that really needs to be addressed federally. Morris replied that it is both.
Federal changes are really needed, but they are not going to happen with this presidential administration, so we have to make changes locally. Getting rid of biased zoning policies, investing in state housing trust funds, and using federal resources effectively are things that can all be done at the city and/or state level.
“It’s incredibly important to get to federal change, but we have to start locally.”
Koprowski agreed that we need a response at all three levels, city, state, and federal. “The magnitude of the problem is such that no one level can solve this problem alone.” However, he noted that the federal government largely created the problem of homelessness and lack of affordable housing, especially due to major disinvestment under archconservative Republican Ronald Reagan.
The federal government has failed to address this growing crisis in our country, and that really needs to change in order to adequately address the problem. This is an issue where progressives can and should be leading.
You can learn more about the issue of affordable housing and homelessness on the Opportunity Starts at Home website.