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Grassroots Fixes for a Crisis of National Proportions

Sharon Lee, Executive Director of Low Income Housing Institute

Across the country, low-income renters are living in dire conditions. The majority are faced with escalating rents far beyond their means and millions of Americans are spending money on high rents that should go to requisites like food, clothing and medical care. In fact, 51 percent of poor renters pay over half their income for housing and nearly 25 percent pay more than 70 percent. Scarcity of affordable housing, and the perilous position it places poor families in, is a national crisis. 

And no part of the country is exempt.

  • In southeast Seattle, tenants living in a rundown, 13-unit building were paying $550 a month in rent for apartments plagued by roaches, mold, exposed wiring and broken heaters. Last year their landlord raised the rent to $1,150. With Washington State’s ban on rent control, the tenants thought they had nowhere to turn.
  • In New York City’s Chinatown, a group of landlords began forcing out low-income seniors in order to profit from an exploding rental market and new tenants willing to pay much higher rents. Their scheme involved turning off gas and other utilities, leaving these non-English speaking seniors struggling to cook, bathe and keep warm. Unaware of their rights and the illegality of their landlords’ actions, the seniors thought they had no choice but to move.
  • In Portland, OR, a severe housing shortage has resulted in 1,800 people living on the streets. As of 2015, housing advocates estimated that over 1,000 affordable apartments were being lost to the short-term rental market because of Airbnb. As Airbnb rentals expand across the country, what can be done to mitigate their negative impact?

Each of these examples mirrors housing challenges in communities across the country. But the power of these scenarios lies in how residents and local leaders came together, insisted on and accessed their legal rights and devised a sustainable solution in each case.

  • Residents of the decrepit building joined forces with the Tenants Union of Washington to fight their rent increases. They documented 225 housing code violations and enlisted the support of Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant. In June, the council unanimously passed an ordinance to protect tenants by prohibiting rent increases in buildings with serious housing code violations.
  • In New York, the community-based group Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) enlisted a team of bilingual lawyers to work with tenants in fighting unscrupulous landlords. They filed lawsuits to compel owners to restore utilities. In May, a notorious landlord who owns 140 properties in New York City was arrested and charged with 20 felony counts by the state attorney general. AAFE’s executive director, Chris Kui, said the state attorney general’s involvement was crucial. "Forcing out tenants for the purposes of profit has serious consequences....I commend AG Schneiderman for not taking the complaints of tenants lightly and for standing firmly on the side of those who have felt powerless and out gunned for so long."
  • And the City of Portland reached an agreement with Airbnb to impose and collect “transit lodging taxes.” In December 2015 the City Council allocated the $1.2 million collected from those taxes to the Housing Investment Fund to provide homes for households earning less than 60% of the area median income. The Portland Housing Bureau estimates that bonds issued against tax revenue from Airbnb could bring in $36 million to be used for affordable housing.

The affordable housing stories we described exist everywhere. What are the stories from your community? Who is leading the charge in your community and how are they doing it? How can you support them?

Sharon Lee is Executive Director of the Low Income Housing Institute in Seattle. She spoke about local solutions to national housing problems at the 2016 LISC Leadership Conference. See her LISC Talk here.


Posted in Affordable Housing

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