Saturday, October 26, 2019

Housing Justice and the Legacy of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King

[A talk given at Holman United Methodist Church on October 26, 2019.) 

I am honored to be here to speak about affordable/homeless housing and the legacy of Dr. King and Gandhi. I am co-founder of a nonprofit called Making Housing and Community Happen, which advocates for housing justice. MHCH’s other co-founder is my wife Jill Shook, who has been involved in housing justice work for over 20 years and has published a book Making Housing and Community Happen: Faith Based Affordable Housing Models, which is used in colleges across the US. We both seek to practice the nonviolent, faith-based approach to community organizing and social change that Gandhi and King developed and championed.
In addition to Civil Rights, Dr. King was deeply concerned about housing, seeing it as a basic human right. In the summer of 1966, he took the stage at Chicago’s Soldier Field before a crowd of 35,000 supporters. Building off major victories to quell racial segregation in the south, Dr. King had traveled north to start a new phase in the fight for equality: improving the deplorable living conditions of the urban poor.
“We are here today because we are tired,” Dr. King said. “We are tired of paying more for less. We are tired of living in rat-infested slums...”
“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” he added. “Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.”
Those words may not be as ingrained in the American psyche as “I Have a Dream,” but they had a catalyzing and tangible effect on improving housing conditions in Chicago and cities across the country.
In the final year of his life, Dr. King helped launch the Poor People’s Campaign with affordable housing as one of its major goals. This campaign called for the construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units per year until slums were eliminated. Rev. William Barber recently revived the Poor People’s Campaign and has identified a lack of affordable housing as a major driver of poverty.
My wife and I helped to launch the Poor People’s campaign in Pasadena, working with the IMA, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the oldest association of African American pastors in Pasadena. Over the years we have built a strong coalition of churches, homeless service providers, and community leaders committed to housing justice.
The relationship of Gandhi to housing justice is a bit more complex, but it is nonetheless important. Gandhi influenced the housing justice movement because of his concern for the equitable distribution of land through the concept of trusteeship.
The problem of land distribution has been especially acute in the Deep South. A recent article in Atlantic Monthly pointed out that African-American farmers were dispossessed of 98% of their farms since WWI, mostly during the 1950s and 1960s. Lacking land and economic opportunity, Blacks were at the mercy of white landlords.  The Community Land Trust movement started during the Civil Rights era to empower Blacks economically by providing them with land and homes. As my wife writes in her book,
Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are a model of shared equity, where the land is owned by a trust while homeowners own the land. This democratically owned nonprofit owns and leases land in a way that preserves affordable home ownership.
CLTs can be linked to Gandhi through a great Indian spiritual leader named Vinoba Bhava. After Gandhi’s death spiritual leadership for the Gandhian movement fell to him.   Gandhi’s “constructive program” for post-colonial India had envisioned a decentralized society, built on the basis of autonomous, self-reliant villages.  Gandhi had also articulated a concept of “trusteeship,” asserting that land and other assets should be held in trust for the poor.  Vinoba Bhava made Gandhi’s vision his own and inherited Gandhi’s concern for the plight of the rural poor. Jill tells the story of how this Gandhian movement started:
To settle outburst of violence that took place in a village after Gandhi’s death Vinoba Bhava convened the villagers and discovered the problem. One villager stood up and said simply, “We need land.” Pointing to the man who had just spoke, Vinoba said, “My brother here is without land. Who can give me some land for him?” To his amazement, one man stood up and said he had some land he could give. Then another stood up and another until there was enough land for…two or three landless families. But land was not enough. Families didn’t have the credit or the means to buy tools, fertilizer or seeds, and they ended up back on the streets of Calcutta. To remedy this, the land was given to the village as a whole, which acted as the land’s trustee” (p. 167).
This idea of trusteeship, or shared ownership of land, was also part of the kibbutz movement in Israel. Slater King, Dr. King’s cousin, and Charles and Shirley Sharrod, founders of the Student Nonviolent Organizing Committee in Georgia, visited Israel to learn more about kibbutzim and collective farming, but decided that Blacks needed to own their own homes so they came up with the idea of the CLT. They called their CLT New Communities. New Communities met with incredible resistance from whites, who did everything they could to destroy it, but it has prevailed and is thriving. Thanks be to God and to the indominable spirit of people like Shirley Sharrod, whom we had the honor of meeting a few weeks ago.
Jill and I took part in the 50th Anniversary Celebration of New Communities in Albany, GA. Hundreds of people were present at this gala event, including such dignitaries as Andrew Young who told a story about how his wife challenged him to practice nonviolence when under attack from the Ku Klux Klan. The celebration took place on a plantation that was once owned by the largest slaveholder in Georgia—he owned 1000 slaves. Now this plantation with its beautiful antebellum mansion is owned by African Americans who are dedicated to farming the land and advocating for community empowerment. The spirit of Dr. King and his cousin Slater live on in this small, but growing movement.  
The first urban CLT, the Community Land Trust of Cincinnati, was founded in 1981, by an ecumenical association of churches and ministries, It was created to prevent the displacement of low-income, African American residents from their neighborhoods. People of faith like Jill and me love this model since is supports the biblical idea that “the earth is the Lord’s—we can be stewards, not owners of the land.
Since then, CLTs have spread throughout the US, with over 500 CLTS, some in every state, and with over 5,000 homeowners. CLTs have also sprung up in other countries, such as the UK, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Kenya and New Zealand. The California Community Land Trust Network is a regional group of Community Land Trusts based in California.  These CLTs collectively steward permanently affordable homes and community facilities housing thousands of Californians and represent well over $100,000,000 of community assets.
Jill and I agree that CLTs “are an essential part of solving California’s affordability crisis for housing and community facilities.” In fact, one of the goals of our nonprofit is to help create a CLT in the San Gabriel Valley.
We see ourselves as part of a growing movement of people committed to housing justice. During our recent travels, we took part in a conference in Atlanta where many people involved with CLTs were present. It was inspiring to see many young African Americans and other people of color involved in trying to reclaim vacant properties in blighted cities and turn them into affordable housing, urban farms, and CLTs.
The housing crisis is one of the greatest challenges facing America today. The statistics are telling and alarming. California has 130,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given day. Over 55% of California renters are cost-burdened, paying more than 30% of their income on rent. Sociologist Matthew Desmond estimates that 2.3 million evictions were filed in the U.S. in 2016 — a rate of four every minute. Many of those evicted are single mothers, most often people of color. At every level, the housing crisis hits minorities harder. Since 1987, white homeownership rates have increased by 3.6 percent, while black homeownership rates have fallen by 2.7 percent. Black Americans are now nearly 30 percent less likely than whites to own a home. All of this adds up to one inescapable conclusion: For some Americans, housing is a way out of poverty. For others, it is the trap keeping them there. Our nonprofit is committed to addressing this crisis in the spirit of Gandhi and Dr. King. Our goal is to bring about not only housing justice but also the beloved community, where there is decent and affordable housing for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic circumstances. As Dr. King would say, all God’s children have a right to a home.