This article on " The Secret History of Housing, Racism and Cities" was published in the summer issue of a Quaker publication called "The Western
host a webinar called “Loving Your Neighborhood” on Thursday, August 6, at 7 pm. Together we’ll learn what Friends have done, and what we can do now, to address the homelessness and affordable housing crisis during this time of pandemic. This is not the time to hide what we know under a bushel. Let’s proclaim the good news from the rooftops: we know what it takes to end homelessness and poverty. Let’s work together to make ending homelessness and poverty a reality!
Aug 6, 2020 7:00 PM Pacific Time
Register in advance for this meeting:
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.
“Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!” Luke 12:13 (New Living Translation)
Eight years ago, when I married Jill Shook, a housing justice advocate, she would take me on walks or drives around Pasadena, pointing out buildings and homes. Each one had a story, often a fascinating story. I realized that she was tuned in to her city and her neighborhood in ways I had never experienced, or even imagined. I also realized that cities have a secret life—one that needs to be shouted from the housetops.
As I helped her to revise and edit her book, Making Housing and Community Happen: Faith-Based Affordable Housing Models, I came to see that I had been utterly oblivious to the “secret life” of cities—how housing policies had determined where and how homes were built and businesses situated. Cities didn’t just happen, they were created and shaped by policy makers with certain values. These values are often colored by racism, xenophobia, and classism.
As I became more involved in housing justice work, I also came to appreciate what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your neighbor.” He also meant, “Love your neighborhood.” Another secret or little known fact: Jesus loved cities as much as he loved individuals, and he came to save cities as well as individuals from moral and physical destruction. Remember how Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem, a city that was both sacred and profoundly screwed up—suffering under Roman oppression, and a corrupt religious establishment. Weeping over the city just as he wept over his friend Lazarus, who died and was brought back to life, Jesus called out to Jerusalem:
“Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:21). He loved this conflict-ridden city despite its faults: “ O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me” (Matthew 23:37).
Such a tender metaphor, and so poignant, given the fact that he knew the people of this city would kill him, just as it had killed other prophets.
Gradually I learned the secret of how to love my city, with all its beauty and flaws. After I’d been married for a year, a pastor friend of Jill’s surprised me with this observation, “Anthony, you realize when you married Jill, you married the city of Pasadena.” Strange as it seems, a light bulb went off when he said this. She is committed to Pasadena just as she is committed to our marriage. She loves this city and she wants to see it thrive. I now feel the same way. I love Pasadena in a way that I have never loved a city before. In the past I liked cities for what they offered me, but now that I feel as if I am married to Pasadena, I want what’s best for my beloved city just as I want what’s best for my wife. Like Jill, I take part in public events, go to city council meetings, and get to know all my neighbors, from the Mayor and community leaders to the homeless people who gather around City Hall.
Jill and I live in a city that prides itself on its historical character, but often hides from its dark past of racism. Our neighborhood was the only place where African Americans could live because covenants prevented home owners from selling to non-Anglo-Saxon protestants. A little known secret: many of these covenants prevented homeowners from selling their homes not only to blacks, but also to Jews or Catholics!
Blacks could live only in a certain part of Pasadena, the Northwest. This was true of most cities prior to the Fair Housing Act of 1968. This landmark Act was passed just one week after Dr. King’s assassination (fair housing being one of the last campaigns he worked on).
Orange Grove Meeting is located in Northwest Pasadena, in the heart of an impoverished Latino neighborhood. Most Orange Grove Friends commute to meeting from other parts of the city and know little about this neighborhood. Many years ago, Jill canvassed the Meeting’s neighborhood to start a tutoring program, and she knows many residents well. To help our meeting know the neighborhood better, Jill has taken us on tours to learn about the neighborhood’s history and assets. Northwest Pasadena is full of great people and restaurants and small businesses with delicious Latin American food and products. But it also contains dire poverty. The median income of a family of four in this census tract is $25,000 – and the cost of rent for an apartment here averages $2,000 per month and up. In other words, families either have to pay all their income on rent or “double up” with other families. This kind of overcrowding can be a major driver of many social ills, like poor academic performance and gangs.
Despite having been divested and impoverished by racist policies, Northwest Pasadena has thrived and become gentrified, with homes selling for $700,000 and up. But it also has one of the poorest areas of our city.
Orange Grove Meeting is located in Northwest Pasadena smack dab in the heart of the Latino neighborhood, but most Friends commute to meeting and know little about their neighbors. Many years ago Jill canvassed this mostly Spanish-speaking neighborhood to start a tutoring program and knows the residents well. To help our Meeting get to know the neighborhood better, she has taken Orange Grove members and teachers at Friends Western School on tours to learn more about its history. Our ‘hood has some wonderful assets—great people and restaurants and small businesses with delicious Latin American food and products. But it also has dire poverty, as we also found out from census tracts. The median income for a family of four around our Meetinghouse is $25,000—and rents for an apartment average $2,000 and up. In other words, families have to pay all the income on rent or double up with another family. This kind of overcrowding is a major driver of poverty and poor academic performance, and gangs.
Part of loving a city means learning its dark secrets and what we can do to help move it towards a brighter future through policy changes. Two years ago we started a nonprofit called Making Housing and Community Happen (MHCH) that advocates for affordable and homeless housing. As a result of our efforts, our city has approved 135 units of homeless housing in the last couple of years. Thanks in part to advocacy work, we have reduced our homeless population in Pasadena by over 50% since 2011 and we are working on a city-wide plan to reduce our chronically homeless population to “functional zero” in five years.
To end poverty we need to look at its root causes, which are often hidden from sight. Jill taught a graduate course on housing justice at the Azusa Pacific graduate program in social work. To help students understand how housing policy affects people’s lives, we created an “Unjust Housing” game, based on Monopoly. (Another secret: the idea for the game we know as Monopoly was stolen by Parker Brothers from a progressive feminist named Elizabeth Magie who created the Landlord’s Game as a protest against monopolists in 1903.)
The goal of our Unjust Housing Game is to show the deeply racist nature of housing policy. Players are given either a white or a black bean. Those with a white bean receive 20 pennies (worth $100 each) and those with a black bean 2 pennies (thereby representing the actual wealth inequality between whites and blacks). Players roll a dice and receive a penny for the number of the throw. That’s fair enough. But then they must choose from a stack of either white or black cards, depending on the color of their bean. The cards represent actual housing policies. Here are some examples:
WHITE CARD: Congratulations! Your father received a GI Bill, a loan program initiated in 1944. He bought a nice home in the suburbs. This helped your family to do well. (Around 98% of recipients of this loan were white.) Collect $300.
BLACK CARD: After a seven year wait, you receive a Section 8 Housing Voucher enabling you to pay only a third of your income on rent, but unfortunately (like around 50% of recipients of voucher) you can’t find a landlord willing to accept this voucher within the require time limit and you lose your voucher and go back on the waiting list. Forfeit $200.
In 2017, the LA county waiting list for the voucher program was estimated to have an 11-year wait time, and there were about 40,000 Angelenos on the waiting list, which was closed to new names since 2009. The situation has worsened since then. In Pasadena, there are approximately 22,000 people on the waiting list, with 1400 vouchers circulating, 1350 in use, and only 50 available.
WHITE CARD: You live in a town with very few poor people or people of color. Your property values rise! Receive $500.
In the 1990s new suburban towns across the US incorporated to prevent low-income Section 8 voucher holders to “encroach.” These new cities prevented multifamily zoning and ensured large lots sizes. They were typically over 90% white with very low poverty rates. Many LA and Orange County cities were formed for these same reasons.
BLACK CARD: A freeway runs through your neighborhood, your community is destroyed and you lose your home through eminent domain. You aren’t given enough compensation to buy a new home and you become a renter. Forfeit $400.
This is exactly what happened in Pasadena when the 210 Freeway cut through and destroyed a thriving African American business district. Homeowners were not given enough compensation to purchase homes in the city so many were forced to move.
As you play this game, you realize that the real estate game is rigged against people of color. (No surprise if you happen to be a person of color!) Housing injustice is a major reason for the income disparity between whites and blacks. The game helps you to experience what it feels like to be discriminated against, or privileged.
We also teach people how to organize for housing justice using faith-based methods similar to those of FCNL. The secret of good organizing is that we are not just trying to pass good policies and win victories, we are also striving to empower those who are marginalized and build long-term relationships with those in power.
Our goal is systemic change. Feeding programs and shelters are fine stop gaps, but as a homeless woman told me, “I like it when people make me sandwiches, but I’d rather make my own sandwich in my own apartment.”
What ends chronic homelessness is permanent supportive housing (PSH). Those experiencing homelessness are sent not to a temporary shelter, but to permanent housing where they feel secure and can receive the services they need to thrive. Over 90% of those housed in PSH stay housed after three or more years. Marv’s place is a stellar example of PSH in Pasadena. Nineteen formerly homeless families live in this beautiful Mediterranean style apartment complex and all now have jobs and/or are attending college.
We work with and not just for our homeless neighbors, including those whose lives have been transformed by PSH. Those who have experienced homelessness are often the best advocates.
The need for housing and housing justice will no doubt intensify during this Covid 19 crisis. Many will face eviction and homelessness will dramatically increase unless we enact policies to prevent this from happening.
We Quakers have played an important role in addressing housing injustice in the past (among other things, we started Self-Help Enterprises, which became the inspiration for Habitat.) Today Orange Grove Meeting has become a center for housing justice in our city, and I’d like to see other Quaker meetings play a similar role. That’s why I have partnered with Western Friend to host a webinar called “Loving Your Neighborhood” on Thursday, August 6, at 7 pm. Together we’ll learn what Friends have done, and what we can do now, to address the homelessness and affordable housing crisis during this time of pandemic. This is not the time to hide what we know under a bushel. Let’s proclaim the good news from the rooftops: we know what it takes to end homelessness and poverty. Let’s work together to make ending homelessness and poverty a reality!
Anthony is a member of Orange Grove Meeting and former editor of Western Friend. The author and editor of numerous books and pamphlets (including Relics of America: the Fall of the American Empire, Transformative Quakers, Howard and Anna Brinton: Reinventors of Quakerism in the 20th Century, Interfaith Peacemaking, Western Quaker Reader, etc.) he serves on the Board of FCNL and Interfaith Communities Uniting for Justice and Peace. He is co-founder of Making Housing and Community Happen. If you’d like to become involved in peace or housing justice activism, contact Anthony at email@example.com. For more info, see makinghousinghappen.org and laquaker.blogspot.com. We are promoting affordable housing on many different fronts: inclusionary zoning, Safe Parking, Accessory Dwelling Units, converting motels to homeless housing, as well as building affordable housing on church land.