By Sunni Hutton, Community Development Manager at Dutchtown South Community Corporation
This column was originally published in The St. Louis American.
Just a few miles from the shadows of cranes erecting luxury apartments and tax-financed commercialexpansion along St. Louis’ central corridor, the illusion of equitable development quickly evaporates.
It is painfully obvious to tenants throughout the metro area, struggling to find healthy, well-maintained, and affordable homes, that our interests are shared by few. Profit-driven markets provide no motivation to deliver housing for all who need it. Decades of disinvestment in housing justice prove that local, state and federal institutions lack the will to boldly address the housing crisis.
The report “Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide” states that the injustices we see are particularly along racial lines with decades of racist housing policies. But we also know that we possess the power to change them.
That power is called tenant organizing. Homes For All, a national alliance of affected people for housing justice, defines a tenant or renter, terms we use interchangeably, as someone paying rent or seeking to pay rent but without the resources to do so. This definition includes low-income homeowners, mobile home park residents, public housing residents, the homeless, and squatters.
Tenants are directly affected by poor living conditions, rent increases, and the pressures of gentrification that lead to displacement. Standing together, we can combat these issues: Uniting against landlords or developers around properties and neighborhoods builds our power. An organized tenant union allows for independent and democratic decision-making, planning, and implementation of policy, based on a community—not a boardroom or bank account.
In late July, tenants across the St. Louis region, from Ferguson to South City, gathered at the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being and declared, “Housing is a human right.” Five months before this mass meeting, 40 tenants (mostly renters) gathered in a South Side learning center to voice their grievances about housing conditions. Twenty three days before, tenants of the Clinton-Peabody public housing complex held a public demonstration for better living conditions.
From next door to next neighborhood to adjacent county, tenants are exercising their power and activating their neighbors to amplify their impact in their houses, the state houses and courthouses.
Tenant organizing has played an important role in St. Louis’ history and helped shape today’s federal housing laws. In 1969, public housing tenants staged the nation’s first public housing rent strike, lasting nine months. Fighting back against unsafe housing conditions and increasing rental rates, tenants withheld $600,000 in rent from the St. Louis Housing Authority, nearly causing it to go bankrupt. This strike in St. Louis resulted in the passage of the Brooke Amendment, which set public housing rents to be no more than 30 percent of individual income.
Today, organizations and activists in housing justice, constrained by the capacities of liberal reform, now proclaim their belief that the leadership of impacted people move movements. Guided by this ideal, Homes For All St. Louis was started by South City renters and low-income homeowners of Dutchtown South Community Corporation’s Community Empowerment Committee. They echoed concerns of neglected pest and maintenance issues, unresponsive landlords and a lack of enforcement from municipal departments.
Homes For All St. Louis’ alliance of tenant unions set goals to enforce current tenant protections, one slumlord at a time, whether they be St. Louis Redevelopment Co. or Rutherford Group, and to reinforce municipal departments’ obligations to their most vulnerable populations.
Homes For All St. Louis organizes with these values to transform the St. Louis region:
Housing is a human right. It should be built and maintained to meet the needs of communities, not to create profit for corporations or white suburbanites who have benefited from historically racist policies and who built their wealth off the backs of renters by extracting wealth from urban communities.
The people most impacted must lead. This includes low-income and working class communities, black, indigenous, Latinx and Asian communities, women and LGBTQ communities who experience the impacts of the crisis first hand.
Land and housing should be collectively-controlled by communities and sustained for future generations through democratic processes and stewardship.
United with renters, low-income homeowners, homeless individuals, activists, social service providers, and housing justice advocates, this movement shouts out, “Housing is a human right!” and upholds that tenants possess the power to make that proclamation so. Interested in hearing more? Email us at email@example.com.
Sunni Hutton is the community development manager at Dutchtown South Community Corporation, whose Community Empowerment Committee launched the Homes For All St. Louis campaign.
Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at firstname.lastname@example.org.