Organizing works in Holyoke

September 5, 2012

David Wood and Jessica Dow report on how public housing residents in a Massachusetts city organized and fought back against a threat to their homes.

ALTHOUGH THE small Puerto Rican club Salsarengue in Holyoke, Mass., is normally quiet on a Wednesday night, it came alive on August 29 with dancing, raised fists and chants of "¡Que viva Lyman Terrace!"

More than 20 tenants from the nearby public housing project, along with their allies, had gathered here to celebrate an important victory after a summer-long fight against the Holyoke Housing Authority (HHA). The HHA has put forward plans to demolish Lyman Terrace and sell the land off to private developers. While the agency has yet to withdraw this plan, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse rescinded his support for demolition in response to tenant pressure.

This is a major victory for over 400 residents, the majority of them Latino, who call this project home. For them, the thought of future eviction and the uncertain housing prospects that follow never strayed far from their minds.

Miguel Nieves is one of the tenants fighting to save Lyman Terrace. His story resembles that of many neighbors.

Two years ago, as the jobs crisis deepened, Miguel was laid off from Berry Plastics, where he worked as a printing technician. He got a job at McDonald's, but soon his hours were cut. Squeezed for rent, he and his wife Yaritza applied for public housing and came to live in Lyman, along with their two young sons. As Miguel explained:

Residents of Lyman Terrace celebrate the mayor's retreat on demolishing their housing project
Residents of Lyman Terrace celebrate the mayor's retreat on demolishing their housing project (Que Viva Lyman Terrace)

Public housing is key for so many low-income people. A lot of workers, like myself, lost our jobs after the economy crashed. I know many others who can't find steady work because they have bad records. We already struggle to survive in this world--prices on everything go up, and minimum wage stays the same.

Public housing is a benefit that gives us a chance to move upward. With the HHA trying to tear Lyman Terrace down, I could lose this chance. We definitely need another system--not one that pushes the poor down and the rich up.

Local activist James F.V. Bickford pointed out that tenants are facing eviction and demolition at exactly the time people need assistance the most. As Bickford said:

The fifth-oldest public housing project in the U.S., made up of 167 homes, is about to be demolished to make way for private development. Disabled, unemployed, working poor and their families, many elderly and children, are to be evicted while nearly 1,300 other families in the state are currently living in hotels and shelters.

WITH ATTACKS on public services intensifying, it's all the more impressive to see a victory for the tenants. They showed that governments will pull public services off the chopping block when faced by strong community resistance.

This is a lesson being learned countrywide. Earlier in August, more than 200 residents from the Chicago area held a meeting to protest similar demolition plans by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). The CHA's "Plans for Transformation" are essentially a scheme to tear down the city's traditional housing projects and replace them with "mixed-income" developments. Earlier this summer, Holyoke's Mayor Morse likewise supported a "mixed-income replacement to Lyman Terrace."

But as in Chicago, Holyoke residents came to see their community's future as tied to their ability to unite, organize and resist. A month ago, Miguel and fellow tenants came together to form a Residents Council. They created bylaws, elected tenant leaders and began holding regular meetings.

In this way, tenants voted and set the direction of their fight against demolition. This shows the great promise of the council as a base from which to launch activism and a place where tenants can collectively assess and plan their defense against the HHA. Forming the council also gave the tenants more control over their movement. Outside organizations and community allies looking to help now do so through presenting their ideas to the council, where they are discussed and voted on.

Tenants also held two important protests this summer. While small in numbers--each were around 20 people--the demonstrations gained valuable attention and helped shift public debate in favor of tenants.

The first protest was held at the Puerto Rican Day parade on July 15. Tenants and allies chanted at marching politicians and raised signs that read, "HHA is a slumlord!" The second protest took place at the annual Holyoke Latino/a Chamber of Commerce (HLCC) picnic on August 15, where tenants sought to push the HLCC, which had remained silent on the issue, into publicly opposing demolition.

Some community voices outside the tenants, including those who were anti-demolition, opposed this second action, fearing it would alienate potential allies. However, the tenants proved correct in their strategy.

At the picnic, Resident Council President Sonia Gonzalez solicited from the HLCC a public letter opposing demolition. Tenants called out local politicians as they walked into the picnic and used the day for informational picketing with flyers and petitions. Although protesters were originally kicked out of the park where the picnic took place, they re-entered in pairs, handed out leaflets and encouraged people to join them on the sidewalk where others had relocated.

The tenants' ability to confront the arguments of city politicians and the HHA with a united voice undoubtedly swayed Morse to think twice about positioning himself against Lyman Terrace.

Before the tenants organized opposition to the demolition, the city and the HHA were able to frame public debate. For example, earlier this summer, Morse wrote in a public letter that he supported demolition because he believed in "rejecting housing systems that, by design, keep generations of families in one place, and in poverty." Morse was essentially using the old "poverty breeds poverty" argument to justify demolition and gentrification. This, of course, ignores the true factors leading to poverty and unequal housing, like unemployment, racism and limited access to public services.

It's important to remember that Morse didn't break from his stance out of benevolence, but did so only when faced by a strengthening Residents Council, protests and also anti-discrimination lawsuits filed on behalf of six tenants. Thus, his tune changed, Morse wrote in a more recent letter:

The shortcomings of this process have awoken genuine concern, fear and resentment among many in the community. Considering the longstanding neglect of Lyman Terrace at the local level, such reactions are perfectly understandable. Furthermore, equating urban renewal with urban removal has been a widely practiced strategy across our country; and, as such, skepticism of our own project is warranted.

HEARING MORSE admit fault in the "process" and shifting his support away from demolition is a great relief to tenants and a testament to their hard work and resistance. But while celebrating this important victory, we shouldn't view it as the end of fight.

Although Morse has changed his stance, the HHA has yet to withdraw its plans for demolition. Furthermore, for decades, the HHA has neglected the conditions of Lyman Terrace, and it continues to do so. As property managers, the HHA is responsible for following through on necessary repairs and renovations. It is unlikely that demolition will be stopped or housing conditions improved without continued community pressure.

As tenant Marcella Jayne put it:

Yes, I was ecstatic to read Morse's recent letter, recanting his previous position, but this does not connote an "end-all" victory to me, and let's remember election time is coming up. If we can all agree that our collective efforts helped push the mayor to change his stance, then it is reasonable to assume that he wouldn't have come to the conclusions outlined in his letter on his own.

My message to tenants and allies is not to commence "knee-jerk" praise of the mayor for doing what he should have done, but rather to acknowledge it for what is was--a step in the right direction.

As James Bickford said, Lyman Terrace is the fifth-oldest public housing project in the U.S. today. It was built in 1939 as part of the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Strangely, Morse invoked this historical significance in his previous letter arguing for demolishing the project. "Roosevelt's commitment, though, was not to one piece of property, but to the spirit of progress and justice," Morse wrote. "His task, first and foremost, was to meet the challenges of his time."

Well, the commitment of tenants today is to one piece of property. Having a decent roof to sleep under is not a luxury, but a basic need, no different than needing water to drink or food to eat. Access to housing should be a right without question, especially in today's society of unprecedented abundance where over 18 million U.S. homes remain vacant. The tenants of Lyman Terrace have brought this struggle into the spotlight in Holyoke, and their victory this month is a testament to their resistance and solidarity. ¡Que viva Lyman Terrace!

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