Speaking up for public housing

Jay Arena, an organizer of the "People's Conference on the Fight for Jobs, Peace, Equality and Justice" at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., on October 19, discusses the ongoing attacks on public housing by the Obama administration and the struggle to stop them.

Housing rights activists build solidarity from New York to New Orleans (A. Golden)Housing rights activists build solidarity from New York to New Orleans (A. Golden)

EIGHT YEARS after Hurricane Katrina, the assault on working-class communities in New Orleans continues--only now it is Barack Obama, rather than George W. Bush, leading the charge.

The demolition of the city's last traditional public housing development is part of an accelerating privatization agenda across the country against not only public housing, but all public services serving the 99 Percent. Only by getting out of our "silos" and uniting our movements to demand a mass, direct government-employment public works program can we ever hope to not only save the remaining public services we have, but win the expansion of public housing and other jobs and services we so desperately need.

The October 19 "People's Fight Back Conference" in Newark, N.J., represents an important step in building that kind of movement, and should be supported and emulated across the country.

On September 10, the Obama administration-controlled New Orleans Housing Authority gave the green light for bulldozers to begin demolishing the 75 beautiful, sturdy, red-brick, two- and three-story buildings that make up the city's Iberville public housing development, located just outside the city's famed French Quarter and Treme neighborhoods.

The destruction comes in the face of a severe lack of affordable housing, with a recent study finding that 54 percent of the city's renters (60 percent of all households) are "rent burdened"--that is, paying more than 30 percent of their income for rent. The high rents have blocked many former residents from returning to a city whose population has shrunk by nearly 100,000 since Katrina.

What you can do

For information on the "People's Conference on the Fight for Jobs, Peace, Equality and Justice,” call 504-520-9521, e-mail jarenanynola@gmaiil.com or visit http://www.njmay1.org.

Iberville and its over 800 apartments was the one development that George Bush and his administration--which demolished some 5,000 badly needed public housing apartments after Katrina, in flagrant violation of international human rights treaties--was not able to get rid of. But just as with the expanded assault on the city's public schools and public hospital, Obama has been able to push a racist, anti-working class, privatization agenda farther than even is criminal predecessor.

In New York City, the vultures of banking and real estate are beginning to circle the country's largest public housing system, which encompasses some 175,000 apartments and over 500,000 low-income residents (with another half million on the waiting list). Billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg and John Rhea, the former Barclay's banking executive who now runs New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), are using the Obama administration's "sequester" cuts and damage caused by Hurricane Sandy as a pretext to roll out a scheme to build high-rise luxury apartments on what little green space residents enjoy.

At the national level, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently launched its "Rental Assistance Demolition" (RAD) program that allows banks to invest in public housing developments. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan justifies the sell-off with the big lie that "there is no money" in Washington to reconstruct the country's deteriorating public housing stock since.

This "realism" has been accepted by several non-profit activist groups that negotiated with HUD over the details of the RAD program. At a recent radical planner's conference held in Brooklyn, these non-profit officials justified their collaboration arguing that "if we didn't engage HUD in negotiations," it would have been a lot worse. "It looks somewhat human" one representative emphasized, "because of our intervention."

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THE BIPARTISAN attack on public housing over the last 30 years and its acceleration under the Obama administration is not isolated event, but is part of broader attack on the public sector that serves the working class. Indeed, under Obama, everything, from Social Security, to Medicare, public schools and even the post office are now on the auction block.

The typical response to this assault has been to "be realistic" and negotiate the cuts being imposed, as we saw with RAD. In fact, over the last two decades resident leaders and advocates have followed this strategy, arguing "there is no alternative" but to negotiate and help oversee "HOPE VI" redevelopment schemes, or now, the new "Choice Neighborhoods" program, which amounts to old wine in new bottles. The disastrous situation we find ourselves has been the result.

Instead of cooperating with the cuts, those defending public services need to fight for what we want, rather than what our "friends" in the Democratic Party, trade union bureaucracy and non-profit/foundation world say is acceptable.

We should reach out to other anti-privatization, peace, student, immigrant, prison-industrial complex and other activists and movements to demand "Jobs for all, free public services for all," through a new, mass, direct-government-employment public works programs to develop free, quality, public services for all--from public housing, to schools, hospitals, to a massively expanded public arts initiative and the creation of a safe, affordable, clean energy source.

This type of demand moves us out of our "silos," out of our single-issue campaigns, to build the power, a movement of millions that will be needed to win.

Being bold and fighting for what we want has shown results globally. Recent victories in Quebec, Canada and Brazil have been achieved by fighting for free public services for all and forging a broad working-class fight back to win their demands. We should follow their example.

This organizing philosophy--that we are stronger raising a demand and building a movement that addresses the needs and concerns of a large swath of the 99 Percent--is represented in the October 19 People's Fight Back conference to be held at Rutgers University in Newark.

Various community and labor organizations from the region and beyond will be coming together to debate and vote on some broad demands that we can agree on. In the afternoon session we will discuss what actions we can take together to win them. One of the major demands to be discussed will be "Jobs for all, free public services for all."

I want to invite you to this conference. I also encourage folks around the country to hold their own city and regional conferences, and form "Jobs for all, free public services for all" committees in your city. United we stand, divided we fall.