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We Will Not Rest Until Housing Justice Is Done

For too long, big banks and the one percent have built fortunes on the backs of low-income tenants

Ashley Bennett (center left) and other People’s Action leaders at the office of Sen. Elizabeth Warren in December, 2018. (Photo credit: People’s Action)

Ashley Bennett (center left) and other People’s Action leaders at the office of Sen. Elizabeth Warren in December, 2018. (Photo credit: People’s Action)

On Wednesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a historic housing bill, the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act. This bill is an important step forward in our fight to guarantee housing for all, and to close the wealth gap between Black and white Americans.

I have been homeless myself, and experienced housing instability my whole life.  Together with other People’s Action members from around the country who are directly affected by our nation’s housing emergency, I met with Senator Warren’s team on Capitol Hill last December to discuss this bill.  We liked what we heard, but there were certain parts of the legislation we definitely wanted to improve.

We shared our stories, gave feedback to the Senator’s team, and have worked with them for three months to improve this bill, which she first introduced last Fall. The version Senator Warren introduced yesterday includes important changes, and is revitalized with the support of Congressional Black Caucus and the outspoken progressives who took the House back for Democrats in November’s elections.

This new version reflects what’s possible when grassroots leaders like us get to be at the table, and participate in the creation of policy that impacts our lives.

I live in Los Angeles, and was homeless for two years as a child, starting at age six, when my mom sought to escape domestic violence. We lived out of a car, because my mom and I had nowhere to go. We had nobody to help us, and we didn’t know about resources that might have been available.

It was so hard getting into shelters. We got in twice, then had to leave because it felt unsafe. It was so painful to see my mom at gas stations asking people for help, just so we could have a roof over our heads.  We ultimately had to go back to live with my dad, because we didn’t have anywhere else to go.

My mom finally divorced my dad, but the divorce was expensive and cost her the house we had been living in. I had to find her a room with my friend’s mother. She and my little sister are still technically homeless.

My dad, a Black man, grew up with housing insecurity because of his race in a low-income family, in LA’s Compton neighborhood. Later in life, he changed his last name and downplayed his blackness so he could get a job and housing.

It’s clear to me that the oppression my dad felt on the basis of his race was in part a product of decades of racist housing policies. These are directly connected to both the instability we experienced, and his abuse of power in our family. They led to the violence that made me homeless as a six-year-old, something no child should ever experience.

My brother has been in and out of prison since he was eighteen. He has two kids, and lives in a horrible cycle of getting out, not being able to find housing or work, and ending up back behind bars. Because of how hard it is for him to find housing as a Black man who has been incarcerated, it has at times felt easier for him to just go back to prison.

When I met with Senator Warren’s team, I told them I was counting on them to break this cycle. I needed them to introduce the first step towards repairing America’s history of racial injustice in housing. I specifically asked them to institute principal reduction for families still underwater due to the 2008 financial meltdown, to help Black and brown families first, and to direct at least $2 trillion in zero-interest grants and affordable loans to these households over the next decade.

Senator Warren’s new bill doesn’t address all of our concerns, but it is an important step towards repairing America’s enduring history of racist housing policy, through targeted assistance to redlined communities and those who still haven’t recovered from the 2008 crash, most of them people of color.

The price tag on Senator Warren’s housing bill is $999 billion. That may sound like a lot, but after decades of Band-Aids and underfunding from the federal government, we at People’s Action are encouraged to see a bill that begins to address the scale of America’s housing emergency.

Workers spend most of their income on housing, and tens of millions of people spend more than half of what they earn on their rent. This crisis won’t be solved by nickels and dimes.

Budgeting such an investment for a range of housing programs is a good start – and we hope that it will lead to other major structural change, like the construction of millions of new public or social housing units.

For too long, big banks and the one percent have built fortunes on the backs of low-income tenants. Senator Warren’s bill, paid for by reformed estate tax and strengthened Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) measures, is a strong move toward justice for people who have been exploited for generations by those who treat housing as a commodity, not a right.

We thank Senator Warren for listening to us, and for being a clear and insistent voice for housing justice in this country. And like her, we will not rest until justice is done.

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Ashley Bennett

Ashley Bennett is the cofounder of GroundGame LA and a leader with People Organized for Westside Renewal (POWER), part of the People's Action network of grassroots groups.

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