“As an AmeriCorps VISTA Community Organizer at the Tenants Union of Washington, the housing crisis in Seattle is at the forefront of every day.”

This is a guest blog post from VISTA Affordable Housing Preservation Project (VAHPP) Community Organizer, Amy Tower (’16), of Tenants Union of Washington in Seattle, Washington.

I have spent my entire life in Seattle, growing up in the greenery and under-appreciating the mountain vistas that miraculously appear on clear days. I grew up riding the 48 bus from the University District into the Mount Baker neighborhood, traveling from my parents’ home in Wallingford to school in the Central District. The evergreen trees remain the same, but the neighborhoods have begun to change: an army of cranes stand over sites of demolished bungalows, ready to construct glass-walled condos alongside rows of rectangular townhomes. Demolition and construction of new market-rate complexes has begun in neighborhoods like Yesler Terrace, just up the hill from the center of downtown. The former site of the first racially integrated public housing development in the United States, constructed in 1941, is slated to become new and improved “mixed use” apartments with ground-level retail opportunities.

The construction of new homes throughout the city follows a shift in Seattle’s demographics. The recent surges in new employees of major corporations has displaced many of the residents who had been historically redlined into racial enclaves in the 20th century. In 1970, the population of the Central District, for example, was 73% black. In the 2010 census, that percentage declined to 23%. Wealthier, whiter people have been moving into the city center in waves of gentrification, similar to other major cities in the United States. Along with this gentrification, the rents have been rising at rates that the majority of non-millionaires cannot afford.

I didn’t understand much about the history of public housing in the United States until I came to the Tenants Union. I knew that in 2015, our mayor declared a “State of Emergency” in Seattle regarding the homelessness crisis, and I was beginning to better understand its connection to the overarching crisis of housing insecurity across the city. I have listened to tenants describe their experiences of abrupt economic displacement, and their inability to find affordable places to live within the city limits. More and more people are being pushed out of the city, further away from their jobs and communities. Many of the once-affordable housing options are being torn down along the new rapid transit line, as developers see an opportunity to profit – and as a result, residents who have lived in the area for decades are forced to move.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA Community Organizer at the Tenants Union of Washington, the housing crisis in Seattle is at the forefront of every day. It is not limited to Seattle alone: tenants are afraid of losing their homes across the state. In particular, residents who are interested in organizing and live in subsidized public housing fear retaliation and eviction from their landlords, as well as the resulting threat of homelessness. One of the biggest hurdles facing tenants is the real threat of ending up without shelter. This makes for a challenging environment for tenant organizing, though there are tenant leaders who have continued to work with their neighbors in their buildings for years. I have recently gathered a group of tenants who live in subsidized housing for seniors and disabled people, who are interested in bringing more visibility to the struggles they face. We are organizing with groups at the city and county levels who will be able to bring together more necessary resources like dispute resolution and mediation, support for formerly homeless tenants transitioning into permanent housing, and food insecurity for folks on a limited income. These tenants are coming together as elders facing common challenges in this stage of their lives, and working together to advocate for all seniors in subsidized housing.

The Tenants Union of Washington is approaching its 40-year anniversary this year. Our team has been strategizing about how to best equip tenants for the immediate crises they face, while also advocating for change on a systemic level. Housing is at the center of many intersecting issues: job opportunities, mental and physical health, and community support, as well as questions like, “Who belongs here?” and, “Why have our systems discriminated against some, and not others?” I have been honored to work with a team of passionate and dedicated people, full of heart and concern for their neighbors. We have all been thinking about how to work together with other organizations and justice movements to strengthen our empowerment models and advocacy opportunities, which will ultimately improve our community for everyone.

I am committed to what will be our collective, lifelong group effort in brainstorming how to face these challenges together. My work, particularly with seniors facing housing insecurity in project-based Section 8 buildings, has convinced me of the necessity of this work. I will be headed to law school in the fall of 2018 with a strong desire to continue learning about the ways in which I can effectively contribute, looking for academic and clinical opportunities in housing justice. It will take all of our diverse skills, talents, and insights to craft a system that will allow us all to flourish and live our best lives.

This is a guest blog post from VAHPP Community Organizer Cherai Mills (’16), of Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

What My Host Site Does:

My name is Cherai Mills and I am an AmeriCorps VISTA Community Organizer with the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants (MAHT) in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. I help to organize, train, and provide technical assistance to tenant groups in Eastern and Central Massachusetts living in privately owned, HUD-subsidized multifamily housing, whose contracts expire within the next five years. MAHT’s mission is to “preserve and improve at-risk HUD buildings as permanently affordable housing with a maximum of resident participation, ownership and control.” When an opportunity to engage a new building arises, my fellow VISTA and I work from the ground up by knocking on doors, explaining our mission, and listening to tenants’ concerns. Next, we organize a meeting with tenants to get a broader sense of their issues. It is great when tenants want to take control of the meetings, as that is the ultimate goal. We hope to empower tenants to become educated so that they may voice their concerns, and work through them together with the building’s owner.

Why I Joined AmeriCorps:

During high school, all students were required to complete 140 hours of community service in order to graduate. As soon as I started, I fell in love with volunteering. I mostly served within my town, aside from a special volunteer opportunity with City Year for Kids. During a school vacation, I helped to provide activities to kids who would otherwise have nowhere to go while their parents were at work. This experience got me interested in AmeriCorps and its work. I continued to volunteer after graduating high school, and heard great stories about AmeriCorps. Sadly, I never got the opportunity to get into City Year, as I waited too long and was no longer eligible. Luckily I am connected to many people through my current volunteer work, and while searching for a new job, someone told me that my current organization was hiring. At first, I did not know the position was through AmeriCorps VISTA, but once I found out I was even more excited to join. I was more than happy to quit two jobs to do something more meaningful.

Success Story:

One big project early on was organizing the annual holiday party, which is a chance for tenants, MAHT members, and MAHT supporters to come together and celebrate the year’s achievements. Along with MAHT’s Director, the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT)’s Assistant Director, and MAHT board members, my fellow VISTA and I jumped right in to planning the event. From organizing mailing lists to calling donors and funders, there was a lot to do. I also got the opportunity to help create the annual newsletter, which is a chance to highlight important events and victories from the last year. In the end, sixty-two guests attended the party, and among the attendees were 51 tenants from tenant associations that MAHT helped to organize. Several tenants delivered speeches about their experiences as leaders of tenant associations, including successful strategies and the challenges they faced. It was great to connect with tenants and supporters during our year of service. Being able to jump right into a big project early on in my time as a VISTA helped me to learn more about MAHT and the success it has had in the past with organizing.

This is a guest blog post from VAHPP Community Organizer Ivie Bien-Aime (’17), of Tenants and Neighbors in New York, NY.

I joined the AmeriCorps VISTA program to make a difference, give back to my community, and reignite the passion I had lost after years of feeling stuck in an unhappy workplace. There I was, 49 years old, a college graduate with good job skills, ten years into a career field I loved yet frustrated with the environment. So what did I do? I quit!

Quitting my job was not a very good decision in today’s job market. Still, I forged ahead and immediately put myself back on the job market. It didn’t take long for me to realized that a part of me didn’t feel grounded enough to commit to another “job.” I wanted more than just another job — I needed a mission!

Helping others has always been integral to my career choices. I came across a posting for a tenant organizing position as an AmeriCorps VISTA, serving with Tenants and Neighbors (T&N). T&N is nonprofit grassroots organization that helps tenants build and effectively wield their power to preserve at-risk affordable housing and strengthen tenants’ right in New York. T&N works at both the individual building and the system level. When T&N learns that a building is at risk of being converted to market-rate housing, they help the tenants in the building form a tenant association, and provide them with the organizing support, leadership development, training, technical assistance, and advocacy they need in order to work to keep their building affordable. T&N educates the tenants about the systems that are facilitating the loss of affordable housing, and helps them develop campaigns to effect change at the policy and legislative level.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA Community Organizer, I have pledged a one year commitment to work on the VISTA Affordable Housing Preservation Project (VAHPP). My position and this project is sponsored through Equal Justice Works and its unique partnership with the National Alliance for HUD Tenants. The goal of the project is to build the capacity of tenant associations in eligible Project-based Section 8 Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) assisted properties to increase tenants’ knowledge of their rights, responsibilities, and options for preserving their homes and improving their communities. The project’s goals are so aligned to my passion and personal beliefs regarding the crisis of housing insecurity in the United States – I believe that all families should have the right to affordable, safe, and secure homes and neighborhoods. Therefore, I take my role as a VISTA Member seriously, including the oath and pledge of national service, as well as adhering to the activities prohibited by AmeriCorps.

My own background and experience of living in poverty as a single mother, and nearly a lifetime as an undocumented immigrant, fuels my compassion for all those who live paycheck to paycheck. I know so well the enormous challenge of living affordably in New York. Fortunately, I have gained some success and was able to navigate through structures that seem to oppose progress with a lot of help from community advocates and grassroots organizations such as Tenants & Neighbors. Today, it seems that being willing and able to work or having a job does not guarantee the security of having a home or living in a safe community. The homelessness and housing affordability crisis is the face of poverty. Every day thousands of New York families, including infants and the elderly, face eviction because they simply can’t afford their rent. Gentrification and tenant displacement has wreaked havoc on communities of color. Homelessness in New York City is at an all time high, with over 45,000 children in the shelter system. Homelessness is a national crisis, and I want to be a voice for the voiceless. As a naturalized citizen, woman of color, proud American, and a Community Organizer with a background working with families and children, my role as an AmeriCorps VISTA is very special. It provides me the mission to be of service, and I am glad to be able to make this one-year commitment to work on this national project to help preserve affordable housing for eligible families.