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by Jeremy Prickett
Friday, Aug. 20, 2004 at 4:47 PM
Fighting to win, section 8 tenants halt federal government and local politician's efforts to cut their housing subsidies.
Campaign For Renters Rights Has Major Housing Victory
Direct Action Saves 238 Section 8 vouchers
by Jeremy Prickett
Campaign for Renters’ Rights and Labor’s Militant Voice
“The Housing Authority dropped a bomb on us. They told us our housing was to be ‘terminated’. They issued us vouchers for selected areas that were supposedly absorbing us. We found out that they were not. We were stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was either fight to stay here, or be ass out- kicked out, evicted, homeless. The only logical answer for me was to fight, so that’s what I did.” Sheila, a single mother, who works full time in an office by day and as a student by night.
On June 5, 2004 the Housing Authority of the City of Alameda sent termination notices to 238 Section 8 Housing Assistance Program recipients. This would mean eviction when July rents came due. The federal funds for the program had been cut. For the nation’s poor, the escalating cost of “War on Terrorism” would mean the terrorism of homelessness. Alphonso Jackson, the new H.U.D. Secretary, stated in a May congressional hearing, “Being poor is a state of mind, not a condition.” Alameda was the first local Housing Authority to enforce this cut.
Alameda is a quiet community on an island, just across from Oakland, CA. Malika moved to Alameda for the sake of her two young children. Malika had joined the Campaign for Renters’ Rights when she was eighteen years old. She had stopped several unfair eviction attempts by her Oakland slumlord with the help of the CRR and its Direct Action tactics.
When Malika received her termination letter, she, called the CRR. An emergency meeting of tenants and CRR activists was held in their apartment complex on June 12th. The struggle to stop the 238 voucher cuts by July 1st began that day. Hundreds of flyers were distributed door to door in the working class housing complexes concentrated in Alameda west end. On Monday, we managed to flyer the inside of a special Housing Authority meeting where transfer vouchers were being issued. Our original flyer called on tenants to rally in front of City Hall on Tuesday June 15th and confront the City Council meeting.
About forty tenants responded to the flyer and met outside of the city council meeting. The tenant and CRR activists had decided on a general strategy of pressuring the local politicians. Feds are not accessible. At this first rally, we announced that the city council and mayor would be held directly accountable. No cuts to Section 8 would be accepted. We will make our homes in City Hall if necessary, but not the streets. We will not accept their excuses or their polite rules of engagement. Our goal for the night was to make this clear.
This was first meeting of the City Council since the termination notices were sent. The Section 8 issue was not even on the formal agenda. Hundreds of local poor families were facing the streets in a matter of weeks, and these liberal officials were hoping they would go away quietly. The City Council emerged from their private chambers visibly horrified by the angry faces in the audience. The meeting was delayed for over an hour. The City Council went back to hide in their chambers and called in the Fire Marshall to assess “safety issues.” We finally heckled them enough to start the meeting.
A proclamation and a parking lot were discussed for over ninety minutes. When the mayor called for a recess, we had all had enough. We stood up and demanded the housing issue be addressed. The disruption forced the mayor to eventually concede and we agreed to all meet with the Housing Authority director and City Attorney in the recess.
The tenants tore into these officials. Michael Pucci, the HA director, stuck with his position: “There is nothing we can do. Nothing can be done.” The CRR sent a member into a meeting between Pucci and the local Section 8 landlords earlier that night. High vacancy rates meant that many landlords would consider rent reductions to keep subsidized tenants. Pucci had dismissed this possibility and was completely unprepared when we called him out. It would have been much easier for him to do nothing.
Anthony, a single father, was at the first City Council meeting action with his 17 year old son. He recalled that night, and why they became part of the core activist group:
“Mr. Pucci, the City Council, and the mayor, just wouldn’t address us until we shook them up. As far as writing to Diane Feinstein and all them up on Capitol Hill, I knew that wasn’t going to work. What it was going to take was us staying in Pucci’s face and the mayor’s face. I knew if we stay on them something was going to come out of this. That’s why I was with these protests, to save myself and my son. It worked and I raise my hands up to the CRR and the rest of the people that helped us.”
June 17th, a small rally was organized at the Housing Authority office. Kenija and Malika, and about 50 others, were scheduled to receive their transfer vouchers. Inside, the Housing Authority staff mocked resistance against the voucher cuts by telling the affected tenants inside to “shake your arms, jump around, and act like you’re all really mad.” Kenija came out infuriated. She set off the small crowd outside, chanting “No Justice, No Peace!” She ended a passionate speech against the cuts by vowing to stay and fight. She tore her transfer voucher to shreds.
June 18th was the next action. Our second flyer had called on tenants to meet at City Hall in the afternoon in order to confront the mayor. Over thirty tenants marched into City Hall, chanting loudly. Two police officers tried to allow only a few representatives into the mayor’s office, but were powerless to stop the entire angry crowd from jamming inside. We demanded a meeting the mayor or another official. The City Attorney’s office was quickly locked when we entered City Hall, and the mayor and other ranking officials had left earlier. We kept up the stubborn ruckus on general principle for about a half hour, and then proceeded with Plan B. As we left, the police sergeant told us it was the first time anyone had ever occupied the mayor of Alameda’s office.
The majority of the crowd caravanned to the back-up action. We had anticipated the city officials would be conviently away after seeing flyers announcing a confrontation at City Hall. Our caravan, plus four units of Alameda PD, arrived at the home of Michael Pucci. We felt the Housing Authority director needed some special attention. The crisis at hand was too serious for us to accept that “nothing can be done.” We drove this point home by picketing his house and marching and leafleting in his quiet neighborhood.
The next morning a handful of tenant and CRR activists picketed the Ron Goode Toyota dealership. This was to expose the City Council’s current million offer to expand the business in order to keep it in Alameda.
On June 21st, a delegation of Section 8 tenants and the CRR met with Pucci and his senior staff at the Housing Authority. His attitude had changed. After our house call, he was suddenly more cooperative. Pucci presented us a draft letter to all Section 8 landlords in Alameda. The rent reduction requests went out that day.
On June 25th, we gathered for a midday march through downtown Alameda. As we prepared to begin, Pucci drove up with a stack of press releases. Enough landlords had lowered Section 8 rents to restore 105 of the 238 terminated vouchers. This was a major morale boost and obvious confirmation that our struggle was working. We had no time to celebrate. Rent was due in six days for the 133 families at the bottom of the list.
Seventy tenants and CRR activists loudly took the streets of the main business district (against police orders) and marched to City Hall. The march raised the profile of the struggle. Immediately afterwards, half of us caravanned to the mayor’s exclusive Bay Farm neighborhood. We picketed her home and marched and leafleted through her wealthy neighborhood. The mayor needed to be reminded that she was accountable for actions of the local housing authority. With the actions, and inaction, of city officials still threatening to disrupt the lives of 133 poor families, we could not hesitate to disrupt the peace and quiet of the mayor’s life.
We received more good news on July 1st. The City Council and Housing Commission suddenly decided to hold a special joint meeting on the Section 8 crisis. The mayor started off by accusing “activists” of misleading tenants and the community to believe this crisis was the Alameda’s problem instead of a federal one. Tenant after tenant approached the podium to speak out against the cuts. Brenda put it best. She stopped the mayor from interrupting her by asking “how do you tell a homeless child this a federal problem?”
The council allocated city money to pay the July rent for all families whose vouchers were not yet restored. By this time, we had put out thousands of various flyers. Most of them had a box with the mayor’s phone number, urging the public to ask her why the city had million for a car dealer and nothing for poor families. The result of the meeting was, in the City Council’s own words, “unprecedented”. The council claimed no city had ever made up for a shortfall in the federal Section 8 budget. This temporary “unprecedented” relief was another important victory. Our struggle got a needed morale boost and 133 families kept their housing for another month.
We started distributing a flyer announcing the good news and our next move. “The Mayor’s Fourth of July Parade” is a major event in Alameda. We would use the event to expose the city officials. Concessions had been made, but a month of uncertainty was still wreaking havoc on the emotions of threatened families. Tenants were losing sleep and losing patience. The Alameda police contacted us after seeing our flyer about the parade. Our previous tactics caused them to worry we would disrupt the parade. We accepted their offer to waive the deadline and became an official contingent.
This was no ordinary holiday parade contingent. We chanted “No Justice, No Peace: Keep Our Families Off the Streets!” Our float was a pickup truck with “SAVE OUR HOMES” painted on 4’x8’ sheetrock mounted on both sides. Children facing eviction rode in the bed of the truck, taking turns on a bullhorn with an adult making short speeches. A formation of mothers with strollers marched in front of the float. In front of the strollers, Malika and Patricia carried a large banner, which read: “Welcome to Alameda, Where the Poor and Disabled are Made Homeless.”
Groups of tenant and CRR activists marched along both sides, handing out over 3,000 flyers. The crowd along the route was overwhelmingly supportive, except for in a few wealthy areas. The loudest support came from the working class crowd at the end of Webster Street, when the infuriated mayor was pointed out and criticized on her official grandstand. The bullhorn urged the crowd to “call her up and ask how to explain to a child made homeless that it’s a federal problem.”
The July 6th City Council had the Section 8 issue at the top of the agenda again. There was a noticeable lack of “federal problem” excuses from the mayor. A division was opening up on the City Council, with several members proposing a three-month city-funded rent relief to be voted on at the next meeting. Our position was this should be voted on immediately. A lot of people would lose a lot of sleep before July 20th. Another 17 vouchers had been saved, bringing the current total to 122. Partial and temporary solutions were not enough. We announced a July 20th Rally for the Children and repeated our demand that every voucher be restored.
We met again with Michael Pucci on July 14th. He had flown to Washington D.C. to meet with officials from H.U.D. and Congress. The feds had discovered a 0,000 “accounting error” in Alameda’s favor. He informed us this would be used to reinstate the rest of the terminated vouchers. We asked for this in writing. We were going ahead with Tuesday’s rally, but concrete information would obviously affect our message.
We were still waiting for the official statement on Sunday. We were going door to door through some of the west end public housing, and decided to flyer Pucci’s house and a few of the surrounding blocks for good measure. We had organized donated food, press releases, etc… We were prepared for a protest rally, but hoped for a victory rally. At 4:00, the afternoon of the rally, the formal press release arrived. We were able to tell the media the full story of the intense and emotional struggle, which shocked local and federal officials into “unconditional surrender” on this round of cuts.
Next year’s budget is still a serious concern. Severe cuts are expected across the country, including in Alameda. During the Alameda struggle, calls were already coming in from Section 8 tenants as far away as San Diego and Fort Lauderdale.
On July 22rd, the entire 615-unit Harbor Island Apartments complex received eviction notices. This complex on the Alameda west end is home to overwhelmingly low-income, working class families. 0,000 condos are going up across the street and the Florida slumlord owners want to gentrify. The CRR got another call and we’re back in action.
Alameda Section 8 Activist Testimonials
Interviews by Jeremy Prickett, Campaign for Renters’ Rights and Labor’s Militant Voice.
May be reproduced without permission.
I first met Campaign for Renters Rights and Labors Militant Voice members back in 1998. They helped me fight my eviction over there in Oakland, and I kinda got familiar with the tactics of how to get to landlords, how to get to politicians, not exactly using the liberal approach. Getting directly into their face.
There were a lot of lessons that were taught to me during those times. We successfully won 2 or 3 evictions against my landlord alone. From that time I was living comfortably on in Alameda.
My credit was not so good but I finally found a place on Section 8. Then in July we heard about the so-called Section 8 crisis. They talked about terminating a couple a hundred families. Well, that didn’t sit well with me, so I called on the CRR and members from Labors Militant Voice and asked if they would get on the case.
I rallied up with neighbors in my building, made flyers, went to different neighborhoods where we thought people were on Section 8 and out come this terrific union of smart, strong people willing to fight for what they believe in. At that first (council) meeting when they were telling us, “hey there’s nothing we can do for you.” A lot of the key people in this fight were there when you stood up and demanded that they talk to us. You showed a lot of people what we can do. From that day on it made a lot of people willing to fight.
With our hard work and efforts we obtained restoration of Section 8 vouchers for all the families. That was a good victory for me.
It was an emotional rollercoaster, but it has changed me. I saw what numbers can do, a group of people when they put their mind to it and they stick with it, and look forward to fighting in what they believe in… it can be done.
I would like to give a special thanks out to the CRR and Labors Militant Voice and the newly formed Section 8 union people, my newfound family.
“I got my section 8 in July of 2003. I was on the waiting list for about six years. It was very hard finding a place that would rent to section 8 then. I finally found a spot. Then, less then a year later, they sent a letter saying my voucher being terminated.
At that point, my neighbor Malika told me about the Campaign for Renters’ Rights. She said ‘I know some people who can help us fight.’ We began our crusade.
I was really feeling hopeful because of the support of my friend and neighbor who had worked with the CRR before. She told me you guys had been successful in helping her get some decisions rescinded in the past. I still wasn’t 100% sure it would work.
I didn’t want to write any letters to congress because I felt like it wouldn’t do anything. I lobbied on Capital Hill before. I met with Nancy Pelosi and other legislators in regards to other issues. I didn’t find that tactic to be effective.
The highlights were the marching and actually going to Michael Pucci’s house and the mayor’s house. This makes me feel like I can take action myself. Twenty or thirty people basically took on the government and won in about month. It showed me that I’m not powerless. I have a voice. If you fight hard enough and you’re right, you can do it.”
Anthony Jr. (17 years old)
“Last month everything started to go bad. I just got out of juvenile hall. I come home and me my dad were trying to start a new life together. I come home, and they are trying to put everyone out of their houses.
It’s kind of hard trying to start a new life when you come home to nothing. You come home to people being put out.
We received a letter telling us to go down to the Housing Authority. They were telling us about the budget. They didn’t have enough money to support the Alameda families in the section 8 program. People were at the Housing authority passing out flyers. We just decided to go to one (action). It was a good thing. I’m glad we did.
For me, fighting was a new experience. I got something out of it. I learned things.
Me and my dad, we never got a chance in a father-son relationship. We’re trying to build one now. We couldn’t really do that because this right here happened. It was hard, but we managed to pull through. That’s it really. It’s just hard.
I believe now I am going to fight to the fullest. I never thought we would win. I thought some people might get it back, and the rest would just have to leave, but we did it. We did it.
If something else ever happens like this, even though it might not be to me, I’ll be willing to fight for them. This is a lesson learned.”
“I was one of the 238 people getting terminated. When I went to the (Housing Authority) meeting, Jeremy came inside passing out flyers. I got one of the flyers. From then on, I was with the protest.
Mr. Pucci, the City Council, and the mayor, just wouldn’t address us until we shook them up. As far as writing to Diane Feinstein and all them up on Capitol Hill, I knew that wasn’t going to work. What it was going to take was us staying in Pucci’s face and the mayor’s face. I knew if we stay on them something was going to come out of this. That’s why I was with these protests, to save myself and my son. It worked and I raise my hands up to the CRR and the rest of the people that helped us.
For a minute I didn’t think it would win. As I kept going, I saw there was a chance that we would win. They had some real inspirational cats such as J, and the others, and also Malika and the other girls. I realized that I needed to stick with it.
This was my first protesting, rallying, or any kind of really standing for something. This time I see that it really works. I’d like to be involved with a few more. This world’s got a lot offer. We’re in a rich economy, a rich world. You just got to get out and get it. Just like I got off my butt to win my housing, I should be able to win a whole lot more. It’s little more sufficient when you fight together. Know what I mean, united we stand, divided we fall.”
“The Housing Authority dropped a bomb on us. They told us our housing was to be ‘terminated’. They issued us vouchers for selected areas that were supposedly absorbing us. We found out that they were not. We were stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was either fight to stay here, or be ass out- kicked out, evicted, homeless. The only logical answer for me was to fight, so that’s what I did.
Prior to hooking up with the CRR, I came from my meeting (at the Housing Authority) with a list of people who were willing to fight the issue. I had took down names and numbers at that meeting. One of the section 8 staff members said something about being proactive. I stood up and said ‘How’s this for being proactive? Hey, whoever’s down for having a protest, write your name and number and I’ll contact you.’
I decided we would have protest rally in front of City Hall a week from that day. I was making calls informing all the people when and where. When I made a particular call, someone said, ‘I heard about the rally, but I thought it was at another location.’ She said, ‘A gentleman named Rob called me.’ I said this must be another group. Sure enough, it ended up being the CRR and some other people on the section 8 program.
She gave me the number and I called Rob. He told me what they were doing. I told him what I was doing, and we went ahead with the rallies as planned. I was there with a few people that showed up, with the picket signs. I see Rob’s group marching down the street with their picket signs and bullhorns, and their pots and pans, kids- the whole entourage. We hooked up that day and we never quit after that.
I’ve become so much more aware of what’s going on in the world today. I’m looking at things from another perspective. I look at things that I never really saw before. Sometimes it takes for you to be under struggle to actually identify with other struggles. Now I can identify with people from around the world. I see things on the news; I read things in the paper. I think, ‘Wow, they’re under the same type of struggle that we were.
After going through this whole experience and actually winning, I know that people can make a difference. One person can motivate another person, who motivates another person. There’s strength in numbers. When you get together that’s all it takes. A small group of people can make a decision that they’re not going to stand for something and take action.
The fact that was we actually took action. Not just sitting home typing up letters, that wasn’t enough. I see that it can be done.
More at www.laborsmilitantvoice.com
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