A conversation with Tony Romano of the Right to the City Alliance
What are the systemic challenges to democratic and equitable control over public space? What kind of popular mobilizations can build towards systemic alternatives guaranteeing the human right to housing? To help answer these questions, we spoke with Tony Romano, Organizing Director for the Right to City Alliance. Our conversation is below.
The Next System Project: Can you tell us a little bit about the Right to The City Alliance?
Tony Romano: Right to the City is a national alliance of organizations rooted in communities of color and working class communities. Prior to Right to the City forming, many of the community groups for years reached out to each other for support, mentorship and study. We were all trying hard to build resident led organizations to combat an onslaught of gentrification and mass displacement. Together, we sought to win community control and achieve development without displacement. As we began our work, we reached out to community groups challenging powerful entities in California, Miami, and Virginia, including Tenant Workers United with the hopes to learn from them, share ideas, connect, and find ways to support each other’s work. At the time, I was at the Miami Workers Center.
As our relationships and work deepened, we felt to the need be more deliberate, strategic, and explicitly linked. So, we formalized as Right to the City, officially “coming out” at the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta, Georgia. At the time, we were 25 resident led organizations in 10 cities.
We felt “Right to the City” was needed as an organization and important to encapsulate in our name because it captured an ideology that our groups deeply believed in and represented the ultimate goal of our fight – a true right to the city for the everyone who inhabitants that city or town including a right to shape and design a city [through policy] and a right to access everything needed to thrive and reach your full potential whether it be housing, land, healthcare, art, dance, music, nature etc. While our various groups may work on particular issues such as immigration rights or criminal justice, we understand that each of our fights are all part of a larger struggle for winning a right to the city. We also share a common theory of change: we believe that transformative change happens from the bottom up, through movements that are made up of lots of people and different forms of organizations. Further, we see importance in these movements becoming powerful enough to actually force the classes in power to do what they do not want to do and to create changes that serve our interests.
An important part of our theory of change, and we have learned this by looking at movements over time, is that if those most impacted are not in the leadership of the movement, the movement will not bring about the deep transformative changes necessary. I have seen that myself in union battles where, for instance, a union was not explicitly anti-racist. There was change, but the change created did not address the white supremacy that was there. Thus, the change continued the racist practices involving wage rates, classifications, etc. I think we understand that the most impacted people in this country and in the world are communities of color and working-class communities. They must be in the leadership, and for them to be in the leadership, they must be highly organized. Right to the City is playing a role in helping to build the land and housing justice movement. Our main focus is supporting those who are most impacted by the housing crisis to organize and develop their skills, consciousness, and ability to play a role in leading a broader movement.
The Next System Project: Can you talk more about the trajectory of how Right to City came to work on housing issues?
Tony Romano: A lot of the organizations that helped form Right to the City and that have become focused on land, housing, and gentrification did not necessarily start out that way. For example, in Miami, our fight started with welfare reform in 1999 when welfare was being gutted. Very quickly, the members of the organization started to bring up land and housing issues, like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Hope VI Grant Program. HOPE VI allegedly “aimed to improve and redevelop public housing” but in reality did not allow residents to help shape or guide the redevelopment, displaced them, tore down their housing and built back a small percentage of equally affordable public housing. If the community is destroyed and people are displaced, then you do not even have a mechanism to fight. You lack those central networks of support, connection, and love that have to come together. So, in Miami and communities across the country began to fight back and organize to defend their communities and fight for investment and development but on their terms.
People do not have a choice. They need a place to rent. So, people rent Blackstone homes. In some cases, these people were homeowners who were foreclosed on and who could not afford to buy a new home. Still, they pay more in rent than they paid in their mortgage. Of course, you also had a lot of renters, historic renters, who are in these homes who pay 50% to 70% of their income to housing.
When this phenomenon started, we did not understand it. We had to do our own study, which included two cities where we actually went door-to-door to survey Blackstone residents. From those surveys, folks produced reports to help put that data together and make sense of it. The reports covered Atlanta, with the data and writing by Occupy Our Homes Atlanta, and with the help of Strategic Alliance for a Just Economy (SAJE), Los Angeles and Riverside. These reports helped us to get a sense of what is happening on-the-ground and how communities and renters are being affected. We also tapped some of our resource allies like Desiree Fields who is now a professor in England and who specializes in this new industry. Desiree working with our member groups wrote Rise of the Corporate Landlord to shed light on this new phenomenon that seemed to follow the all the same practices that created the last crisis.
What we found was that not only were companies like Blackstone growing to scale, they were also making mass profits just on the basics of supply and demand. Moreover, they actually created new financial instruments to maximize profits at new levels. As we learned about this, we realized that they were doing something that was very analogous to what we understood happened in the recent foreclosure crisis where they bundled mortgages together into mortgage-backed securities. Banks and investors were hustling to make as much money, particularly targeting communities of color with subprime loans. Now something very similar is happening in the rental market – they are creating rent-backed securities, they are bundling these securities together, and they are bringing in big banks and speculators to invest in these securities all over the world. This was an “oh my goodness” moment for us.
Rent payments that are part of a rent-backed security are split amongst investors around the world who are each very concerned about how much they will make. If investors want more return for their investment, then that will trigger a chain of events that put pressure on a company like Blackstone to create more profit. This can lead to less maintenance and fewer repairs for tenants, greater fees, and increases in rent. In fact, we saw that happen and, thus, we found it critical for those most impacted to organize and unite together for a shared understanding of the situation and to begin to fight for their rights. Hence, we started to help Blackstone tenants organize. Our main challenge is building an organization to a scale large enough to achieve influence on a one of the largest private equity firms in the world. We thought, “Wow. Not only do we have to organize Blackstone tenants in Atlanta, but we have to organize Blackstone tenants across cities in the United States. Then, at some point, Blackstone tenants around the world.” It was new to us!
In 2015, we had an opportunity to be part of a delegation that went to Spain to learn from the housing justice movement there led by Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH). That was the beginning of us not only learning about their model of organizing but also connecting around concrete campaigns. Blackstone is in Spain doing similar things but based on Spain’s context. Hence, we now have formed an international Blackstone committee of organizers, organizations, and tenants across countries. Last year, on October 14th, for the first time in history, we organized International Day of Action against Blackstone. We had tenants, organizers, and activists in 40 cities and five countries engaged in actions against Blackstone. In each place, groups delivered a letter to Blackstone that articulated our seven common demands.
Blackstone’s international headquarters is in New York. So, we had a large number of organizations and folks in New York disrupt business at their Manhattan headquarters and deliver the demand letter. At the same time, we also conducted research to find out if there were any regulations that governed rent-backed securities. We learned that there were absolutely none and that any regulation developed in relation to the foreclosure crisis related only to home mortgages and did not apply to this new industry, the institutionalization of single family rental market. Thus, any legislation that regulated housing related securities was strictly limited to mortgages.
When we approached some of our Congressmen and women, the ones who were sympathetic (like Maxine Waters and Mark Takano), wanted to unite with us, fight for regulations, and hold town forums to discuss these issues. They looked at the policy recommendations from our report, Rise of the Corporate Landlord, and tried to move those policies in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, they could not even get an official House hearing on the issue given the partisan environment.
The Next System Project: We often see that gentrification is talked about in a narrow frame and there is also a lot of debate between scholars, some of whom suggest that gentrification is either not happening or not bad. How do you define gentrification? In what ways can the conversation about gentrification be framed to push back against the idea that gentrification is acceptable?
Tony Romano: We spent a lot of time trying to understand gentrification. For a long time, our groups were talking about gentrification and no one even understood the word. Now everyone is talking about it, which is a step forward, but it does not mean we all have the same understanding. For us, fundamentally, gentrification is about capitalist profit-driven processes that dictate land use and development. White supremacy is deeply woven into that process, meaning that it is no accident that communities of color are targeted and hardest hit. Gentrification is also about taking advantage of the absence of community control and further removing community control allowing corporations, private equity firms, hedge funds and other speculators seeking to maximize profit to come in and guide the process. Thus, human needs and community interests are not on the table except where the community fights like hell and forces speculators and gentrifiers to address it in order to gain concessions. That is how we understand gentrification.
Now, the scale of capital that enters cities is larger and larger. It is national and international and new financial tools are continually being developed to find more ways to extract profit and to pull in investors, often international, who are more and more disconnected from the local community. This creates a level of influence and pressure beyond what we have ever seen, though, fundamentally, gentrification is still the same thing. Still, gentrification has changed in that it has become more challenging for communities to have community control.
The Next System Project: With respect to land use, housing, and gentrification, what promising or potential mechanisms do you see people organizing around or gaining momentum among community advocates?
Tony Romano: The Homes for All campaign has three different buckets of work. One is renter’s’ rights, where groups are fighting for immediate improvements to people’s conditions through passing renters rights ordinances city, county or state wide like rent control, just cause eviction and Renters Bill of Rights. This bucket also includes groups that are fighting landlord by landlord. They are forming tenant unions of those who live under one large corporate landlord and they fight to win an agreement that guarantees fair rents, limited rent increases and just cause eviction. The second bucket of work focuses on community control with a special focus on community land trusts which we see as a potential mechanism for real community control. The third bucket is development without displacement. Here groups in cities across the country are fighting in one or more communities facing major gentrification projects. They fight to ensure long term residents often lower income people of color can stay in the community and help shape and ultimately benefit from the redevelopment. Ultimately, I think we understand more and more that if we do not have control over the land and housing, whatever we won, whatever progress we made would immediately be attacked and undermined.
Rent control, won and backed by a once powerful movement in the 1970’s, is a perfect example is a perfect example. Over 200 cities won rent control during this period. With each day that passed, the movement weakened and the opposition kept chipping away and eroding rent control completely eliminating it in some cities like Boston and seriously weakening it in others. Rent control is today one of our most important fights that win we win it can immediately reduce the suffering of 100,000’s and even millions by keeping rents affordable, preventing evictions based on rent increases and allowing families after paying rent to have money left over for food, health care, dance classes and other necessities. With this said, rent control does not mean full community control, it stabilizes but with the land and housing owned by corporations there is constant effort and pressure to undermine and end rent control. Collective ownership of land like we attain with CLT’s is qualitatively a different level of control.
As HOPE VI destroyed one public housing development after another. Theoretically at some level, people think, “Public. That must be controlled by the public.” We came to understand that public housing clearly was not community control. Rather, public housing was government controlled such that the private sector and private capital could still have tremendous influence. So, even government control is not the end goal.
With regard to renters’ rights, our ultimate goals would be to outlaw speculation such that no one is paying more than 30% of their income on housing (an internationally recognized standard for fair rent). Moreover, if you make below a certain amount, you should pay nothing for housing. Further, those who live on the land and in the housing must have control. It is very simple. While we are building the power necessary to win these long term goals, we must work in the short and midterm to create as many prohibitions and restrictions one speculation and capitalists as possible and to establish as many CLT’s and community controlled areas as possible.
In the Rise of the Corporate Landlord report, we said “Look, if you are a corporate landlord, you should be held accountable for what you do. You should not have unfettered rights to just maximize profits.” If you’re Blackstone, if you buy and own more than X number of units in our city, say 10 units, then you are accountable for maintaining a certain number of units for affordable housing for people making zero to 30% and zero to 50% of Area Median Income (AMI). We actually like to use neighborhood median income, so zero to 50% of neighborhood median income. On the other units, if you’re going to charge market rate, that there should be rent control. You should not be able to charge whatever the market will allow. It should be restricted.
One reason we are really drawn to the community land trust model is that it tends to integrate the highest levels of democracy we have seen where people actually live on the land, live in the community, and have collective control over land and housing. However, because the model is a threat to capital as it actually removes land from the market, it is a difficult model to establish. Essentially, where it is established, it is often done so at a small scale. However, I think we understood that that fight in the short term would not address the needs of the majority of the people who would rent. Thus, we have the parallel strategies within the renters rights and development without displacement work that impact larger scales in the short and mid term.
We understand CLT’s as being more than housing. Cooperation Jackson is a good example of this. They are focused on building a community land trust in a holistic way where they control land, housing, urban agriculture, and food production to encourage access to affordable food and can foster the growth of worker-owned cooperatives. That is the strategy they are moving. They struggle with capacity, but Cooperation Jackson and several other Homes For All partners have actually acquired land and began to build affordable housing. In Boston, the Chinese Progressive Association while creating a CLT is also building a broader coalition to fight for the passage of a Just Cause Eviction policy as a first step for rent control.
In the first three years of the Homes for All campaign, 2013 to now, the focus has been to study, understand, and then develop a community land trust. We have reached out and tried to learn from folks who have done it in the past and have experience. We have also connected with and received invaluable support from the National Community Land Trust Network (now Grounded Solutions). Two of our strategic partners, Burlington Associates and folks at Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative share our political vision and are rooted in working class communities and communities of color that include significant numbers of renters. Both of them see community land trusts as fundamental part of a broader land and housing justice movement and power building strategy.
Along with the community land trust, we are thinking about other sectors of our lives including political, cultural, food, and worker arenas. We are in a process of really trying to understand what other forms of entities can be community-controlled by way of worker and food cooperatives. In Baltimore, we have connected with Red Emma’s and worker coops that are teaching us a lot.
The Next System Project: Last question, how do we build power in communities that are more spread out and suburbanized, but that also experience issues around poverty, housing, and land?
Tony Romano: One thing that is critical to understand with gentrification and capitalist development is that it is happening and it is going to continue. We do not accept the view that it is limited to urban areas and only focuses on the displacement of people of color. Gentrification is and will also grow to include more white, middle-class communities. We understand that urban areas, like downtown Atlanta, are still under contention and that the fight to defend and strengthen existing Black, Latino, and Asian communities is critical. That said, we have to understand that the suburbs and the broader counties are important in the fight as well, particularly as they become home to a majority people of color in some places. Cobb and Gwinnett Counties in Georgia serve as examples. This is where many of the displaced people of color from the urban area have moved.
Let’s be clear too that smaller towns and rural areas are not exempt from the housing crisis. More and more small towns from Poughkeepsie New York to Bowling Green Kentucky to Sante Fe New Mexico are feeling the effects of rising rents and displacement. It is no longer a surprise to us as more and more community groups and individuals from smaller towns and cities join Homes For All.
We can fight for community land trusts in the suburbs right now. We can also fight for apartment buildings to be co-ops and for the communities of color there to own and control the land. We can fight for alternative housing models there as well. Scalable reforms, like rent control, do not have to stop at the city border. It can be addressed at both the county and state levels. Historically, our groups have been rooted in the heart of the city and they have been deeply urban. We must evolve our model to be more flexible to allow people anywhere to organize. We all have a right to the city and must fight to win it!