From ‘99 to Now: Organizing for Housing Justice!

The crisis of access to affordable housing has reached a fever pitch during the pandemic, but it has been a problem for a long time in rural Oregon. Do you care about rural housing for all? Is your group taking action or do you want to get started? You’re invited to Affordable, Available, Accessible: A Rural Housing Strategy Session this Wednesday, January 27th from 6:30-8pm PST! Join this strategy session by phone or computer to hear from rural leaders fighting for affordable housing in their communities, discuss the work groups are doing to organize and build pressure for rent forgiveness and creative responses to houselessness and the need for affordable housing, and share what’s happening in your own rural community! And to help kick off our creative strategizing, read on for a story of rural housing activism from 1999 from the ROP Archives! 

From the ROP Archives:

On March 19, 1999, advocates from the Centro Cultural of Washington County, La Casita, and St. Pius X Catholic Church gathered about 100 supporters in front of the Oregon Capitol Building in Salem. They had come to lobby with a bold demand: for the legislature to increase funding for the construction of affordable housing from $5.5 million to $160 million. Focusing on the severe housing insecurity faced by farmworkers, they also sought a task force to study farmworkers’ specific needs and to expand the State Farmworker Housing Tax Credit. To make their point, they brought along a visual aid: a farmworker’s cabin from Campo Azul in Hillsboro, which they reconstructed on the Capitol steps so that legislators could see the living conditions for themselves, and to drive home the need for better housing and equitable access to it! 

ROP’s Archivist Kate Orazem uncovered this gem and wrote:

I happened across a set of materials (press releases, fact sheets, draft legislation, etc.) that told the story of this action as part of my routine processing work on the ROP archives, which includes dozens of boxes of meeting agendas, letters to the editor, photos, and more from nearly 30 years of ROP organizing history. The materials appeared in the files of the West County Coalition for Human Dignity, an ROP member group that had been working in collaboration with Centro Cultural of Washington County on issues of immigration enforcement and campaign finance reform throughout 1998, work one of the WCCHD organizers described as “the first real seed that I know about of a multi-racial political alliance in our community.” Part of what I find most exciting about the ROP archives are the marks that these alliances have left on them: though this was not an ROP-led action, records of it remain in ROP’s archives, a material trace of coalition-building from twenty years ago.

Flyer for an Advocacy Day for better living conditions for farmworkers and their families on Friday, March 19, 1999 on the front steps of the Oregon State Capitol

As I read more deeply into those traces, I realized there were some insights in them that could be helpful to share with our network, particularly as we gear up for Affordable, Available Accessible: A Rural Housing Strategy Session this Wednesday, January 27th from 6:30-8 pm PST. How brilliant is it that folks brought a real-life example of substandard housing to the steps of the halls of legislative power? I was also struck by how the demands made during this action speak to a history of housing advocacy in Oregon that stretches back for decades, and understanding the scope of that history can help us resist attempts to frame the housing issues of 2021 as a limited problem that can be solved by anything less than housing for all.

When I first encountered these materials, part of me was surprised by the size of the coalition’s demands. They were arguing that affordable housing programs in Oregon were so severely underfunded that a thirtyfold increase was needed. Even in 1999! I thought, “wasn’t the economy supposedly ‘good’ back then?” But as I did research to put this action into context, it was clear that while the stock market has gone up and down, conditions for ordinary people have been steadily worsening for many years.

I read about how the causes of the current housing crisis lie not in COVID-19 or its related economic effects, but in decades of austerity policies (policies that seriously cut government spending under a false pretense of scarcity of resources) that began with Nixon’s moratorium on the construction of new public housing, continued through Reagan’s dismantling of the New Deal, and Clinton’s restriction of rental subsidies, and persisted in recent years with the Trump administration’s suspension of several key fair housing regulations. That history is intertwined with the histories of segregation, of the elimination of support for people who need residential medical care, and of the criminalization of houselessness. Understanding those connected histories helps us understand the roots of housing insecurity in Oregon: an August 2020 report prepared for Oregon Housing and Community Services found that Black and Indigenous people and those who do not speak English face higher rents compared to other groups. 

In March 1999, that same month, the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation completed construction of their second affordable housing unit serving farmworkers and were able to provide stable housing to 40 new families. While one coalition worked to leverage political pressure on legislators via protest and the media, another worked to directly provide services to those who needed them. As Bridget Cooke, who was Director at the Centro Cultural at the time (and currently serves as Executive Director of ROP member group Adelante Mujeres) said when speaking at the Capitol that day: “We don’t need finger pointing and accusations. We need folks who are committed to working together, as a community: to think through the complexities involved, to shoulder our share of the cost.”

Reading that, I was reminded that there are always those who have carried on the fight before us, and they have always won victories, however small or large. The archives help us remember the generations of organizers who have grappled with our histories and who are at our backs now cheering us on as we continue building. Beyond giving us concrete ideas for our organizing from what others before us have done, the archives also teach patience, and lend hope.

My goal as ROP’s Archivist is to find ways to keep creating opportunities for us to work together to develop and share the lessons from the archives in the months and years to come. ~ Kate, ROP Archivist 

Housing is one of the priorities in the Roadmap to a Thriving Rural Oregon, and organizers statewide are digging into this moment of challenge and opportunity to explore the big solutions we need. During the pandemic, we’ve seen how the state’s eviction moratorium timeline keeps getting pushed further and further back thanks to powerful local organizing, and we’re seeing how cities and counties across the country are finding funding to get people motel rooms, create shelters, and provide creative ways to get people inside during the winter weather. When the pandemic ends, things don’t have to “go back to normal” because we know “normal” isn’t sustainable and still leaves many out in the cold. 

We’d love to hear from you! What are you most excited about in the archives? What stories do you have about effective advocacy for fair and equitable housing for all from your community over time? What opportunities exist for us as a network to keep moving housing access forward in 2021? Let us know and join the conversation at Affordable, Available Accessible: A Rural Housing Strategy Session this Wednesday, January 27th from 6:30-8 pm PST to dig into all this and more together. See you there!