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Housing and Local Solutions: Elevating What Works

By Mercedeh Mortazavi, JPMorgan Chase, and Alana Greer, Community Justice Project


The following us an excerpt from the article "Housing and Local Solutions: Elevating What Works," and is a part of FHO's Collaboration for Housing Justice series originally published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. In the series, we share ideas, observations, and lessons from our housing justice efforts, including how and why the work will only move forward if it is systemic, anti-racist, and bridges sectors.


Illustration by Raffi Marhaba, The Dream Collective

Too often, national funders look at national problems and think the solutions must be in Washington, DC. Well, we know that’s not always the case. Usually, new solutions are imagined, developed, and piloted at the local level by local leaders. From historic, regional supportive housing efforts in Portland, Oregon, to first-of-its-kind tenant voting blocs in Kansas City, Missouri, the local level is often where new challenges and creative solutions are first seen. That’s why one of Funders for Housing and Opportunity’s (FHO) major strategies is to support and elevate successful local efforts to make affordable housing more accessible, reduce racial disparities, and improve the choices that Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and Latino, and people of color have about their education, health, and economic mobility. Ultimately, successful local strategies and solutions can inform other cities and states across the nation.


 

Key Ingredients of Local Initiatives


Fifty percent of FHO’s annual budget goes to supporting and amplifying local work. But funders and their grantee partners can’t rely on dollars alone to achieve big changes; we have to work together and advance strategic solutions that have the greatest impact, influence, and leverage. From our experience as a funder and a leader of an organization working in communities, and as a member and a grantee partner of FHO, local housing initiatives have shown success when they are:


  •  Focused on systems change—designed to eliminate the barriers to access, affordability, and stability that are embedded in the systems that determine who gets to live where. This includes testing new innovations and models that can influence policy and practice, and building tenant and resident power over the long-term.

  • Grounded in racial equity—designed to redress harms and inequities in housing; eliminate racism in policies, institutions, and structures; and build the power, leadership, and wealth of people who have been most impacted by racism in housing.

  • Community-driven—led by and centered on those directly impacted by housing injustice, addressing the specific issues impeding their progress and what they want to see in their communities. Beginning with our response to the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, FHO has increased the number of grants given to local organizations, and today about two-thirds of our grants fund local initiatives.

  • Cross-sector, multi-system, and collaborative—working collectively with nonprofit, private, and public sectors and across the many systems that touch people’s lives, such as health, education, employment, criminal justice, and aligning the skills, knowledge, and resources of multiple organizations to maximize their impact. In 2022, 57 percent of FHO’s grants, and 76 percent of total awarded funds, went to multi-organization collaboratives.

  • Knowledge-building—designed as opportunities to strengthen the housing industry, especially by supporting BIPOC leaders’ access to professional and leadership development and by enabling funders to learn what works on the ground.


Piloting Cross-Sector Solutions in Miami-Dade County


Through “elevating what works,” FHO made a two-year, $330,000 grant to support collaboration among four organizations in Miami-Dade County and statewide in Florida, all led by people of color: the Community Justice Project (CJP), a group of lawyers that works with community organizers and grassroots groups in low-income communities of color; Miami Workers Center (MWC), a member-led organization building power with tenants, workers, and women; Florida Immigrant Coalition, a statewide coalition advancing immigrant justice; and Florida Rising Together, which organizes tenants to conduct policy advocacy. The organizations’ mission: to confront the root causes of the eviction crisis in Miami-Dade County and statewide, including systemic racism and inequality and a legal system that does not adequately protect marginalized renters. The initiative provides frontline, culturally fluent eviction defense, legal assistance, and community education to help renters stay where they are or, when necessary, find a better alternative.


The community-driven element of this grant supports weekly, multilingual “Know your Rights” trainings on renter protection and self-help measures. It has reached about 1,500 renters and tenant union members, with an emphasis on low-income Black and Indigenous women, women of color, and women heads of household—especially those who work in the cleaning and caring sectors, who are often most vulnerable to eviction. Through a statewide hotline operated by Florida Immigrant Coalition, immigrants receive multilingual help navigating the housing and legal systems and understanding eviction rules. Attorneys with the Community Justice Project are on call to help organizers working with tenants who have an eviction case filed against them or face illegal housing conditions.


MWC applied the same techniques used by get-out-the-vote and census-completion campaigns and knocked on hundreds of doors to reach people who could benefit from eviction defense resources. That was effective. But to ensure that the most vulnerable people in communities weren’t left behind, and to center their experiences and build their capacities to shift power in their favor, more specialized efforts were also needed. Together, MWC and CJP curate community advocacy through arts and storytelling, creating spaces where tenants could share their stories with new, broader audiences, and an artist in residence worked with community members to highlight specific issues, such as an audio/visual installation featuring the responses filed in court by tenants facing eviction and a short film capturing tenant leaders’ efforts to secure expanded rights.


The grantee organizations and community residents collaborate with artists, researchers, and journalists to track evictions, advocate for systemic interventions, and shift the narrative about housing from one of scarcity to one in which housing is a basic human right. CJP created a dashboard to track eviction filings, available on CJP’s website, which then equipped organizers and community leaders to use the data in conversations with local commissioners and state legislators to paint a fuller picture of the crisis tenants faced. An award-winning journalist, Nadege Green, documented the history of tenant movements in Florida to provide historical context and continues to cover current tenant battles. One of Green’s articles, published in February 2022 on medium.com, focused on tenants in Hialeah, a city in the Miami metropolitan area. Miami Workers Center helped tenants form a tenant union, which Community Justice Project provided legal representation for, after real estate investors who purchased their building increased rents a staggering 65 percent. Green wrote of similar organizing by Hialeah tenants 40 years ago that had succeeded in stopping or limiting the increases. Out of the present-day fight grew policy models for expanded notice, which now cover more than half of Florida renters.


These strategies have had an impact locally and nationally. Miami-Dade County became the first county in the nation to declare a COVID-related eviction moratorium. Miami Workers Center organized tenant leaders to persuade city leaders to offer temporary rental assistance, using coronavirus relief dollars. MWC then developed and organized constituents around a Tenant’s Bill of Rights, which called on Miami-Dade County to establish dedicated capacity for tenant advocacy, inform tenants of their rights, address discrimination based on past evictions, enforce accessibility and safety for tenants, protect tenants’ freedom to organize with neighbors, and ensure that tenants facing eviction have legal representation in court.


In May 2022, Miami-Dade County commissioners passed the Tenant’s Bill of Rights ordinance, which met the tenants’ demands and established in county government an Office of Housing Advocacy (OHA), which collaborates with other county departments, developers, nonprofits, and other community stakeholders to formulate policies and initiatives, coordinate responses, and serve as a clearinghouse on issues related to affordable housing nationwide. One of OHA’s roles is to educate the community on tenants’ rights and make the process for filing complaints more robust and visible; to that end, it provides toolkits on the Tenant’s Bill of Rights for renters and landlords.


Now FHO’s grant is supporting collaborative efforts alongside Florida Rising Together and the Florida Immigrant Coalition to scale successes in community organizing and renter protection from the county to the state level. JPMorgan Chase also separately made a $1.6 million investment to Community Justice Project as part of its Housing Innovation Program to implement the community lawyering model supporting grassroots organizations and tenant-led campaigns, and to expand this model beyond Miami-Dade to eight other counties across Florida.



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