Empower,” Jesper Sehested, Pluslexia.com

September 8, 2020; Washington Post

Writing in the Washington Post, Gillet Gardner Rosenblith, whose doctoral thesis traces the history of public housing policy, highlights the shifting meaning of the word “empowerment,” showing how a term once used by tenants to claim rights of self-governance has, over time, come to mean being subjected to the market.

This shift is not just of academic interest. In fact, it’s a contributing factor to the nation’s current housing crisis. As Rosenblith observes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order to stave off evictions for most renters through the end of the year came about due to “tenant advocacy groups’ calls for eviction moratoriums,” even if the measure fails to address the need for rent relief—in a sense, just delaying a potential eviction wave for a few months.

More fundamentally, Rosenblith writes, “The order does nothing to address the root cause of this eviction crisis—a half-century of federal retrenchment from providing low-income housing and the rejection of traditional multifamily public housing as a viable and effectual anti-poverty program.”

What led to the push for tenant empowerment in the first place? As Rosenblith explains, “Public housing always had flaws. Its placement often worsened racial and economic segregation, separating low-income, disproportionately African American tenant families from centers of economic and political activity, public transportation, jobs, and more.”

What public housing residents were calling for in the late 1960s was “fully funded public housing in which residents played a decisive role in decision-making, rents stayed affordable, and the housing itself would be augmented by initiatives designed to help people out of poverty including job training, day cares, health centers, and more.”

This may seem a pipedream. Yet for a brief moment, it appeared possible. As NPQ noted a couple of years ago, back in 1968, Congress did not just pass the Fair Housing Act. It also passed the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968, which funded housing with a goal of producing six million units of affordable housing in 10 years; by 1970, the federal government was getting close to that 600,000 units a year goal, producing 366,100 units and rehabilitating another 79,700.

And then, funding quickly disappeared, and with its absence came a shift in the language of “empowerment.” What once meant tenant power and community control became, as Rosenblith puts it, the “empowerment” of individual tenants, often couched in narratives of “personal responsibility” or “self-sufficiency.”

The shift, she notes, was perfectly bipartisan—and extended beyond housing to education, healthcare, and welfare policies.

Occasionally, Rosenblith notes, some sought to meld “old” and “new” forms of empowerment. One notable example was Jack Kemp, who served as Housing and Urban Development Secretary for President George H.W. Bush. Kemp promoted demonstration projects involving resident management and resident ownership of their units. But, Rosenblith points out, “when tenants assumed primary responsibility of day-to-day management duties over their housing, they did so without access to or power over the federal funds allocated to their housing authority. Accordingly, tenant management groups often struggled to effectively implement their vision for management.”

By the mid-1990s, Rosenblith writes, a strong bipartisan consensus for “empowerment” was evident, but “the term had become completely divorced from its original intention of promoting significant structural reform and providing adequate resources to help lift Americans from poverty.” The budget for public housing, she notes, was cut by $17 billion during President Bill Clinton’s administration.

It gets worse. Under Clinton, the war on drugs had a public housing corollary. The One Strike Act, notes Rosenblith, claimed to “empower”—got to love that word—the “good” tenants by evicting the “bad.” But it often led to whole families, including “good” tenants, losing their housing.

Bottom line: in the name of “empowerment,” federal housing policy made a mockery of the term.

As Rosenblith concludes, “Instead of listening to public housing tenants, politicians made top-down determinations about what was good for them. The result was a far cry from what the tenant power movement had envisioned: the federal government retreated from providing safe, affordable housing, leaving more low-income families at the mercy of private rental companies and landlords.”—Steve Dubb