Community Organizing for Affordable Housing: Growing the Movement One AVODAH Corps Member at a Time

Published Nov 5, 2010

Avital AboodyAvital Aboody is from Sherman Oaks, CA. She attended University of California at Berkeley and studied Peace and Conflict Studies. As a New York Corps member, she works as a Tenant Organizer at Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.

As a group, Corps members visit each others’ work sites as part of AVODAH programming. They learn about the work of each organization and its role in the broader anti-poverty movement. Here, Corps members write about these site visit experiences.

This past Thursday my fellow AVODAH Corps members left their work places mid-day to pay a visit to my office for the first site visit of the year. The site visit was a joint effort put together by myself, from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, and my friend and fellow tenant organizer, Jessie, of Tenants and Neighbors. After a few brainstorming sessions between us, incorporating input from AVODAH alumnae and current members, we came up with a jam-packed agenda intended to give the participants a crash course in the housing issues that we come up against in our work. After writing our first draft of the agenda, we realized that we might just be a little too ambitious in our efforts to convey all the information that motivates and excites us about community organizing for affordable housing, in the time span of just three hours. So our modified version began with an introduction to predatory equity with my boss Dina Levy, director of the organizing and policy department at UHAB. True to her dynamic “in your face” personality, Dina drove the point home that over the last several years, “asshole” banks, working in conjunction with greedy landlords and private equity firms, had managed to pull off epic scams that led a large stock of multi-family housing buildings in the outer boroughs of New York City to fall victim to rapidly deteriorating conditions and lack of basic services. While some of the Corps members’ eyes widened as they tried to grapple with the unfamiliar financial language, others asked questions in an apparent effort to try to understand the magnitude of this issue. I thought back to my first couple weeks of training and remembered my own state of shock and awe as acronyms and economic jargon whizzed over my head. But then as we transitioned to the next part of the site visit, in which my supervisor Megan and I engaged the Corps members in a brainstorming session about crafting a building campaign, I felt excited to show-case how this information can be made accessible and transformed into a plan of action!

In an effort to personalize this work even further, Jessie and I shared some quick
reflections on what organizing means to us and why we’ve decided to take it on this year as our preferred mechanism of change-making. I took a moment to connect organizing to the words of one of my favorite educators, Paolo Freire, who stresses the importance of providing adults with the opportunities for critical analysis of their environment, for deepening self-perceptions in relation to it, and for building confidence in their own creativity and capabilities for action. This ideology, reflected in UHAB by the “tenant choice” model, attempts to shift power dynamics between tenants and landlords and encourage tenants to assert themselves as critical partners in determining the trajectory of their homes. In my day-to-day work, this generally happens through a process of door-knocking and subsequent building meetings to bring tenants into the discussion and together craft campaigns to disrupt any course of action that jeopardizes their right to live safely, comfortably, and affordably. However, as much as we believe in empowerment as a necessary precursor to sustainable change in the status quo, we also recognize where this ideology falls short and sometimes doesn’t guide our campaign strategies when building needs are especially urgent. This inconsistency is something that I’ve thought about at length and that was also called to our attention by another perceptive AVODAH
Corps member who noted in the campaign-building activity where the tenants had faded from view amidst all the discussion of targeting the banks, talking to the press, and eliciting elected official support. I can’t say the site visit provided any clarity about this discrepancy but I know that I’ll continue to check this tension and strive to engage in effective activism that does not compromise my ideological motivations guiding me in this work.

Following a sort of “Affordable Housing 101” with Tenants & Neighbors staff, we tried to wrap up the last 15 minutes with a discussion around the painful fact that a majority of corrupt landlords in NYC are Jewish. We posed the question of whether or not we have an ethical responsibility as self-proclaimed activist Jews to hold other members of the Jewish community to higher moral standards. Admittedly, the limited time left over for this discussion as well as the way in which it was presented, was problematic and thus sparked some resentment and confusion amongst the group. However, the point still stands that as Jews we have a strong and proud history of organizing against injustice. And if in this modern context some of us are now blessed with more power and means, we should find ways to harness this power for good and assert that we are not exempt from participating in the struggle for more widespread collective change…and certainly not if members of our community are directly and/or indirectly involved in perpetuating oppressive systems. I don’t know where other Corps members’ thoughts were/are after the site visit because when 5:00pm stuck I ran out the door to a tenant meeting in the Bronx, leaving no time for feedback. But I’m hoping the critical questions will keep flowing and our engagement in praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to
transform it (to use another Freire term) will only deepen.

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