Right to the City: Our Research, Our Housing Community Workshop

Right to the CityThis month, DataCenter joined Just Cause Oakland in a community workshop for the Right to the City (RTTC) white paper, HOMESICK: A Community-Driven Prescription to the Affordable Housing Crisis, coming out this summer. Across the country, our RTTC allies are holding similar workshops, from New York to New Orleans, taking a first hand look at local research on public and subsidized housing, and making room for the lived experiences of residents.

Right to the City is a national alliance of community organizations working to build a movement that will ensure a place for low-income communities in our cities. Just Cause Oakland members from across the city joined with JCO organizers and staff, and DataCenter allies, to make Oakland’s voice heard in the affordable housing discussion!

Right to the CityAs resource organizations within RTTC, DataCenter and the Advancement Project and Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center have been collecting statistics and data on public and subsidized housing from housing agencies, legislation, the media, and the federal government. The goal of the white paper is to illustrate the state of public and subsidized housing across the nation, and leverage our unique position as community organizations to make policy recommendations. Data is a powerful tool, but when you’re talking affordable housing, the RTTC alliance knows there are crucial stories that statistics—and their creators—may not tell: the real-life experiences and stories of residents, neighbors, and families. Likewise, data is often hard to find and is not always user-friendly. Over three hours of games, brainstorming and group discussion, participants tackled the data and media knowledge about public housing, and took up their own roles as experts.

As we introduced ourselves, participants were asked to finish the sentences, “Public housing is…” and “Section 8 is…” The responses set the tone for the workshop, and painted a complex picture of the state of public housing. Participants voiced that it was at once, “ours, something that is extremely valuable, not only monetarily but also in terms of how were able to have control of our communities, and raise our children,” but also “a critical resource that is being broken on purpose,” by public housing authorities and housing policies.

Right to the CityThrough a series of exercises, the participants and facilitators set to work building a context for these ideas. We confronted media images and reporting angles about public housing, by sketching the differences between the media’s public housing story, and our ideal visions. In a Family-Feud inspired trivia game, two teams competed in a rousing round of “Data Feud.” The teams vied for a chance to answer questions about the federal housing stimulus, the average length of time applicants spend on waiting lists with the Oakland Housing Authority, and the prevalent themes in media stories about public housing, among other statistics.

The struggle for quality affordable housing extends far beyond Oakland, out into cities nationwide, and back in time. As we reviewed the history of housing policy in the U.S., the pieces began to fall together; all of the funding, health, safety, and management issues that arose in discussion have deep roots in policy decisions as far back as the Housing Act of 1937, and as recent as the HOPE VI initiative of the early 1990s. The family feud topics that so surprised many of us—like the discovery that no new public housing units have been constructed since 1985—and the disappearance of public housing units across the country are all rooted in policy. With all that data, and all those stories, in one room, surprises and red flags abounded—could the average time spent on a housing wait list really be so short? Why does the Oakland Housing Authority only spend 1% of the budget on Community and Resident services?

Right to the CityAt the culmination of the workshop, participants were asked to reflect on the suprising or new data, and match it up to their own experiences. Armed with the back-story of public housing today, participants broke into small groups, and came up with questions for neighbors and policy-makers. Back in the large group, we found that a lot of questions were left to answer: How do we make the waiting list fairer? How can people know their rights when they’re in Section 8? Where is the job training, job creation programs in the development plans? How can we solve the issue of displacement?

The questions generated by participants will be brought back to residents in upcoming focus groups with Just Cause Oakland. The information shared and bridged in this first workshop was a testament to the goal of creating a white paper that will combine a range of “expert” knowledge by expanding that very notion, telling a story that is legible to all. From the DataCenter, research in action, once again!

Sonya Rifkin
DataCenter Intern