Wednesday, November 8, 2017
by Davida Finger, Clinic Professor, Loyola N.O. College of Law
Last week, I attended a tenants’ rights organizing meeting in New Orleans hosted by Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a local community land trust and housing rights organization. The meeting was held at a library in Mid-City, a neighborhood that is over 50% African American, almost 80% renter occupied, and in which around a third of all households live in poverty. Jane Place, working as both a housing developer and catalyst for tenant organizing, recently built the first community land trust-owned, permanently affordable apartment building in Mid-City to create new housing for low and moderate income renters. It is in the process of launching a monthly tenants’ rights clinic (the Community Justice clinic I teach will lend legal support).
The meeting’s discussion started off with a Q&A with Ms. Viola Francois Washington, a long-time organizer, advocate, and director of the Welfare Rights Organization in New Orleans. As she presented snippets of history on local organizing efforts, and challenges and successes over the last 40 years, Ms. Washington shared various perspectives: “laws were written for landlords, not tenants . . . deal with racism . . . tenants have to make their own rights . . . and tenants’ rights can be won with organizing, organizing, and organizing.” I reflected on these thoughts in light of the issues raised in the evening’s conversation which included: renters being priced out (“We are being displaced from our own city”), renters’ struggles to improve laws (“We can never win in court”), and problems with government-subsidized housing (“I’m just tired of all the problems”).
At the Jane Place meeting, I had introduced myself as a lawyer who wants to support the tenant organizing efforts because, after a decade of representing tenants in court, I was certain, as many before me and around me have known, that systemic change will not flow from the courts alone. Ms. Washington reminded me that it has always been so.
The past year has certainly not brought hope and opportunity for renters in the U.S. as families experience unbearable financial pressure. In New Orleans, rent is steadily increasing, neighborhoods have become richer and whiter, a local rental registry initiative to improve habitability standards failed, and legislative efforts to revise the archaic state-wide landlord tenant laws did not make it out of the first committee.
But our local organizing, support for movement work, and community lawyering shape a path for justice and focus our efforts. Just after Trump was elected, New Orleans human rights lawyer Bill Quigley shared the following quote with me. It was written by Cherri Foytlin, an environmental activist from Louisiana.
“Fear no evil. Joy and Love still live, and it is up to us to build the shelter for the Hope that they provide. Lower those pointed fingers, we will need them to grasp the hammer and forge the nails. Do not give in to your righteous anxieties. Our heroes have never left us. All the good that ever was, it is still here. You were born for this time.”