Housing Is Where the Heart Is

When Jasmine’s apartment roof started caving in, she asked her landlords to fix it. Instead of fixing it, the landlord gave her an ultimatum: accept the conditions or leave. Jasmine left, turning to activism and organizing with the Louisville Tenant’s Union to help neighborhoods throughout the city have access to safe and affordable housing. As she articulates in this episode of Building Local Power, people’s lives shouldn’t “be determined by the whims of a landlord.”

In the second half of the episode, Tara Raghuveer, the Director of Kansas City Tenants, discusses how private equity firms have identified the housing market as a lucrative opportunity to reap enormous profits at the expense of tenants. What’s worse, she posits, is that the federal government has enabled private equity to infiltrate the housing market with few safeguards for buyers and renters. Tara goes on to suggest changes that can be made at the local, state, and federal level, emphasizing that cities can reform their tax incentive policies to support tenants rather than corporate profiteers.

Tara Raghuveer: Private equity is now the dominant form of financial backing among the 35 largest owners of multifamily buildings across the country.
In 2011, about a third of the apartment units held by the top owners were backed by private equity. A decade later, half of them were. Private equity-backed firms in the top 35 owners cumulatively held a million apartments last year.
Reggie Rucker: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power. I’m your co-host, Reggie Rucker. We’re back with episode six of this season where we are highlighting frontline stories in the fight against monopoly power, by talking with people from all over the country who are actively engaging in building more equitable, thriving, local economies. On our last episode, we talked to three visionaries who saw community composting as a way to connect to their communities, their culture, and their ancestry, and treated the land as their home.
The only thing getting in the way were the investors not seeing the value in this vision, and looking for bigger financial returns and lesser solutions. Well, in this episode, we stay on the theme of where one makes their home, where one calls home. And yet again, how investors looking to maximize profit make it nearly impossible for families seeking affordable, secure housing to be at home, to feel at home. To help tell this story, I’ll pass it over to my co-host who makes me feel at home every day, Luke Gannon. What’s up, Luke?
Luke Gannon: Wow. Thank you, Reggie. For the first part of this episode, we take you to Louisville, Kentucky where organizer, advocate, mother, small business owner, and tenant, Jasmine Harris, details her experience navigating the current US housing crisis.
Jasmine Harris: I’m from Louisville, Kentucky and I lived with my grandmother. We called her Mama Doris. We lived with her until she passed when I was 13. We lived in the West End and her house ever since we lived with her, as soon as she passed, her house has been boarded up till this day. That was like a hub for the community. When I say that, I mean she fed everyone. That’s where all the children our age would play.
We were still real big into catching fireflies in jars, and honeysuckles and things like that. I had a really nice childhood because of my grandmother. It breaks my heart that no one cares about her house, which was a sense of community right there, and no one cares about that. As soon as she passed, they were like, “Okay. Well, we’re going to leave this house boarded up.” Things like that happened.
Then my mom, she ended up getting married, her second marriage, and he moved us to the suburbs. My mom and my stepfather, they were trying to in a way keep up with the Joneses. It was up to me because I’m the oldest child, so I had to raise my brother and sister, which put a lot of responsibility onto me. I ended up adding another responsibility. That new responsibility was my daughter that I had when I was 16, and it just seemed like we were struggling so much.
The landlords, they were just caring about money. They didn’t care what we were going through or none of that. They were just trying to make sure their pockets stayed fat while me and my family were struggling.
Luke Gannon: Jasmine is deeply involved in her community, organizing, advocating, teaching, and pushing for equitable and racially just policies.
Jasmine Harris: I have three jobs, I have three children. I’m an organizer with the Louisville Tenants Union. I also do child advocacy work with an organization called Play Cousins Collective, where we teach our children pan-African American history through games, through Black representation books. We also try to change a lot of different policies or create policies for our Black community to overcome a lot of barriers that we face.
Lastly, I own a grocery store in Louisville, Kentucky called Black Market KY. That’s in the Russell neighborhood because we’re dealing with a lot of food apartheid in that neighborhood, so we’re just trying to fix that as well. My children, they are 12, about to be 13, and then I have two seven year olds who are 10 months apart. When I got out on my own, I ended up hearing a lot of hurtful things in the midst of my struggle.
Someone had said that I was a product of my environment, and here I am just sitting on the porch in the projects, just trying to figure out what does that mean? That offended me really bad. I had to change the narrative around being called a product of my environment. I’m someone who loves sunflowers. I’ve been eating sunflower seeds my whole life. I grew up around sunflowers before the hype of what it is now. In a way, and everybody calls me sunflower.
I’m the sunflower that grew out of the concrete. Something like Tupac, when he had the rose that grew out, I’m the sunflower and I just feel like right now I’m 12 feet tall. If I can make it out of the struggle and become this beautiful flower through it all, there’s other people that can do the same.
Luke Gannon: Throughout Jasmine’s childhood and adult life, she has been acutely aware of a systemic problem that faces every American city, access to safe and affordable housing.
Her understanding began to develop back when her grandmother’s house was boarded up, but has persisted to today.
Jasmine Harris: I lived in these apartments called the Russell Apartments, and they are through New Directions, a big housing corporation here in Louisville, Kentucky. They have 931 units. But in my unit, my ceiling was falling in and I lived on the third floor on a three-story apartment building. When my ceiling had fell in, you know what that brings? That brings roaches, that brings all kind of pests.
It freaked me out really bad, and I’m calling them and I’m like, “Hey, can y’all fix these issues?” They’re like, “Yes, someone will be out there to fix it.” They kept giving me the runaround for weeks. Then I called them back. I was a frustrated mom, and I’m like, “Can y’all please do something? This ain’t right. I’m having to stay with my grandmother. I’m terrified, I’m freaking out.”
They were like, “Well, Ms. Harris. If you don’t like it, well you can turn in your keys.” I’m like, “What? I just want y’all to fix my ceiling. I pay my rent every month.” I don’t know. Well, I moved out. I moved out last May. Because they were so upset in how we began to organize properly, that they didn’t give me 60 days. They didn’t give me 90 days, not 30, not a week, they gave me 10 minutes to get my stuff.
I actually lost a lot. Talk about sacrifices, me and my children, we’ve lost a lot, but we’ve also gained so much since then. So much love, so much support from the Louisville Tenants Union and Homes Guarantee. Me being a community activist, I did a lot of research on my own and I seen different tenant unions that were being formed in New York and in California. I was like, “No, this is us.”
Because me and my neighbors, we were like a family. I’m like, “No, we’re going to get this together.” Then I started to organize me and my neighbors. We had a list of demands and the things that we wanted to get out of the tenants union. We became the New Directions Tenants Union, and we was just doing it by ourselves. Then I came across some great people with the Louisville Tenants Union. They had more people power.
They were organized, they were strategizing at the same time. I’m like, “No, I need to learn how to do this. I like y’all.” With those demands, they even helped me and my neighbors, we ended up coming up with a fair lease. We actually marched to the apartment complex to let them see this fair lease. Let’s let them know that, “Hey, we’re trying to actually create a policy out of these demands. Can y’all stand with us?”
It’s been a battle, but with the support of the Louisville Tenants Union, we will win. I’m confident in that. Now, I am one of the organizers with the Louisville Tenants Union and the New Directions Tenants Union. We are a part of them as well. There is power in organizing together and tenant unions like mine, we will win safe and affordable homes for me and my neighbors. That’s the goal.
Luke Gannon: The Louisville tenants have expanded their reach beyond the city knowing that the housing crisis impacts everyone. They are now advocating for policies at the city and the state level.
Jasmine Harris: We had a big campaign against the Louisville Metro Housing Authority. We call it LMHA. Those tenants there, they were wanting new maintenance contract workers. We had a big campaign called Cancel the Contract, and we actually won that. They have new maintenance people in their homes right now. Also, we’re working on a statewide campaign with those fair leases that were created.
People all over Louisville and hopefully in Kentucky will have access to that fair lease. We are running a campaign right now with the historically Black Neighborhood Ordinance, trying to make sure that our historically Black neighborhoods are policy protected. Those are just a few just off the top, but we’ve had a lot of major wins. The battles that we are facing, we cannot do alone.
Like when I started the tenants union work from the beginning, I just wanted change. I didn’t know that it was going to be policies, and we were going to be having to talk to politicians. It was over my head, but now they have adjusted my thinking, I can do this. I will do this for me and my neighbors. The policies and the people that are in “power,” we’ve been doing a lot of talking to them and getting them to stand in solidarity with us as well.
Luke Gannon: As an organizer, sometimes you find yourself deeply entrenched in the all-consuming, day-to-day action and responsibility.
But Jasmine is a visionary and she can picture exactly what a world would look like if safe, affordable housing was guaranteed to everyone.
Jasmine Harris: It would look like a village. In all the community work that I do, we go by this saying, it’s an African word. It’s called ubuntu. Ubuntu means I am, because we are. What that word, our village, I would be able to be great because the people around me are great. Only way we can be great is if we feel safe and if we are more secure, so we shouldn’t have to worry about things like rent.
We would be able to rely more on one another, and our lives wouldn’t be determined by the whims of the landlord. The rent is too damn high. How are we going to be able to function as our highest selves in order to be great for our village? It looks like our children being taken care of and us loving our children more because we’re not so stressed. That burden of having to pay so much in rent or pay in rent period will be freed off.
We won’t have to worry about it. Come here, children. Let me read to you because I can do that at night. I’m not worried about these bills anymore. Come here, my babies. Let me show you some self-care. Right now, I’m in survival mode because I have to be. I have to make sure that me and my children are okay with all of the work that I do, the housing, the children advocacy and the food.
These are things that we should not even have to worry about in order to feel more secure in our homes. It really would look like a village.
Luke Gannon: Jasmine, thank you so much for your truly beautiful words and for working so tirelessly to build a village. But before we let Jasmine go, we had to ask about a book that has impacted her life.
Jasmine Harris: Y’all might already know this, but the Art of War. I honestly haven’t read too many books on housing, but that’s an eyeopener to me, maybe I should. But in the Art of War, it talks about the first thing you should do is strategize. I tend to take that with me everywhere I go.
On any road I choose to follow, is strategizing because that’s the only way that you’ll be able to go into this fight with a clear mind is if you have a clear plan. Once you have that clear plan, then you and your neighbors will be able to organize any injustice better.
Luke Gannon: For the second half of the show, we invited Tara Raghuveer, the director of Kansas City Tenants and a key leader in the fight to reform our housing policies. But before we jump into that, to continue with the flower theme because I just can’t help myself.
I’m going to pass it to the lupine that budded from Modesto and brings joy and nutrients wherever it grows, Reggie Rucker.
Reggie Rucker: Thank you, Luke. The thing I love so much about stories like Jasmine is there’s such a unique quality to them. The sunflower that grew from the Louisville concrete, that’s going to live with me for a really long time. At the same time, while Jasmine’s story is unique, she is not alone. Maybe it’s your story or that of your friend, or your neighbor, or a classmate you didn’t really know well, but know they deserve better from society, deserved a fair shot just like anyone.
That’s why we make this podcast and that’s why we need you. To help us tell these stories and to help share the stories so others can hear and be moved to helping us make this a fair economy and society where we all have a say in how we live, play and thrive together. If you can, take a moment right now, as soon as I’m done, pause this episode and share this with one person you’re close to and encourage them to listen. When you take that action and then that person shares and then that person shares.
That’s how we build a village of people ready to work together for the common good. For yours, for Jasmine’s, for your neighbor, and that classmate, it starts here. Go ahead, pause this episode, send that share, then come back for our interview with Tara Raghuveer, who I must say has become one of my favorite people these last few months. You’re going to enjoy it. Thanks so much. Tara, thank you you so much for your time and sharing your expertise.
I know you’ve done a lot of work in this space over the years. The first question I want to ask, we’re going to have a fuller conversation about how private equity firms have found their way into the housing market, and have disrupted the ability of people to find more affordable housing because of their desire for gobbling up every bit of profit they can. But before we get to that, I know it’s a common question.
When people think about affordable housing, the response tends to be like, “We just need more supply. If there was more supply, it would bring the cost down and then everything would be fine.” Tara, can you speak to that? Can you address the issue of why more supply isn’t the best solution to our affordable housing problems?
Tara Raghuveer: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, thanks for having me. Great to finally meet you.
Reggie Rucker: Thank you. You as well. Thank you.
Tara Raghuveer: The idea that supply solves everything is so reductive, so overly simplified and ultimately deeply unimaginative, relative to the size, the scale, the complexity of the problem that we’re dealing with when it comes to our homes. Ultimately, we cannot rely on the private market to correct itself or to solve a problem of its own making. The profiteers who are the architects of the market that we have today, are looking out for themselves and their bottom lines.
It is honestly foolish for us to expect that they are going to fundamentally change the market in a direction that is not aligned with their own self-interest, which is to make more money. The overreliance on supply as the only solution without considering who controls supply as it is, and who stands to benefit from putting more money into supply and directing more policy in the direction of supporting private supply, is fool hearty and it’s shortsighted.
We can’t just tweak a racist and failed market. We actually need wholesale transformation. If the question is, do we need more housing, the answer is unequivocally yes. The question is, does supply solve everything? The answer in our minds is no, because we can’t blindly build, build, build. We can’t build market rate and luxury housing and expect it to trickle down. It just doesn’t work that way.
It just doesn’t pencil. As the developers say, it does not pencil for us to incentivize market rate luxury housing and expect that that’s going to then magically create deeply affordable housing for tenants like Jasmine, who need a different kind of housing that is just not profitable for the profiteers to provide.
Reggie Rucker: Perfect. I’m glad you were able to address that. Set the record straight on why we need to have, like you said, just more bigger, more imaginative conversations. That’s what we intend to do a little bit here today. Thank you for setting us up for that. In your response, it was very clear that one of the major drivers of our affordable housing crisis, is that profit is too much of the motive.
That, of course, is especially true of private equity firms, who are looking for every opportunity, every corner to find profit from every industry possible. Can you talk a little bit about your understanding of how private equity firms are operating within the housing market? What draws them to it and what are they doing? How are they able to extract wealth from the housing market?
Tara Raghuveer: Absolutely. I’ll start by actually saying a little bit about the Homes Guarantee because I think it’s related to this question of imagination and where we locate our solutions. The Homes Guarantee is a simple premise. We live in the richest country in the history of the world. We can and we must guarantee that everyone has a home. That premise is complicated by what we call a conspiracy of the profiteers, who have limited our imagination and convinced us that housing cannot be guaranteed as a public good.
It must be delivered as a commodity or as a vehicle for investment, or for some to make a profit over some other’s basic need. That’s the world that we’re living in today. And in that world, private equity firms have identified correctly a huge opportunity to make a ton of money. Private equity is now the dominant form of financial backing among the 35 largest owners of multifamily buildings across the country. In 2011, about a third of the apartment units held by the top owners were backed by private equity. A decade later, half of them were.
Private equity-backed firms in the top 35 owners cumulatively held a million apartments last year. They basically act like a corporate version or a bigger version of a house flipper. They seek deals where they’re buying up housing for pennies on the dime. They slash all sorts of costs, expenses in order to maximize savings and profits for their investors. Then they on unload the buildings at a higher price. It’s an economies of scale model that works in this market that is vastly unregulated.
It not only works in the market that’s unregulated, it’s enabled by practices of our federal government. The main enabling force for private equity and the role that they play in the housing market, is financing from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. There’s federal financing that’s actually contributed to laying the groundwork for the private equity buy-up of our homes, by offering government-backed loans to private investors on extremely favorable terms.
Looking the other way when they’re doing what they do best, which is maximizing their profit. Their business is highly risky, and that risk is predicated on increasing rents aggressively and regularly. That risk is a risk that the private equity firms choose, their investors choose, their lenders choose. The only person who has no choice in the level of risk is the tenant, and the tenant also has the most to lose. The cost to them is their home.
Luke Gannon: Wow. Tara, when a private equity firm starts gobbling up housing in a city, I’m curious how this plays out at what scale, at how quickly?
If you can point to an example of a city that this has happened to in recent years and give us the framework for how it happens.
Tara Raghuveer: The first thing to say is it’s almost impossible to actually track how this money moves through our communities. I live in Kansas City, Missouri, where private equity has absolutely had a massive role in changing our housing market in the last decade. It’s extremely difficult for me to tell you the precise story of investor driven capital infused into the market, and how that actually plays out in the neighborhoods that I walk through every day.
That’s on purpose that it has to do with that deregulation or the lack of regulation that we’ve seen at the federal and every other level of government. It’s good business practice for them. They’re shielding their investors, they’re shielding the owners of these firms from any accountability to the local communities in which they do their business. There’s absolutely been a huge impact in a place like Kansas City where I live.
In almost every community across the country, there’s been these massive buyouts, whole blocks bought up, whole neighborhoods bought up by private equity capital. That story is when it’s really hard for us to disaggregate and tell. That’s the first thing I want to say. There are some places like in California, for example, where major private equity firms have made major plays, and it’s a little bit easier for us to see their impact.
But I do actually want to tell you a story about a property in Kansas City called Willow Creek Apartments. It’s a property that’s owned by a landlord, a national landlord named Landmark Realty. Again, I don’t know for sure what the story is of their connection to private equity capital. But it’s our observation in studying their business model, that almost certainly there’s some private equity capital in the mix. Landmark Realty is based in California.
They’re run by some folks who live out there, and they’ve invested mostly in communities that look like mine, like Kansas City, mid-size rental markets. Willow Creek Apartments is a building where we have leaders living there. One leader comes to mind, his name’s Harvey Nash. He’s fought many eviction filings in the last year, and he’s facing another rent hike right now. Meanwhile, he lives in pretty deplorable conditions.
He’s not only facing rent hikes, but all sorts of fees and fines, $67 for the water, $10 for renter insurance. After all the bills are paid, Harvey, who lives on a fixed income, has nothing left. He has nothing left, and he has no other options of places to go. Meanwhile, so we’ve started to study Landmark’s business and specifically their business in properties like Willow Creek Apartments.
In 2015, Fannie Mae backed a $58.8 million mortgage for Landmark to purchase this apartment building. Since then, Landmark has aggressively and regularly increased the rent. When we studied their business model even deeper, what we see is that their business isn’t doing so hot. They took out a loan for 80% of the property value, and when the loan was underwritten, they were expected to have a gross income of $9.6 million, but in 2022, their income was only $8.2 million.
They’re barely bringing in enough money to cover their monthly loan payments. Their business is predicated on increasing Harvey’s rent, and they have to do so aggressively and regularly every year to pay back their loan. Again, they’re in a risky business, but that’s a risk that they chose. Their investors chose, their lenders chose. The only person who had no choice in that risk is Harvey, and he’s the person facing homelessness if the risk goes awry.
Reggie Rucker: That’s such a terrible illustration of how this all works and that leads to the maybe obvious question. You mentioned some of the regulatory agencies, the policymakers at different levels. There’s a lot of people who could do something about this and to this point have not.
What’s the solution? How do we get regulators policymakers, again, at different levels? How do we get people interested and bold enough to do their job, and to create a market that ends up with people with affordable housing?
Tara Raghuveer: Yeah. I think the first question that’s important to answer is why the federal government doesn’t take their role more seriously on these types of issues on housing, on regulating private equity. Until very recently, the federal government’s position has been this is not a federal issue. This is a state and local issue. To that, we say the nature of the rental market has changed such that this is absolutely a federal issue. It has to be a federal issue.
In the last decade, we’ve seen the market consolidated by private equity. By corporate actors who have entered the market and bought up a lion share of it, and they don’t function in a way that’s limited by state boundaries. These are multi-state corporations, if not global corporations at this point, and the federal government absolutely has a role in regulating their business across state lines and protecting the consumers who are part of their business equation.
The other thing that we think about is the role that the federal government actually plays in enabling these business models to continue. Through Fannie and Freddie, the federal government is not just a neutral party in this market. It’s actually a contributor to how the market currently functions. Therefore, has a role to play in fixing the market, solving for some of the problems that we identify.
The other thing I will say is that it’s been our observation that there’s no one in the federal government who wakes up thinking about tenants as a constituency base and that’s a big problem. Even at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the charge is about housing providers and it’s about home. It’s not about tenants. It’s never been about tenants. Part of our organizing project is making the case that the tenant needs to be an end user or needs to be a constituent.
That someone, hopefully many people in the federal government are thinking about in a daily way. And not just the tenant, but also the biggest bill that most poor and working class people pay in this country is their rent. It drove me crazy last summer to talk about inflation. We were saying the rent is too damn high. The rent is a core driver of overall inflation, and the White House was focused on gas. That’s fine. People were in pain paying gas prices that were too damn high as well.
The rent is the biggest bill month over month that any poor and working class person pays. The rent is so fundamentally different for a monthly household expense sheet than a roll of toilet paper or a carton of milk.
Reggie Rucker: We spent a lot of time talking about eggs, so yes.
Tara Raghuveer: Exactly.
Reggie Rucker: I get it.
Tara Raghuveer: Listen, I love eggs. The cost of eggs was horrific and the cost of eggs in my monthly budget versus the cost of my rent, we’re talking about two different things. One of them makes or breaks me in a month. The other one is a pain point for sure, but it’s a different scale of pain. Our argument is it’s not only that the tenant needs to be center in policymaking at the federal government level. Also, the rent as a core factor in our economic policy, needs to be thought of and treated that way.
The rent is the elephant in the room in federal economic conversations. This has been relegated to a third rail domestic policy issue. That is not what this is. This is a central economic issue in this country and globally. The global economy in so many ways is predicated on the American housing economy, which in so many ways is predicated on our ability or inability to pay our rent. I think it’s important to start with why this issue has not been taken as seriously as it needs to.
Our call right now is for the federal government to take seriously its role in intervening in the dynamic between landlords and tenants. That skewed way in favor of landlords at the expense of tenants and their livelihoods. For us, that intervention today needs to look like the Federal Housing Finance Agency introducing regulations on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that say, “If you are borrowing from government-backed loans, if you’re benefiting from government-backed loans, that comes with strengths attached.”
You can’t increase the rent beyond this amount year over year. Every dollar of federal financing, subsidy tax credit should be conditioned on a reasonable set of protections that ensure that the people of this country are stable in their homes.
Luke Gannon: Tara, what I’m hearing is that in the housing market, the federal government has ultimate jurisdiction. Is there power at the city and the state level to regulate housing markets?
How does that play out if that power does exist? Can you give us an example of a city that has implemented policies to keep this speculative investment out?
Tara Raghuveer: Absolutely. There’s a role for every level of government. I think the thing that frustrates us is when we go to one level of government and they say, “It’s not on us, it’s them actually, it’s the feds.” Then we go to the feds and they say, “It’s on your mayor.” That’s what’s frustrating, it’s this passing of the buck that’s happened for so long to the extent that no one’s taking responsibility for a massive crisis that’s playing out in every community across the country.
There’s absolutely a role for the state government and for local governments. I think in particular, for cities and municipalities, there’s a major role to play that’s not dissimilar to what we’re asking for at the federal level. At the city level, one of the major ways that capital moves through cities, is through tax incentives for private developers on the promise that they will be building housing. That they will be adding to housing supply that will house the people.
So often what we see is that their business doesn’t pencil without the tax break that costs our school kids. It costs our public resources to give them that tax break. Then in the end, they’re not even building housing that we can live in and that ain’t right. At the local level, there’s a lot that can happen to reform this tax incentive policy that fundamentally enables, again, a business practice that is all about maximizing profits, and it’s not about housing the people.
There’s corrections for that world as it is. Then there’s also policies that we would love to see more of to actually locate the provision of housing outside of the private market and start guaranteeing it as a public good, as the public good that it should be through public backing. We’ve been proponents of the idea of what’s called social housing, which is housing that’s permanently off of the private market. It’s not available for speculation, investment, et cetera.
It’s housing that’s publicly backed into perpetuity, democratically controlled by the people who live in it. This is a model that’s existed in cities across the world for a long time. It’s not something that exists in the United States today, I would say, because there’s a market devotion that we can’t rid ourselves of, but we must. We actually must, which brings me to my last point, which is like this market devotion, market fundamentalism, whatever you want to call it.
Our opponents in these types of campaigns will say to us, “We can’t possibly regulate Fannie and Freddie. If we do that, it will fundamentally change the market. The liquidity that we’re trying to stabilize in the market will be impacted for the worst, et cetera.” To that we say, “That’s the point. The market today might be working for you. It is not working in general.” It is working for a small number of architects of the market who benefit, because they maximize their profits in the world as it is.
Today’s market is not a story of market success. 44 million people who struggle to pay their rent every month, that’s not a story of market su success. That’s a story of market failure. A million people who sleep on the streets in the richest country in the history of the world, that’s not a story of market success. It’s a story of market failure. The rent being so damn high, 20% increases in some regions across the country during a pandemic, that is not a story of market success.
That’s a story of market failure. We are trying to change the entire structure of the market. We’re not apologizing for that or hiding from it. That shift needs to occur at the federal level, but also at the state and local as well.
Reggie Rucker: Tara, actually I’m going to follow up with you quickly. You’re talking about just different models that exist elsewhere and don’t exist here. Then one of our board members just recently retired from leading the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board in New York, and so they have this cooperative ownership, cooperative housing model.
Is that something that approaches this idea that you’re thinking about and getting the speculation and the private ownership out of the market, and having it through more community-owned housing? Is that an example or is there something close to what you’re thinking about that we can get to?
Tara Raghuveer: Yeah, absolutely. I think cooperatives, community land trusts, limited equity co-ops, like all of these models are a component of what we would consider social housing. Collective ownership, democratic control, these are the core tenets of social housing. The reason that we’re focused on structural change at a government level, is that A, we need public backing in order for these projects to be sustainable over time.
B, there’s a level of scale that we have to be serious about achieving, in order to combat the problems that we observe in the market today. One co-op over here and another land trust over there, is not the intervention in the market at the scale that we need at this point. Given the forces that we’re up against, we have to take seriously the role of private equity, for example, in buying up whole blocks and neighborhoods.
We got to get serious with ourselves about the fact that our struggle won’t be won exclusively building by building, block by block. We actually have to be operating on every level, in order to combat the forces that we’re up against today.
Luke Gannon: Tara, I’ve learned that change takes a long, long time, and I think your vision of social housing, guaranteeing housing as a public good is 100% what we need.
I also know that it’s going to take a lot of years to get to that. I’m curious, what are you optimistic about at a day-to-day timeframe in your fight?
Tara Raghuveer: Tenant unions, period. Jasmine just told you some stories from the Louisville Tenant Union in Louisville, Kentucky. I organize with KC Tenants, the citywide tenant union in Kansas City, Missouri, and there’s tenant unions across the country that have been organizing for years and years. New ones that are coming up right now as people get serious about the idea that there are more of us than there are them.
Meaning there are more tenants than there are people who control and commodify our homes. But that only matters if we’re connected to each other, if we are politicizing our identity as tenants and wielding that power that comes in the collective. Tenant unions give me hope. My tenant union gives me so much hope. We just had a major victory that we announced yesterday where we’ve been organizing with a building of Burmese refugees and Mexican immigrants for the last three months.
They were facing a mass eviction threat from a New Jersey landlord, who wanted to flip the property and rent it for market rate. They had been paying $350, $400 in rent for years and loved their community, needed to stay there. Many of them just frankly had no place to go. Where do you go when you get priced out of Kansas City? When you get priced out of New York, you might come to Kansas City. Where do you go when you get priced out of Kansas City and you live on a fixed income?
They had no potential places to go. Just yesterday we announced our big victory, which is that eight households will now be able to stay in their homes paying $400 in rent for at least the next two years. The city is coming in to guarantee the remainder of the rent, an additional $450 per unit with strings attached. This is the critical piece. I don’t love that the landlord gets paid after all of this.
I do love that these tenants are eight households in Kansas City that now have rent control for two years, can’t be evicted for two years, and a whole set of other tenant protections that are built in as a condition of that public money. That shit gives me hope. Listening to Jasmine gives me hope. Listening to the vision of tenants that’s so clear and it’s not radical. Jasmine said, “Come here, children, let me read to you.”
It is not radical that Jasmine wants the kind of spaciousness in her life to read to her children. That also gives me hope, it’s knowing that our demands are not radical. They’re what Jasmine is owed. They’re what we are all owed, and they’re very practical solutions to such intense pain. They’re necessary. It is a political inevitability that our solutions will be won. The question is just how, and that’s a question we’re working on answering.
Reggie Rucker: This is so powerful. Thank you so much, Tara. So much of what you said, it really, truly just blew my mind. I keep going back to it, I will forever go back to this idea that the way that we think about housing policy currently has nothing to do with tenants. Like you said earlier, that is just insane. It’s insane.
The question we’re going to have you add to our book library as well. We’ve been building up this book library from all of our guests who have joined us. We’re coming up on summer, maybe some summer reading. Is there a book that you’ve read that influenced the way that you think about your work, your life? What’s something that you would recommend to our listeners who care about this issue or doing work for the common good?
Tara Raghuveer: I am a huge Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s fan, very lucky to have come into a friendship with her. She’s a brilliant scholar who was an organizer in a former life. You can tell because it shows up in the way that she studies and writes about all sorts of issues, including but not limited to housing. But her book, Race for Profit, has been really important for me.
There’s a Lucille Clifton poem called The Good Times that I always think about, when I think about how our demands are not radical. It goes like this. My daddy has paid the rent and the insurance man is gone and the lights is back on. My Uncle Brett has hit for $1 straight, and they is good times, good times, good times.
My mama has made bread and grandpa has come, and everybody is drunk and dancing in the kitchen and singing in the kitchen. These is good times, good times, good times. Children, think about the good times. It’s such a simple vision for what we want. We just want to be dancing in the kitchen and celebrating good times with our loved ones, so I think about that poem a lot.
Reggie Rucker: You have me over here crying, close, close. Thank you, Tara. This was so great. Thank you so much.
Luke Gannon: Well, thank you so much, Tara, for this thoughtful conversation and for joining us on the show today. Thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in to this episode of Building Local Power.
You can find links to everything discussed today by going to ILSR.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. That is ILSR.org.
Reggie Rucker: If you like this podcast, please share it with your family and your friends, the random people who followed you on social media because you’re such a great follow everyone. Remember, all of your reviews and likes on your favorite streaming platform really does help with the fancy algorithms to get this podcast in front of more people.
Your donations are essential to help us keep this podcast going and support the research and resources that we make available on our website for free. We truly welcome and appreciate all of it. This show is produced by Luke Gannon and me, Reggie Rucker. This podcast is edited by Drew Birschbach and Luke Gannon. Our theme music for this season is composed by Andrew Frank. Thank you for listening to Building Local Power.

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Music Credit: Andrew Frank, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Photo Credit: Andrew Frank, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Podcast produced by Reggie Rucker and Luke Gannon

Podcast edited by Drew Birschbach and Luke Gannon

Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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Luke Gannon is the Research and Communications Associate for the Independent Business team.

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As Communications Director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Reggie develops communications strategies and leads campaigns to build public support for ILSR local power initiatives. Contact Reggie with media inquiries.

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