After CTO

Submitted by Randino on Fri, 02/16/2018 - 14:09.

  line-height:200%">After CTO

200%">by Randy Cunningham


200%">            The Cleveland Tenant’s Organization (CTO) officially closes its doors on February 15, 2018 ending almost 43 years of service to the tenants of Cuyahoga County.  It provided invaluable services including education on landlord tenant law and was an organizing and advocacy center for tenants in subsidized housing.  I worked at CTO for the last 14 years of my working life, retiring in 2014.  The demise of CTO was no surprise for many of those who worked for it and were close to it.  I will cover what I think brought CTO to grief and what we should consider carrying on its work.

200%"> line-height:200%">The non-profit trap.

200%">            I spent two thirds of my working life working for non-profits.  Some of the finest, most dedicated people I ever met in my life worked for non-profits.  But there are a host of problems that are endemic with non-profits and these problems created the context for what went wrong with CTO.

200%">            It begins when non-profits are called the Third Sector of our economy.  Calling them a sector is a fiction because they do not have an independent source of income.  The private sector has profits. The public sector has taxes.  The so called Third Sector has a begging cup and is a colony of the private and public sectors.  The public-sector contracts for specific services. In CTO’s case it was tenant education. The private sector is the big funder through philanthropic foundations.            

200%">            Elite control is the main job of the philanthropic foundations of America.  Control over wealth that would otherwise be taxed and distributed by decisions of the political bodies of society. Control over the cultural resources of society.  Control over profit centers such as med/ed institutions like the non-profit Cleveland Clinic. Control over real estate development which is heavily influenced by foundation money which funds amenities that boost the value of real estate.  And finally, control over how public issues are framed, and how advocacy, activism and dissent are managed in American society.

200%">            If you are a non-profit whose mission includes advocacy and activism, the amount of leeway you have depends on your IRS status.  If you are a 501c3 like CTO was your allowable activities are limited to non-partisan activities such as voter registration, and limited lobbying. The meaning of “limited lobbying” is where the devil is, and organizations must tread lightly.  Martin Luther King Jr. had to constantly look over his shoulders to see how his activities were being received by his funders. David Browder, famed arch Druid of the environmental movement, was kicked out of the Sierra Club for jeopardizing its tax-exempt status.  Then more recently there was the East Side Organizing Project (ESOP) in Cleveland, that had its funding yanked, when Mayor Michael White complained to a funder because they went after one of his allies. Such actions are effective in reminding non-profits who they work for and who has power. With 501c4 designations you have more freedom.  You can engage in issue and legislative advocacy, lobbying and endorsement of specific legislation, but you must be non-partisan, cannot publicly endorse a candidate though you can endorse them to your membership. No funds used for this activity are tax deductible.

200%">            Ultimately, how much you can do will be rigorously determined by your funders.  How much you are involved in advocacy and activism will be watched very carefully by funders who may decide that they will only fund “safe” activities like real estate development and direct provision of services.  This puts non-profits in a peculiar position. If they do become involved in policy work, they cannot become fully involved in policy work, because policies are determined by politics.  In the world of politics, you are either at the table or on the menu and non-profits are not even in the room, even though they are listening in at the door and can occasionally shout their wishes through the door. 

200%">            In the case of Cleveland, most non-profits ended up administering programs that were won by the previous generation of activist organizing groups. These groups were shut down in the early 1980s by funders for being too rambunctious in their activism. The service groups can only administer the past. They are not free to do the tasks of educating, organizing and mobilizing for social change to move beyond what was won in the past, because in most cases that involves confrontations with corporations that fund foundations or politicians who are on the corporate pay roll. 

200%">            Another problem with this system of funding non-profits is familiar to anyone who has spent any time in the non-profit field. Foundations, especially “liberal” foundations, have the attention span of a 3-year-old. Their fickleness is legendary. What was the issue de jour today, may fall out of favor tomorrow leaving a non-profit to either scramble for a new sponsor, alter its mission or expire like a beached whale.  Many of the so called “liberal” foundations are driven by the stunning assumption that after a few funding cycles and by some act of god you are supposed to be self-funding - like a muffler shop. Conservative foundations play the long game. Conservative foundations marry you. Liberal foundations tell you they had a wonderful night and will call you later.

200%">            It is no coincidence that foundation funded non-profits proliferated when austerity politics launched a war on the public sector in the 1980s.  It is bad public relations to appear to have no concern for poor and vulnerable populations.  Non-profits helped maintain the myth of elite empathy for the downtrodden at a pittance of the cost of public sector initiatives paid for by taxes, and with tight control of how the money was spent.  They were an essential fig leaf.

200%">            CTO represented tenant organizing when tenant organizing was cool.  It was also a contemporary of a movement of community organizing and activism in Cleveland that was ended when the foundations moved funding to safer, non-controversial activities such as housing development, weatherization and handing out smoke detectors. CTO had enough of a service component and was needed by City Hall to deal with landlord tenant issues, to save it from the wrath of the funders. But the chill was felt all the same. Finally, there was the corporatization of everything starting in the 1980s, where the organizer with a picket sign was replaced by the button-down entrepreneur as a cultural hero. Clients were customers. Programs became products. Mission statements became marketing strategies.  And CTO watched as the world it was founded in, slowly disappeared and it became a stranger in a strange land.

200%"> line-height:200%">Get Big or Get Out.

200%"> line-height:200%">              line-height:200%">The Cleveland Tenants Organization was the only tenants’ organization in the State of Ohio.  It occupied a rare niche.  Outside of Cuyahoga County, the lot of being a tenant could be a very lonely one.  You might, and I stress the word might, be able to get some help from a local legal aid society, but such agencies have been under perpetual siege by conservative politicians and interests since the 1970s. They are overwhelmed and underfunded, and a tenant who would want to go to their offices and is poor and does not have ride, a car or public transit is out of luck. 

200%">            One of the most heartbreaking things you could encounter as a tenant counselor at CTO was to receive a call from desperate people who were located anywhere from Lorain or Ashtabula Counties, to in one case I remember, someone called me from Scioto County.  You were not supposed to help anyone outside of our service area – meaning Cuyahoga County – but I always believed that it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission, and I did so with impunity. The person’s call was just not logged. I could not turn my back on them.  I offered them as much information as I could, knowing full well that they would probably end up on the short end of the stick, regardless. 

200%">            The fact that there was no Cincinnati Tenants Organization, or Columbus Tenants Organization, or a Toledo, Akron, or Athens Tenants Organization, doomed CTO to the existence of an endangered species of plant or animal whose unique habitat is being whittled away by loggers and miners. CTO’s isolation gave it even less of a limited political influence and increased its funding vulnerabilities.  There were proposals to go statewide or help seed other local tenants’ organizations, but the board of CTO balked, and this isolation further weakened CTO’s position.   

200%"> line-height:200%">The Decline of Tenant Organizing.   

200%"> line-height:200%">            On this point I don’t have any great analysis of what led to a decline of tenant organizing in project-based HUD buildings, where CTO used to be so prominent.  I was working in a different part of the shop and can just speak to what I know from my general observation at the office.  It may have been because of competition with more pressing priorities, and funding demands. It did not help that organizing of any sort became a dirty word in funding circles.  I will bow to other opinions on this.  However, I do know that this used to be a founding mission of the organization, is still vitally important to those who live in such properties, and if there is any group of tenants that need organizing help now it is this group.

200%"> line-height:200%">The Vise Tightens.

200%"> line-height:200%">            Vulnerable to the whims of funders, representative of a repudiated era of social conscience and idealism, CTO died a death of a thousand cuts where any one cut was not fatal, but many cuts together were.  CTO was the last to be paid for its counseling services by city hall.  The check was always in the mail but never in the mail box.  Every pay day was a miracle. The recession of 2008 caused foundations – even those few who might still be interested in what CTO did – to close their wallets, leading to a major die off and retrenchment of non-profits.  I recall counseling a young woman who had been laid off by her agency and was facing eviction and I tried to give her some idea of how much time she had before she had to move back with her parents. There were many such people. This retrenchment also happened at a time when funders no longer feared the unrest of the 60s and 70s which was a prime motivator of its earlier experiment in funding community organizing.  Cleveland was pacified. The fig leaf was no longer needed.

200%"> line-height:200%">CTO is dead! Long live its memory and mission!!

200%"> line-height:200%">            CTO finally expired from a long terminal illness.  We may mourn it, but we should not try to bring it back from the dead.  It was the product of an era that is now long gone. Its demise is not only a misfortune, but it is an opportunity to not repeat its mistakes and ask the question what the best way is to empower, represent and further the interests of tenants today.  What follows are some suggestions on how to carry on CTO’s mission, without the accumulated baggage of the past 43 years.

200%"> line-height:200%">Kicking the non-profit habit.

200%"> line-height:200%">            How to fund activism is an old conundrum that has bedeviled activist groups from the beginning.  The other side of the coin is how to organize in such a way that you are not forced to sell your soul to your funders. 

200%">            I have not only been an activist for far longer than I want to remember, but I fancy myself a chronicler of activism, produced one book on community organizing in Cleveland, and I am currently in a wrestling match with a manuscript on grass roots environmental activists and activism.  The funding question is always a topic in my interviews.  Various organizations are 501c3s but are very careful to keep a dependency on foundation funding to a minimum and have a very diverse and deep fund-raising culture that is not dependent on big funders.  There are also organizations that choose a 501c4 status that gives them much more freedom to pursue their advocacy and activism.  Then there are the groups that have said “the hell with it” and totally abstain from the philanthropic merry go round. They are volunteer organizations and have no paid staff.  Their foundation is passing the hat. This is a hard road to walk and depends on the energy and dedication of its activists and supporters to sustain, but it has its benefits as well.  Such groups are not constantly tip toeing around, looking over their shoulders to make sure that they are not out of favor with foundation A or B.  Their leadership is not always on the corner with the begging cup. They are not spending huge amounts of staff time detailing and justifying their activities for endless funder reports or answering RFPs (requests for proposals).  But best of all, they can bravely go where others fear to tread by staking out new issues, new organizing campaigns, and yes – even on occasion doing something that looks wild and crazy to their more constrained peers. Future tenant organizing should follow this path. 

200%">            Now this leads to another issue.  You will need some funding.  That is just reality. Where do you get that funding?  I say from your base and that you should fund raise as if you are a union – from your membership.  This immediately causes a whip lash response if you are dealing with a low-income constituency.  “How can you ask people for dues, when they have nothing?” Well, everyone has something. They are not sleeping on the floor. They have a TV set. They have a cell phone. There is a six pack in the fridge.  They can pay dues.

200%">            My model for this was Caesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers.  He insisted that members pay dues and one would be hard pressed to find a population poorer and more oppressed than the farm workers of Delano in the mid-1960s.  His thinking was that when they pay dues, they have an investment in the organization, and if they are not willing to pay dues then either they are not ready to organize, or the organizers are not speaking to what is important to them. 

200%"> line-height:200%">Go state wide.

200%">            Any new wave of tenant activism and organizing must commit to the goal of creating a state-wide tenant organization and commit to it from the beginning so that it is a founding principle.  To commit to it, is to also to commit to serving the needs of that hell hole of tenant rights – rural and small-town Ohio.  The last hiding places of landlords who think they are gods. 

200%"> line-height:200%">Tenants only.

200%"> line-height:200%">            One of the absurdities of how we had to operate in CTO is that you could speak with a client about their rights and responsibilities as a tenant, while in the next desk over another counselor was speaking with the landlord who was doing everything in his or her power to screw said tenants.  It was a requirement, drum roll please, of our funding.  Any new tenant organizing must be of, by and for tenants and tenants only. The landlords can always hire an attorney, and if they say they cannot afford to hire an attorney then they are in the wrong business and should sell their properties to a landlord that has an attorney.

200%"> line-height:200%">Going beyond the Landlord Tenant Act of 1974.

200%"> line-height:200%">            The Ohio Landlord Tenant Act of 1974 was a great leap forward in tenant rights and was a rare progressive breakthrough in a state where the 19th century is still alive, and all the calendars are wrong.  It at least gave tenants some small chance at justice in contrast to previous landlord tenant law which hailed from English feudalism. 

200%">            Democracy, justice and human rights, however, cannot rest with the status quo but must move forward or they will die.  Security and stability of tenancy is one area where an advance is needed.

200%">             In Cleveland, there is about ten thousand evictions per year.  Most of these evictions fall on the backs of the poor.  This is the part of the population who live a quasi nomadic existence and whose lot is only slightly better than the homeless into whose ranks they frequently fall.  It means children who must change school districts in the middle of the school year. Children who already have the cards stacked against them because of such scourges as lead poisoning, and just the simple fact of being poor.  Both the children and their parents have social networks disrupted that are vital to your survival if you are poor.  They must redraw their maps of where to go for health care, social services, and learn new bus and rapid routes.  The process of being evicted and finding new housing may result in their losing employment.  If the eviction proceeds to a move out, they will probably lose most of their belongings. The final problem is that it interferes with their rights as citizens.  The poor already consider – for no small reason – the political system to be irrelevant.  Having to pack up and move to a new location means having to change your registration, if you are registered, and finding out where your polling station is.  It also means having a whole new set of political representatives.  Eviction is second only to encounters with law enforcement, as a curse on the poor.  Evictions were made harder by the 1974 landlord tenant act.  But it is still too easy for significant parts of our population. 

200%"> line-height:200%">The inevitability of politics.

200%">            There are two types of people in this world. Those who are political, and those who choose to abstain from politics and thus volunteer to become the victims of those who are political.          

200%">            Those who work to organize and empower tenants for the defense of and furtherance of their rights cannot afford political chastity.  They can be sure of one thing. Their opponents in the landlord and real estate industries have no such qualms about getting their hands dirty in politics.

200%">            How they go about this depends on whether they decide to go for non-profit status of either the 502c3 or c4 variety or decide to wing it on their own. They certainly should form a political action committee of some sort and start to get familiar with the political world they will have to dwell in.   

200%"> line-height:200%">De-privatizing rental housing.

200%"> line-height:200%">            I am a full throated, unabashed and unashamed advocate for public housing.  One of my only occupational regrets is that I never worked for Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA).

200%">             My sister in law ended up living in her car with her husband and two children until they lucked out and got into public housing in Massachusetts.  The change in their stability and quality of life was immediate and dramatic.   Her husband got on SSD, she got a job and her kids began going to and succeeding in school even to the point where her daughter got a scholarship and graduated from Wellesley College.

200%">            The private housing market never has, does not and never will give a damn about the housing needs of the poor.  And it does not have much use for those who are living next door to poverty either.  The non-profit housing world, in many cases, is a mixed bag and is so enthralled with the corporate outlook that it is frequently tougher on tenants than even corporate landlords are.

200%">            I was the director of a program to find housing for the homeless. The poor of the poor.  Many were burdened by past encounters with the justice system.  I found that CMHA was far easier to work with than the project-based Section 8, where the subsidized buildings were owned by a private party.  I found that the staff in public housing were much more sympathetic to their tenants.  When one of my clients ran into difficulty, I could always talk to management to patch things up.  If they were rejected for housing, I would appeal at the drop of a hat and took great pride in winning over half of my cases. 

200%">            Housing justice is impossible in the private housing market.  It is another example of the bankruptcy of the “private sector good, public sector bad” mantra that has dominated the past generation of public policy.  We must rehabilitate public housing in the eyes of the public, must diversify how it is delivered and organized, and double the amount of public housing, and then double it again. We must make housing a right, not a commodity.         

200%">            So, there it is from one who was there.

200%"> line-height:200%">           

200%">Randy Cunningham worked for neighborhood based non-profit housing corporations, was a Housing Court Specialist for the Cleveland Housing Court under judges William Corrigan and Raymond Pianka and ended his 34-year housing career with the Cleveland Tenants Organization. He is the author of Democratizing Cleveland: the rise and fall of community organizing in Cleveland, Ohio 1975-1985.  

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