What happens when you invite 30 advocates, whom you have never met, to talk about housing policy from all corners of the state, from multiple backgrounds, and many lived experiences for three days? What happens is that you undergo an incredible experience that centers you in reality, and opens your mind to bold, new ideas for housing justice.
I had this opportunity to spend time with advocates from across the state over a span of three days in Lincoln City in early July. We connected on what we were working on, what our needs were, and how we could support each other in our endeavors. What was different and powerful about this convening was that it was in-person and, for many of us, it was the first in-person meeting we’d had in two years.
The convening was a collection of thirty individuals with backgrounds as direct service providers, developers, residents of affordable housing, and public policy advocates. We came from metro areas, central Oregon, eastern Oregon, the northernmost part of the Oregon coast, and all the way down to Brookings. We collaborated, we debated, we lifted each other up, we cried together, and we learned so much.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I still dream about my experience. I took home an enormous amount of information and knowledge, and I hope I enabled others to do the same by sharing my own lived experiences and my work in housing justice advocacy. One takeaway from those three days was the reminder that public policy advocacy has been fundamentally different these last two years. The pandemic has removed a core component of what makes housing justice advocacy successful, cooperative, community-based, and fun: it’s being together in-person, hearing directly from our partners and people with lived experiences.
My biggest takeaway came from us collectively looking back on the history of housing, and how it informs our group’s collective vision for true housing justice in Oregon. We reviewed the role our systems played to create and perpetuate housing injustice. For example, early on in this nation’s history, courts played a substantial role in stripping land from indigenous people. One Supreme Court case in particular held that because white men had “discovered” the land which is now called the United States, the government then obtained a right to claim title to all land, either by purchase or conquest. In Oregon, we have also seen the impact of eminent domain, covenanting, redlining, and predatory housing financing practices that actively remove Black families from their neighborhoods, and keep these families out once they’ve been removed.
Collectively, the resurfacing of much of this history cuts deep and reminded us of many of our own personal experiences with housing instability or homelessness. Many of us have been subjected to racist housing policies, or continue to live in the realities of underfunded federal programs, as well as the current capitalist structure of the housing industry.
And it was clear for all of us that it doesn’t have to be this way. We understand that much of why safe, stable, and affordable housing is not currently available to everyone is the way that our society perceives what housing means. While housing can be a way to build assets for families, it is also overly commoditized. Land and structures are too often accumulated en masse for the purpose of turning a profit, and not for benefiting families and communities. This profit-seeking model acts as a special detriment to families and individuals who rent their homes, who have no real bargaining power with wealthy landlords, and to people experiencing homelessness, where the concept of a safe, stable, and affordable home becomes further out of reach.
As we continue to pursue housing justice in Oregon, we must collectively agree that housing is a human right, and that this right suffers under the continued profit-seeking model to which our society has subscribed over several centuries. With a resource so scarce and so valuable as land suitable for residential use, we need to have the hard conversations about how we as a society can pivot from seeing land as an investment, towards treating land as a public, accessible, and shared resource.