Tara Rahguveer is a force to be reckoned with. The national housing campaign she directs at People’s Action takes an uncompromisingly radical demand as its North Star: everyone in the United States should be guaranteed a safe, accessible, affordable home. This vision collides with the reality of housing insecurity that many Americans face, a reality that is entangled with the commodification of housing, deepening inequality, a history of segregation, and neoliberal ideas about individualism, markets, and the role of government. It’s a reality that’s only worsening, as thousands of individuals unable to pay their rent during COVID-19 now face eviction. 

We talked to Tara about the value of having a clear vision and long-term agenda, the differentiation between radical and reformist approaches, and the lessons about narrative change she’s learned by organizing low-income tenants. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

Jonathan Heller: Tell us about the long-term agenda work that drew you to People’s Action three years ago.

Tara Raghuveer: I was coming from the immigrant rights movement in the period right after Trump was elected. I felt that a lot of organizing spaces were highly reactive to the status quo as opposed to strategic about the direction we needed to head. I heard about the long-term agenda work at People’s Action and it lit me on fire. It was a forward-looking, visionary idea for what the world should be. The theory is that when we have the ability to imagine our North Star — the thing towards which we are organizing — we can organize our campaigns in that direction. Otherwise, we get stuck in incrementalist reform cycles where we try to win something today to make things marginally better, but that may or may not actually align with the path towards the North Star. 

For example, in this moment of upheaval around police violence and white supremacy, many of the reforms proposed empower police departments, giving them more money and purview. That takes us away from what some would consider the North Star: abolition. Some abolitionists have been strategic about defining the North Star vision and providing helpful frameworks to understand what we can do today towards that vision, as opposed to things that take us in the opposite direction. That's what I mean by long-term agenda. 

The Homes Guarantee really became a long-term agenda campaign within People's Action. The goal that everyone in the United States should have a safe, accessible, affordable home is our North Star vision, and everything we do along the way should be towards that vision.

JH: These kinds of ideas have been taking hold in organizing over the last few years, and they seem contrary to Alinsky-type organizing.

TR: Yes, I think that's right. Most of my mentors are Alinsky-trained organizers and I think there's tension within the field. Some people subscribe to a long-term agenda organizing practice, and others feel strongly that we need to win today in order to build the base to win tomorrow. The two approaches are not totally irreconcilable, but the ways in which they differ offer meaningful reflection points as we build campaign strategy. 

Judith Barish: Tell us about the Homes Guarantee. How does it shape how you build power, reform laws, transform systems, and change the public conversation?

TR: The Homes Guarantee is the simple — though complicated — vision that in the richest country in the history of the world, we can and must guarantee that everyone has a home. Period. In order to guarantee a home for everyone, we must shift away from treating housing as a commodity, as it has been for the last several decades, if not centuries, towards housing guaranteed as a human right, a public good. We are able to apply that as a filter to every campaign we run to see whether it concretely moves us towards a world in which housing is treated as a public good and away from a world in which housing is commodified, or at least does not entrench us further in the world in which housing is commodified. 

Increasing funding for public housing is a great example of a campaign that can be run today that takes us towards the Homes Guarantee vision because public housing is one of the only remaining facets of American housing that is still in the public realm and not completely privatized. Investing more resources and making public housing a viable model in the future takes us towards the vision for our Homes Guarantee. Similarly, we have organizations that are running campaigns related to rent control and “just cause” evictions. These kinds of tenant protections might seem like incrementalist fights, and they are to some degree, but we see them as stepping stones in the direction of that North Star because they fundamentally change the balance of power between landlords and tenants. That allows us to build more power for the next stepping stones.

JB: What would be an example of how this can be applied to solving the problem of homelessness?

TR: In the Homes Guarantee framework, the way you solve homelessness is by providing people homes. Again, period. It's a great window through which we can understand the pitfalls of incrementalist policies that move the wrong direction. Providing money for vouchers to people experiencing homelessness does not move us towards the vision of a Homes Guarantee because it re-entrenches us in this idea that we can’t actually guarantee permanent, stable housing for folks, so we must temporarily house them in a hotel, an extended stay, or a half-way home. Another example is shelters. Putting more money and resources into a shelter system that is under-resourced but not ultimately the structural solution is often counterproductive. Kansas City spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year keeping the lights on at shelters, but that comes at a cost. We don't spend those hundreds of thousands of dollars on proactive housing policies that keep tenants in their homes and out of a situation where they're experiencing homelessness. 

Of course, we know it’s not a zero-sum calculation. In the world as it is, and on the way to a Homes Guarantee, it’s worthwhile to spend money to maintain a functioning shelter system while we make massive investments in community land trusts and permanent supportive housing. But cities and states often treat this as zero-sum, and the immediate relief is prioritized at the expense of interventions that take us towards a longer-term solution.

JB: Where does narrative come into this and how are you trying to change the way people are thinking about homes and homelessness?

TR: It’s everywhere. We are combating deep, entrenched dominant narratives about housing and land and property that are connected to the American Dream. That makes housing one of the most difficult issues to organize around. It has to do with the particular American strain of racial capitalism and the ways in which our land and housing policies have been built over time, as well as who they protect and prioritize and who they extract from and oppress. Much of this has to do with racism: who do we allow to use housing for wealth building and who have we always cut out of that?

JB: What are the narratives you're up against in the housing fight?

TR: The biggest one that we're tackling with the Homes Guarantee is this idea that housing can only be delivered by the private market, that housing is a commodity. Profiteers have orchestrated a highly successful campaign, executed by both political parties, to convince us all that the only way to deliver housing is the way that we deliver it now. We suffer from collective amnesia, because we have done things differently in the past, and the government has intervened in massive ways to secure white wealth when it comes to housing and home ownership. It has completely and utterly failed to do so for other communities and, in fact, has done the exact opposite for Black and brown communities. 

The narrative that follows, which we also have to fight, is the claim that public interventions have failed. This narrative that public housing was and remains a complete disaster is one of the toughest narratives standing in our way. Again, there's been a highly successful campaign against public housing, to stigmatize public housing tenants. But the structure of public housing and the design of the policy were never the problem. The problem was austerity and disinvestment, racism and more disinvestment, and then, ultimately, demolition. Public housing failed because we didn't give it a real shot. We didn’t give it a real shot because public housing is not the way private capitalists make money.

There's a deeply American dominant narrative about individualism that runs through all of this. We see housing as an individual's problem and responsibility, as opposed to a social responsibility. That sets America apart from many other countries where housing is considered something a decent society must provide to all of its residents. That narrative about individualism is pernicious; it seeps into the brains and souls of people who are the most impacted. The result is that some people see it as their fault that they end up evicted or unhoused. That's where organizing comes in. It takes a good amount of agitation to move people out of that place and into recognizing the systems that have failed so many for so long. We have leaders in our base at KC Tenants whose ancestors were slaves, whose grandparents fought in multiple wars and never benefited from the G.I. Bill, whose parents did not get the education they deserved and who themselves grew up in poverty. Now these leaders are dealing with eviction and homelessness and feel like it's their fault. But let's roll back the clock a few centuries and examine the ways in which their family was never set up to succeed and, in fact, was completely robbed. A system created the housing crisis we confront today, not individual missteps. So a systemic change must address the housing crisis at its roots. Bootstraps won’t cut it.

JH: Do you have a set of narratives you're using to counter those neoliberal narratives?

TR: Many of us on the Homes Guarantee team think that the basis of narrative is individual story. To the extent that we've been strategic about building our narrative in public, we center the voices and experiences of people who are directly impacted and try to confront those opposing but dominant narratives whenever we can. An example is the work we did around canceling rent in the last couple months. With Representative Ilhan Omar, we wrote the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act in April with the idea that we should cancel rents and mortgage payments for the duration of the pandemic. Rents and mortgage payments have not been canceled to date, but a lot of what we were doing with that legislation was narrative work. Through individual stories, we were publicly forcing the question: Why should individuals be forced to pay rent during a global pandemic — during a period in which we have the highest levels of unemployment ever?

JH: We've been exploring whether policy change or narrative change comes first, and we've been hearing that they need to be combined.

TR: My perspective, for right now, is that narrative change comes first. In the Homes Guarantee campaign, we're learning the same lesson over and over again: we don't have the power that we need to win. Even with the Democratic-controlled House, we on the left have little power. A lot of that has to do with our base, which is not big enough yet. There's virtually no ceiling on our potential base building, considering the tens of millions of people who are struggling to pay their rent. But the truth is those people are not yet in our base. We haven’t achieved scale. That leads back to narrative: because neoliberal narratives around housing are so deeply ingrained, we need to be more strategic about a campaign to change hearts and minds. We need to mainstream the narrative of what's wrong with the current system and whose fault it is and a vision for a different way, for a Homes Guarantee. This may need to happen before we can be successful in base building at the scale we need to win the policy change. 

JB: The idea that housing is a public right is radical. Do you think about narrative stepping stones to getting there?

TR: Someone asked me about the “Abolish ICE” slogan on Friday. They said that some in the immigrant rights movement argue that a slogan like that is more distracting than it's worth, that it doesn’t call people into our movement. I disagree. I think the more radical slogans are useful. “Defund the Police” is a great example. It's a lightning rod that leads to more public and political education more quickly. When people start to interrogate what it means, we grow. 

Another example of a narrative stepping stone. We have 120 down-ballot candidates running on a Homes Guarantee. Some of them are winning, and winning with a Homes Guarantee at the center of their platform. People are hungry for a bold vision. They are sick of the more incrementalist approach. A bold narrative about a better world allows people to see distinctions between folks who may appear similar but actually believe fundamentally different things. Both Democrats and leftists can say the words “Housing is a human right.” But leftists will say “Homes Guarantee,” and Democrats will say “housing tax credits.” That's a totally different approach. These distinctions are instructive, and if we make the slogan more palatable, it's harder to see those distinctions.

JH: Have you thought out a series of campaigns you'd want to run to get your larger goal? 

TR: Yes, both in particular places and at the federal level. We already have a couple of state and local Homes Guarantee cuts. In New York, a statewide coalition called Housing Justice for All, the coalition that won an historic set of tenant protections last June, is now organizing for a New York Homes Guarantee. Their demands include public housing, social housing, and tenant protections. Similarly, in Los Angeles, a City Council member introduced an L.A. Homes Guarantee with some of our groups. Our goal is to seed at least five more state or local Homes Guarantee campaigns in the next several months to move both the policy proposals and the narrative.

We are doing some scenario planning to determine how and when we would dig in on a federal strategy. We don't have enough power to win a Homes Guarantee right now. In the short-term, we might have enough power to repeal the Faircloth Amendment, which bans us from constructing public housing in this country. It’s crazy: the U.S. has had a ban on constructing public housing for the last twenty years. If Democrats won the Senate, that might be something we could get, and it would be a significant step towards a Homes Guarantee. 

There's other low hanging fruit. There’s a seventy billion dollar backlog in capital repairs for existing public housing units. We should pay down that backlog and reinvest another hundred billion dollars in public housing to make it sustainable and climate resilient. That would be a massive win in the direction of a Homes Guarantee. 

JH: Your strategy around engaging candidates and elected officials to change the narrative is interesting. Tell us more about that.

TR: We were strategic in the way we introduced the Homes Guarantee to the world. I can tell a pretty story about it in retrospect, but it wasn’t completely planned. We spent last summer developing the vision for the Homes Guarantee. We wrote a briefing book that had depth but was also clear about the vision. We needed it to engage in the 2020 Presidential Election; when candidates asked us what we wanted, we needed a document we could send them. We brought together a policy team and went through a three-month process to draft something, get feedback from 115 movement organizations, and create a final version.

We launched the Homes Guarantee in September using a digital strategy. I'm used to making phone calls, getting people on a bus, and turning folks out to an action. I don't really know what it looks like to build power on Twitter, but I think we did it. We launched the vision on Twitter. We tracked down influencers we wanted to share our message, people who would credential our idea. On the first day, AOC, Bernie Sanders, Naomi Klein, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Bree Newsome Bass, and others shared the vision from our grassroots leaders. Left twittersphere influenced leftist publications. That then influenced the left presidential campaigns. Campaign staff were tracking that kind of thing. We engaged several candidates. Three weeks into September, the Sanders campaign put out his housing platform. It was basically the Homes Guarantee. In fact, he used the word “homes guarantee.” That moved Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and that put us in more serious conversation with Sec. Julian Castro and others. In 2019, most of our earned media was in The Nation, In These Times, and types of outlets we can typically rely on for solid movement reporting. This year, the Homes Guarantee has started to break into more mainstream publications: The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, The New Yorker. None of that would have been possible had we not been credentialed early by influential organizers and leading leftists. Mainstream folks are looking for the bold vision, they turn to someone like Bernie, and then they find the Homes Guarantee. The work with Homes Guarantee candidates was an electoral strategy that turned into a narrative strategy, and it all helped us distinguish leftist challengers from incumbent Democrats.

JH: Do you feel like that’s replicable?

TR: It’s totally replicable. Distinctions might come in on an issue like immigration, where a lot of the policy is federal. It might be harder to nail local candidates on specific positions they don’t have jurisdiction over, but on almost every issue there is a way to replicate this model and, frankly, candidates are hungry for it. In a local race for city council or something like that, it’s unlikely the candidate is going to have enough bandwidth or expertise to have a rigorous  platform on every issue. If they generally are aligned ideologically with a left agenda, it's helpful for them to have a set of ideas, sourced from grassroots leaders and credentialed by movement organizations. They can consult local leaders and sign on. 

JB: What do you see as the opportunities or obstacles for cross-movement collaboration?

TR: There is a lot of room for collaboration. We have to operate from a place of abundance. We are forced falsely into a scarcity mindset; we are told that there are zero-sum decisions, like whether we spend our money on health or housing. That's not the decision. It’s whether we spend money on protecting private property or taking care of people. Do we spend money on police or do we invest in communities? 

There are clear intersections between our issue and healthcare, climate justice, mass liberation, and reparations, for example. And more broadly around economic issues, like public banking and anti-corporate work. We collaborate closely with Green New Dealers; they're starting to echo our calls for a Homes Guarantee within the Green New Deal, and we've knit the Green New Deal into our vision for the Homes Guarantee.

JB: How is individual storytelling by local leaders connected to changing the national conversation?

TR: If I engage with presidential candidates alone, it’s not any different from an advocate in D.C. with white papers promoting their policy ideas. The game changes when Tiana Caldwell and Linda Armitage, two grassroots leaders from our campaign, are on a stage with Elizabeth Warren, asking her questions based on their own experiences with housing insecurity. Warren's conception of the issue changes because it's humanized in front of her eyes. 

Every single time we meet with our grassroots team, our grassroots leaders make our demands more radical than they were before. Every single time. It’s not because our grassroots leaders are aiming for some kind of ideological purity or something, it’s because they know what they’re owed. Once people begin the process of transforming personal pain and trauma into public power, they become very clear on what has been taken from them, by whom, and what they are owed. So the connections between grassroots organizing and broader movement work are important, and we can't take shortcuts on the organizing side of that equation.

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