Ilhan Omar Is the Fighter the Tenants’ Movement Needs

With the demand for a homes guarantee, housing organizers want to create a Medicare for All for housing justice. Ilhan Omar is taking their vision to Congress.

Representative Ilhan Omar waves to the crowd at a campaign rally for senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at the University of Minnesotas Williams Arena on November, 3, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Scott Heins / Getty Images

“Today I’m excited to introduce the Homes for All Act,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar on Thursday, “which will fulfill the promise of a homes guarantee by building 12 million new public housing and private, permanently affordable rental units — vastly expanding the available affordable housing stock, driving down costs throughout the market, and creating a new vision of what public housing looks like in the United States.”

When Linda Armitage watched Omar’s video announcement on Twitter, she cried. Armitage is a seventy-seven-year-old public housing resident and member of the housing committee of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, a grassroots senior organization in Chicago. “This is what we dreamed of and worked hard for,” she says, “and here is a big piece of it in black and white.”

Omar’s ten-year plan would devote $1.2 trillion to end the housing crisis in the United States. $800 billion would go to building 9.5 million new public housing units, $200 billion would go to the Housing Trust Fund to build private units that are permanently affordable, and $200 billion would go toward establishing a Community Control and Anti-Displacement Fund at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Crucially, the plan stipulates that there will be no discrimination on the basis of criminal record or immigration status in the allocation of units. It also says new units should be situated near public transit and private vehicle alternatives (think walkability and bike paths), and that the homes should be built to the highest possible environmental standard and target carbon neutrality. The last two provisions align the plan with the tenets of a Green New Deal, which views as inextricable the fights against climate change and economic deprivation.

“The legislation that Representative Omar introduced today … is the first time in over a century that someone in the federal government is taking the issue of housing insecurity and homelessness on at a scale that actually matches the scale of the problem,” says Tara Raghuveer, an organizer in the tenants’ movement in Kansas City and the director of the national campaign for a homes guarantee.

Like the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act unveiled by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders last week, this bill would leverage public investment in housing to advance decarbonization and other forms of environmental improvement in working-class communities across the country. Public opinion research led by the sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen with Data for Progress has found substantial majority support for building green public housing.

Raghuveer stresses, too, the importance of Omar’s bill’s attention to community control — the new fund at HUD would involve communities in decision over anti-displacement and anti-gentrification policy. But Omar’s bill also reflects the vision of housing organizers on the ground, Raghuveer says — and we can trace the origins of Omar’s proposal directly to tenants like Armitage themselves.

From the Ground Up

The Homes Guarantee campaign was launched by a network of housing activists involved in the group People’s Action. The campaign has a grassroots leadership team of one hundred people who are directly impacted by the housing crisis, Raghuveer explains. “Some of them are public housing residents. Some of them are people who have or are currently experiencing homelessness. Some are tenants in private housing facing evictions or poor conditions and harassment. All of them have a deep personal stake in the issue.”

That grassroots team has been organizing through People’s Action for the better part of two years, alongside an organizing team comprised of leaders in local housing struggles and a policy team whose members were vetted by the grassroots team.

“Our grassroots team was pretty unapologetic about what they wanted,” says Raghuveer: policy team members who were “ready to go to work to deliver on the grassroots vision, not vice versa.”

At a retreat last year, members of the organizing team laid out some potential campaigns to begin organizing around. The grassroots team considered them and decided to aim higher. “We wanted this to be the campaign that creates the Medicare for All of the housing justice movement,” Raghuveer says. “11.8 million people are extremely cost-burdened, paying over half of their income in rent. So if you account for that, we think we need 12 million units of social housing that’s permanently affordable and off the private market.”

Raghuveer says that “a lot of the folks on the policy team had been toiling away at these ideas for a long time, but without connections to a base politicized around them.” In People’s Action, they found that base.

Armitage is a member of the grassroots team. “I lost everything in the recession in 2008,” she says. “I moved into a senior building owned and operated by a nonprofit. Six months after I moved in, the nonprofit decided they were going to sell the building to the highest bidder.”

She and the other tenants, all between the ages of sixty-five and ninety-two, “were just traumatized. We got in touch with Jane Addams Senior Caucus. They helped us organize. We won, and we were sold to the Chicago Housing Authority, and that’s how we became public housing residents.” In that process, Armitage also became an organizer in the fight for housing justice.

Since the official rollout of the national campaign for a homes guarantee in September, the grassroots team has presented its vision to audiences including the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Iowa People’s Presidential Forum. Their efforts have caught the attention both of presidential candidates — Bernie Sanders has adopted the campaign’s ideas into his housing plan and explicitly called for a homes guarantee; Elizabeth Warren was at first reluctant but faced pushback, prompting her to release a housing plan closer to the vision of the campaign — and of leading progressive members of Congress.

Ilhan Omar’s new plan draws directly from details in the homes guarantee plan, and she cited both People’s Action and coalition partner the Center for Popular Democracy in her press release.

“Grassroots leaders had a vision for a systemic fix to a deep and humongous housing crisis,” says Raghuveer, “and Rep. Omar ran with their vision.”

By adopting the homes guarantee demands into her new proposal, Raghuveer says, Omar and her team are playing a necessary leadership role by advancing the demands of the tenants’ movement — a movement that’s “saying incrementalism is dead. Let’s really go for it.”

Armitage agrees. Omar and Ocasio-Cortez “believe in movement politics. They listen. They see what we see, they feel like we do, and they know that something has to be done. … The people on the ground are not listened to a lot, and now we are.”