Written by Craig Birckhead-Morton
Photograph by Caroline Tanbee Smith
The Sisters in Diaspora Collective just marked the culmination of a year-long campaign last Monday. On July 11, the New Haven Board of Alders held its second hearing on the housing proposal the group put forward in January. Roughly 70 New Haven residents filled the gallery of the Aldermanic Chamber to attend the Finance Committee’s meeting about the Collective’s proposals. 31 people testified at the meeting, with almost unanimous support in favor of allocating more federal funding to address the housing crisis in the city. Regardless of how the Board of Alders votes on our proposal in August, we, along with other coalition organizations, have demonstrated the power of grassroots organizing.
Havenly is dedicated to building the community power of immigrant and refugee women – in other words, we build their power to effect change in their lives at an individual and collective level. Since 2018, the Havenly Fellowship has been building the strength of this community in New Haven through a job training and education program. In February of 2021, a group of alums of the Fellowship and Havenly staff founded the Sisters in Diaspora Collective, a multilingual, immigrant, women-led group dedicated to fighting for material improvements in the lives of its members and extended community. Over the past year, the Collective has provided a space for women in the refugee and immigrant community to work in solidarity with other New Haven organizers to create a city where people’s basic rights are protected and upheld – such as the right to live and keep a roof over one’s head.
The Collective formed at an incredibly precarious but simultaneously opportune time. Millions of Americans were being threatened by COVID-19, unemployment, hunger, and homelessness. However, Congressional deliberations on the American Rescue Plan (ARP) provided us with hope. This legislation, which was enacted into law last March, appropriated tens of millions of dollars to communities like New Haven in order to assist in their recovery from the pandemic and the recession. These funds were won through years of organizing across the country, and provided an opportunity to not just recover, but to rebuild, imagine something different.
Unfortunately, while the City proclaimed a commitment to being led by the community in determining how the money would be allocated, their “community input process” was executed in a way that left out the majority of New Haven residents – and most importantly, those most affected by injustice and COVID.The first $26 million of the total $115 million ARP funding was spent back in May 2021. Then in December 2021, the Mayor and the Board of Alders rushed through $12 million for surveillance cameras and police bonuses via voice vote.
Disillusioned with the methods of City Hall, the Sisters in Diaspora decided to craft their own demands. These demands were written to reflect and respond to the reality that the most urgent preoccupation for thousands of New Haven residents is a lack of affordable housing. The group started from their own experiences. Nearly every member of the Sisters in Diaspora faces extreme difficulty in keeping up with the rising rent prices in New Haven, and whatever federal or state subsidies exist to support low income tenants are both hugely insufficient and discriminatory. Many of the women in the group have been on Section 8 waitlists for years, with no indication of when they will ever receive a voucher. Others are barred from even applying for Section 8 vouchers because of their immigration status.
While conversations among the Sisters in Diaspora initially focused on the difficult situations of individual families in the group, they soon realized through conversations with each other and with other community groups in New Haven that the challenges they faced were not limited to just their families or just to the immigrant community. In October of 2021, the Sisters in Diaspora held their own community input session about how ARP money should be used, and it became clear from the diverse perspectives shared in the room that housing was also the priority for single mothers, people currently living on the street, formerly incarcerated people, the disabled, the elderly, and the broader working class in New Haven.
This year, the New Haven Affordable Housing Commission found that 54 percent of residents are housing insecure, meaning that they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. According to DataHaven, the average resident is $17 thousand short of affording a two bedroom apartment. This is in addition to the roughly four hundred people who are outright homeless in the city. Finally, a study conducted by WalletHub ranked New Haven as the 30th worst city to rent in the United States, and as the fourth worst with respect to rental affordability.
On January 18, the Mayor submitted a proposal to the Board of Alders to spend another $53 million of ARP funding. This proposal allocates $10 million to his “I’m Home Initiative,” with only part of that money going to rental assistance, as well as $4 million to be used as seed funding for a land bank. The Mayor’s proposal is especially disappointing – he has decided to allocate more funds to policing and surveilling people than to housing them. Moreover, $10 million is nowhere near enough to address the scale of New Haven’s housing crisis. All of these factors led the Sisters in Diaspora to send a letter to the Board of Alders putting forward their own proposal. On January 21, they called for City Hall to allocate $62.5 million of ARP funding to housing.
The group is pushing for $50.5 million to be invested in 1) creating new affordable housing units, either by buying properties currently owned by corporate landlords or by rehabilitating currently vacant city-owned buildings, and 2) providing $12 million in rent relief for the thousands of families on the waiting list for Section 8 and other public housing programs.
The group had to wait six months for the Board of Alders to hold a hearing on the group’s proposal. During that time, the Sisters in Diaspora were very active in building a coalition around their demands. Along with the New Haven branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the group organized a rally outside City Hall in March. They received support from New Haven Housing Fund, the Central Connecticut chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, People’s Collaborative for Dixwell, and others in the community. This push for housing justice coincided with the reinvigoration of the Room for All Coalition, which has been at the forefront of the housing justice movement in the city for years. The Coalition includes several organizations such as Mothers and Others for Justice, Witnesses to Hunger, New Haven Legal Aid, the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, New Haven Rising, and more. Over the course of the past few months, the Coalition has been taking the message that housing is a human right directly to New Haven elected officials.
With New Haven residents being pushed out of their homes, out of the city entirely, or in some cases onto the streets, it is time to stop treating housing like a commodity to be speculated on or profited from. Rather, housing should be treated like a right, a guarantee in a just society. Our city is facing a housing crisis, and it is time for our elected officials to start treating it as such. Their continued allocation of crumbs of funding and reliance on market solutions should be seen as nothing less than a political failure.
Housing justice is a community-wide issue. As demonstrated by the June 14 and July 11 meetings, the housing crisis is deeply threatening to all segments of the working class, whether they be low-wage service workers or middle-income professionals. Housing is the basis for better health, better educational outcomes, and better employment opportunities. This is why our proposal to take housing out of the ownership of unaccountable corporate landlords and put it into the hands of the public is so consequential. By making housing a human right, we can begin addressing the cause, rather than the symptom, of so many other issues in New Haven.
What we are seeing in our city is a steadily swelling movement for housing justice. What began as conversations about an issue in the immigrant community has quickly become a much broader coalition. More and more residents of all walks of life are ready to come forward and publicly denounce the injustice of watching our rents rise exponentially for substandard housing, while every day construction continues on a new luxury apartment building. We are seeing a growing number of people coming together and naming this injustice as a political failure on the part of our local elected officials.
Neither $10 million nor additional job training and education programs – with which Havenly is all too familiar – is sufficient to address the problem. Sustained political action from residents and a sincere budgetary commitment from the Mayor and the Board of Alders is what it will take. ARP funding presents the city with a once in a lifetime choice: make housing justice a reality, or continue to allow private capital to exacerbate the city’s housing crisis. The Sisters in Diaspora Collective stands united in calling for housing justice, and will continue to do so far beyond this moment.
No matter how this moment concludes, as a community that includes people across language, race, nationality, profession, and neighborhood, we look back on this year and gain strength from knowing that we have built power that will last beyond this one campaign. The work ahead is to keep this movement going and growing until zero people have to sleep on the street in New Haven, and until every person and family has access to a dignified, affordable, safe place to live.