No Unity Without Community
Updated: Mar 12, 2020
In light of the shooting of Javier Torres by the RPD last night, the sentiments expressed by the women of the WCHC Press Conference are truer than ever. We stand in solidarity with the families and neighbors who are connected to Mr. Torres, Raleigh PACT, Save Our Sons Inc, and with Raleigh‘s residents of color.
It was the last of Black History Month and the eve of Women’s History Month when the woman-led Wake County Housing Coalition said enough is enough.
The WCHC -- a group of Raleigh residents impacted by the ongoing affordable housing crisis -- and their allies met outside of the Raleigh Convention Center for a press conference in protest of the event inside. The same council who abolished the Citizens Advisory Council with no replacement, approved a shell of a police advisory board, and then stood by as Larry Jarvis and his staff populated the Housing Bond Advisory Committee with everyone but residents being impacted by their decisions -- this same council was hosting a Black History Month celebration called the “Mayor’s Unity Day.” To the tune of thirty thousand dollars, city council rented a room in the beautiful convention center, catered breakfast and lunch, brought in singing groups and choirs from our HBCUs, and gave speeches about the significance of the contributions of the Black community to Raleigh’s past and present. At the same time, City staff held meetings in other parts of the city with no food or family-friendly activities, that would determine the Black community’s future -- including invitation-only meetings with the Mayor. If there was ever a time to speak out about the true meaning of unity, the time had finally come.
Jazymne Childs, field manager for AdvaNCe Carolina and the lead organizer for the WCHC, created this organization because she was angered by the housing injustice that was happening in one of the wealthiest counties in the state, and she knew she had to do something about it. Childs understood through other campaigns created by AdvaNCe Carolina that the answers for the community lie within the community. So she set out to bring together impacted residents, local activists, business owners, non-profit representatives, public sector workers, and accomplices to create a plan to work with the city to ensure equitable and affordable housing.
The WCHC press conference was a beautiful statement about the strength of Black women and white allies coming together to speak truth to power. The speakers for the event were Legal Aid NC attorney Yolanda Taylor, long-time Raleigh activist and fair-housing board member Wanda Gilbert-Coker, former Raleigh councilwoman Stefanie Mandell, minister and activist with Raleigh PACT Rev. Barbara Smalley-McMann, and activist and staffer at BlueprintNC Wanda Hunter. Coming from diverse backgrounds, these women stood together in solidarity around the most pronounced injustices facing the city. Eugene Taylor, a.k.a. The Drum Prophet, played hand drums while children danced with signs declaring “Housing Is A Right,” and “No Subpoena, No Power,” reinforcing the fact that these injustices may affect poor Black and Brown people the most, but many more are hurting -- and none of us will go unharmed.
To open her speech, Yolanda Taylor declared, “Mass gentrification is not equitable economic development. There can be no equity without shared prosperity.” Taylor informed the crowd that in Wake County, over 3,500 residents pay more than thirty-percent of their income on housing, and over eight thousand families pay over fifty-percent. This data from the Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy is over five years old, just before gentrification and mass displacement in Southeast Raleigh went into overdrive. Ms. Coker painted a vivid picture of Raleigh’s homeless residents, “As we speak, there are veterans, students, families, and individuals sleeping in cars, in tents, and cheap hotels because the City refuses to build low-income housing.” The News & Observer recently did an investigation into these hotels, some of which have permanent school bus stops due to the number of kids living there. The N&O found that these families are just a few doors away from registered sex offenders, prostitution, and drug activity. Some of them have even witnessed overdoses and violent beatings. Meanwhile, city council is looking for ways to turn more housing into short-term rentals, a tactic that has been widely blamed to an even further dwindling of affordable housing, raising of rent, and real estate privatization.
In their speeches, Stefanie Mendell and Wanda Hunter spoke on the “treacherous” ways in which City Council abolished Citizen’s Advisory Councils, or CACs. Mendell made a strong point about the effectiveness of CACs in comparison to other institutions in our city, “The Council majority said they needed to end CACs because not enough people are aware of them. They cited statistics from a 2016 survey that only 5% of Raleigh residents had attended a CAC meeting in the past year. But their 2018 survey says about 25% had. That’s the same percentage of folks who have ridden a City bus in the past year. And it’s a higher number than the 17% of voters who turned out in the last City election.” Hunter also made an important point about the real issue with the decision the council made: the process by which it occured. “You should have used up-to-date data [on CACs in your decision making], then kept them in place - doing ‘both-and’ - while you research and continue to engage other people in the community.” The hasty and secretive governance by the Council has left many across the City feeling confused and genuinely betrayed -- wondering if they truly desire real “community engagement.” An attendee of one of the Mayor’s closed door meetings informed me that Mayor Baldwin was surprised the Black community was offended by the revoking of CACs. It is hard to believe that, after serving as an elected official for over a decade she did not understand the value of these meetings to Black residents. But if this is true, it points to a much larger issue with our current Council.
Barbara Smalley-McMan said it best, “I have been advocating with Raleigh PACT for five years before the City Council. I have noticed in that time that minority voices don’t seem to matter as much as the voices of the white community do.” Raleigh doesn’t just have a housing affordability problem, it has a Black-displacement-and-homelessness problem. It doesn’t have a police accountability problem, it has an excessive-force-against-Black-and-Brown-people problem. Council’s refusal to admit to the racist inequality in our city is the very reason why it has gotten worse year after year. As Dr. Ibram Kendi says in his book How To Be An Antiracist, “You cannot correct racist policy with non-racist policy.” Mere “non-racist” policy still requires interpretation, which often has racist impact. Council cannot correct decades of housing discrimation and predatory lending by loosening zoning restrictions. Making it easier for developers to build cheaper and faster will not encourage landlords to accept housing vouchers. Privatized real estate in the fashion of STRs and Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) will not solve our homelessness problem -- and evidence suggests they will only make it worse.
While many of us want to believe ignorance is the reason why our Council is refusing to speak to the racist elements of their efforts around housing affordability, the campaign contributors and day jobs of our Council members make that impossible. There are many on the council who will profit greatly, in their careers and bank accounts, from turning a blind eye towards the destruction of Black people and their community and creating regulatory speedways for real estate developers.
Dr. Kimberly Muktarian explains the impact of the council’s decision around community engagement, affordable housing, and police accountability with damning accuracy:
It is imperative that we understand the impact of today’s lynching tactics and their effect on Black America. Many may say ‘lynching is a rope,’ No, I tell you today that lynching is just the ability to choke another person out. And our community has been choked out of employment. They have choked us out of housing. They’ve choked us out of the school system. And when our children can't cope with racism, they suspend them at alarming rates. They displace us like they displace us in the home. They put us on buses and ship us to the nearest prison, or to the nearest alternative school. You depreciate us to the point that you drive us crazy. Then you take us to the point of no return. And when we are in need of mental health, you close down the institution that would have helped us and turned it in to a dog park. Then you come back and shoot us down like dogs.
One that cold, rare day that only comes on a Leap Year, WCHC declared their list of demands for City Council:
1. Conduct an open and comprehensive report on affordable housing related to projects, programs, and bond measures related to the City of Raleigh.
2. Develop stricter measures of accountability for developers and corporate interests in the Raleigh/Wake County housing markets.
3. Full restoration of CACs and their funding as an autonomous, community-led process.
4. Greater transparency through access to all city council meetings and subsidiary bodies, equipped with livestream and prominently displayed on the city of Raleigh website.
5. A solid majority of impacted residents on the Affordable Housing Bond Advisory Committee, the definition of which to be determined by community input.
Finally, Hunter adds, “We demand that the City Council apologize to the citizens for the treacherous ways they have abused their power.” Since the new council convened just five months ago, they have protected privileged and powerful people, while leaving poor Black and Brown people to fend for themselves. As history repeats itself, the most dependable agents of change - Black women and their accomplices - are on the front lines and standing up to City Hall to remind them that, as Wanda Coker declared, “Our votes matter. Our voices matter, too.”