The Shadow of Affluence


The New York Times Magazine cover story today is an article by Ben Austen focused on the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign (CAEC), a group that, in the words of its co-founder Willie Fleming (a.k.a. J. R.), moves "home-less people into people-less homes." The article chronicles how the CAEC liberated twenty foreclosed homes for use by people who really need them, and its hopes to liberate scores more. Detailing CAEC’s method of carefully selecting a home and then working with the surrounding communities, Austen artfully brings to the surface profound questions about the perverse housing situation we have allowed to persist.

Not surprisingly, the neighbors of these newly reclaimed homes overwhelmingly support the moving in of tenants selected by CAEC, who will care for properties that would otherwise be left to degrade, creating hazards for the whole neighborhood. What is perhaps surprising is that, when Ben Austen was interviewed on Morning Joe, the Financial Times' Gillian Tett mused on bankers being between a rock and a hard place, and Joe Scarborough asked where CAEC got the authority to do the work they were doing. J.R.'s response, in the article, to the question of legal niceties – when people are homeless and surrounded by a surplus of empty homes – was "human rights." Once again, social justice leaders are framing in moral terms what is becoming a desperate battle for survival for far too many in our country.

In describing Chicago, with its thriving city center increasingly surrounded by rings of misery, Austen used the phrase "in the shadows of affluence." To be precise, these conditions persist in the shadows cast by a specific kind of affluence that increasingly plagues our country and our world characterized by growing inequity and a desire to keep wealth concentrated at any cost. How else are we to explain skyrocketing hunger paired with attacks on food subsidies in a country with a surplus of food (much of which we throw away), or homeless people side by side with people-less homes? Indeed, in one of the very neighborhoods where CAEC does its human rights work, the University of Chicago built a $700 million state-of-the-art medical center but chose not to provide adult trauma care – a galling display of social abandonment in an area overwhelmed with trauma of all kinds, including the type such a center could so ably address.

The 'guerrilla activism' referred to in the NYT article's headline does not quite do justice to the range of activist tactics the campaign has deployed. Over the years, CAEC has actively engaged with international mechanisms and federal domestic policy in seeking to generate solutions. NESRI worked closely with the Anti-Eviction Campaign, and others, in facilitating the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing's 2009 U.S. visit – where she heard testimony from over 70 communities and 2,000 individuals struggling to meet their fundamental housing needs – and on the Campaign to Restore National Housing Rights, which challenged harmful federal legislation and made recommendations on public policy issues.

The Anti-Eviction Campaign’s members, as the article notes, have taken up the measures they have in large part because they believe – with a great deal of evidence at their disposal – that the government has utterly abandoned its people, and no-one else will take the necessary steps to protect basic and unquestionably essential rights, such as housing. Austen’s thorough and well-researched article offers nothing to contradict that belief.

For more information about the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, click here.

To read Ben Austen’s article about the work of Chicago activists in full, click here.

The grassroots report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing's U.S. mission can be found here: Our Voices Must Be Heard.

To learn more about the UN Special Rapporteur’s visit to the United States, watch More Than A Roof.