Saturday, January 17, 2009

Flag Wars, Derelict Houses, and Community Organizing

Flag Wars was a 2003 documentary shot in nearby Columbus Ohio. It's won awards and been the subject of discussion on some online forums. It's probably best known for the gay/lesbian vs black conflict (and the homophobic spin on that conflict). Yet the movie is actually more valuable and interesting than that, which lifts it out of the category of "another gay movie".

Of more interest and relevance to the Dayton situation was the story of Lisa Mitchell, a woman who apparently inherited her families house but isn't able to take care of it. It's pretty clear from the movie the house is in bad shape and Mitchell is a mess, though a likeable mess. The movie also does touch on the black neighbors and their strong sense of community, including their churches.

And near the end some of these neighbors and church members band together do some fixing-up of Mitchells' house. Mitchell, though, is terminally ill and dies near the end of the documentary. One also sees this sense of self-help and neighbor helpin neighbor when another neighbor helps work on Mitchells plumbing.

A Flag Wars Lesson For Dayton?

As you can see by the post below on Adelite Avenue, not all the problem housing in Dayton is under absentee ownership. Perhaps the situation with the owner-occupied houses is similar to Lisa Mitchell in Flag Wars: people would want to fix things up but just can't for various reasons.

Perhaps the solution is to pick a neighborhood where this is becoming an issue but not an insurmountable one, meaning an area that is not seeing wholesale vacancy and abandonment. Then follow this approach

  • Organize the target community to address problem housing, using local churches and perhaps community organizations and block watch groups as resources for activism and membership.
  • Involved groups like Habitat for Humanity and the ISUS charter school to obtain outside support and assistance, particulary with skilled labor but also perhaps materials
  • Organize into work groups to repair owner-occupied nuisance property, and obtain permission from the owners to fix up their property
  • Obtain construction materials via money from grants, donations, and perhaps something like an ED/GE grant.
Perhaps this grassroots self-help approach could solve the problem of houses falling into decay due to lack of funds or ability to maintain them. Clearly not everyone in a neighborhood would be interested, but presumably people who are already active in churches and such are already more engaged so maybe more likely to participate.

This type of community organization could also be used to pressure the true absentee slumlords in a neighborhood by doing things like organizing political pressure to strengthen the relevant codes and enforcement, and doing high-visibiliy TV-camera-freindly direct actions like running pickets outside of the slumlords' suburban homes and workplace.

This type of action, and the highly visible media coverage that would ensue, would put the problem squarely on the local policy agenda. It would also give community activists the moral high ground as they can point to their self-help efforts while asking what the slumlords are doing to fix up their property.

Looks good on paper but probably too idealistic for reality.


Anonymous said...

I will have to check this out. Do you live in Columbus Jeff? I remember you said you didn't live in Dayton but neither Louisville anymore either.

Jefferey said...

I still live in Dayton but plan on moving.