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Cassie James Speaks Out On Housing

by Josie Byzek
Thank you to Mouth Magazine, 4201 SW 30th Street, Topeka, KA 66614 for the reprint of this article.

What Can We Do About Housing?

Cassie James is an organizer with ADAPT, DRACH, Not Dead Yet, and Disabled In Action. She founded the Pennsylvania Action Coalition for Rights in Housing. Cassie herself escaped from public housing and works for Liberty Resources, the CIL of Philadelphia. Photo by Tom Olin.

Last time we asked Cassie how we can undertake to train more housing advocates in the complex field of housing law for people with disabilities. She said, "Housing advocates don't have to know it all. You just have to know what's right."

The housers and even HUD (Housing and Urban Development) don't pay any attention to the law. Why should we?

"The law says that five percent of any housing built with government money has to be built to be accessible. We've never gotten HUD to enforce that law. If we want ten percent of housing built accessible in our communities, we should go out and fight for that. We shouldn't be restricted by the law. We should base this battle on our need for housing." We asked Cassie to put forward a housing agenda for our readers. "We have to make it as simple as this," she said. "The system hasn't worked for us. It's not working. It's never worked."

Cassie said that "eventually there's going to be street activism. Right now we just need to know what [housing] should be, and get angry about not having that."

Why aren't disability groups more active in housing?

I think the subject of housing is made to be intimidating to all poor people, not just to disabled people. They complicate it. You have all these different numbers for buildings and funding streams and populations, and you have quotas for how many of certain minorities are supposed to be in certain buildings, and so on and so on.

It's all made to be really mysterious and complicated so that poor people will have a hard time understanding their rights to housing. We have to make it as simple as this: every human being has a right to a house to live in.

We shouldn't be intimidated to fight for housing because as complicated as it can seem, we don't need to try to understand it. We just need to fix it.

Right now HUD is building segregated housing for us while they're talking about economic integration for everybody else. They'll still have 811 programs [segregated housing that's bundled with 'special' services] with separate funding streams. HUD and Congress still continue to listen to 'providers' who make money off segregating us rather than listening to us.

Is the answer in Section 8 vouchers?

Here in Philadelphia, we demanded a certain number of Section 8 vouchers. [With those vouchers, people can rent apartments wherever a landlord will agree to accept payment from the public housing authority. Section 8 vouchers are traditionally very hard to come by. Public housing authorities seem to prefer having poor people live in public housing buildings.]

Two times the housing authority here applied for Section 8 certificates that are owed to our community. Both times the idiots put the wrong number in. They had some lame excuse each time for blowing it.

So it's hardly what it should be here, but we do try to get attention paid to people at immediate risk of homelessness – like people stuck in rehabs and hospitals, and people in nursing homes.

As much as we can, we try to force the system into giving them a voucher, and then turning that into Section 8.

That's getting harder and harder to do as the housing crisis gets worse. But it still is our demand.

How can we motivate housing advocates to get more pissed off? Maybe they ought to go live on the street, or in a neighborhood that scares them to death. Or get put in a nursing home. That's what most of us have been exposed to in our own lives or with loved ones.

What worries you the most?

I am surprised that more disabled people haven't really been up in arms about their housing situations. As bad as housing has been for other poor people, we have been denied about fifty percent more. You know what I'm saying?

Poor people are saying that they compete for housing at such a pace, and a certain number of people are out with their whole paying rent, living with ten other people in private housing because they can't get into public housing.

For us that is magnified by ten because we can't get into private housing in the first place.

How come disabled people haven't caused riots all over America over housing? That question is in my head every day.

How would you describe our basic housing condition?

Trapped. A lot of us are trapped and can't move from really horrible housing conditions … if we're not trapped in nursing homes.

Whether their neighborhoods are good or bad is not even the point. They can't live where their brothers and sisters live. They can't decide to move into the neighborhood where most of their friends may be. They're totally ghettoized.

Even a poor housing situation for some is, I guess, better than no housing. Maybe that's why they're so intimidated … because resources are so scarce. I don't know. They should be up in arms about it. I am.

But our community seems so scared and so willing to accept crumbs. I realize that in rural areas especially, people are at risk over having people come and set up assisted living, or other restricted housing. As bad as our segregated housing is, rural areas might not get even that. But the shortage of affordable, accessible housing, that seems to be the same wherever you go.

I've noticed that the disabled people who have made a stink – as few as they are – the people who do complain about these things do seem to get remedies, and even be safer in some of the buildings that we live in.

We have to – the people that are brave enough to fight this and get out on the streets, we have to do that, have to show people how. Somebody has to go out there and fight to show people that they can fight without being destroyed.

It just makes sense to integrate people. That's what God did with us from the get-go and that's the way it ought to be.

How could HUD make it better?

HUD could concentrate on housing.

If HUD would use all their dollars to just do housing, building housing. If they would get out of service linkages and politics, that's the way it ought to be. And Congress. If Congress could stay out of housing.

Housing is as simple as getting a home for everybody who needs one. Congress makes it very complicated by segregating people.

Older people now. It's starting to be like they don't even know how to act around young people, they're so segregated. If it snows and their attendants can't get in, a lot of them don't know how to help each other. It just makes sense to integrate people.

Have we made any gains at all?

Philly has some things happening now, but we've been on their backs for a lot of years. We discovered that they were building townhouses, and filling in some of the funds with Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money. That's protected by Section 504. They can't do it.

Due to catching them doing that, we gained some things. The director of our economic and community development office is doing an integrated housing project, making it affordable, with a subsidy in it. He's also encouraging City Council to do a Visitability ordinance.

We have a home ownership project, and also there's been money going to somebody to be a liaison between the disability community and the CDBG office. More disability groups have been funded.

It needs to happen in every community in the country. The Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing (DRACH) has done a good job of bringing people from around the country together. The word is spreading preTDD fast. The Pennsylvania Action Coalition, which I am proud to be part of, has made a difference.

There have been Section 504 suits against cities. We settled ours out of court. Austin, Texas, instead of only five percent housing built accessible, is now doing ten percent when they're renovating. They've given technical money to ADAPT, and there's an Austin home ownership program. And they've passed a Visitability ordinance. This is all the result of a lawsuit based on Section 504 of the Rehab Act.

The number one problem is still this: people being told they're too disabled to live on their own when they apply for housing. That's totally against Section 504.

And they're not supposed to hold us on the wheelchair waiting list if we can get into an apartment. From there, they're supposed to adapt the apartment to us under Section 504's reasonable accommodation. A lot of times they tell us we're on the wheelchair list, and that's it. They act like that's the only one we can get on. That's totally against Section 504.

Also, a lot of people end up getting evicted or displaced because they're being denied basic Section 504 accommodations. That needs to be paid attention to.

Once we start to do street activism on housing, things might move faster for us. But I realize we're trying to change one thing at a time. We have to look out for our energy, and housing will be a big battle.

And when we go to the streets?

When we get out there on the streets for housing, we'd all better be together and have it really thought out – what we want.

I hope that equal opportunity to public housing and regular housing and any other housing – just to fight until we get that, and just to make that demand loud enough. That's when we'll get in the way of some of the disability industry people, the people who have made us cash cows in our own homes.

“Housing is as simple as getting a home for everybody who needs one. Congress makes it very complicated by segregating people. ”