The Elephant in the Room

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.” This sentence is often the opening of an airing of grievances, long suppressed and ignored. As I pen this article, I realize the statement must be followed by a question. Which elephant? A global pandemic, the disproportionate impact of disease on people of color, income discrepancies, ever-shrinking affordable housing opportunities, historic racism, social and economic injustice, hostility from the highest office in the land, unchecked violence against black and brown citizens, etc. And, with the evidence staring us all in the face, a segment of the population still tells us none of this exists that there is no injustice. They insist it’s just us, people who look like me, not letting go of the past. Seriously? The only thing that is in the past is time, and far too much has passed without significant change. In the words of James Baldwin, “How much time do you need for your progress?”

Recently, I had a conversation with a young man who desires to create what he called, “attainable housing communities,” citing the term “affordable housing” has negative connotations. Not having an understanding of the cooperative model, he and his wife have started a company that has been successful in purchasing over six city blocks of previously blighted land. A brilliant move, in my opinion. Perhaps without realizing it, they have shortcut some of the more difficult processes of development, namely the designing and layout of infrastructure. This area was once a thriving residential community and therefore has all of the necessary infrastructure already in place. They’ve planned to create a community of like-minded people, interested in protecting their investment and creating housing opportunities for those who may have been left out of the “American Dream.” They do all this while reinvigorating an area of the city that has been neglected and viewed as just a series of worthless vacant lots. Without knowing it, this young couple has a desire to create a new housing cooperative community.

While sitting on my front porch, we talked long about some of the elephants in the room. I could see the light in the eyes of this young father. He wants a community for his family that doesn’t present the social and economic barriers that originally caused the decline and ultimate disappearance of the houses and businesses that once dotted the now vacant land he has just purchased. As I explained the cooperative model and its benefits, his eyes widened as he asked, “You can do that? This really works and it’s legal? Why aren’t more people doing this?” The potential amazed him. I could see the wheels turning as he pondered our conversation.

At that moment, it hit me. While we must face down the many elephants in the room, we would do well to take a cue from the young man on my porch and simply create a “new room.” New rooms without the old elephants. New developments and revitalization of existing housing cooperatives is a tool that has been proven to address many of the issues facing our society. Community organizing, coming together for the common good, helping one another, taking time to really hear your neighbor, exercising and respecting democracy, creating opportunities where none existed, creating wealth and buying power are all concepts that can be realized in a well-run housing cooperative community.

The young man left my porch eager to learn more. I directed him to the NAHC website and more specifically, the Developer’s Toolbox, created by the Development and Preservation (D&P) Committee, chaired by Hugh Jeffers. In the coming days, I plan to connect the young man with Hugh and the D&P committee to explore the fine points of the development process and his financing options. The work of the D&P committee has provided development assistance to many cooperative projects, both existing and new, helping them to harness the power of millions of dollars of development capital to create new rooms. Currently, the D&P committee has 10 preservation projects in seven states and is working on 11 development projects in states from California to Pennsylvania. We are affecting change across this country and are proud of the role we are taking to better the lives of cooperators.

We’ve often said, “Housing Cooperatives are the best kept secret.” Well, they’re secret no more. This need for new rooms with fewer elephants is driving regular everyday people to lead in the charge to create communities with the help of NAHC and the D & P committee. The members of the committee represent many years of experience with housing cooperatives. Best of all, the knowledge is shared freely.

The elephant in the room can, at times, be overwhelming. However, we can do something about it. We don’t have to sit by and watch the room disappear. Create new rooms. Develop and preserve housing cooperatives. Yes, we can.

This article was featured in CHQ fall 2020 issue. Click here to read the PDF newsletter.

Fred Gibbs, NAHC President

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