Learning from DC

We recently had the pleasure of Dominic Mouldon staying with us.  Dominic has been a housing activist in Washington DC for 30 over years, where he currently works for the One DC campaign.  It was Dominic’s first visit to the UK and I asked him a few questions about his trip.

GR      On Wednesday 14th March, you joined the silent walk to remember the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster.  How was that for you?

DM      I felt a deep sense of solidarity.  There was a special feeling of respect for the lives lost, especially when they handed me a little badge with a victim’s name on it to wear during the walk.  That was really moving.  It reminded me of how shocking it was for us, in the US, to hear about the fire.  I also experienced the dignity and power of silence.  Finally though, it was very telling to walk through areas separated by only a couple of miles and see such huge differences between them.  I saw the deep class and economic divide reflected in the different homes and buildings along the way.

GR      Thinking about your visit overall, what comparisons and differences will you take back to the US in terms of the housing situation and how people are responding to it?

DM      I think I’d need a longer visit to properly answer that question.  But the first thing I noticed that’s really different is the sheer scale and volume of the new private property developments in London, even compared to most US cities, including DC where there’s been a frenzy of new building.  But the number of towers and their height that are going up here was scary to me.  It felt exactly like the social and ethnic cleansing we see back home, but on an even bigger scale.

The second difference is how we organise.  We both want to win.  We want to stop displacement and change the social, political and economic tide that’s causing it.  So how do we do that?  We need more people to get involved and get their hands dirty.  I think of it like growing grapes that you want to turn into good wine.  If you’ve got a vineyard of 10,000 acres and you’ve only got one person per acre working it, that’s a bit overwhelming – a bit like the housing crisis can seem.  But if you have 10, 20 or 100 people to an acre, you feel like you can win.  We don’t have enough people in the vineyard in the US either, but we do have a longer tradition of training and paying campaign staff.  Over here, most campaigners are combining activism with a job, family and other responsibilities.  Maybe that’s something for you to think about.

I also think, over here, you might want to consider more the relationship between ethnicity and displacement or other aspects of the housing crisis.  Fundamentally, I still believe housing inequality is about social class, but we need to recognise the significance of ethnicity within that: how black and brown-skinned people are more likely to be the victims of the housing crisis.

In terms of similarities, the violence and viciousness of what I’ve heard about here is very familiar.  I’ve been told lots of stories of people being kicked out of their homes by organisations who won’t give up until they’ve smashed entire communities.  That’s exactly the same as the US.  I also noticed how similar the human impact is.  I was told again and again “I feel stressed out”, “I feel like I’m not valued as a person”, “I’m getting headaches”, “I’m losing my community”.  Somebody I met at the Aylesbury estate yesterday used exactly the same words as someone I work with in DC – “They wouldn’t treat dogs this way”.

GR      There’s a lot to say about President Trump, but so far, how do you think his administration has impacted on the housing crisis specifically?

If you’d asked me just after he was elected, I’d have said “it doesn’t make any difference”.  He’s just like all the others.  But now I’m getting really concerned.  He’s implemented huge cuts to housing programmes for people on low incomes.  Billions of dollars are being removed from budgets intended to meet the needs of the people we work with.  He’s also trying to reinstate an ideology from the past, linking public housing and welfare benefits to the politics of respectability, as defined by him.  At One DC, we believe everyone has a right to housing.  What our government’s saying is that only certain people have that right.  So things are getting worse.  Trump has launched an economic and ideological assault on the poor.  It’s not just housing.  It’s healthcare, education and other social programmes that working class communities rely on – and pay for.

GR      There’s been a revived interest over here in “The Wire”, which some see as an authentic insight into urban America.  You were brought up in public housing in Baltimore, where the TV programme’s set.  What do you think?

DM      I can be very brief on this.  I don’t like it.  It worries me that people, especially politicians, might use “The Wire” to inform their decisions.  Some of the storylines may have some truth, but it’s only a fragment of the experience of living in those places.  It’s only one writer’s viewpoint.  I think in some ways the programme perpetuates and reinforces stereotypes and dehumanising myths about African-American people and public housing.

 

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