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When communities face the aftermath of catastrophes, what does it take to ensure that the next time will be different?
In Houston, it takes a city council member who bicycles in her neighborhood to hear from constituents about what they need most. It takes 12 moms who organize to take legal action against the landlords that have kept their families in moldy, substandard apartments. And it takes a city official who blows the whistle on corrupt and dangerous practices related to housing policy.
Travel to Texas with our hosts Chrishelle Palay and Rose Arrieta to meet these changemakers in our final episode of this limited-run series. They witness people power in action, as author and artist Adrienne Maree Brown describes it, “…bending the future, together, into something we have never experienced.”
Thank you to the But Next Time team. To listen to all of the But Next Time episodes and access video versions with Spanish subtitles visit www.butnexttime.com. You can also learn more about the organizations featured in the podcast and access resources like a listening and discussion guide.
But Next Time was created as part of Rise-Home Stories, a project in which multimedia storytellers and housing, land, and racial justice advocates came together to reimagine the past, present, and future of our communities by transforming the stories we tell about them. The Rise-Home Stories Project includes five pieces of media (a video game, children’s book, animated short, and online storytelling site, and the But Next Time Podcast) that help us rethink our relationships to land and home. For more info visit www.risehomestories.com
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Featuring: Music: Episode Credits: Making Contact Staff:
Making Contact Staff:
Amy Gastelum: I’m Amy Gastelum. Today on Making Contact, we’re wrapping up a four-part series called But Next Time. The series tells the story of how disasters like wildfires, the COVID 19 pandemic and hurricanes have affected the most vulnerable. The series hosts Chrishelle Palay and Rose Arrieta met through a network of grassroots advocates working on issues of racial justice, housing and land. For years, they have been on the frontlines of crises that have threatened their communities in Texas and California.
CHRISHELLE SPEAKING VIA ZOOM AT CONGRESSIONAL BRIEFING: We have to recognize the pervasive and inherent presence of structural racism and inequality in this system. As long as disaster recovery does not intentionally address the plight of people of color and those neglected during the last disaster and the one before that, then we’ll continue to face a greater distortion in how communities truly recover.
Amy Gastelum: The series also shows how those most affected have organized recovery and how they’re rebuilding towards a more just, equitable future.
ERICKA BOWMAN VOICE MEMO: This fifth circuit ruling is pretty much saying that by law you have no choice, but to provide safe, sanitary living conditions to these tenants under your own regulations, by the way.
Amy Gastelum: Stay with us
Amy Gastelum: I’m Amy Gastelum. You’re listening to Making Contact. If you haven’t listened to the first episodes in this special December series, go to our website or your favorite podcast platform to get caught up. The series is hosted by community organizers Chrishelle Palay and Rose Arrieta. Here’s Chrishelle to start us off.
CHRISHELLE: In August of 2020 Rose and I spoke with my colleague in Houston, Zoe Middleton. All three of us work on housing justice in our cities and we were catching up on what was happening six months into the pandemic. Rose and her neighbors in San Francisco were experiencing heavy smoke from the wildfires to the north, while Zoe and I were awaiting another tropical storm heading for the Gulf Coast.
CHRISHELLE ON PHONE: Right now we’re looking at two potential storms making landfall early next week. Zoe, I don’t know about you, but I can’t even wrap my head around this right now.
ZOE ON PHONE: The idea of a third and fourth disaster on top of the eviction crisis — since our courts have been open since mid-May — and COVID-19. We’re not handling these two crises well.
CHRISHELLE ON PHONE: You have those who are still living in homes that have not been repaired since Harvey and the storms out there, turning in the Gulf bringing more vulnerability. It’s just too much to even humanly handle.
CHRISHELLE: We were anxious about Hurricane Laura. It would sweep through the Caribbean and make landfall on the Gulf Coast a week later. It caused more than 40 deaths in the U.S. and almost 20-billion dollars in damage in Louisiana and southeastern Texas. But on this call, our attention was focused on pressing for rent relief for people struggling to keep a roof over their heads during the pandemic. Houston has more than a million renters, so keeping those people housed would have an enormous impact on the health of our city. Zoe and I explained to Rose that we had been appointed to the city’s Housing Stability Task Force
ZOE ON PHONE: We created an ordinance that wasn’t perfect from an advocate standpoint, but it was definitely gonna protect more people than no ordinance.
CHRISHELLE: What we wanted was a total ban on evictions. We came to the table knowing it would be a gamble, but we hoped the odds would favor the renters. We had never sat at a table like this — community advocates and Houston’s politically powerful landlord lobby. When Houston’s landlords pushed back, we knew we had to compromise.
ZOE ON PHONE: And the mayor has sole discretion to put something on the city council agenda. The mayor just buckled down and said no. It was really felt to be a crisis of leadership for him.
CHRISHELLE: I spoke with my city councilmember, Tarsha Jackson, about the mayor’s decision. It went against the CDC — Centers for Disease Control’s — advisory that landlords allow tenants to remain where they live during the pandemic.
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: The mayor’s reason was that the CDC has a moratorium, so can’t nobody get evicted anyway.
CHRISHELLE: Do you know of particular cases of people here in the district that were evicted?
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: We did go to the apartment complex over in Greenspoint where the lady called. We see that they have eviction notices on people’s doors. It’s like three days’ vacate notice. So I asked the manager, I’m like “Do people know that they don’t have to move? That there’s a moratorium on evictions?” And she was like, “Oh yeah, they know, they know.” But no, if you telling me to vacate in three days and you saying, I need to pay this amount that I don’t have, people would get up and just leave because they don’t know.
CHRISHELLE: So people were self-evicting.
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: They were self-evicting, yeah.
CHRISHELLE: So it wouldn’t go to court. At the end of the day, the landlord still got what they wanted.
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: That’s why we have to do a better job. It’s the city’s responsibility. It’s the elected — our leadership responsibility to make sure that people know, that they’re getting this information.
CHRISHELLE: What we witnessed was that the CDC moratorium did not stop most evictions in Houston. Zoe and others relied on data to publicize the constant stream of evictions — hundreds every week. Only 3 percent of the people going to court for eviction proceedings had any legal representation.
There were tens of thousands of evictions filed in our county during the pandemic.The goal of a local ordinance was to strengthen the CDC moratorium, which we recognized wasn’t strong enough.
During these months, Rose was telling me that something really different was happening in parts of Northern California. She said at that time — in 2020, at the height of the pandemic — some of the strongest eviction protections passed in San Francisco and Oakland.
ROSE ON PHONE: We have one of the strongest protections now in the country, but a lot of the counties outside of us were kind of screwed. They wouldn’t say ‘no’ to eviction protection. ‘Cause people really bombarded their emails and phones and were present at the hearing. People are really, really scared right now. The whole economy has kind of collapsed here and it’s having a real impact.
ROSE: Looking back, the protections we were so proud of winning in San Francisco only went so far. When the weaker California moratorium went into effect, it preempted our local law.
CHRISHELLE: Meanwhile, as we worked on ways to prevent evictions and displacement in Houston, Zoe and I stayed connected with colleagues in Puerto Rico and the rest of the U.S. Zoe participated in an encuentro — a webinar organized by Ayuda Legal, the organization Ariadna Godreau headed. You met her in the previous episode.
ARIADNA ON WEBINAR: (In Spanish)
ZOE ON WEBINAR: I see there was a question in the chat. Hilda asked: “Are some of the people that will be displaced Katrina refugees in Houston?” Yes. In fact, one of the women we worked with really closely in the apartment complex I mentioned, that flooded three times in three years, was 13 when she moved from New Orleans to Houston. It’s absolutely — There’s a lineage also of disaster that we can talk about. All of these compounding disasters that people are experiencing. And compounding forms of displacement. What makes displacement so hard, it’s this loss of culture, history, and loss of bonds as communities are flung apart. But it also has a spiritual or soul element to it as well that is absolutely irreplaceable once it’s lost or broken.
ROSE: The conversation about displacement — turned to strategies people were seeing — to prevent it from happening over and over again in the aftermath of disaster. Zoe named one of the key challenges — how dull the government process can be.
ARIADNA ON WEBINAR (In Spanish): Gracias …
ZOE ON WEBINAR: It’s not a joyous experience usually to participate.
ROSE: And it alienates people.
ZOE ON WEBINAR: Often, the state is really telling you what to do, right? It’s telling you to leave your home. It’s telling you to evacuate a flood or be evicted.
ROSE: An important role of community organizing is to transform and empower folks.
ZOE ON WEBINAR: So if you imagine a neighborhood without flooding, what does it take to get there? And backwards plan from that.
CHRISHELLE: Organizing isn’t just about being on the defense. It’s about building a collective vision of what communities can be, and figuring out how to get there. I’ve seen council member Tarsha Jackson come up with ways to engage people around issues that other elected officials seem to have written off as hopeless.
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: Flooding is really, really bad in our district. And of course they never invested in the infrastructure. Every time it rains, I see a cloud in the sky, I get anxiety. And so the constituents, whenever it rain, we have them text us pictures, of the flooding, and we’re documenting it. It ain’t much rain and you see water bubbling up out a pipe — sewage! People shouldn’t be living like this. I mean we’re getting somewhere. We just recently submitted a whole list to public works.
I’m taking all of these projects the long list of sidewalks, everything the district needs and I’m going to my Congresswoman, I’m going to my Congressman, I’m going to these state representatives and I’m like, “Y’all, we have to figure out a way to get the money. And I’m taking it to the Mayor too. We have to jump through hoops, just to even have a conversation about how we’re going to get a sidewalk. The city refuses to invest the money where it needs to be invested. And that’s in the people that need it the most.
CHRISHELLE: In September 2021 I went to City Hall for a housing committee meeting. Council Member Jackson had alerted me that a drama was about to unfold.
TARSHA WHISPERING IN CITY HALL HALLWAY: When I say laid it out …
CHRISHELLE : He laid it all the way out?
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: He laid this out, Girl.
CHRISHELLE: Yep. Mmhm.
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: It’s something that we’ve been fighting for years.
ROSE: Chrishelle recorded the meeting on her phone because she worried that the city would not make public what was about to happen in this public meeting. The City Housing Director sent comments outlining his refusal — to go along with the mayor’s support for a proposed development — where the mayor’s former law partner happened to also be on the development team!
CITY HOUSING DIRECTOR TOM McCASLAND: This briefing breaks my heart to give you, because I’ve committed the last five years to working hard to serve Houston and to ensure that we are working hard to address Houston’s affordable housing crisis. This administration is bankrolling a certain developer to the detriment of working families who need affordable homes. There is a culture of “Do it because I said so.” That kind of culture creates the breeding grounds for corruption. I’m being forced to participate in a charade that this was a competitive process when I know it was not a competitive process. I don’t plan to resign, but I do expect that I will shortly be relieved of my responsibilities here and at the city.
CHAIR: Council Member Jackson?
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: I just want to say thank you, Director for just sharing your experience. It takes a lot to come out like this with this type of information. It is overwhelming. But again, thank you for just being open. Appreciate you.
McCASLAND: Thank you, Council Member.
CHRISHELLE: The mayor immediately fired the Housing Director. The city had a process for considering proposals that would create affordable housing units, and the mayor circumvented that whole process. And selected a project that didn’t serve people who need that housing most. This was business as usual. But for the first time, a director spoke publicly and refused to support what the mayor had done.
— PROGRAM BREAK —
CHRISHELLE: I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re entering a new chapter in Houston politics, for a couple of reasons. The Housing Director put his job on the line to demand transparency and accountability in addressing our city’s housing crisis. And Tarsha Jackson’s election symbolizes hope for many of us. For me and my neighbors in Kashmere Gardens, it feels entirely new knowing we have a representative at City Hall who really knows, first-hand, many of the challenges we face.
Almost 40 percent of the people in our council district bring home under $25,000 a year. Our young people have limited educational and job opportunities. It floods every time it rains. Our grocery stores don’t stock healthy food. And the rest of our city treats our district like a dump. Like, for real. And these are the issues Council Member Jackson takes to heart.
ROSE: Council Member Jackson understands her constituents because she is one of them. She was a single mom who became an advocate and organizer when her son got caught up in the juvenile justice system. He’d been diagnosed with serious mental illness — but he was doing well in elementary school until he reached the fourth grade. When he was just 10, his school administration had him arrested.
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: Of course as any mother, you’re going to fight for your child. And started advocating for my son and other kids. Started organizing other parents and just like really trying to change the system.
CHRISHELLE: Council Member Jackson worked hard — to pass legislation that prohibits counties from jailing kids on certain misdemeanors, and established the first-ever parent bill of rights. She helped return more than 2000 kids home to their communities.
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: You had leaders — everybody that’s in office today. Mayor Turner was state representative. And nobody was speaking up. The state was getting paid $56,000 per year per child that they jailed! That they were warehousing kids across the state of Texas for money!
CHRISHELLE: But you shut it down.
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: Yeah, we shut it down. They messed with the wrong sister. Yep. And we have to start investing in these communities.
CHRISHELLE: You know, you’ve gone from advocate to now elected official. Now you in there.
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: Girl, pshhh.
CHRISHELLE: And, so what is it like now when you have advocates that’s trying to get something done?
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: There has never been no true partnership with elected official and community advocates. And so I don’t think we know how to do it. I find myself trying to call advocates like, “Hey, do y’all have any information on this? Or, Hey, do you have an expert to help with this? Hey,”
CHRISHELLE: Now that there’s a true champion on the inside, advocates like me are trying to figure out how to make that work for us. We’re used to playing defense…And I have to admit — I do it too.
CHRISHELLE: Another way Tarsha Jackson keeps connected is by riding her bicycle through the neighborhood — not exactly a bike-friendly place.
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: I can see more, I take in more of the neighborhood. You can not only see it, but you can feel it and you can breathe it in, identifying whatever would need to be done. But then also as an opportunity for me to talk to the constituents, and talk to the normal people that we don’t talk to, or elected officials don’t talk to.
CHRISHELLE: Do you have any particular stories or something that kind of sticks out in your mind? A particular constituent that you wanted to …
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. So I was riding up, Gregg Street. People just come, put their lawn chairs out, having a good time. And so I go over and introduce myself. One of the fellows told me, “Nothing is going to change. They get in office and then they don’t do what they say they’re going to do. So this was the one day. And then, you know, I rode again, ran up on him again (laughing). He was like, “All right, hello, Ms. Jackson.” (laughter). I talk to him and then the third time I seen him, (laughter) he say, “Alright, councilmember, alright, you got me. Okay. Just let me know what I need to — How can I get involved?
CHRISHELLE: The same day that the housing director was fired, I attended another meeting, where people commented to Mayor Turner and the city council about their experience of our ongoing housing crisis.
HANKINS AT CITY HALL HEARING: I’m from Kashmere Garden area.
MAYOR AT CITY HALL HEARING: Yes, Ma’am.
HANKINS AT CITY HALL HEARING: My mother turned 88 years old. And all she’s asking y’all, she’d like to live comfortable, before she leave this earth. FEMA didn’t do anything. FEMA only gave us $600 a piece because we had to evacuate overnight. You can’t get in touch with the state representative. You can’t get in touch with anyone. So I call upon you all.
MAYOR AT CITY HALL HEARING: We’ll always see what we can do to assist.
HANKINS AT CITY HALL HEARING: I would love for somebody to come out to see.
MAYOR AT CITY HALL HEARING: Council Member Jackson.
JACKSON AT CITY HALL HEARING: Thank you mayor, and thank you, Ms. Hankins, for coming in. I want to work closely with you to make sure — and work with the administration — to make sure that your mom gets her home repaired, OK?
HANKINS AT CITY HALL HEARING: OK.
COUNCIL MEMBER JACKSON: In order to fight systems, you have to understand how to navigate the system. But if you don’t know, that’s how you get caught up. That’s how you get neglected. Our communities are crumbling, because we don’t know. And it’s our leaders that keep that knowledge from us.
CHRISHELLE: Yes, knowledge is power. So is transparency. And just as we know that communication with local representatives is important, we also know that decisions at the federal level directly affect our neighborhoods. So Ariadna and I worked with the National Low Income Housing Coalition to bring our concerns to a congressional briefing. It’s important that two advocates who see how things play out on the ground could engage leadership at the federal level.
ARIADNA SPEAKING VIA ZOOM AT CONGRESSIONAL BRIEFING: You know, it’s been three years after the impact of Hurricane Maria, where 70,000 houses were destroyed. It’s also been nine months after and during seismic events destroyed nearly 800 houses on the south of the island.
We are able and we are responsible to foresee the consequences of disaster. There is a lot of talk and romanticism, speaking about survivors, speaking about resilience. But the reality is that there is thousands of thousands of people who’ll never be able to recover if something is not done from higher levels. It’s important not to normalize how slow recovery is. Not after Katrina, not after Andrew, not after Maria and not now.
In Puerto Rico after Maria we had a sixty percent denial rate in FEMA applications. That left nearly 30-thousand people without a roof.
ROSE: There was recovery money but it wasn’t being used. Close to ten billion dollars for long term recovery and two years later the local government had spent less than two percent.
CHRISHELLE SPEAKING VIA ZOOM AT CONGRESSIONAL BRIEFING: We have to recognize the pervasive and inherent presence of structural racism and inequality in this system. As long as disaster recovery does not intentionally address the plight of people of color and those neglected during the last disaster and the one before that, then we’ll continue to face a greater distortion in how communities truly recover. Recovery efforts must be intentionally inclusive and equity must be explicitly addressed at all stages of response and recovery.
CHRISHELLE: I think of that during my conversations with my Texas Housers colleague Ericka Bowman. Talking with her is a reality check for me about the ways these systemic problems invade people’s lives. I recorded a phone conversation we had during that scary ice storm that moved through Texas in February 2021. It left millions of people without electricity — without heat during record temperatures well below freezing. People died because of this. And during the worst of it, Ericka went to check on tenants and offer support.
ERICKA ON PHONE: There’s ice in their homes. Pipes are bursting. They don’t have anywhere else really to go. The shelters are completely packed. There’s no food on the counters. There’s no food on the counters. There’s no water in the stores. Still dealing with the pandemic. The children being home. It’s just another level, another hammer thrown into their lives
CHRISHELLE ON PHONE: Mmhm. This sounds like Hurricane Harvey, the winter edition. We slid a little bit on some black ice and that just [Ericka Bowman: Wow.] terrified the girls.
ERICKA ON PHONE: The trauma that’s happening from even the Capital rioting and this storm and the pandemic, this is really taking a toll on all of us. But I think about the kids.
CHRISHELLE ON PHONE: So that’s why I’m loving and hugging on them before getting back into the full grind of work. I’m seeing people come together more, and I’m hoping that will end up transcending into actual people power, political power that changes the dynamic, changes the structures that we see. And not by implementing reform, but we have to tear this thing down and rebuild all over again.
ERICKA ON PHONE: I have never been more sure in my life of anything that change is happening right now.
CHRISHELLE: Ericka’s optimism, and my own, might seem misplaced given all the injustice we’ve described in this podcast. But here we were, putting this story together in 2021, when I got a message from Ericka, with news about the lawsuit she and Zoe and Jaime told us about in the last episode.
Ericka was overjoyed that the 12 Moms group scored a win. They sued the Department of Housing and Urban Development over unsafe and unsanitary living conditions in the Copper Tree apartments. You’ll remember that the sprawling complex flooded regularly and tenants were plagued by water damage, mold and sewage among other problems.
ERICKA VOICE MEMO: Hey Chrishelle and Zoe, I wanted to make a special audio text for the two of you. I hadn’t yet got to talk to you guys about this — the huge victory that just took place, of course, with Copper Tree. This fifth circuit ruling is pretty much saying that by law you have no choice, but to provide safe, sanitary living conditions to these tenants under your own regulations, by the way. It’s announcing to the world of organizing, to all legal advocates that, now we can say, when there’s a notice of default, that HUD has a responsibility of providing — to tenants that are in these these positions — vouchers, an opportunity to move out of these properties. Just wanted to give you a special shout out sister-to-sister that I love the two of you and I thank you so much.
CHRISHELLE: Ericka’s 3 a.m. message was more than 10 minutes long. She made clear that this successful campaign rested on the tenants’ leadership and perseverance.
ROSE: This federal court ruling will have repercussions across the country. It means tenants like Jamie don’t have to struggle with apartment managers who refuse to address public health nightmares. Like the ones that threatened her children’s health and quality of life — and destroyed her belongings again and again. It puts responsibility squarely on the federal government, to provide decent housing to these families.
Throughout this podcast we’ve shared stories of people in communities who work together to deal with challenges when a disaster strikes. And when government officials fail to meet human needs. From the lack of proper translation for alerts, shelters and escape routes when fire storms ravage towns, as in Sonoma County. And to Texas and Puerto Rico where mold and sewage spills destroy homes, and the lungs of the young and old after deadly hurricanes. We hope you see the power of community, and the cultures we come from. What happens when we all come together in collective action.
CHRISHELLE: Our cultural histories are built from our ancestors who suffered enslavement and colonization. Because of them, our communities were able to prevail.
ROSE: We do this work for our children, our young relatives, our grandchildren, our babies, for our future generations.
CHRISHELLE: Like those before us did for us. Their resistance made us stronger. And though we may not see the outcomes in our lifetime, we know that we continue building with each generation.
CHRISHELLE: I love what artist and author adrienne maree brown says, “all organizing is science fiction. we are bending the future, together, into something we have never experienced. a world where everyone experiences abundance,
ROSE: human rights,
CHRISHELLE: transformative justice,
CHRISHELLE: we long for this.
ROSE: we believe it is possible.”
CHRISHELLE: Thank you, for joining us on this journey.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC: But Next Time)
ROSE: We’re your hosts, Chrishelle Pah-lay and Rose Arrieta. We produced the series with our senior producer, Leah Mah-han, who edited this episode with story editor Cheryl De-vall. Fernando Arruda wrote the music and mixed the sound. Thanks to Liana Lopez for additional sound recording and Rosalia Valencia-Tow, our translator and archival researcher.
CHRISHELLE: But Next Time is a project of Rise-Home Stories. The Rise-Home Stories Project is made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation’s Cities and States Program, with support and leadership from JoLu Productions and Working Films. Executive producer: Luisa Dantas. Supervising producer: Paige Wood. Impact producers: Anna Lee and Julia Steele Allen. Associate producer: Kadi Diallo. Special thanks to Amy Kenyon, Jerry Maldonado and Laine Kaplan-Levenson.
ROSE: To learn more about the Rise-Home Stories Project, please visit our site at risehomestories.com. For more about ‘But Next Time,’ visit us at butnexttime.com.
HOST: I’m Amy Gastelum. You’re listening to Making Contact. Since the original 2021 broadcast of But Next Time a lot has gone down. For one thing, grassroots groups across the country – including some featured in this series – made a report outlining recommendations to insure a more equitable recovery for future disasters. They named it BUT NEXT TIME: STORM SURVIVORS DEMAND OVERHAUL OF DISASTER RECOVERY SYSTEM. And yes, they named the report after this series. In October 2022, on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the report was released at a widely-covered press conference. Joining survivors of recent devastating hurricanes, U.S. Representative Andy Kim took the podium to voice his support.
REP. KIM: (01:30) “I’ve come to understand that every day since then has been a tragedy for you … I look at this list of recommendations. I’ve talked to you about the things we can do … It’s common sense! What you’re saying here — You’re not asking for the moon. What you’re asking for makes total sense.” (applause)
Amy Gastelum: That’s it for today and for the year. Thanks for listening to Making Contact. Many thanks to our guests from the project But Next Time. For updates and connections to the organizations featured in the four part series visit radioproject.org where you can find links to everything in the show notes. But Next Time is a project of Rise-Home Stories. For more information visit risehomestories.com You can also visit butnextime.com to find a version of the show with Spanish subtitles. Take care.