Making Change Together: The Multi-Pronged, Systems Theory Approach to Law and Organizing That Fueled a Housing Justice Movement for Three-Quarter House Tenants in New York City
Written By: Matthew P. Main
The overlapping consequences of mass incarceration, a sweeping opioid epidemic, and an unprecedented homelessness crisis culminated in the birth of an exploitative underground industry of unlicensed, unregulated housing—known as “three-quarter housing”—in New York City. Three-quarter houses are generally small buildings that hold themselves out as transitional housing “programs” even though they are not licensed or regulated by any government agency. In the aftermath of a government effort to reduce reliance on homeless shelters, three-quarter houses emerged as a new benchmark for housing of last resort for people with histories of incarceration, substance use, homelessness, and/or personal crisis. For people on parole and those transitioning out of residential substance use programs, three-quarter houses were often the only housing option available to them. A desperate need for housing sowed the seeds for a relentless enterprise of exploitation fueled by Medicaid fraud and systematic illegal evictions.
The Article discusses how tenants, lawyers, and organizers used law and community organizing to attack that enterprise. The Article provides a background of what three-quarter houses are; the social, economic, and political context that gave rise to them; and the web of legal and practical problems caused by the systems that allowed them to flourish despite overt profiteering and a routine disregard of fundamental tenant rights. The central focus of the article is how tenants, lawyers, and organizers adopted the flexibility of a multi-pronged, utilitarian approach to law and organizing to demand accountability and build a tenant-driven movement for reform. The Article chronicles the trajectory of that law and organizing endeavor through the prism of Lucie E. White’s “three visions” of activist lawyering to analyze its challenges, triumphs, and shortcomings. Ultimately, the goal of the Article is to historicize the little-known struggle of three-quarter house tenants in New York City, to offer that experience as a tool for community-based lawyering, and to posit that a collaborative, systems theory approach grounded in utility and versatility—rather than a particular “model” of law and organizing—should be the paradigm for fusing the work of lawyers, organizers and affected people into a movement for transformative change.
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