Assistant Communications Director, Urban Homesteading Assistance Board
How did you get into this work?
I moved to the U.S. in 2013, after working in Beirut, Lebanon for a few years. I was in the field of community development, trying to improve living, housing, and educational conditions of Palestinian refugees through various approaches, each one not really fulfilling the work that I felt was necessary. I tried working with UN agencies, being a field officer, a researcher, a teacher, and helped build a creative education nonprofit, all in the name of working towards building capacity within disenfranchised communities. What I eventually realized was that all of these entities that I had used as pathways to making a difference for the people and land I cared about, were not actually established to dismantle the systems which limit their freedom, but are otherwise there to maintain them. It was a gradual heartbreak—I wanted to disrupt those systems and I couldn’t figure out where to start.
Fast forward to New York City, where I ended up working at UHAB with limited-equity housing co-ops, a model of resident-controlled long-term affordable housing that allowed nearly 30,000 low-income households in NYC to become homeowners (!) Learning about limited-equity cooperative homeownership seemed so radical to me at first, I couldn’t quite understand it in the context of NYC real estate and what it would look like in the face of gentrification and displacement. Talking with co-op shareholders who are still homeowners today, able to remain in their completely transformed neighborhoods (for better and worse), I learned so much from the residents themselves.
Years into my experience at UHAB, I now realize that the cooperative model is the only true ‘capacity-builder’ and ‘system-disrupter’ — it places the power in people’s hands more directly than any other entity can promise to. Housing co-ops not only give people a chance to exercise self-determination in one of the most contested and crucial parts of our lives: housing, but also offer a solution that looks to the future. Co-ops are not built for a moment or quick remedies to systemic issues, but they are an investment in people, community growth, and a rooted commitment to justice in housing, food, land, and the economy we deserve.
What does ‘solidarity economy’ mean to you?
For me, solidarity economy is the active consciousness of where money comes from and where it goes. It’s been such an interesting experience to live in different parts of the world and perceive the difference in the role that money plays across cultures. Although capitalism feels ubiquitous, it is not a singular thing — we shape it and we can influence it, subvert it, and demand that it yield to our interests as everyday people. I have no doubt in my mind, although many have argued me on this, that conscious consumption is a powerful tool. Where we choose to put our money, everyday, whether it’s a donation to a person or cause, or a simple stick of gum from a major corporation, is building a little contract between ourselves and the world. Every step our money takes is a reflection of our values and our demands, and unfortunately this entire thought process is an enormous privilege because there are people who cannot but access certain products, or entire populations whose lives depend on a particular corporation. I’m not sure what the short-term solution is, but I know that the solidarity economy, one in which we begin to care about every dollar spent and where we show our financial support, is a goal we need to collectively strive towards.
What are the biggest challenges you face in this work?
On a personal level, the challenges I face are ones of relativity. Housing is a complex issue with a very simple goal: housing is a human right, not a commodity, and it should be accessible to all people without discrimination. The complexities ensue where other issues that seem peripheral yet are so central to the mission of cooperative housing, are globalization, capitalism, war, colonialism, violence against women and children, LGBTQ rights, and the list goes on. A demand for fair housing must contain an intersectional lens, because if we cannot recognize how connected these injustices are, then we will not succeed in finding the liberty and strength required to take over the system.
On a professional level, cooperative housing is not built overnight. People working together to make democratic decisions in their homes have to cultivate trust, common ground, and mutual understanding. At UHAB that is at the heart of what we do, we work with people to become effective and communicative building leaders and decision-makers so that when they are faced with difficult situations, they feel like they have the tools to deal with it as a community.
Why do you think it’s important for cooperatives to help other cooperatives?
If cooperatives don’t work together then we cannot expect to grow. We need to expand our understanding of what cooperatives are and realize how our everyday values are ‘cooperative’ in and of themselves. How much more powerful would it be if we collectively worked to invest that energy back into our own growth? Cooperatives feel like a mystery to some people but with the right outreach and education, we can show the public that everyone benefits from a cooperative, not just the worker-owners or shareholder-residents, but society as a whole.
Cooperatives offer an alternative to a heavily corrupted and seemingly inaccessible economy of ownership that we are conditioned to regard as the only truth from the moment we learn to walk. There is a deep history of cooperatives and a wide presence of successful and powerful ones to look around to for support and inspiration. If we look to other cultures, we can see that cooperatives exist all over the world and are a major part of their economy.
What is your ‘theory of change’?
Can I have two?
The Hegelian Dialectic has always been my personal theory of change. It accurately frames what I perceive as a progressive path to change and personal development. It basically calls for tension, a thesis and an antithesis — this tension, when in dialogue and contradiction, ultimately produces a synthesis which is the process of evolution. Even when we do not understand each other, have the same beliefs, or want the same outcomes, we must attempt the dialogue and exchange. I try to embrace contradictions, dualities, and awkward contentions because I know that’s where something is ripe for change or growth. That’s always the case when we look back in history, and it will likely be the process through which our futures continue to unravel.
My second answer is: collaboration! Two heads, two hands, and two hearts are always better than one. Working cross-sectorally, cross-culturally, and cross-anything will bring about the most creative and innovative results humanity has to offer. There is a lot of labour to go around and many ideas to share and I would encourage everyone to collaborate in everything they pursue.
Where can we find more information about the work you are doing in the future?
I work at The Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) — an nonprofit that creates, preserves, and fights for affordable and cooperative housing. You can follow us on instagram (@u.h.a.b), Facebook, or check out our website www.uhab.coop for updates.
We produce a monthly newsletter all about housing co-ops and if you’d like to receive it every first Wednesday of the month, sign up here.
I’m also part of an urbanist collective where we cooperatively work on research and design projects around social justice in urban development.
What is the best way for people to get involved and support your work?
Currently, the best way to get involved and support the work is to join Friends of UHAB. We just launched this monthly sponsor project where donors get to provide support to low-income housing residents (of co-ops and beyond), and this is a great initiative to build community within various housing advocacy circles. We’re hoping to generate enough interest around being a part of this group and bring people together around shared values and think about how they can make a difference in the fight for affordability in their neighborhood. Feel free to reach out to me if you’d like to learn more (firstname.lastname@example.org).