The Texas Houser Academy
By John Henneberger
June 16, 2022
0:00 / 29:16
John Henneberger00:00

This is A Little Louder, a podcast for wonks housers, and rabble-rousers where we talk about fair housing, community development and how we can use these issues to build people power and work toward equity and justice.

I'm John Henneberger.

Our homes are one of the most important things in our lives yet too many Texans live with a chronic long-term housing affordability crisis.

Most people don't understand the causes of their housing problems and don't have a say in public policies that determine who gets access to a good home and who doesn't. At Texas Housers we're focused on helping folks whose grip on a home is tenuous to understand how housing policy is made and how they can speak out and have an impact.

One of the ways we do this is through our Texas Houser Academy.

I'm joined today on A Little Louder by Texas Houser, educator, Riley Metcalf, who facilitates the Texas Houser Academy.

Welcome Riley.

Riley Metcalf01:11

Thanks, John, I'm happy to be on to talk about the Houser Academy.

John Henneberger01:15

Riley, start us off by talking a little bit about, your background. Where, where do you come from to do this work?

Riley Metcalf01:22

Sure. So I've, I come from a kind of a mix of, educational and professional backgrounds to get here. I went to graduate school for urban planning. And then I worked as a city planner for the cities of Borne and San Antonio, for a couple of years, but wound up, not really finding that very fulfilling.

I left that to become a high school teacher as a high school social studies teacher for three years. and during that time, I was also pretty heavily involved in union organizing, union activity. and I wound up leaving teaching this year as did a lot of teachers. As I left this job opening happened to be around and it, it felt like a good mix of all my backgrounds.

I had the planning background, especially when I was in school for planning my focus was housing, public housing specifically. My experience with union organizing and with teaching also as this, this job is a lot of education with the Houser Academy as well.

John Henneberger02:23

You facilitate the Texas Houser Academy.

Give us a little introduction and tell us what is the Texas Houser Academy and what's its objective.

Riley Metcalf02:34

The Houser Academy is program run by Texas Housers that brings together housing leaders, advocates, from across Texas, to receive base level training to get a kind of a knowledge base to build on. And then more importantly, to bring them together for collaboration, collaborative learning, and to work towards common goals. So this is, not the first year it's been done.

It changes a little bit from year to year. But this year we're focusing on tenant advocacy.

John Henneberger03:14

When we thought about how to make change in housing policy to have more progressive more good outcomes for low-income people to impact public policy, we looked at the civil rights movement for lessons and inspiration, and one of the precursors of the civil rights movement from the 1930s through the early 1960s was an educational institution in Appalachia called the Highlander School. It was a kind of a community education center that was originally underwritten by union organizers to, train people who were organizing around the mines In Appalachia and, the exploitation of the workers there.

Into the 1950s and sixties, it became a center for thinking about civil rights and how civil rights could be advanced. And its model was essentially that people who are movement leaders, grassroots folks, people who are, suffering from the injustice. That exists really fundamentally have the knowledge, the experience that is needed to form a movement and to lead a movement.

But it helps to have an environment where people can come together and explore how to implement that, how to carry that out and to also bring in some professionals from the outside to teach people some skills that people may not have learned in the course of their lives. Like, how to write a newsletter, skills about community organizing, skills about, strategic planning around political change.

The Highlander School, we, did a lot of reading, at Texas Housers about this and we thought to ourselves, that's in essence kind of what's missing in this state with regards to, support for low-income tenants, low-income neighborhood activists, people of color who are struggling with, discrimination in housing. If they're ever going to impact policy, we really need to step back and provide them with a place where they can come together and think about those things and plan. That's the Genesis of the Houser Academy.

Riley Metcalf06:04

When I was brought on, I'd never heard of the Highlander School. I found it really interesting when I started to learn about it. And I, I imagine most people hadn't and, I think it's, I think that's part of the plan is that it was intended to be not a super visible, entity, but that its impact is very visible.

John Henneberger06:23

Give me a simple definition of the Houser Academy.

Who are the participants and what are the issues that it takes on.

Riley Metcalf06:33

This year we're focused on tenants' rights. So what we've done is we've brought together tenants, tenant organizers, and tenant leaders from around Texas. We've got some, in pretty much every major city. We've got, some from San Antonio, from Austin, from Houston, from Dallas, got one from panhandle.

What they're working towards is there their common goals. It's, taking the work they were doing on a local level and tying it to a larger struggle about tenants' rights, which in Texas are, pretty lacking. When you compare Texas to other states, it's, it's pretty bare in terms of what rights tenants legally have.

That's their focus and it's what we're building towards is how do we connect the work that they're doing individually, locally to a wider systemic change for tenants in Texas

John Henneberger07:30

Riley you've taught public school. The pedagogy of the Houser Academy is, really predicated on a principle that isn't, that experts pour knowledge into people from the outside, but it's really that, the educational process is really about people having a place to think about these issues and to talk about experiences and then to shape where they want to go based on those experiences. As a public school teacher, I know you've, you've been thinking about this How's it different than how most people conceive education?

Riley Metcalf08:16

I think the, the discussion element, the, heart of it is critical thinking, which is not. How a lot of people view education. A lot of people view education as just these discreet facts that are given.

And then you, you have those facts and then you move on from there, which is not, I mean, I taught social studies, which to me was all about memorizing facts and dates is irrelevant in social studies. I think it is. With a usable knowledge of social studies. I think it's more about taking in these stories from history and thinking critically, applying them to the world today and drawing those lines and saying, what does this mean going forward?

So I think there's a lot of overlap there with the Houser Academy. We have online courses, that give some basic knowledge about the legal landscape in Texas for tenants and things like that. Things that are very clear, but the heart of the education is then building upon that with collaboration and discussion with our monthly meetings, which is us posing questions to them to get our Houser Academy fellows thinking about how do we change things? That's, that's the biggest, that's what it all keeps coming back to the theme that we go around a lot with the Houser Academy is, the people here want to change things. They've have a pretty well-proven ability to mobilize people and affect change locally. Right? The education aspect is them coming together and bouncing off each other about how do we build towards something bigger?

John Henneberger10:07

Riley, you mentioned that, there's been a previous class. The current class is, is tenants in Texas and people who've been leaders at their individual apartment project, or maybe they've been working locally in their city on tenant rights issues to deal with the massive inequality that exists in state law, between landlords and tenants in Texas, landlords have all the rights and tenants have very few.

And that's in essence, one of the major issues that the tenants that we're working with this year have discussed. I want to point out. Last year, the Houser Academy class was neighborhood activists, people who were working on issues of environmental justice or environmental injustice, people who were working on, gentrification and, other issues like that.

Give us a little portrait of who the fellows this year are. You mentioned they come from pretty much around the state, but kind of what's some of their experience that they come into the academy with.

Riley Metcalf11:19

Yeah. So almost all of them have a history of tenant work. And the ones that don't were added because they're very interested in starting it, in areas that need it. I think they're the ones that benefit the most from our, uh, our courses. cause they're really, they're coming in pretty new, but with a lot of energy. We have. Fellows from, organizations that, we work with.

So BASTA in Austin, the Texas Tenant Union and, the Texas Organizing Project. Most of our, most of our fellows this year are associated with one of those three organizations, but not all. They all have a variety of history of working towards a tenant's rights. The, fellows that come from TOP, Texas Organizing Project, they have a kind of a larger scale, a campaign background working on these campaigns that the Texas Organizing Project has been working on.

And then we have several who have successfully organized in their complexes directly where they live. Those are the BASTA fellows and that Texas Tenant Union fellows. They've fought for, better, living conditions in their apartments about getting repairs made by landlords they've fought against, I mean, so much came up during, COVID. that, you know, landlords, many landlords that use that as anything else, as an excuse to increase exploitation and, and deal in some shady practices. And they did a lot of work there in fighting to prevent, you know, educating their neighbors about not being, not, about going through the actual eviction process and not allowing the landlords, just force out, So we have a good amount of experience among the fellows for, working at their local levels to fight against landlord power.

John Henneberger13:23

I think it's important to, to mention again that, this is kind of unique in that there are a number of different groups in different parts of the state that have worked to support tenants more locally, the Texas Tenant Union works statewide. They've been around for a long time. They're a fabulous organization.

BASTA is in Austin and they've done some amazing things about organizing tenants where the properties have just become horribly unlivable and the landlords haven't responded and trying to get justice for that and organize people around mobile home parks and the like. And then as you said, the Texas Organizing Project, just two weeks ago, they won a huge, victory in a campaign in Houston. City of Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States had only one housing inspector. So if you were a tenant and you wanted to complain about the conditions in your property. You can call the City of Houston and try to get that one inspector for that massive city to come out and look at it. And they, they worked with the city council and got the city to hire more inspectors so that slum properties don't just stay slum properties forever, but somebody comes out and enforces building codes.

But anyway, those three organizations in Texas Housers, we've also worked with tenants on our own, have basically come together to share expertise and coordinate, to share the knowledge, to build the course material that provides the factual information that tenants need as they think about the strategies that they're going to undertake.

So this is a kind of a coordinated, effort. Could you talk a little bit about what the what this looks like from the perspective of the participants. We call the participants in the Houser Academy, Houser Fellows, what do they do over the course of this project? How long is it? What do they do every month?

Riley Metcalf15:33

This program lasts until the end of the year when we started in March. So it's going to run for about 10 months. In that time every month, uh, fellows have online courses between meetings for them to do, which are, you know, these are the facts, the basic, knowledge to build on.

And then we have our monthly meetings, which most have been virtual. But we last month had our first in-person meeting in Austin, which was great. It was a great experience getting to see everybody in person. We met over a couple of days there, so we had a lot of good discussion. For the fellows there, they work on these forces between meetings.

They come to the meetings where they apply, what they've learned. and then they also have good discussion about what they want to do going forward. Where they see this group going? That's a lot of what we talk about in the meetings. And then in between meetings, we also, well, generally have something else to be worked on.

So for example, right now we're, setting them up to, get in contact with their state representatives and senators to, talk to them about housing issues, make themselves known and really start getting these legislators thinking about making sure they know it's important to be working towards tenants rights that they represent tenants. That no matter where they are in Texas, these legislators have a large amount of tenants as their constituents and that they need to be thinking about tenants rights.

So we're, we're helping them because I mean, for, for a lot of people, they've never had that kind of contact with their representatives. But they're ultimately going to be going in and telling their stories 'cause that's, that's one of the more powerful ways of getting, legislators to think about issues is you telling them your stories.

John Henneberger17:27

I want to stress again this is not just about a curriculum. This is about a group of people coming together to develop a leadership plan on how the issue of tenant rights are going to be advanced statewide in Texas, impacting the legislature or impacting their local cities, or even impacting the individual apartment projects where folks live.

But there has been up until this point, not much of a coordinated leadership effort in this state on the part of the tenants, the, the landlord lobby, the Texas Apartment Association is one of the most overrepresented, aggressive lobby and campaign contributors in the state at the state legislature and their level of organizing and their level of impact really dwarfs, whatever tenants have been able to do up until this point. And so it's been a long time coming that tenants get organized, and it's really exciting to see the potential out there thinking about 11 million tenants in this state, and how far behind they are in, in terms of legal protections compared to landlords and how seldom their voice is really been heard or heeded, either at the city hall or at the legislature.

I think we can't really know where this is going in some ways the, the early days of Highlander, in, in the early sixties, the grassroots leadership of people coming and participating in a similar process there, led to the establishment of freedom schools which became the central organizing tenant of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

And during Mississippi Freedom Summer. The notion was essentially folks were concerned about trying to increase the ability to register, to vote and to participate, politically, yet because of literacy tests and other things in Southern states, people were blocked from being able to do that.

So coming from the grassroots, coming from local community leaders, a solution came to the Highlander academy, group, the meeting of all of the leaders that maybe they should be in that work of freedom schools, they would teach people how to participate in the registration process, what basic literacy skills people needed in order to register to vote.

And that in essence became a central pillar of the entire civil rights movement. I'm also struck with the fact that Rosa Parks went to Highlander to participate in these same type of meetings, in the months before the Montgomery bus boycott. You, you never really know what's going to come out of it, but, I have great faith in the notion that the people will have within themselves, the ability to come up with solutions that are the right solutions to be able to address these intractable problems. And so just as civil rights, I think that, I think tenant rights and basically the right to a decent, affordable home and the right, not to be discriminated against than the right to have government policies that don't, treat people bad, like in disaster recovery, this could go on and on and on, but, you know, the model just seems very right to me.

Riley Metcalf21:08

There's two things there that I think, yeah, it's important to stress that, that with bringing together the fellows with the Houser Academy, that the belief is that if we bring these people together with the wide range of experiences, with the energy, for changing things, we bring them together and they can work together that they're going to create something great that they're going to be working towards something very important. And it's w we stress this a lot is that it's not for us really to decide what that is, what route they're going to take that's for them to decide. But I think we can serve a good role in being that space for them to come together for us, to serve as a facilitator, as that go between.

Because without it, there's not a lot of structures that bring together, organizers like that across the state. The other thing is, is long-term is, you know, this program lasts till the end of the year. But if, if this group only stays together through the end of the year, then I think we've missed an opportunity.

The goal is that every month we're working towards them creating a group that is self-sustaining that can keep together, keep pushing, you know, still be in contact with us with Housers and we can still work with them, but it's it. After this year is up, the goal is for them to be able to go on their own and keep working towards the changes that they want to see.

John Henneberger22:34

Yeah, and we're committed to supporting them in the long run. And I know that BASTA and Texas Tenant Union and TOP are all institutionally committed to making sure that their members who are participating in this are committed to it for the longterm. I have great faith that this is, this is just the start of what will be a, a permanent institutional, social change movement that goes on.

I want to mention one more thing that we've thought a little bit about in the course of the last year, previous year, when we developed a lot of course, content in response to what the Houser Fellows --the participants in the Houser Academy asked us, to help them understand better.

And so we developed a lot of these online courses about issues that were important to them. Things like, understanding the racial wealth gap, issues, like, the sources of gentrification and the, strategies which have been effective in addressing gentrification, issues about the rights of residents of government subsidized housing, and a whole lot of other courses.

I think we can. More than 40 online courses in the course of the last year. And now you're busy working with the fellows themselves to create additional courses focused on tenant rights and tenant organizing and the like. In the long run. We really think that that the course information we're developing is something that we're going to create, an ability for others to be able to access and, to learn from. So I think we're not ready to announce it yet, but in the course of the next six months or so, we hope that on our website at, we will have these online courses. So if you want to know, housing policy 1 0 1, how low-income housing tax credits work. What the issues are around opportunity zones, how to think of the racial wealth gap, you know, that this whole housing area is so complex.

And one of the reasons that I think that real folks who ought to be at the table when public policies are created around these programs, one of the reasons why people aren't at the table is this process has been made very difficult to understand, very complex. And I think our goal is been in creating these courses to try to get bite-sized pieces of information for people to be able to get their head around the public's role in policymaking around affordable housing, around tenant rights, around neighborhood integrity and anti-gentrification and all of that type of stuff.

I know you and I are gonna going to be working on this. We thought about, we can't reproduce the whole experience of this intimate long-term relationship the Highlander School's sort of approach to creating social change, but we can still make that information available on the website for others who want to, who want to get their heads around it.

Riley Metcalf26:00

Yeah. With the fellows, one of the main recurring things we've talked about, that what they've identified as problems is tenants, not just not knowing what their rights are, what their, what their landlords can and can't do what they're able to do in response. Just that lack of information. So it's just, the us putting that info out for the public alone would I think would make a huge difference for people to see.

I, I got, I got this notice on my door. My landlord says I have three days to move out. Do I really just do I have to move out in three days? If there's an easy resource, a very accessible, understandable resource for that, then I think that sort of thing goes a long way. And I think, I really liked the potential of if we keep building, I think we have 60 something courses online right now. Once we start making those public and we can keep building, keep creating new ones, we can really cover anything that tenants or housing advocates want to see, want to learn about, in a very accessible way. I really like the potential of that.

John Henneberger27:07

Yeah, well, hopefully in the next few months, we'll get the time to begin to get those out there on the website. And if you're a tenant and you're listening to this, and you're really interested in getting involved. in this type of work feel free to drop us a note at,

And we can put you in touch with, the local organizations who are supporting tenants to get active and maybe in the long run maybe next year or so you will, be interested in adding your name and joining to the work that this, pioneering group of, tenant activists are starting this year.

Well, thanks Riley for taking the to talk about this, thanks for all your work and your dedication to this and your great skills as an educator and your very progressive approach to education, from the bottom up.

That's it for this edition of A Little Lpuder. We'll be back, in the coming weeks with more episodes.

And for now, our friend JT Harechmak will take us out with our theme song.