Faith-Based, Multiethnic Tenant
The Oak Park Story
On a bright San Francisco morning in the fall of 2000, an unlikely group emerged laughing from an ornate skyscraper.1 Among the three dozen assembled were undocumented residents from Mexico, a European American minister, Cambodian refugees, and a Taiwanese American city planner. They had just won almost one million dollars from their landlord in one of the largest legal settlements of its kind (DeFao 2000). In addition to winning monetary damages for forty-four households, the group’s victory transformed the complex into brand new apartments that are held permanently at affordable rents. Overcoming obstacles of race and class, the Oak Park Tenants Association is a model of faith-based, multiethnic community organizing.
This housing victory was unlikely because it involved primarily Latinos, some of whom avoid the government for documentation reasons, and Cambodians, who had been tortured by their government (Counts 1999a; Ochs and Payes 2003). Linguistic isolation prevented them from understanding the American legal system or fully integrating into this society (Bolivar et al. 2002). And because the tenants were on public assistance or worked as day laborers, they could not afford other housing if they were to be forced out. Despite these fears and structural barriers, the tenants organized against substandard living conditions that threatened their health and safety. Remarkably, these two ethnic groups joined together as a tenants association and remained united throughout the three-year struggle. The anomalous success of their efforts demonstrates the need for communities to build upon both the ethnic and religious social capital of low-income communities. Similarly, this case study demonstrates how faith-based organizers required both kinds of capital to bond the tenants and bridge them to outside resources.