Community Organizing—20 churches created an affordable housing trust fund!

6 Aug

I began and framed my book, Making Housing Happen, with the words from Dr. Ray Bakke’s:

“Too often our outreach projects are catching bodies as they come over the waterfall, but we don’t go up to see what is causing the situation and then seek to prevent it.”

The beginning of the book focused more on direct involvement of churches helping in the production of affordable housing, then chapters move toward addressing those barriers that are preventing it from being built and preserved: funding, policies, political will and more. This piece was in the 2006 release of the book by Chalice Publications. It is well worth reading, as it describes the community organizing process used by churches to overcome those barriers, by creating the political will, policy and dedicated funding source for an affordable housing trust fund.

 Community Organizing

Further still up the stream, we look at what is causing people to fall in to begin with, what wrong with the system itself. In the organizing process, issues emerge as leaders listen to hundreds of individuals. “What is wrong in your community?” What get you out of bed in the morning? What would you change your schedule for?” are some of questions asked. An outcry of passion sounds when the community nerve is hit, then injustices are identified, and the body of Christ builds consensus and faith to take them on.

Organizers take encouragement from Nehemiah, an excellent organizer and community developer. Our Lord himself was a master organizer, with a clear goal and method in training his disciples, even when weeping over Jerusalem and driven by anger to overturn the tables. In part because he confronted unjust the systems of his day, he faced a cruel death.

Organizers help a community recognize its power to effect change and guide them on how to use it. The previous chapter described organizing efforts in New York by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) with miraculous results. Other groups like the Pacific Institute for Community Organizing (PICO), Gamiliel, and Direct Action and Research Training (DART) have also made significant gains in issues like affordable housing, health care, and education. Here, we feature Mark Fraley, lead organizer of Action in Montgomery (AIM), an IAF affiliate.

 Mark’s Story

Community organizing became Mark Fraley’s ministry and calling—and the means by which $ 17.3 million now flows each year into the Housing Initiative Fund of Montgomery County, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. This annual sum provides a consistent source of funding to preserve and expand the county’s affordable housing stock.

Raised in the church by a politically aware family, Mark encountered intense poverty for the first time when he went to Mexico to help build a home when he was still in high school. His teachers encouraged questions, and Mark had many, such as “What is the role of the church with the poor?”

Majoring in political science and American Literature at Miami University, he learned much about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. While teaching in one of the poorest schools in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Mark learned about IAF, a pioneer in community organizing since the 1940s.[1] Later, attending graduate school in Delaware, he witnessed churches in the Wilmington Interfaith Network, an IAF affiliate, successfully bring more effective law enforcement to the city.

Becoming a leader in organizing at his own church, Mark attended IAF training sessions and spirited rallies to learn about the organizing process and watch God bring justice to cities across the country. He joined IAF full time in 1997.

Action in Montgomery

Concerned about a number of social justice issues, in the mid-1990s, a core of seven pastors in Montgomery County contacted IAF. By February 1998, they invited Mark to be their lead organizer. Soon, Action in Montgomery (AIM) was established as an IAF affiliate—a grassroots network of twenty eight churches, synagogues, and other faith-based groups that push for change on problems most affecting them. To sustain AIM, each institution contributes one percent of its budget.

 1998-1999Building Relationships

The seven pastors gave Mark names of potential leaders within their congregations and spheres of influence. He met with these leaders, sharing reasons for his own anger over injustice, and getting them to share their stories. Those people then met with others, growing the network exponentially.

Conducted from February 1998 to May 1999, this individual meeting campaign eventually identified more than 1,800 leaders from 40-plus congregations; these leaders in turn met with nearly 3,000 congregation members to discuss their concerns about the quality of life in Montgomery County. Questions were posed such as, “What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? What do you think should be changed in your community?” A retired woman described how her rent had jumped 30 percent in the last two years, while her income rose just 2 percent; a family shared that commuting to D.C. took an hour each way because housing costs forced them to live in a faraway suburb.

Community organizing provides a structure for a democratic process, a chance for people to be heard and to get involved with what matters to them. Again and again, congregation members kept describing how extreme housing costs were creating financial and social hardships. “People don’t know how powerful their stories are until they are asked and can tell them,” Mark says with passion. “The power comes when we weave all the stories together to create a new story.”

Constant leadership development is what sustains any community organizing effort. Mark defines leaders as “someone with a following.” Often, leaders are choir members, Sunday school teachers, or youth leaders, people with constituencies that reflect a congregation’s diversity. In AIM’s case, leadership teams emerged from each sponsoring congregation. In early 1999, hundreds showed up for workshops developing leadership skills. Soon, AIM held its first Internal Action—an organizational meeting attended by over 300 leaders.

It’s the first Internal Action meeting and leaders from twenty-one churches agree to organize fifty “house meetings,” scattered in homes throughout the area. The goal: listen to key concerns of Montgomery County citizens and expand the network. House meetings campaigns, held every other year, are a foundational strategy for staying in touch with people’s concerns to ensure that the right issues are targeted. Eight to ten people gather for ninety minutes. The rules are simple. First, listen, probe for people’s concerns and stories. Second, evaluate each meeting. Third, identify more potential leaders. Facilitated by newly trained leaders, the campaign reaches approximately 800 people in more than 80 meetings—exceeding their goal of 50! These meetings raise deeper questions: What causes such disparity between housing costs and income levels? Why can’t families afford housing?

After eighty leaders attended a training retreat, where “research-action teams” then met to explore those agenda items that had come into view over the past year: housing, after-school care, quality of life for seniors, neighborhood issues, and schools and education.

2000—Going Public—the founding convention

AIM research teams met with housing experts, for-profit and nonprofit developers, and government officials regarding the need for affordable housing to better understand the issues. First, there wasn’t enough capital to build affordable housing; and second, the zoning process was too long and cumbersome—it took eight years to get a proposal off the county desk. They decided to focus on the first item. At AIM’s founding convention—boasting 800-plus leaders—AIM finally reveals to the public their four-fold agenda. One of the four was a dedicated trust for affordable housing, funded by 5 percent of the annual property tax.

 The Founding Convention

It’s the Tuesday after Pentecost Sunday. In the parking lot of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church sits a large tent. It has rained all day, stopping just before the meeting. One A.M.E. Church pastor reads about the meeting in the Washington Post and decides to attend. Figuring a small crowd, he and his wife arrive only five minutes early for the 7:30 gathering. With so many cars, they have to park a mile away. They walk into the tent, shocked to see hundreds of people gathered.

Each congregation accounts for their number in attendance; the goal of 500 is exceeded with 726, including the County Executive and three out of nine County Council members. People are still arriving. The chairs run out.

Community members begin with their stories. One couple can’t afford the $4,000 per month for their parents’ assisted living costs. A police officer serves in Montgomery County but must live in Prince George’s County due to high housing costs. At the end, an altar call is held for people interested in being trained as leaders. The goal is 50 new leaders, but 150 come forward!

Will you commit to this?

Next the leaders planned an “action,” an event designed to present their requests to community leaders—stakeholders in the decision-making process. The big question asked in an action is, “Will you commit to this?” AIM leaders met with Doug Duncan, the County Executive, who designs and proposes the Montgomery County budget—subject to approval by the nine-member County Council. Their goal is to gain his support for a joint resolution for dedicated funding for affordable housing.

Mr. Duncan asked for a month to think it over. As the leaders debriefed, they contemplated whether he was stalling, or sincere. They decided to trust him and wait. In community organizing, it is essential to have a Plan B. What if Mr. Duncan said no? “We prepare for the worst,” Mark explains. A month later, he met with them to follow up, Mark describes the gathering: “Twelve pastors and a rabbi were around the table. We asked Mr. Duncan, ‘What do you think?’ He passed around a document, asking our leaders to carefully read it…they found out that the County Executive had taken our proposal word for word and was sending it to the Montgomery County Council for a vote. AIM had secured the most powerful political figure in the county as its major ally.”

 2001: Persuading the County Council

Since the budget would not be introduced for another eight months, AIM leaders had to be silent about their agreement with Duncan. The time came to finally reveal the proposed joint resolution with a celebration at Jerusalem-Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church with Mr. Duncan and 212 AIM leaders.

AIM’s efforts snowballed in a flurry of meetings with stakeholders, testifying of the county’s housing needs. Momentum and enthusiasm grew as people gained clarity on what they wanted and how to ask for it. At the group’s second annual convention in May, more than 800 leaders challenged council members to support the proposal. Mark recounts the day’s events:

As each council member comes forward, we ask him or her, will you commit to $15 million? We have a giant scorecard, a stoplight, and a roving microphone. We score each one “yes” or “no.” Each person has two minutes to talk. When the red light goes on, they have to stop. Those not present, unless they have said otherwise, are considered a “no.” Eight of the nine support the approval of a one-time $15 million going into the trust fund, but only one is for the dedicated funding source.

Mark explains another basic tenet of IAF, “All community organizing is reorganizing.” Constant checking and rechecking ensured the agenda still focuses on what people really want and need. As leaders continued listening to their congregations, the number one issue that kept surfacing again and again was still affordable housing.

Winning the $15 million alone wasn’t enough. The lack of council votes for a permanent funding source forced developers to piece together funding packages every year, taking an enormous amount of time and additional expense and preventing them from developing significant amounts of affordable housing for thousands of people in the county. The people still wanted a funding source that wouldn’t require annual renewal: a dedicated trust fund.

.2002—Election Year

After 80 house meetings with nearly 1000 leaders, AIM was ready to introduce the next year’s agenda. Since it was an election year, AIM had extra leverage, influencing candidates to support their agenda.

Mark states, “For every action, there should be a reaction with a focused agenda.” In response to the previous year’s defeat of the dedicated funding, AIM launched a Sign Up and Take Charge petition campaign that recruited 7,600 county voters in support of the dedicated funding agenda. Meanwhile, AIM leaders held individual meetings with each of the thirty candidates running for the County Council.

On August 28, AIM invited the candidates to meet with 750 AIM members in their districts, presenting them the petition signatures. The power of people’s stories was evident that night—in five of the nine council districts, all of the candidates publicly pledged to support AIM’s agenda and to dedicate part of the property tax to the housing fund.

Following the elections, AIM leaders met with Council President Silverman to garner his support for a joint resolution for dedicated funding, asking him to introduce it to the newly elected council members.

2003—The Win!

Eighty AIM leaders joined County Executive Duncan, Mr. Silverman, and five of the council members to announce their support for the proposed joint resolution for dedicated funding. Over the next month, AIM leaders attended council hearings to demonstrate their support. Regardless of their efforts, the Management and Fiscal Policy Committee voted the proposal down, two-to-one.

AIM was amazingly resilient. Like the woman in Luke 18 who keeps knocking on the unrighteous judge’s door until she finally got what she wanted, they were not about to give up. At a County Council meeting later that month, fifty AIM leaders again asked for dedicated funding. And finally, the months of persistence paid off.

The resolution gained sufficient “yes” votes, enough to pass a six-to-three council majority. Through steadfast resolve and tireless labor, AIM was able to bring more units of affordable housing to Montgomery County residents. But just as important was the process and what it accomplished—engaging people of faith to come together in a powerful democratic process that was transformational both personally and publicly. Everyone wins.

When asked what motivates him to be a community organizer, Mark says it’s the prophetic call of his faith and his commitment to the democratic tradition—to reclaim our full benefits of citizenship. He goes on to explain,


This is what democracy is about—everyday people building power for themselves so they can play a substantive role in shaping our communities and our country. It’s about power and how we organize it. Moses and Jesus demonstrate this. People often state that faith communities should not be involved in public life. I believe that stands in contradiction to our religious teachings. I can think of nothing more political than Moses saying to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Jesus himself tapped into the most important areas of people’s lives, which are always a mix of both private and public aspects.[2]




IAF, Industrial Areas Foundation, founded by Saul Alinsky in Chicago in 1940, now a national network of multiethnic, interfaith affiliate organizations in primarily poor and moderate-income communities across the United States and beyond. IAF affiliates are coalitions of local faith-based organizations. Each is involved with renewing democracy by fostering the competence and confidence of ordinary citizens to take action on problems facing their communities. To that end, IAF provides leadership training for more than 60 affiliates, representing over 1,000 institutions and a million families, principally in New York, Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nebraska, Maryland, Tennessee, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. By thus reshaping the power base in politics, IAF transforms the civic and physical infrastructure of communities.

Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy by William Greider Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann; Going Public: An Inside Story of Disrupting Politics as Usual by Mike Gecan; Roots for Radicals by Edward T. Chambers; I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle by Charles M. Payne;Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination by Walter Wink



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