Housing justice advocate Linda Leaks was inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame, naming her the first Black woman to be recognzed for her work in forming Cooperatives in the Washington DC area. Photo credit: Linda Leaks with Pixabay on Pexels for Washington, DC background

‘Justice’ and ‘Fairness’ are guiding principles for co-operative housing advocate Linda Leaks

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An unsung housing shero, longtime Washington, DC activist first Black woman receives award for decades of policy-changing, grassroots work in Cooperative housing.

Affordable housing is shrinking in major urban cities. One of the culprits is apartment landlords deliberately allowing their properties to fall into disrepair. 

Living conditions worsen, attracting roaches and vermin. Plaster cracks appear in walls. Rain leaks through ceilings. When it becomes obvious that no repairs or exterminators are coming to fix anything, the often-low-income tenants give up and move out, hoping to find somewhere to live that is clean and safe. 

Quickly, the landlords sell the empty buildings for millions of dollars to companies which replace them with expensive high-rise condominiums. Meanwhile, long-time residents are priced out of their former neighborhoods. This practice is called “gentrification.”

However, local housing activist Linda Leaks, 75, has been like a speed bump in the race to gentrify Washington, DC’s aging neighborhoods. For 35 years, Leaks has shown renters how to convert their homes into co-ops so that they can own and live in them for as long as they want. For her successful community organizing around what she calls “housing justice,” Leaks was inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame for 2023. Leaks, one of four honorees, is the first Black woman in the field of housing justice to be inducted in the Cooperative Hall of Fame’s 50-year history.

“Ms. Leaks is known for her ability to help ordinary people organize, to understand that they have power over their lives,” said Mary Griffin, Executive Director of The Cooperative Development Foundation, which administers the Cooperative Hall of Fame. In a statement to The Ark Republic, Griffin said Leaks helped lead renters “to achieve incredible feats despite the odds against them.”

Griffin and others in housing justice have “long recognized [Leaks’] . . . work and personal commitment to teaching and organizing others about how to use cooperatives, especially housing cooperatives, as a tool to exercise power.” In fact, it is the Leaks “heroic contributions” that advanced “the cooperative form of enterprise in Washington, D.C. and influenced housing cooperative policy across the country,” she furthered.

Leaks’ legacy carries so much weight that several members of the D.C. City Council issued a resolution declaring October 5, 2023 “Linda Leaks Day” in recognition of her award and her cooperative housing activism. While she is lauded throughout housing activism, she was activated in another era—segregation.

The making of an activist

“Justice” and “fairness” are two concepts that informed Leaks’ organizing work. Born in Barnesville, Georgia, a deep South state where racism was virulent and often violent, Leaks figured out early in her life that the state was neither just nor fair where Black people were concerned. “I thought I should stand up for fair treatment,” Leaks told The Ark. 

Leaks acquired responsibilities that could overwhelm many young children. “My mother was an alcoholic,” Leaks explained. “As the oldest of three children, I had to take care of my mother and brothers. There was no other family member who could do it.” 

Leaks’ mother was estranged from the rest of their relatives. They rejected her due to her dark complexion. “My grandmother and aunt were light skinned. They did not treat my mother well. I heard them talking about it sometimes.”  

When she was a young teen, Leaks moved with her mother and brothers to St. Petersburg, Florida. The change in location was motivated by her mother wanting to follow a man she loved who left Georgia for the “Sunshine State.” 

For Leaks, the new locale did not mean a new life for her. She was still occupying the parental role in her family, which meant missing the fun activities that many teenagers enjoy. “The racism in Florida nearly drove me crazy,” she said. “White people would deliberately push Black people off the sidewalks.” 

An avid reader, Leaks was dismayed when learning the city’s libraries were racially segregated. “I used to hear about all the wonderful books in the white libraries that I couldn’t visit,” she said. 

Segregated libraries were yet another example of injustice and unfairness Leaks wanted to do something about. Attending the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and justice seemed like an action in which she could make her feelings known and be directly involved in positive social change. “I kept begging my mother to let me go,” said Leaks. “A church in St. Petersburg rented a bus to take people to D.C. for the march.” But despite numerous entreaties, Leaks’ mother finally told her no, saying that at 15 Leaks was too young to travel on a bus with strangers to a city where she knew no one.

A few years later, Leaks graduated from high school and immediately went to work. She held down two jobs, driving a school bus and a taxi. “I think I was the first Black woman in St. Petersburg [employed] in those kinds of jobs,” she said. 

Leaks heard about the Uhuru Movement, an organization of local young Black activists in St. Petersburg. Formed in 1972 by Omali Yeshitela, the Uhuru Movement was based on what it called “African internationalism.” This political ideology asserts that Black people in Africa and throughout the diaspora are united by a common historic political, social, and economic oppression. It called for all Africans to fight to end the oppression. 

Attracted to its fundamental tenets, Leaks decided to join, although there were few women members at the time. “I was an organizer,” she recalled, “recruiting people to become members. I helped mimeograph and distribute the movement newspaper, The Burning Spear.” At press time, Leaks would hand out the print media on street corners to drivers of cars stopping at traffic lights.

Eventually, Leaks married Yeshitela, the leader of the organization. Then he was known as Joe Waller. “I didn’t believe in marriage, and still don’t,” said Leaks. “Love is love. I think people should love and be with whomever they want.” But Florida does not recognize common law marriage, meaning people who live together without a state sanctioned marriage license. Her husband could not break that law, Leaks said, because it might negatively affect his reputation as a leader. “He couldn’t afford to be arrested, so we got married.”

In time, the Uhuru Movement became the African People’s Socialist Party, which Leaks said she helped organize. She led the women’s section of the party, although she felt that women were restricted in the kinds of assignments they were given. Leaks said as more men joined the party, the more women were relegated to non-leadership roles. “That’s what pushed me out of the party,” she said. “I didn’t think women should be limited.” Not long after leaving the party, Leaks and her husband divorced. 

Florida’s racism continued to frustrate Leaks. She decided to move to another state, one with a large Black population. “I did some research to decide where I wanted to live,” she said.  Leaks considered moving to New Jersey, but decided that its winters were too cold.

Leaks finally chose Washington, D.C., and moved there in 1978. During the decade of the 1970s, the population of the District of Columbia was more than 50 percent Black, earning it the nickname “Chocolate City.” It was a perfect place for her, as the city was undergoing an Afrocentric cultural and political renaissance. 

After years in which the U.S. Congress exerted complete control of the city’s laws and budgets, D.C. was finally granted a degree of home rule. The ordinance permitted Washingtonians to vote for its first elected Mayor and City Council. With the pairing of political power to the palpable Black power, the city grew in influence.

Many of the elected officials, such as Mayor Marion Barry, had been Civil Rights organizers in the 1960s’ Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Added to the political potency, the prestigious historically Black institution, Howard University, ran a weekly newscast on its commercial radio station WHUR-FM called “The Daily Drum.” Plus, the station’s slogan was “360 degrees of Blackness.” 

On any given weekend, there were Black plays staged by the D.C. Black Repertory Company, Black poetry readings, and jazz venues with a Black cultural focus. “And the weather wasn’t that cold,” Leaks noted. Overall, the move to the north, but just below the Mason-Dixon line, was the perfect resettlement location for Leaks.

Homelessness and racism in D.C.

Although “Chocolate City” had its advantages, Leaks discovered very quickly that the racism she thought she left behind in Florida, is one of several factors at the heart of unaffordable housing and D.C homelessness. According to a D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute report, affordable housing “would be a key step in repairing one of the deepest harms of centuries of structural racism and discrimination.”  

Generations of federal and local policies “have blocked Black households from equitable access to employment, income, and housing.” The study furthers that the inequities caused “more Black people in D.C. [to] rent rather than own their homes as a less expensive option.” Regardless, rental housing is becoming more expensive, resulting in tenants’ evictions for nonpayment of rent. Consequently, many have nowhere to live except the streets. The report also notes that almost 83 percent of D.C.’s homeless people are Black. 

A Black feminist co-op

Despite discouraging statistics, Leaks refused to be deterred by D.C.’s homeless crisis and its racist roots. She struck her first blow against gentrification in 1982. Leaks and three other Black women founded a co-op home on T Street in Northeast D.C. It was dubbed the “T Street Collective.” The home became the inspirational center for Black feminist organizing.

Four years after co-founding the collective home, Leaks became a tenant organizer with Washington Inner City Self Help, or WISH. Part of its mission was to help organize tenants to form limited equity housing co-ops to keep their homes. The next two decades saw Leaks leading efforts to convert dozens of D.C. buildings into housing co-ops. She later became the organization’s executive director. 

At WISH, Leaks attempted to create complementary cooperative businesses, such as a janitorial service to clean the cooperatives. She strengthened her community organizing expertise by earning a master’s degree in community economic development at Southern New Hampshire University. 

In 2003, WISH closed when it ran out of government funding. It was replaced by Empower D.C., which Leaks co-founded the same year WISH shuttered. Among other things, Empower D.C. assists low-income D.C. residents in advocating for affordable housing laws. 

Do it yourself housing campaigns

“My philosophy is to teach people,” Leaks told The Ark. “I will show people how to organize their buildings into co-operative housing, but I won’t do it for them.” 

Often, Leaks taught frightened tenants about managing cooperatives, how to protest, how to advocate for themselves. From her training, tenants learned how to fight City Hall, and how to oppose landlords who only cared about becoming wealthier by selling their buildings to condominium developers. To bolster their education, she created educational materials and programs for tenants which guided them through the process of becoming homeowners. 

In retrospect, Leaks said her organizing often kept her up late until early morning hours, receiving little or no pay for her efforts. “Once I was collaborating with a woman on the phone, helping her prepare testimony to read before a City Council hearing,” she recalled. “The woman had little education, and she was scared.” But the woman overcame her fear and read her statement perfectly, with coaching from Leaks.

The buyoff game 

Sometimes Leaks could not compete with landlords who would give tenants thousands of dollars if they gave up trying to convert their apartments to co-operative housing and moved away. “I know that for many people, those offers of money were in larger amounts than they had ever seen,” Leaks said. “But I would always tell them, ‘Don’t take the money!’ If they accepted the money and left to find housing somewhere else, they would lose the opportunity to own their homes at affordable prices [through cooperatives].”

Most tenants who departed moved to Prince George’s County, Maryland, 12 miles west of D.C., where housing is less expensive. While D.C. comprises eight Wards, some D.C. residents jokingly call Prince George’s County “Ward Nine” because hundreds of D.C. residents migrated there for affordable housing.

Cooperative housing milestones

In 1989, Leaks met with tenants of the Capital View Plaza in Southeast D.C., one of the poorest sections of the city. They wanted to apply for a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program which helped renters become homeowners. Leaks helped them form an association. The tenants were told that part of their rent money would be set aside to turn the public housing units into a cooperative. But the HUD program was canceled. The tenants were never informed. 

It took 11 years, but Leaks assisted them in securing $3 million in federal funds to rehabilitate their public housing apartments. The tenants changed the name from Capital View Plaza to the Southern Homes and Gardens Cooperative. Making history, the coop became the first in the U.S. organized and formed by public housing residents.

Between 1993 and 2006, she used to travel around D.C. to check up on the co-operative dwellings she assisted in organizing. All 16, which have names like “We Still Have a Dream,” “Malcolm X Court,” and “Mandela Cooperative,” are still operating. Additionally, Leaks helped produce close to 400 units of housing and home ownership opportunities.

In later years, Leaks founded a cooperative home in D.C. where all the residents were social justice advocates like herself. It was named the Ella Jo Baker Intentional Cooperative, after the Black woman who helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Leaks is still a Baker cooperative resident.

Tapping into her pan-African foundation, Leakes brought her organizing skills to South Africa in 1992. While there, she and other WISH staff helped Johannesburg tenants form cooperative housing in three neighborhoods with seven buildings. “I would like to go back and see how they are doing,” she said. She would also like to visit the African country of Guinea Bissau, as she is a descendant of Africans from that country who were enslaved and brought to the U.S. “At the time I wanted to go, the U.S. government had issued travel warnings saying that turmoil there made it too dangerous to visit.”

Sneaking Leaks’ award nomination 

Even after her successes creating housing cooperatives in D.C. and South Africa, Leaks remains modest about her achievements. During the Cooperative Hall of Fame awards ceremony held in D.C.’s National Press Club, Ajowa Ifateyo, one of Leaks’ closest friends, told the audience she had to sneak an application to the Cooperative Hall of Fame just to nominate Leaks for the award. 

“I felt like if I told her, she would say, ‘No! Don’t do that!’ “said Ifateyo, a teenager when they met. Ifateyo only told Leaks what she had done after the Cooperative Hall of Fame induction became official. “(Leaks) said ‘What about the people who did the work to start these co-ops?’”   

A ‘‘revolutionary” housing warrior

Ifateyo described Leaks as “ferocious.”  She recalled, “Linda attended the Million Man March although it was said that women were not supposed to go.” At the historical rally, “Linda held up her homemade sign at the gathering which read ‘Stop misogyny.’ “

That ferociousness drove Leaks to organize buses of tenants to go to federal offices demanding money and other assistance to form cooperatives. She brought tenant protestors to the homes of negligent landlords to picket them and demand repairs to their apartments.

“We just want to recognize that Linda is a revolutionary leader, a legendary housing co-op organizer,” said Ifateyo. 

Adria Powell, the event’s moderator, applauded all the inductees, but reminded the audience that there is a larger reason for supporting and advocating for cooperative homes and companies. Cooperatives “give an economic voice to workers, consumers, farmers, and small businesses. We honor the commitment and dedication of those who understand how cooperatives can make a meaningful and lasting difference in the lives of members, of workers, of customers, and the communities in which they serve.”

Powell, who is the president and CEO of the New York-based Cooperative Home Care Associates, added, “We hope to take away from this event inspiration, and a renewed energy for our own work, advancing cooperatives, and inclusion, as a better way of doing business. And to help ensure all are included and can benefit from a truly inclusive economy.” 

Passing the torch

Leaks told The Ark that she hopes future activists are mindful of injustice, that they always uphold justice and fairness, and stand up for people’s rights. “I think of people like Fannie Lou Hamer, who helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party [in the early 1960s] and [anti-enslavement abolitionist] Harriet Tubman. They fought for us. We don’t want what they did to [be forgotten].”  

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Every year, Leaks participates in a tour of the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in Cambridge, Maryland. Leaks said Tubman’s courage inspires her. “Even though Harriet escaped enslavement, she kept going back, and kept going back, and kept going back to free more people,” said Leaks. “I feel that every year I must visit the site just to tell her ‘Thank you.’”

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