FORWARD: Issue #5: Housing
Illuminating Housing Issues
An artist-led process exploring rural homelessness in three southwestern Minnesota communities resulted in A Prairie Homeless Companion, a live and virtual theater production that illuminated hidden characteristics of rural homelessness. Photo courtesy zAmya Theater Project.
The housing crisis is a complex issue, difficult to grasp in all its aspects—and all the more challenging when some of those aspects are nearly invisible to all but those intimately involved with them.
Rural and small-town housing instability and homelessness are a case in point. While the urban homeless are, to a certain extent, visible—on the streets, in shelters, or in tent cities—rural Americans who have lost stable, permanent housing may move in with relatives, live in their cars, or camp semipermanently out in the countryside. Another under-the-radar problem in rural and urban communities is how unscrupulous real estate investors prey on families struggling to keep their homes.
Three projects—two in increasingly diverse Midwestern states, and another on the hotly contested Mexican border—use artistic means to highlight these issues. In Minnesota, a play whimsically based on the state’s most iconic radio program tells stories of homelessness with wit and passion. In South Texas, an ingenious artist has found a way to make the exploitation of struggling homeowners by predatory real estate glaringly visible. And in Chicago's Greater Englewood neighborhood, an artist shines a spotlight on the racist history of housing predation.
Scroll down to learn more about creative projects illuminating housing issues.
A Prairie Homeless Companion
Illuminating homelessness through art
Location: Rochester, Worthington, Marshall, Hutchinson, and Willmar, Minnesota.
Artist Role: An artist-led process exploring rural homelessness in three southwestern Minnesota communities, resulting in a live and virtual theater production.
Partner Organizations: Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership worked with PlaceBase Productions and zAmya Theater Project.
Result/Impact: The production illuminated the hidden characteristics of rural homelessness, demonstrating how theater is a successful way to share information and messaging.
A Prairie Homeless Companion performance in Worthington, Minnesota. Photo courtesy zAmya Theater Project.
Ashley Hanson, whose PlaceBase Productions mounts site-specific theater pieces in small towns around Minnesota, was a resident artist at the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership (SWMHP), based in the town of Slayton. She knew that Maren Ward, artistic director of the Twin Cities–based zAmya Theater Project, had long wanted to engage with the issue of rural homelessness. Ward’s idea was to create a theater work based on A Prairie Home Companion, the long-running Minnesota Public Radio show created and hosted by Garrison Keillor. The title of Ward’s work would, of course, be A Prairie Homeless Companion.
Hanson introduced Ward to SWMHP. “We had great dialogue with zAmaya about rural homeless,” says Jenn Lamb, director of supportive services for the Partnership. The project was launched.
In Marshall, Minnesota, the audience and cast share back after the performance. Photo courtesy Ashley Hanson, PlaceBase Productions.
The audience in Marshall, Minnesota. Photo courtesy Ashley Hanson, PlaceBase Productions.
The research phase of the project included setting up phone lines for anonymous sharing, and creating story circles with homeless people and service providers in various communities. Since the rural unhoused aren’t centralized in shelters as they are in urban areas, finding participants was a complicated task that illuminated the hidden characteristics of rural homelessness. Some were seeing a mental health provider and were contacted that way; others were camping year-round or living in cars or storage units. Still others were living with their families in small apartments they shared with one or two other families.
Playful and informative, with plenty of engaging storytelling and humor, along with an audience-participation segment, A Prairie Homeless Companion toured throughout Minnesota in 2019, and played at the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless Conference in Rochester. A radio version of the play was broadcast on KVSC 88.1 FM St. Cloud and KFAI 90.3 FM Minneapolis in November 2021, and on KTWH 99.5 FM in Two Harbors, Minnesota, in December 2021. (The radio play version is available online.) A Prairie Homeless Companion was a project of SWMHP's Partnership Art, funded by ArtPlace America with additional support secured from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council.
Photo courtesy zAmya Theater Project.
Post-performance evaluations show “that using theater to share information about issues facing our region is a successful way to articulate messages, get people energized and involved, and grow our network of audiences, donors, and volunteers.”
A Prairie Homeless Companion radio production cast, in 2019. Photo courtesy zAmya Theater Project.
The band for A Prairie Homeless Companion. Photo courtesy Ashley Hanson, PlaceBase Productions.
“We discovered through this process that the arts reach people where they are," says SWMHP’s Lamb, who performed with her daughter in the play. "Artists look at social issues through a different lens or framework than we do. Our collaboration on A Prairie Homeless Companion has helped SWMHP rethink about how we're approaching people." She adds that post-performance evaluations show “that using theater to share information about issues facing our region is a successful way to articulate messages, get people energized and involved, and grow our network of audiences, donors, and volunteers.” The show continues to evolve as it’s performed in communities throughout Minnesota.
71 percent of survey respondents said they would have more conversations about homelessness and housing instability in their rural Minnesota region after seeing the play.
Photo courtesy zAmya Theater Project.
SWMHP follow-up also discovered that 71 percent of survey respondents said they would have more conversations about homelessness and housing instability in their rural Minnesota region after seeing the play. “Homelessness in most instances is not a choice,” said one audience member, quoted on the project’s website. “We have a definite need for affordable housing, and the wage disparity gap needs to close.”
In Hutchinson, Minnesota, the audience and cast discuss the play. Photo courtesy Ashley Hanson, PlaceBase Productions.
The cast. Photo courtesy Ashley Hanson, PlaceBase Productions.
Jennifer Lamb and daughter Izzie perform. Photo courtesy Jenn Lamb.
Making housing instability visible
Location: Brownsville, Texas (in the Rio Grande Valley, or RGV).
Artist Role: Engaging and rallying local community around problematic housing market indicators.
Partner Organizations: Come Dream, Come Build, and the local community.
Result/Impact: The installation sparked creativity in the CDCB policy team’s approach to sharing information and resources with the public.
Installation photo, The Myth of Affordability in the RGV, a project about making housing instability visible, which sparked creativity in the CDCB's policy team’s approach to sharing information and resources with the public. Photos courtesy CDCB.
In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley (RGV), housing instability is something of a hidden problem. When Come Dream, Come Build (CDCB), a local private, nonprofit community development organization, set out to research the scope of the issue with funding from a Wells Fargo grant, their policy team felt that sticking to fact sheets and webinars limited the reach of their inquiry.
According to Marcela Sáenz, CDCB’s director of Marketing, Communications and Public Relations, family and community structures in the region tend to obscure the severity of the need for affordable housing. “In the Rio Grande Valley, we don’t see displacement as much as in the bigger cities because people who are displaced by the cost of housing will often move in with family. So you don’t see homelessness the way you do elsewhere, but it’s still not ideal.”
In early 2021, Josué Ramirez, an artist, activist, and program manager for CDCB’s MiCaSiTa program, had an idea. What if the team was able to make visible some of the ways housing instability had flown under the radar?
What if the team was able to make visible some of the ways housing instability had flown under the radar?
His proposal was to collect bandit signs and turn them into a startling work of public art and provocation. Bandit signs are the brightly colored, poster-sized printed signs that predatory real estate investors post with messages like “We buy houses for ca$h.” They target vulnerable homeowners, many of whom have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ramirez’s plan was to use the signs to engage and rally the local community around these indicators of an unstable and unfair housing market. On a CDCB lot in high-traffic downtown Brownsville, he constructed an entire model home using only these gaudy signs, a site-specific installation titled The Myth of Affordable Housing (RGV).
A COVID-related shelter-in-place order limited CDCB’s ability to host community members for engagement events around the home (though they were able to record a video documenting the project). Despite these constraints, the installation has sparked creativity in the policy team’s approach to sharing information and resources with the public. “I think we learned the importance of actually showcasing your work by giving people something they can see and identify with,” says Sáenz. “It just makes it easier to process. It’s not the same as handing someone a document or a fact sheet. We’re hoping to incorporate more of this interactivity going forward.”
We learned the importance of actually showcasing your work by giving people something they can see and identify with.
Inequity for Sale
Shining a spotlight on the racist history of housing predation
Location: Greater Englewood neighborhood, Chicago, Illinois.
Artist Role: Social justice artist Tonika Lewis Johnson spotlights the racist history of housing predation on Chicago’s South Side through her project, Inequity for Sale.
Partner Organizations: National Public Housing Museum.
Result/Impact: The project reminds the public and stakeholders how a radical collective imagination is needed now to create housing justice in the future.
Photos courtesy Tonika Lewis Johnson and the National Public Housing Museum.
On Green Street in Chicago’s Greater Englewood neighborhood, a bright-yellow circular sign reads: “This home at 7250 S. Green was legally stolen from Black resident John Garner on December 28, 1962, in a widespread land sale contract scam. This crime was never brought to justice. Reparations are due.” Nine more signs on nearby streets tell a similar story—with the same call to action.
Through her project, Inequity for Sale, social justice artist Tonika Lewis Johnson spotlights the racist history of housing predation on Chicago’s South Side. The effects of that predation linger today, in the forms of abandoned homes, vacant lots, and population loss due to land sale contracts, redlining, and other forms of discrimination. Incubated as part of the National Public Housing Museum's Artist as Instigator residency program, Inequity for Sale places five-foot-high, black-and-yellow concrete and metal land markers in front of land sale contract homes. The project’s use of powerful language and graphics shifts our gaze beyond the symptoms, exposes root causes, and demands solutions that center the people most impacted.
The predatory practice of land sale contracts—also called contract sales—was common in Chicago’s Black communities in the 1950s and ’60s. A 2019 study from Duke University found that between $3.2 billion and $4 billion was legally stolen from Black residents during that time. Johnson learned about the Duke study from researcher Amber Hendley at a community meeting in Greater Englewood—one of the most impacted neighborhoods. Hendley shared with her a map of the addresses used in the study. The discovery that more than 600 of these homes were in her neighborhood was the answer to Tonika’s lifelong question: Why is the home ownership rate in Greater Englewood so low, always hovering around 20 percent? Was it ever high?
As a result of her project, Johnson joined the Steering Committee of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) Historic Preservation Division, which seeks to amplify under-recognized histories by collecting personal narratives and identifying historic sites, memorabilia, and traditions. She collaborated with Chicago urban historian Shermann "Dilla" Thomas on sold-out neighborhood tours. And she’s facilitated connections and data sharing with the Chicago DPD as well as the Cook County Land Bank Authority; neither was previously aware of former land sale contract homes currently in their possession, a first step toward accountability and action.
With a Together We Heal grant from the City of Chicago, Johnson will help current residents, on blocks where land sale contract homes exist, to obtain funding for repairs and renovations that increase the value of their homes. She will also use the grant to produce creative interventions and activations. With Inequity for Sale, Johnson and collaborators remind the public how a radical collective imagination now is necessary to create housing justice in the future.
Map of the affected homes in Chicago's Greater Englewood neighborhood.
Inequity for Sale places five-foot-high, black-and-yellow concrete and metal land markers in front of land sale contract homes in Chicago. The project’s use of powerful language and graphics shifts our gaze beyond the symptoms, exposes root causes, and demands solutions that center the people most impacted.
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FORWARD: Issue #5
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