Left to right, Andrea Ortega along with sisters Kassandra Ortega and Roxanna Ortega, speak with Donna Herron, a member of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, during a press conference on December 23, 2020, in Inglewood, California. GARY CORONADO / LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES
By Laura Jedeed & Shane Burley
It started last June with squatting. Quietly and without fanfare, Philadelphia activists affiliated with OccupyPHL and the Black Renter’s Cooperative broke into long-vacant public housing buildings and supported houseless families moving in. Then came the massive, barricaded protest encampment on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a tree-lined oasis in the middle of the Pennsylvania city surrounded by some of Philadelphia’s most expensive housing.
“They totally could have used the cops to disperse the encampment,” activist Wiley Cunningham of Philadelphia Housing Action remarked. “But politically, it would have looked bad for them.”
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who is white, was wary of the optics of clearing a mostly-Black encampment in the midst of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. When activists blocked construction of an expensive high-rise complex with their second protest encampment next to the Housing Authority headquarters, city officials decided it was in their best interest to negotiate.
With COVID eviction moratoriums rapidly reaching their end, around 40 million people in the U.S. will soon face eviction and houselessness. On January 18, more than 160 organizations sent a letter to Joe Biden and Rochelle Walensky, the incoming director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), calling on them to take stronger and immediate executive action to protect tens of millions of people from eviction and displacement.
On his first day, Biden issued an executive order to extend the moratorium for evictions until at least March 31. Forbes notes, “The executive order also calls on federal housing agencies to extend the foreclosure and eviction moratorium for federally backed mortgages at least through March, and allow forbearance applications to continue for federally-backed mortgages.”
The Biden administration also intends to allocate a total of $30 billion for rent and utility bill relief as part of his American Rescue Plan. The plan, which also includes $5 billion in assistance for those at risk of homelessness, must be approved by Congress.
However, some activists are skeptical. The Right to the City Alliance called Biden’s executive order “deeply concerning for renters and housing advocates nationwide” in a statement, noting that “it is confusing and distressing that President Joe Biden would choose to extend this same moratorium for only a couple months without first strengthening it, removing loopholes, creating enforcement mechanisms, and ensuring that it lasts for the duration of the pandemic with a buffer period after.” While $35 billion in rental and utility relief is a step in the right direction, these funds are woefully insufficient to end the crisis.
Across the nation, activists are already deploying a variety of tactics to keep tenants in their homes and to find homes for those without. Sometimes, as in Washington, D.C., this looks like tenant organizations and legal education. Other times, eviction defense involves facing off against the police.
Always, the goal is the same: get people into homes and keep them there.
The U.S.’s out-of-control COVID epidemic continues to wreak economic havoc alongside skyrocketing death tolls. In September, the CDC issued a moratorium on evictions to slow spread of the disease. Many states followed suit, but most of these protections will soon expire. Currently, this federal moratorium expires on March 31, leaving many tenants and homeowners wondering whether they will have a place to lay their head through the rest of 2021.
While the eviction ban was extended, as things stand, tenants will owe the entirety of their back-payments the moment the moratorium expires. Those who could not afford to pay their rent or mortgage during this crisis are unlikely to be able to afford months’ worth of payments on April 1, or any other time. Studies indicate that people of color and single mothers will be disproportionately impacted by this pending crisis.
This crisis of incoming evictions is being met by a growing collection of organizers who are taking to eviction defense as a community-based solution to what could become a catastrophe unseen since the 2010 foreclosure crisis. In Western New York, in the Rust Belt city of Rochester, a coalition effort is bringing together a number of organizations to work on multiple levels to stop evictions. The Rochester Housing Justice Alliance (RHJA) is a collection of a number of activist groups, tenant unions and nonprofits that are organizing eviction defense for people whose legal challenges have failed or whose landlords are ignoring the laws. During COVID, they have taken up the challenge of in-person actions, starting by staging protests at homes where they knew evictions were being issued and working up to a round-the-clock eviction watch where they use a sophisticated phone tree system to call out activists for support.
“The biggest problem is, as it has ever been, the disorganization of working people — tenants in this instance. Because the landlords have us atomized, relatively few choose to fight back, or even consider the option,” says Crescenzo Scipione, who works with Metro Justice, a member of RHJA. “The more tenants unionize, the more neighborhoods band together against evictions, the fewer people in our communities will die from combinations of poverty, displacement and COVID-19. Join a tenant union or anti-eviction organization. If there ain’t one, build one.”
Activists in Washington, D.C., are concentrating more on tenant organization than immediate direct action, according to organizer Greg Afinogenov. Afinogenov is part of Stomp Out Slumlords, an organization that concentrates on building tenants’ associations in apartment buildings. Not only do these associations bring renters together to defend their rights, they coordinate for actions with a larger, city-wide focus.
Tenants’ unions are one reason that, unlike other cities with supposed eviction protections, D.C. has not had a single eviction since the moratorium went into place.
Washington, D.C., enacted an eviction moratorium at the beginning of the COVID crisis, now extended through June. Tenants’ unions are one reason that, unlike other cities with supposed eviction protections, D.C. has not had a single eviction since the moratorium went into place. “I think the existence of this sort of movement is one of the main reasons eviction moratoriums survived,” Afinogenov tells Truthout. “Because it’s been challenged repeatedly by various political voices on the city council who are very much not friendly to it.”
Because their efforts to prevent evictions have been so successful, D.C. activists have turned their attention to rent debt cancellation. A Halloween direct action at Mayor Muriel Bowser’s house contributed to Bowser’s subsequent decision to forgive $10 million of rent debt. “This is not a huge amount in actual terms of need,” Afinogenov says. “But it does show that this kind of direct action actually works.”
Stomp Out Landlords is a part of the Autonomous Tenants Union Network (ATUN), which is an organization that began coordinating different tenant unions in 2018, free from large NGO funding and accountabilities. In 2020, ATUN formalized the network to support unions confronting evictions during the pandemic. The Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) is a member of that network and based in the San Francisco Bay area, one of the epicenters of climbing urban rental costs and eviction rates. TANC works on multiple fronts to confront evictions, from running activist campaigns to an eviction defense team that attempts to hold back evictions. “We will work to unite their neighbors to defend them and to fight the landlord, the sheriffs and the city. We will blockade their home and prevent these groups from entering,” says Nick Jackson, an organizer with TANC. The council has created a Cancel Rent Agreement which is asking the East Bay Rental Housing Association, a landlord organization, to have members forgive rental debt as an alternative to the current “debt repayment forms” the association is using that TANC says are misleading and predatory. While many eviction moratoriums may have halted evictions during the pandemic, as debt piles up for many out-of-work tenants, the evictions are only delayed.
“One day I hope to see the tenant movement strong enough to expropriate empty housing and put those on the street into safe living environments. We’ve seen examples of this around the country, and it is inevitable as long as the commodification of housing continues to … condemn people to die in the streets,” says Jackson.
Portland Tenants United (PTU) (also a member of ATUN) formed in 2015 to confront the dramatic rise in evictions as Portland, Oregon, gentrified many of its working-class and BIPOC neighborhoods. Over the past five years, the PTU has undertaken dozens of eviction protests, mass actions against displacement, and been responsible for pushing moderate tenant legislation and getting renter-friendly candidates elected. Now, the group is moving in the direction of eviction defense as it coordinates a type of “rapid response” system that has been implemented by other network members.
“I think for the people who participate in [direct action eviction defense], it’s very empowering because you’re working together, often with people you don’t know. Something that’s very physical and literal,” says Lauren Everett, who works with the PTU. “So, it doesn’t have that abstract feeling of like, we’re sending letters or like we’re trying to get this thing passed. It’s like we are literally preventing this landlord from doing something illegal and walking locked out of their home.”
The PTU began this eviction defense work staging a multiday eviction watch in support of a couple who were being evicted by a landlord they lived with, where members of the community came together and stayed several days in front of the house to ensure that the landlord did not try to remove the family and change the locks.
The LA Tenants Union, also part of ATUN, faces a unique challenge: coordinating efforts across a large and traffic-clogged city with a wide variety of tenant issues. Initially, the group concentrated mostly on organizing tenants into autonomous local organizations capable of catering to their tenants’ specific needs. With COVID, however, everything changed. As evictions increased, union membership grew from 300 to 3,000.
Los Angeles activists spent much of last summer fighting illegal evictions. Although the law prevents anyone except a sheriff with a writ of possession from carrying out an eviction, many landlords began to change locks and evict without due process. Legally, tenants are allowed to break the lock and move back in when this happens, but many of them do not know this and are too afraid of violence from their landlord or the police to exercise their rights. “Even though it’s an entirely civil matter, [the police] will side with the landlord,” explained Colin Stevens, an activist with the LA Tenants Union. In response, the union mobilized to get people on scene and resist the police until the issue went far enough up the chain of command that someone realized the illegality of the eviction and called off the cops. After a summer of resistance, the police have begun to realize they cannot actually assist with illegal evictions with impunity.
Philadelphia’s combination of tactics — from squatting to protest encampments — paid big dividends. By the end of October, the city agreed to establish a land trust with over 60 housing units in exchange for disbanding the encampments. The city also committed to amnesty for squatters, a commissioned study on the effects of public land transfers in poor and historically Black neighborhoods, and a cessation of evictions without a court order.
“A lot of it was just timing,” Cunningham says. Philadelphia’s white mayor was wary of sending the police to violently disband a majority-Black encampment during the summer of Black Lives Matter, which helped the encampments last long enough to bring the city to the negotiating table.
Activists also controlled the narrative. When the mainstream media tried demonizing the movement with tales of overdoses and violence within the encampments, activists like Cunningham were able to contextualize it. “Yeah, that happens every day,” he would respond. “That’s what we’re talking about. It wouldn’t happen if they had housing.”
Eventually, the neighborhood association for the luxury dwellings surrounding Benjamin Franklin Parkway came around with an op-ed that, along with calls for the dismantling of the encampment, demanded permanent housing for its inhabitants.
ATUN looks poised to be a foundation of coordinating local work nationally, taking those experiences and pulling out lessons that can apply to other cities.
“We exist to support tenant unions in growing, and more and more people becoming members of tenant unions, and more people organizing their buildings,” says Afinogenov, and that longer-term coordination can shift the balance of power. As they help to support the building of tenant unions on a ground-up model, the power of tactics like rent strikes begin to escalate and can confront the looming rental crisis. With a lot of uncertainty in 2021, this wide scale coordination of direct action and willingness to organize tenants at the site of their housing can be a solution to halting another housing collapse.