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‘There’s More Of Us Than Landlords’: Tenant Organizing In The Trump Era

Tenants throughout the United States struggle with the high cost of living and loss of their homes, but from major cities to small towns, they are escalating a grassroots movement in the name of housing justice.

In New York, a place where Wall Street investors feel more at home than the state’s own residents, tenants achieved what the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) called “the biggest housing justice victory for tenants in a generation” with the passage of the 2019 “Housing Stability And Tenants Protections Act.”

The new law will enact sweeping reforms to help protect tenants, such as the preservation of over one million rent-regulated apartments, preventing building owners from raising rents on tenants or during vacancy, allow cities and townships to pass their own tenant protections (among other landmark measures).

Around 2.4 million tenants in New York, as well as manufactured housing residents across the state, are expected to benefit.

The bill passed in spite of intense lobbying from the real estate industry. As reported by the Commercial Observer, real estate groups threatened to file a lawsuit challenging the legislation if it was signed into law.

John Banks, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said the bill would “be a disaster for the city’s future.”

Industry interests plan to keep fighting the law, making tenant organizing against their power and influence even more crucial.

‘There’s More Of Us Than Landlords’

Like New York, San Francisco is plagued by homelessness and high cost of living. Over 100,000 homes sit vacant in the San Francisco metro area, according to a report by LendingTree.

The San Francisco Tenants Union (SFTU), founded in 1970 to help renters “know their rights, and assert them,” has a membership of nearly 8,000. It is different than many housing organizations with city grants. As a 501(c)(4), they have the ability to endorse candidates for political office.

SFTU organizer Jennifer Fieber told Shadowproof, “That’s where a lot of our power comes from, because our city is 64 percent tenants so our endorsements are highly valued.”

“Ever since we formed, our mission has been to empower tenants to fight for themselves. We’ve always seen it as a political project to get tenants united as a block and asserting their rights instead of feeling like victims of landlords.”

Along with kindred organizations, like the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), SFTU is part of the statewide organization Tenants Together (TT). This organization’s mission is to put a stop to retaliation and discrimination and to fight for renters’ rights, including fair rent, code enforcement, and just cause for eviction.

Evictions disproportionately affect low-income women (particularly women of color), victims of domestic violence, and families with children. When landlords act unjustly, in some cases criminally, most people cannot afford attorneys to challenge them in court.

“We found that a lot of the eviction attempts are fraudulent,” Fieber said. “[Landlords] will trump up charges of a tenant being a nuisance or not paying their rent. As a tenant is trying to solve those problems, they are already evicted.”

Last year, SFTU campaigned with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and San Francisco Board of Supervisors candidate Dean Preston for Proposition F, otherwise known as the “Right to Counsel.” The measure, which passed and takes effect in July, will guarantee renters the right to a lawyer when facing an eviction.

Even in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, which have rent control laws on the books, there are California laws that provide landlords with loopholes to evict tenants.

LATU media committee member Anthony Carfello highlighted the Ellis Act and the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, the latter of which “limits the supply of rent control housing, so when it’s taken off the market, it’s totally gone. That then kicks tenants out into a market that is steadily rising in cost, and most have to leave Los Angeles, where many were born and raised.”

When asked by Shadowproof if there was any advice for communities outside of San Francisco and other major cities who would like to organize their own tenants unions or collectives, Fieber replied, “One thing we caution other groups about is having them led by experts. We try to structure them so there’s as much input as possible by everyone. You don’t want to alienate people by not listening to them or letting them participate.”

Fieber added, “It definitely works to band together with your neighbors even if you don’t have good tenants’ laws in your city. There’s more of us than there are landlords in the world.”

‘A Great Starting Point For Looking At The Problems Of Capitalism’

While some of the largest tenants’ organizations have long been established on both coasts, such groups are a fairly new presence in regions like the Midwest. One of the newest tenants groups to emerge is the Iowa City Tenants Union (ICTU), an outgrowth of organizing efforts for housing justice by the Iowa City chapter of the DSA.

ICTU organizer Matt Drabek told Shadowproof, “DSA chapters across Iowa have taken a particular interest in organizing around housing for various reasons,” including “the universal nature of needing a place to live and the relative lack of tenant-led housing organizations.”

Organizers with ICTU canvas door-to-door, gathering local housing stories and encounters with bad landlords, and conducting research on specific issues facing tenants. They confront the lack of attention to maintenance requests, racial discrimination, improper entry without 24-hour notice, and importantly, evictions.

“I think the most clearly pressing issues for tenants in Iowa City are runaway rent costs that are pushing lots of working class people completely out of the city as well as the normalization of things like security deposit theft and other nickel-and-diming of tenants to the point that it’s just written into standard business practices and expectations,” Drabek added.

Drabek mentioned the home loan discrimination rates against the Latinx population in Iowa City as one of many issues the group plans to tackle.

A 2018 study conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) found Latinx residents in Iowa City were four times more likely to be rejected for home loans compared to non-Hispanic whites, the highest such disparity in the U.S.

Iowa DSA chapters also resulted in the formation of the Ames Tenants Union (ATU) and the Dubuque Renters’ Union (DRU).

Though working independently from each other, all three groups employ similar tactics toward similar goals: connecting tenants with legal representation, engaging in direct action against abusive landlords, speaking at public forums and providing people the basics on how to organize their own groups in their communities.

“Statewide discussion and possible action is something we’d both like to see more of,” Drabek acknowledged.

“Most people intuitively get that rents are basically a racket where someone’s getting paid just for owning things,” Drabek declared. “Not actually building, creating, or doing anything. That makes it in many ways a great starting point for looking at the problems with capitalism. Activism that cuts across both housing and labor can also reach a much wider range of people than, say, labor alone.”

Keeping Landlords In Check

In the neighboring state of Nebraska, tenants formed Omaha Tenants United (OTU) last year. As an anti-capitalist multi-tendency organization, OTU has created quite a stir in the Cornhusker State.

Shadowproof interviewed an OTU co-founder, who asked not to be identified because they are concerned about retaliation given the “nature of their political work.”

According to this source, one of the most common problems tenants face in Omaha is not getting repairs in a timely manner. There are issues with mold, heaters not working in the winter, air conditioners not working in the summer, and landlords “not doing anything about it.”

OTU helps people moving out by making small repairs and touch-ups, as well as taking photographs as proof in case landlords try to tack-on unnecessary move-out fees. “We have our own counter-proof to at least reduce the fees or get them waived entirely,” the OTU co-founder declared.

A local landlord with hundreds of low-rent properties to his name and described by the OTU co-founder as “one of the biggest slumlords in Omaha,” attempted to charge a tenant $1,500 in move-out fees. OTU took action on behalf of the tenant.

“We occupied his office with about 30 people. When we got down to negotiating, we demonstrated how these fees were recently made-up. It certainly wouldn’t win in court, and we don’t want to go to court either. We were able to waive all the fees and get his $500 deposit back,” the OTU co-founder stated.

OTU’s immediate aim is not only to prevent landlord abuse but to also expose the capitalist system that allows them to exist. As noted in their “Points of Unity” document, “Until this system is abolished, we seek to build a Tenants’ Union in Omaha capable of keeping landlords in check, and holding them more accountable to their tenants.”

Unlike numerous other tenants’ organizations that use the term “union” loosely, OTU is in the process of drawing up a constitution and working to organize as a union in order to negotiate with landlords as a bargaining collective, similar to a labor union.

“We want to create our own working class power, where people are directly confronting and taking on the landlords because this is part of a broader class struggle,” the OTU co-founder shared. “The very idea of renting, we want abolished, straight-up. In order to demonstrate how it’s inherently exploitative, we organize to combat the landlords.”

A Brief History Of The Struggle For Housing Justice

These groups uphold a tradition of residents fighting for housing justice. During the Great Depression, over 200,000 of the city’s residents were evicted in 1931. These evictions were often met with organized resistance. When people’s possessions were hauled to the curb, community members often helped those evicted move back into their homes. Others refused to leave altogether.

In 1931, there were several tenant strikes in New York City, usually led by what were known as “Unemployed Councils.” This led to the “Great Rent Strike of 1932” in the Bronx. Tenants refused to pay rent and picketed until their demands of reduced rent, repairs and an end to evictions were met.

The Unemployed Councils reportedly helped move over 77,000 evicted families back into their homes by 1932. Similar actions spread to other parts of the country with varying degrees of success.

Such undertakings helped bring about the Housing Act of 1937, which directed the U.S. Housing Authority to provide local loans for the construction of low-rent housing, and the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942, which established price-control measures such as limits on the amount of rent charged to tenants.

Since then, additional economic crises, austerity measures, and legislative rollbacks have worsened housing for the lower classes.

The Great Recession of 2007-2009, also referred to as the “foreclosure crisis,” cost millions of people their jobs and their homes. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of vacant homes jumped from 9.5 million to over 12 million. (Although this number has declined recently, the ripple effects are still being felt.)

In 2017, 6.7 million American households spent more than 50 percent of their income on rent in 2017, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Wages have not risen to keep up with escalating housing costs, leading to mass homelessness and displacement.

The city of New York’s homeless rate is at a level not seen since the Great Depression. “The number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping each night in municipal shelters is now 70 percent higher than it was 10 years ago,” according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

California (like New York, Hawaii, Oregon and the District of Columbia) have the highest housing costs in the country. It is no coincidence these states and the nation’s capital also have the highest homeless rates compared to the rest of the country.

The abuse of tenants by landlords has been an age-old problem. Tenants face an array of nightmarish realities: rent hikes, housing discrimination, substandard living conditions, harassment and wrongful eviction. Across the U.S., local laws tend to side with landlords over tenants in legal disputes.

As noted by Princeton University research, “In most American cities and towns, landlords can evict renters even if they have not missed a rent payment or otherwise violated their lease agreement; these are called ‘no fault’ evictions.”

The American Journal of Sociology found that landlords extract higher profits in poor neighborhoods. Such conditions are ripe for landlords to take advantage of people with little financial security and cash in on their need for shelter, the most nefarious being the “slumlord,” who buys up properties cheaply and overcharges tenants despite the lack of upkeep or safety.

What cities like Los Angeles suffer from is an “eviction crisis,” according to LATU media committee member Anthony Carfello.

He refuses to call it a “housing crisis,” believing the term is one wielded by business and government to promote real estate projects.

Contrary to popular belief, there is not a shortage of housing or solutions to combat the problem.

When one protests the “housing crisis,” they are referring to a series of crises: homelessness, mass evictions, overpriced housing, lack of public housing, and the lack of tenants’ rights.

“On the ground, the city [of Los Angeles] turns a blind eye to abuse and enforcement of the laws is beyond lax,” Carfello said. “That’s how we end up with rent control tenants being kicked out and replaced by Airbnbs.”

The White House is currently occupied by Donald Trump, a landlord like his father, Fred Trump, and the Trump administration is staggeringly indifferent to the plight of tenants.

Nevertheless, few Democratic candidates for president have addressed housing issues on the campaign trail, leaving tenants in the dark on how they may impact or better their lives if elected.

As the housing justice movement becomes a greater force for tenant rights, it will be increasingly difficult for candidates to ignore such organizing.

Mike Kuhlenbeck

Mike Kuhlenbeck

Mike Kuhlenbeck is a journalist and National Writers Union UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO member based in Des Moines, Iowa.