Housing Justice Groups Align as National Movement Grows
By Jess Clarke
Renters across the US are rising up against the housing affordability crisis that is hitting cities, towns, suburbs and even rural regions of the country. Since the mass evictions brought on by the foreclosure crisis, the number of renters has grown. Six million were added when they were pushed out of home ownership by the banks and millions more began to rent as young workers entered the labor market to face a decade of recession. Renters are now more than 50% of the population in the top 100 US cities, and high rents coupled with stagnant wages mean that over 50% of these renter households now pay unaffordable rents. These two tipping points mean renters are poised to emerge as a powerful block in local and national politics.
In September of 2017, this rising tide of discontent was mobilized. Over one hundred organizations in two dozen cities and towns staged fifty coordinated demonstrations during a national Renter Week of Action and Assemblies (RWAA) organized by the Homes For All Campaign. They demanded universal rent control and eviction protections, full funding for the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD), an end to subsidies for corporate landlords, the right of all tenants to organize and bargain collectively, and long-term community control of land and housing.
Renters Rise, Cities Thrive
A new analysis of housing affordability, released in support of the RWAA “When Renters Rise, Cities Thrive” backs this up with hard numbers.
“The data is abundantly clear,” says Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO of PolicyLink. “Renters are the lifeblood of cities. If rents were affordable, renters could meet their basic needs like transportation, food, and child care and contribute even more to thriving communities."
To download fact sheets on over 50 cities and national data visit: National Equity Atlas.
“Our communities are under constant attack. From policies of mass deportation and incarceration to gentrification and mass evictions, we are facing displacement in many forms. Renters have had enough.” said Right To The City Boston organizer Darnell L. Johnson. “We’re organized, we’re powerful and we won’t back down.” After nearly a year of “Trump Resistance” many activists are looking to dig in on issues that go deeper than the latest twitter storm and to impact policy at local and federal levels. An impressive array of local organizations with renters as their base are joining forces to advance a positive agenda for renter rights. National research and advocacy institutions are also aligning with this emerging movement to help mobilize the class power of renters to effectively challenge corporate governance.
Week of Mobilizations
Rrenters actions wee diverse: They challenged corporate landlords directly—taking their protests to their landlords homes in Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle. They tackled them in the legislative arena, with demonstrations for rent control and eviction protections in cities and states including Oregon, California, Newark, Providence RI, and Detroit. They faced them down politically with protests against HUD secretary Ben Carson in Philadelphia; street protests and theater at the New York City Housing Authority; and a three-day march in Nashville along the Mayor’s proposed route for a new transit line. Here are some details.
Lynn MA: 140 Residents rallied at city-hall before marching to the site of a new luxury development project on the Lynn Waterfront where they staged a 24-hour sleep-in occupation.
Miami: Section 8 residents evicted in the wake of Hurricane Irma set up a tent city in Civic Towers in Allapattah neighborhood of Miami forcing FEMA and HUD to provide immediate shelter and calling attention to the historic and immediate housing crisis in Miami’s communities of color.
Nashville: Migrant rights, transit, labor and housing justice organizations came together to form the People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing and Employment (PATHE). Together they led a 3-day caravan along the track of a $6 billion transit development project to demand equitable development with affordable housing, good wages and full accessibility for all.
Minneapolis/St.Paul: Education, housing, racial justice and labor groups launched a week of actions and assemblies during which they confronting landlords at their homes and offices, held political education assemblies on the intersection of gentrification, schools and parks, and confronted police and legislators in a rally for rent control at city hall.
Oregon: renters led a week of actions across the state, including in Portland, where they joined with climate justice organizers and workers from the Burgerville fast food restaurant to demand a living wage and rent control.
Nationally: Homes For All was joined by CarsonWatch —a new national coalition of legal, research, policy and grassroots organizations formed to combat the Trump administrations attacks on housing funding and civil rights protections and to hold federal, local and state governments accountable. Among other support, CarsonWatch partners provided additional capacity to produce sound and specific policy demands backed up by demographic and economic research.
“The Renter Nation is waking up to its plight and to its power,” said Guillermo Mayer, CEO of the law firm Public Advocates and spokesperson for Carson Watch. “The move to slash funding to housing by Trump /Carson is going to be defeated, just like the repeal of Obamacare. What we need to do now is chart a course toward a society that provides quality homes for all.”
Renters in California, New York City as well as Minneapolis, Spokane, Newark and Portland are doing just that— convening popular assemblies to develop solidarity support networks, political unity, and collective power for tenants’ rights and housing justice movements. The range of targets and demands in every single community are worthy of a full profile. What follows are representative but not at all exhaustive.
Universal Rent Control
At the California Renter Power assembly Sept 23-24, in a huge high school in Alameda, over 400 participants from dozens of cities representing 20 different local organizations came together. Tenants shared organizing skills and strategies to build on a string of rent control and eviction protection measures won in Richmond, Oakland, Mountain View, Alameda, San Jose, Union City, San Jose, Union City, and San Mateo. Now they are gearing up for a campaign to overturn their state’s restrictions on stronger rent control, a law known as “Costa-Hawkins.”
While nineteen cities in California have some form of rent control or just cause or eviction protection[[,]] Costa-Hawkins prohibits rent control on vacant units, on single family homes, and on new construction. The Renter Power Assembly brought State Senator David Chiu and Assembly Representatives Richard Bloom and Rob Bonta into an accountability session with gymnasium full of renters. Advocates asked the legislators for escalated commitments in the face of the urgency of the crisis. Three different statewide organizing groups Tenants Together, Homes For All, and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment heard the trio explain the uphill battle they face against the real estate lobby in Sacramento. “Make Them Vote!” chanted the crowd backing up a question from the audience about when and how the bill would move out of Chiu’s Housing Committee.
“The new tenant movement seeks... to transform renters into a political class that advocates for its own interests, passes policies with real benefits, influences local elections and eventually take seats of local power,“ says Tony Samara in City Rising - a multi-media documentary that aired on LA’s public TV station KCET. “Though often as corrupt as state and national level politics, local politics is an arena where people can get organized and win.” In 2018 - cities across California and states across the country are gearing up for ballot initiatives to win Rent Control or repeal bans on rent regulations.
Boston renters kicked off the week of action with a march on notorious landlord and real estate tycoon John McGrail’s home to protest predatory rent increases, evictions and mass displacement. They delivered a petition demanding he recognize and negotiate with the tenants associations in his properties. “This is our community. We’ve been living there 37 years. We have nowhere else to go,” says Eddy Nicaisse, a senior citizen who lives with his disabled wife in one of McGrail’s Mayo Group buildings. “I will fight with my whole life’s breath. Not just for me and my family, but for my community.”
Currently, a web of overlapping corporations – in which McGrail has substantial or controlling interests – is targeting a largely immigrant neighborhood in East Boston with threats of deportation, refusal to maintain conditions and hundreds of dollars in rent increases. McGrail’s notoriety as a landlord with a cavalier disregard for the health of his tenants, workers and neighbors hit a high point when he was convicted in 2011 by the Massachusetts Environmental Crimes Strike Force of illegal removal and disposal of asbestos. After ordering his off-the-books construction workers to rip the asbestos out with no recorded protections against dispersal, he then had them toss the asbestos into dumpsters behind his numerous properties around town.
His investment companies were also found at the heart of the real estate foreclosure crisis, stacking up $187 million in loans from the Anglo Irish Bank which itself went bankrupt. When his buy-and-flip empire of properties in Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire and Texas crashed, Wells Fargo Bank, the city of Dallas and several other jurisdiction sued him for failure to maintain the properties.
Since the real estate upturn McGrail’s financial position, like the other developers receiving huge subsidies from local and federal government, has vastly improved. Nicaisse points out that “A lot of the improvements that increased the value of Mayo buildings were done with tax money,” and that tenants themselves are the reason the neighborhood has become desirable. “A lot of Mayo tenants, including me, did a clean-up of a vacant lot next door. I’m not going to work hard to improve it and then give it away to somebody else.”
Community Control of Land
Tenants in Minneapolis have also been organized around keeping their own building and neighborhoods safe and welcoming spaces. “At our building, we organized a Resident Council to address the property, the cleanliness, the upkeep and to have one voice, to come together as a group to address these issues together,” said Lee Lucas, a St. Paul renter and member of the board at Community Stabilization Project. “The number one issue is for the community to be stable. We stabilize the community by empowering renters so they aren’t being evicted and can live in a clean, safe home. Then they can raise a child in a healthy environment, rather than kids being moved from school to school to school.”
Minneapolis groups are also looking at how to build power to keep parks accessible to ”low wealth” residents. The HOPE Community organized a forum with Park Commisioner candidates wth that in mind. "Minneapolis Parks are crucial resources for working families,” said Jake Virden, a community organizer at the meeting. “After winning new investment into inner city parks, we want a Park Board that is active and vocal in its support of Rent Control so that communities of color and working families are not displaced from enjoying the fruits of the investment they fought so hard to secure."
“This should be done through recreation funding, programming, and staffing decisions.” Said David Gilbert-Pederson, a tenant from Minneapolis. “The park board and its elected members must also use their role as a public institution and largest landholder in the city to push for policies that keep the city affordable and development responsible.” Minneapolis renters are fighting on all fronts. For their week of action they staged demonstrations at landlords homes and offices, held assemblies and political education events and took their fight to city hall with a militaint demand for rent control legislation.
“That’s why I’m here today asking for rent control, because we can’t put up with more,” said Irasema Perez, a tenant in the Minneapolis Lyndale neighborhood. “This has very serious impacts for families in our city. I spend half of my income on rent, and the other half I have to divide between bills, food for my family, and necessities for my growing children.”
Monique Carrillo, a tenant organizer in Minneapolis pointed out, “My people are the most impacted. Two out of every three women of color in Minneapolis are cost-burdened.”
Full Funding for HUD
"I’m passionate about my community. I work with children. The children are my life. If they push us out of our homes where will these kids go?" said Jade White who has been organizing with her neighbors for over a year to stop the proposed demolition of Terrell Homes. She lives in public housing in Newark NJ where gentrification and a new wave of “public-private” investments are washing into the waterfront areas of the town, threatening to flush the long-term residents who built the community out to sea—or homelessness.
The Newark Housing Authority, that administers 44 buildings was the target of the RWWA protest on September 21. The NHA has neglected its buildings for years and has been trying to use their poor condition as justification for demolishing them. White has plenty of practical suggestions for how to improve the community without driving out the residents. “They say it can’t be fixed, but we can fix it. We demand different routes for all these dirty trucks that are coming through our streets and ruining our air."
Earlier this year residents of Terrell Homes, one of the NHA properties, successfully turned back efforts to tear down the complex, and won some city council support for keeping the buildings open, but now the city itself is planning to zone the area for up to 40 story high rise buildings and just as the renter week of action was coming to a close The Newark Housing Authority voted to seek a permit from HUD to demolish the building completely "They city has money. But they want to use it to build skyscrapers not housing." said White.
Sadly, this too is a trend seen in cities around the country as local public housing authorities are putting their older properties on to the market, turning them over to private entities for rehabilitation or simply demolishing them, selling the land and allowing market rate housing in its place.
“The resurgent housing movement must bring together public housing residents with private market renters, mobile home residents and low-income homeowners to fiercely defend and expand public housing and fight for a world where our communities have control over land, housing & resources,” says Trenise Bryant a member of Homes For All and the Miami Workers Center.
In Miami, an entire building of Section 8 tenants whose building was raked by Hurricane Irma have been made homeless. After organizing a tent city with the help of the Miami Worker Center, the city gave the residents hotel vouchers and sued the owners to allow tenants to go back in the building to retrieve their possessions, but their long term fate remains grim.
The Miami case shows how ubiquitous the privatization of profit from so called public housing programs has become. According to trade journal reports, an Evangelical church Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) paid $15.6 million for one of the twin towers building in 2011 and sold it in for $25 million. The dilapidated building on which the previous owners netted almost $10 million in profit, was purchased by a California LLC Redwood Housing Partners that has obtained $87.5 million in revenue bonds from the Miami-Dade Housing Finance Authority and $42.9 million in tax credits to fund renovations. But the mostly Section 8 tenants have all been forced out.
Organize Locally, Act Nationally
“Think Globally, Act Locally” was a catch phrase of the early environmental movement and inspired a generation of activists intent on tackling a problem to monumental to be solved by any one political or social entity to start somewhere even if one can’t be everywhere. The housing crisis and the complex political and class struggles that need to be won to advance the renter nation into true political power can perhaps best be addressed by a similar slogan “Organize Locally, Act Nationally.” Community control of land and housing won’t come by virtue of an act of congress or executive order. It has to be won on the very land where the community seeks control and is in that respect always a local struggle.
Groups involved in the Renter Week of Action have won a number of victories recently, all aimed at easing the impacts of the crisis and transitioning to a more equitable housing system. In Newark, NJ, the city yielded to renters’ threat of a ballot measure and strengthened the city's rent control and vacancy ordinances. Tenants won a $1.65 million fund to support community land trusts from New York City. In Nashville, Latino renters formed a tenants union and won major repairs in their housing complex in July. But the political constraints the defeat local tenants’ struggles such as restrictive state and federal laws do have to be changed for those communities to have real power over their lives. Local organizations retain their autonomy when joining these national mobilizations, their reach is amplified, and their horizontal alliances are strengthened.
Tony Samara says that “Many Bay Area communities... are using their experience and networks to respond to the racist immigration policies of the new administration, which often target the very same communities that predatory landlords and speculative property investors target,” says Samara. "The emerging tenant movement has the potential to radically alter the national political landscape.“
At the national level, a new coalition of grassroots organizations are coming together with hard-hitting policy demands, backed by research, strategic communications and a unified vision. While no single sector has sufficient scale to seize power—locally much less nationally—there is a growing recognition that a class-based resistance to Trump, led by and centered on the people most impacted by the issues—is the only basis for long-term change.
Dawn Phillips, Executive Director of Right to the City and Co-Director of the SF Bay Area Causa Just::Just Cause has been organizing with RTC for over a decade. Speaking to the fired up crowd at the California Renter Power Assembly Phillips delivered a challenge to activists across the state, and the nation. “Most importantly we are here because we know that our true goal, our most important task-- is transformation. Our work does not stop when we repeal Costa Hawkins. Our work does not stop when we win rent control is California. Our work does not stop when we win rent control nationally. Our task is to do all that and more.
“Our task is to imagine a whole new housing system. A system that guarantees housing for all. A system that recognizes housing as a human need and a human right. A system where development decisions are made by residents for residents. A system where land is a community resource to be shared collectively. “
On both the local and national level, housing, transit, labor rights, sanctuary, climate justice, police accountability and restorative justice groups are beginning to find common cause as each in turn finds that numerical majorities don’t necessarily result in electoral power. There is a general recognition that we need multiple strategies and targets, but that we need to be able to act in solidarity across the issues to win power.
Jess Clarke is an editor at Race, Poverty & the Environment and project director for Reimagine! which provided communications support to the Renter Week of Action.