Without an eviction ban or real rent relief, tenants are taking matters into their own hands
Last month, the federal eviction ban under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act expired, placing millions of tenants at risk. While President Trump signed an executive order to extend the federal moratorium over the weekend, critics noted that it doesn't erase the possibility of an eviction epidemic; in a nation where 47.5% of all renting households are rent-burdened, renters were already in dire straits before the pandemic caused millions of people to lose their jobs. Last week, the Aspen Institute estimated that up to 40 million people in the United States are at risk of eviction. Most alarmingly, the Aspen Institute reported that Black and Latinx people make up about 80% of the at-risk population.
Of course, Black tenants were already well aware of the pandemic's disproportionate burden on them — no scientific study required. "The pandemic will continue to rip through [Black] communities, making it harder to manage daily functions, like paying bills and parenting, along with new responsibilities, like facilitating children's learning," Kenzi LA Toy, a Washington, D.C., resident and organizer with a residential tenant group, tells Mic. "All of this weighs heavy on mental health — and health care was already limited before the pandemic in Black communities."
"As we are already viewing ... tenants are tense and mentally struggling." LA Toy continues. "Some are able to manage the impact of this pandemic, but most, like myself, are wondering ... What's next?"
It's hard to answer that for certain. But in a summer already defined by uprisings, evicting Black and brown residents en masse is virtually guaranteed to fuel further protests. As the federal government continues to squabble amongst itself, tenants are not waiting to be saved. Instead, a number of tenant-led organizations are using direct action to ensure nobody has to ride out the coronavirus pandemic while undergoing an eviction.
Late last month, a video of protesters blocking an eviction courthouse in an action organized by New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly went viral. Protesters, physically blocking landlords from entering court to obtain eviction notices, demanded that city court judges either stop all evictions or actually provide assistance to New Orleans's thousands of struggling tenants. The action inspired similar protests in other parts of the country.
Just days later, a story went public about a landlord who threatened to evict three tenants in Chillum, Maryland, saying he'd change the locks to their house if they didn't leave the property. The threat was a violation of the state's legal protections against eviction during the pandemic; the tenants had previously been late on rent, but paid back-rent, but the landlord gave only 10 days notice of eviction rather than the state-mandated 30 days. Following the lead of New Orleans activists and similar actions in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, organizers assembled dozens of people to stand on the house's front lawn and block the doors. The action took place just outside of D.C., which has become a hot-spot for tenant organizing.
"Rents [in D.C.] have been steadily increasing over the years, particularly in what were once more affordable neighborhoods of working-class Black and Latinx people," Evan Spath, an organizer with Stomp Out Slumlords, a D.C.-based organizing campaign building tenant power across the city, tells Mic. Stomp Out Slumlords helped organize the eviction block in Maryland. "While new housing is being constructed all the time, the only increase in housing stock are more and more of the same bland and generic luxury apartments that no working-class families can afford. Simultaneously, real estate prices have exploded and existing housing stock is often left to deteriorate — or worse, sees landlords attempt to evict tenants in order to sell or develop the property into yet more luxury housing for a huge profit."
For many Black tenants, unemployment and the one-time stimulus check were not enough to offset the pandemic's financial burden. "Personally, the pandemic has impacted my whole life," LA Toy says. "January 2020 I was able to prevent my eviction, with the help of D.C. resources, because I finally obtained a job. Then [coronavirus] happened."
"I know the Black community will bear the brunt of the harm of evictions."
LA Toy says the pandemic-induced recession caused her to be laid off, and now she can't return to work because she has to care for her young children in the absence of safely available school or child care. "Unemployment — yes, a big help — is not enough to cover my rent, bills, and family's mental well-being," she says. "These are trying times."
While organizers use a number of tactics to mobilize tenants — including outreach, education, and a seemingly endless slew of meetings — pressuring landlords directly remains a major component. In Chicago, Adrian and her partner Jamal relied on Jamal's income as a rideshare driver to pay rent. But after stay-at-home orders, civil unrest, and temporary curfews put in place by Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D), Jamal's monthly income was dramatically reduced, and they ended up joining their tenants' union's rent strike on June 1. Adrian tells Mic that while her landlord shows "racially biased favoritism" toward one of their white neighbors participating in the strike, their continued solidarity has meant that the landlord cannot just give sweet offers to one tenant while ignoring others.
"Together, we've gotten the landlord to give us progressively better offers," Adrian says, "and we are hopeful that we will reach an agreement at some point due to our solidarity and the likelihood of an eviction during COVID-19 taking several months longer than it normally would." (Adrian declined to provide her last name.)
Similar to D.C., Chicago is home to a strong tenant organizing network, including multiple rent strikes. In March, Mac Tenants United, a group of tenants from several buildings owned by Mac Properties, organized their own rent strike after Mac Properties refused to cancel rent. Chicago is currently under an eviction moratorium from an executive order issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) in April, but after being extended a few times the order is due to expire on Aug. 22. If evictions start up again, Adrian says, "I know the Black community will bear the brunt of the harm of evictions."
In Philadelphia, tenants have one special tool up their sleeve to make mobilizing across properties much easier. Designed by Noah Cote, an organizer with the Philadelphia Tenants Union, the Philly Landlord Spotter lets you know who owns what properties and where. This helps tenants identify other people who live in properties owned by their landlord, making collective action much easier to pursue — and, likely, much more effective. After all, you can go on a rent strike alone, but it does a lot more damage to your landlord's wallet if half of their tenants stop paying rent, instead of just you.
But while you might know your neighbors in your building, it can be hard to figure out what other properties your landlord owns and who lives there. In a Medium post outlining the Philly Landlord Spotter's creation, Cote explained that the shadowy nature of property ownership is deliberate. When registering properties, landlords often hide behind "seemingly endless shell companies that give almost no insight into who owns them," he wrote, and even if you're savvy enough to know how to look around that, it's not a quick process.
"To do this normally, we would need to spend hours using Philadelphia's Atlas tool and Google," Cote tells Mic, "which really only allowed us to view one property at a time. The interface did not let you explore the landlord's other properties."
That's why Cote, who studies software engineering at Drexel University, took matters into his own hands. "I figured if the data was publicly available, I could try my hand at connecting the dots of landlords and where they have influence or property in the city. By flipping the property viewing from something very individualized and private to collectivized, I hope to change how people see housing," he says.
Guerrilla housing tactics have gained popularity during the pandemic, in the absence of any real federal or state-level responses to a rapidly growing crisis. Organizers continue to take inspiration from each other, but have also looked to efforts underway well before coronavirus hit. Earlier this year in Oakland, California, militarized law enforcement from the Alameda County's Sheriff's Office prepared to evict Misty Cross, Tolani King, and Dominique Walker from the vacant house they'd moved into. The three women are members of the group Moms 4 Housing, a collective of homeless and marginally housed mothers. Together, the three women, with their children, had reclaimed a home that had been sitting empty for years.
For Black tenants in particular, the Trump administration's poor handling of the pandemic — and its resulting disproportionate consequences for Black communities — is not a mere careless mistake. The housing system is working as intended; it was never meant to prioritize low-income renters, Black people, or communities of color more broadly. If it was, there wouldn't have been a rent to cancel, because housing would be a given right. Instead, housing is an enterprise, and the consequences of making it so are unavoidable now.
And just as it did for a number of other social ills, the pandemic has starkly illuminated all of the structural problems in the housing system, including the very existence of landlords. As Dylan Rodríguez wrote about the government's response to the pandemic for The American Ethnological Society: "Is it truly 'neglect' when the historical racist state has never failed to organize and reproduce proto-genocidal protocols of state-absence, evacuation, and economic underdevelopment for Black people and places?"
For many tenants, the pandemic has forced them to become involved with organizing, even if they never dabbled in activism before. As Spath explains, "Tenants have no choice but to confront their landlord." Without an extended federal eviction ban, or meaningful rent relief, or any other widespread welfare effort, individuals have to fend for themselves — but the existence of organizations like Stomp Out Slumlords, the Philadelphia Tenants Union, and other residential groups means that nobody has to act alone. "What we’re seeing now in the middle of this public health and economic crisis is an unmistakable escalation in the militancy and politicization of tenants across the city," Spath adds.
"The grand takeaway from our project," Spath continues, "is that while this pandemic has been a horrific exposé on the failings of our political and health care systems, labor conditions, and tenants' rights, this is also a historic moment for realizing the power that working-class tenants have to organize and express a militant demand for housing as a human right."