Tenant Unions for the Future

Tenant Unions for the Future

Calls to rent strike have yet to cohere into a national political movement. But as the economic crisis deepens, tenants’ fates will ultimately be decided by their level of collective organization.

Tenant activists in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on July 31, 2020 (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

With the arrival of the pandemic, staying home became emergency work for a failing state. Amid disastrous negligence at every level of government, one of the most ordinary facts of life in capitalism—rent—suddenly appeared clearly as an affront. One section of society here demands a tribute from the other for the very right to live on the earth,” Marx wrote of landlords. In the early spring, with state-level and nationwide eviction moratoriums and tenant protections in place, it seemed like there had never been a better time to refuse these bad terms.

Calls to rent strike brought grassroots tenant unions to the foreground. Through the spring, thousands of people turned to tenant organizing, many for the first time. The Los Angeles Tenants Union, for example, doubled its membership from 4,000 to 8,000 from March to mid-April. For some, the circumstances were intimidating; tenant solidarity often takes months or years to cohere. One of the first rent strikes during the lockdown in Brooklyn, at 1234 Pacific in Crown Heights, emerged early because tenants were already eighteen months deep into organizing efforts that originally centered around demands for repairs. Meanwhile, in some buildings, tenants who had barely ever spoken to their neighbors scrambled to make contact and build trust.

Despite organizers’ concerns about the barriers enforced by social distancing, the quarantine and mutual aid efforts usefully refocused political attention on the home and its immediate environs. The new circumstances produced new energies. I feel optimistic about people coming in,” said Rob Wohl of the Washington, D.C. tenant organizing group Stomp Out Slumlords. I have seen with my own eyes people with very little organizing experience who were laid off during the pandemic and decided that they want to do something. They start calling up their neighbors and it just starts to happen.”

Despite all of this activity, by May, the anticipated tsunami of rent nonpayment had not materialized, largely because of a combination of tenant resourcefulness and a hastily assembled government strategy aimed entirely at kicking the can down the road. Tenants scraped together rent using credit cards, stimulus checks, loans, and savings. Though almost 20 percent of tenants failed to make rent on May 1, that figure was little different from the spring before, lending credence to longtime organizers’ insistence that the pandemic was a crisis on top of a crisis. By early July, rent nonpayments rose to 36 percent nationwide. Personal resources were by this point running low, with no end in sight to either the U.S. pandemic or the economic crisis. This summer, the housing justice coalition We Strike Together estimated that 790,225 households were on rent strike, but this does not seem to have aggregated into a movement.

A coherent government strategy for supporting renters and mortgage holders has yet to emerge. The proposed Emergency Housing Protections and Relief Act would extend a national eviction moratorium until March 27, 2021, expand its terms to cover all renters, and provide at least $100 billion in relief funds. It passed the House at the end of June but is not expected to clear the Senate. As with so many aspects of the U.S. pandemic response, much is being left to individual states to figure out. State-level eviction protections have been patchy and confusing. Arkansas, Ohio, and South Dakota, for example, never had moratoriums at all. Moratoriums in states including Nebraska, Wisconsin, and North Carolina have expired. Protections in D.C., Vermont, and New York remain in place, some intended to last the duration of the pandemic, but none covering all tenants without exception. A recent analysis by financial advisory company Stout, although at the dire end of current predictions, reflects the impact of these differences: an estimated 22 percent of Vermont tenant households are vulnerable to eviction in contrast to almost 60 percent in Texas and West Virginia.

In many states, eviction moratoriums have disoriented organizers’ plans for mobilizing tenants. “We’re not talking about rent strike anymore,” said Rikki Reynolds, a tenant organizer in Lansing, Michigan, in mid-July. The eviction moratoriums offset the actual reality of what was about to happen in a way that made people less willing to take action and more confused about the consequences of their actions.” She feels this may have been a strategic move on the part of the state government, emphasizing that moratorium extensions are often announced just a day or two beforehand. Whether intentionally or not, this had the effect of wrong-footing organizers and squeezing anxious tenants for whatever money they have. After multiple extensions, the Michigan eviction moratorium finally expired on July 15. When I spoke with Reynolds, earlier on in July, she and other organizers were preparing for court support and eviction defense, drawing on local expertise in deportation resistance.

In terms of the pandemic’s longer-term impact on urban housing, Reynolds pointed out that the situation in Rust Belt cities like Lansing is different from the situation in wealthier cities. Vacancies here will cause a crisis, not an opportunity for speculation, because we don’t have that type of gentrification. We already have a lot of vacancies. This isn’t New York or San Francisco or Toronto.” In New York, there are fears that empty houses will be scooped up by huge corporations, though, as Reynolds pointed out, so-called mom and pop landlords” can be just as exploitative from the point of view of tenants. Dystopian as landlord monopolies would be, they would also offer a basis for traditional mass organization. If bourgeois flight from the cities during the pandemic becomes sustained capital flight, the current logic of urban rent could change. We could see conditions more like those experienced by the Harlem rent strikers of the early 1960s, when landlords abandoned unprofitable buildings and left whole blocks to rot.

Back in the spring, in the terror and euphoria of what felt like the early days of a sweeping social transformation, local differences were deemphasized amid calls for a general rent strike. Many calls to strike, such as online petitions, had no footing in local organizing. Rent Strike 2020, a nationwide petition by the Rose Caucus, a nonprofit, along with other groups, garnered millions of signatures but had little to no organizational capacity to mobilize even a fraction of signatories. This is not a new problem: as movement historian Joel Schwartz writes of efforts to organize a Lower East Side rent strike in 1964, It soon became clear that on their rounds, organizers had made far more contacts than actual commitments among tenants. . . . One organizer conceded that the strike had begun with ‘a splash’ of claims, and his force was only ‘now going back to do the detailed work’ among tenants.” Those strike leaders eventually made a rule that they would only work with buildings where half of the tenants were already on strike. In 2020, experienced organizers, many times bitten, warned that a strike is the nuclear option. Early advice put out by the Philadelphia Tenants Union and Stomp Out Slumlords was dissuasive, emphasizing that rent strikes are really, really hard.

Rent Strike 2020’s optimism seemed based on a wager that mass nonpayment, at sufficient levels and if named as such, might constitute a de facto rent strike. In an April Zoom lecture with Bay Area tenant union Tenant and Neighborhood Councils, veteran organizer Gerald Smith gave short shrift to this idea: Poverty is not a strike.” Smith, a former Black Panther and a key organizer in the 1960s Harlem rent strike aimed at reclaiming neglected housing, described the barren moonscape” left behind as landlords paid people in cash to set fires to wring insurance money from otherwise worthless buildings. That’s what happens when you don’t organize tenants,” he warned. He emphasized the importance of holding rent in escrow accounts to legitimate strikes. At the time, the question of whether the political legibility of rent strikes relies on voluntary with-holding felt charged. Today, amid rapid immiseration, the question seems to have disappeared. When I repeated Smith’s argument to Rikki Reynolds, she said simply, We can’t do an escrow right now, my tenants have no money.”

By late April many strategic disagreements had evaporated in the heat of events. The cry rent strike now!” rapidly transmuted from an ultra-left Twitter trend to a popular demand brought to unions by the tenants themselves. The moment seemed led not by organizational know-how but by the forward propulsion of a collective emergency. In tenant union Zoom meetings, one had the sense of organizers struggling to keep up with an increasingly militant base.

It’s the activists who get caught a little bit flat-footed when the ground moves,” said Rob Wohl. “It’s because we’ve developed this expertise of how you act under normal conditions, so when the conditions change it’s like our expertise suddenly goes out the window. . . . Then it became clearer that it was real.” It was a rent strike at a complex of apartment buildings called Southern Towers in Alexandria, Virginia, that first made the prospect of a rent strike feel tangible to Wohl. “These people don’t care about rent strike memes. This is a bunch of African immigrant cafeteria workers who from the first time they heard the words rent strike were like: yes.”

At Southern Towers—a five-building complex with around 4,000 units—tenants already politicized through their labor unions were able to parlay this experience into building an almost 400-unit strong rent strike. I used my skill as an organizer with UNITE HERE to reach people in different buildings and just to talk, see how they are doing, how they feel about this pandemic,” said Southern Towers resident Sami Bourma. What I started hearing is a lot of people have been living paycheck to paycheck, and in this period they don’t have any paycheck.”

Despite a common, ahistorical perception that working-class black and brown people are too vulnerable to strike, Bourma and his co-organizers, mostly African immigrants, have mobilized one of the country’s biggest rent strikes and built an uncompromising vision of its purpose. Our demand is not only for right now, it’s for the future,” said Bourma. It’s not only cancellation of rent—this area is becoming our community. . . . If you don’t have a job you should be relieved from rent until you go back to work. We should fight for no more evictions in Virginia.” He described how UNITE HERE helped the rent strike group in his building plan actions and connect with tenants in other buildings with the same landlord. By July, Southern Towers rent strikers had begun to work on mutual aid, sharing food and other necessities, as has happened spontaneously in other tenant unions around the country. These links between different forms of organizing offer a concrete model for radical labor unions and political groups around the country hoping to support rent strikes and for tenant unions and mutual aid networks hoping to build meaningful tenant power.

Wohl, who knows Bourma and has been following the situation at Southern Towers from D.C., stressed that the relation between labor and tenant organizing goes both ways:

Tenant movements played an important role in most cycles of working-class struggle in this country and a lot of other countries. If you’re a trade union organizer and very focused on trade unions as institutions, you’re primed to look at how that rebelliousness plays out on the job, but people have their whole lives. They carry that to school, to where they live, to their transit system. These cycles of struggle can lead to struggle all over social life, and they’re all important.

Tenant organizing is, like labor organizing, a solidarity practice. But unlike labor organizing, it cannot draw power from the abstract capitalist distinction between work and life. The tenant organizer is instantly thrown into the intimacy of home, where there are no abstract workers. Class, gender, race, and ability appear as self-evident facts that no collectivity can avoid addressing.

Housing groups will represent ‘the community’ or some abstract principle that they purport to embody,” said Wohl. “Whereas tenant organizers are more localized. They’re more rooted. This is an opportunity for the left to turn its attention from the political system to the struggles over daily life like how people are going to pay their rent.” Tenant organizing is part of a long tradition of situating politics in concrete everyday survival rather than focusing on abstract categories of law and labor, an orientation toward struggle familiar in black and indigenous contexts but often hard for mass movements to come to grips with. Successful rent strikes and tenant unionizations require a willingness to dive into the affinities, conflicts, and power dynamics among neighbors, and an ongoing commitment to collective political education. As a result, they are rare.

As Dont Rhine of the Los Angeles Tenants Union put it, “We’re talking about home and the fullness of that, the messiness of that, the fucked-up-ness of that.” He views tenant organizing as part of a larger project to cultivateneighborliness” as a mechanism for addressing the social atomization of capitalism. He points out that people often feel attached to the neighborhood in which they live, even if they are not deeply involved in its reproduction. This offers a potential starting point for organizing: We always have to look to a horizon that leads back to where we are. How do we imagine that the autonomy of tenants within their everyday life includes not just their housing but also the possibility of cooperatively facilitated economics, shared child care, and cultural spaces within apartment buildings and neighborhoods?”

Tenant unions provide a social form in which to enact the abolitionist project of undoing social reliance on policing, as well as directly helping to protect tenants from police violence, especially around eviction defense. Rhine sees changing attitudes around risk and punishment as an essential aspect of the work of tenant unions. When the tenants’ associations form, it is often the case that people will want to use the tenant association as a kind of policing mechanism for the drug user, for the sex worker, for the unhoused person camping out in the laundry room,” he said. That makes it important for tenant associations to be part of larger tenant unions, because the unions are able to offer political education, such as workshops on harm reduction. As Rhine explained,

Now you can have a conversation with that person that you were going to kick out of your apartment building. You understand that there’s some mutual care around their needs, and they can show that they’re safe. That’s a really different conversation than calling the cops on them. Being part of a union allows for that kind of larger political education work to reorganize people’s desires so it’s not always defaulting to policing.

This focus on the texture of everyday life differentiates tenant unions from housing justice campaigns, though on first encounter the differences in approach and ethos can be hard to grasp. As one concrete example of strategic differences, Wohl contrasted Stomp Out Slumlords’ focus on tenants in Virginia with the governor-aimed campaign run by Housing Justice for All in New York:

Fighting the landlord and trying to create pressure on them to get concessions then creates secondary pressure on the government. . . . We say, Mayor [Muriel] Bowser, Governor [Ralph] Northam, do stuff to help the tenants. But when I think about what’s going be effective, I think the economic disruption is more likely to provoke government action than responsiveness to the demands of poor people, who frankly we know [Governor] Andrew Cuomo doesn’t care about.

Tracy Rosenthal of the Los Angeles Tenants Union described a consumer mindset” that makes appeals to the legislature more attractive to prospective activists than the communal work of building a union. The idea of being a customer has suffused people’s imaginations. It sucks to be the bearer of bad news in LA Tenants Union, like, ‘I’m sorry, but you have to fight,’” she said of tenants who come to the union expecting a solution to their landlord problems that leapfrogs building solidarity with other tenants. As Wohl suggested, while legislative action is necessary, it’s the threat of collective action that gives force to rent cancellation campaigns, not just the power of their communications.

The scale of the eviction crisis, like everything these days, is unprecedented. Inevitably, because wealth is hoarded among white people, black and Latinx households are more vulnerable than white renters. Glimmers of a future full-scale struggle are already visible, from the spectacular to the bureaucratic: at the end of July, activists in New Orleans blocked entry to a courthouse where evictions were scheduled to take place; in Franklin County, Ohio, when eviction hearings were moved into an empty conference center, legal aid and mediation services followed. Organizers speak of the coming evictions as a tsunami, an earthquake, a disaster. At the time of writing, the second phase of stimulus measures, which could partly mitigate the eviction crisis, hangs in the balance. With stimulus payments effectively operating as a landlord bailout, and without the pressure of the general rent strike, rent cancellation bills like those proposed by Ilhan Omar at national level or Julia Salazar in New York seem politically implausible.

As the economic crisis deepens, tenants’ fates will ultimately be decided by their level of collective organization. In this regard, the endless, fine-grained complexity of tenant organizing, with its lack of useful abstractions, can feel dispiriting. But the mass enthusiasm for rent strike early on in the pandemic, ungrounded as it may have been, demonstrates that there is will, courage, and energy available for determined organizers to channel. Whatever the eventual outcome of months-long rent strikes like the one at Southern Towers in Alexandria, these efforts show that desperate circumstances are not foregone conclusions.

The political possibilities of tenant unions are not fully exhausted by rent reductions and repairs, nor even rent control; these unions offer a mechanism for rebuilding collective mutual care and commitment. For those who grasp this fearful moment as both a moment of deep grief and a strange, distorted dream of the future, the current efforts represent an important first step in collective attempts—never well-favored, never guaranteed, always necessary—to move forward in our work of making a home of the world.

Hannah Black is an artist and writer. She lives in Brooklyn.

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