Moratorium or Not, Tenants Organize to Fight Evictions, Slum Conditions Across US

Photo: Tenants actions in Indianapolis, Providence, and Kansas City

By David Martinez with Vincent Cross, Arthur Boukman, Josefina Morales

The expiration of the federal eviction moratorium at the end of July sent the government scrambling to implement another eviction ban, one which predictably does not truly address the looming mass eviction crisis. For a picture of what the current situation looks like for tenants on the ground, Tribune shares reports of housing struggles from three cities in the US: Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Providence, which provide lessons for tenants and organizers who are struggling to defend their homes and those of their neighbors against the failures and degradation of the capitalist system when it comes to the people’s housing.

The previous eviction moratorium, lasting from September 2020 until the end of July, never fully prevented evictions, and now, the new order from Biden and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers even less protection for renters. The federal government is like the boy plugging a hole in a dam with his finger to keep it from bursting, but the cracks in the dam are only growing bigger.

While evictions did sharply decrease at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Eviction Lab, a research project based out of Princeton University, has counted approximately 480,000 eviction filings since March 15, 2020, filed in the 6 states and 31 cities they have data for across the country. This only represents a small slice of the total filings which have occurred—it does not count the evictions that take place without an eviction filing in court or when tenants are pressured to leave by eviction notices (which don’t have to be filed) and landlord intimidation. Rather than waiting for the sheriffs to knock on their doors, tenants and organizers are taking matters into their own hands to resist evictions and the slum conditions that capitalism inflicts on workers in their homes.

Kansas City Tenants Go to Landlords’ Doors

Since the beginning of the year, Kansas City Tenants (KCT) have carried out vigorous campaigns to fight evictions in their community, starting off with their ‘Zero Eviction January.’ The campaign included actions such as chaining courthouse doors shut, flooding online eviction hearings, and demonstrating at the homes of eviction judges. According to KCT, the actions shut down an estimated 90 percent of eviction hearings that month.

Last Wednesday, activists with KCT and tenants from the McGee/Schifman Tenant Union (MSTU) demonstrated on the front lawn of landlord Matt McGee to continue their fight against evictions and slum conditions. MSTU formed to strengthen their fight against McGee and Alex Schifman, a contractor-turned-landlord who works closely with McGee. Between the two, they own numerous properties across Kansas City under various LLCs (Limited Liability Companies) where tenants live in poorly maintained housing.

Tribune spoke with Sarah and Andrew, two of McGee’s tenants in attendance at Wednesday’s action. They both explained that evictions are taking place in retaliation against tenants who try to organize, but that McGee shields himself against claims of retaliation by first moving them over to another company before starting eviction proceedings. This way, it appears a third party is responsible. Sarah and Andrew’s home is now being managed by Meridian and they expect that McGee will target them next. “We’re just waiting for September 1st to see if we get a notice,” Sarah said.

At the action, four of McGee’s tenants gave speeches detailing the poor conditions in their homes and stated their demands. Police soon arrived and told organizers that McGee was crying on his 911 call and that he had refused to come out to speak when they were at his door. The police then worked to disperse the crowd, which left the property after tenants delivered concluding speeches.

Tenants of landlord Matt McGee and activists march towards his home.

Rent Strike in Indianapolis

In the state of Indiana, around 55,000 evictions have been filed since March 2020, and about 19,000 of these filings have been in Indianapolis, according to Eviction Lab data. Apart from evictions, like other tenants across the US, many in Indianapolis are relegated to live in inhuman conditions—from periodic flooding, lack of hot water, black mold, roaches, rats, and more—which are considered the price that workers should have to pay for having no real control over their housing in this society. Tenants of Reverie Estates, a series of apartment complexes in downtown Indianapolis, know this all too well, living in rundown properties run by Home Investment Management (H-I), an absentee management company that ignores requests for repairs.

Tenants across the various complexes have united into the Reverie Tenants Union (RTU) and began an organized rent strike on August 1. On July 30, RTU presented a formal letter with their demands at the Reverie Estates offices, standing outside with signs reading, “No rent for slumlords,” and “Tenants’ rights now!”

The RTU demanded a freeze on all rent and fee increases until June 2023, as well as restitution for medical concerns and costs arising from conditions such as collapsed ceilings, mold poisoning, and raw sewage flooding one apartment. Their demand letter described how many apartments maintained, “a temperature of 37 degrees for most of the winter months.” When carpets remained wet going on weeks, tenants posted photos to social media which showed mushrooms growing out of the floor.

The tenants’ letter said that H-I has avoided tenants’ repair requests using excuses “such as not having a working printer, not having access to email,” resulting in tenants’ requests, “going unanswered for weeks at a time,” and receiving no answer to phone calls at the manager’s office.

Tenants have also shared a video with Tribune which shows a property manager slam a door in the face of a tenant as he and other tenants demanded that the property address the black mold in their apartments. The manager called police to deliver an emergency eviction the next day, claiming that the tenant was “endangering her safety.” These practices have become prevalent during the pandemic, as the eviction moratoriums have never prohibited evictions for alleged criminal or violent activity, so landlords concoct excuses to work around the eviction bans.

When the Landlord Won’t Take Rent Relief

The federal government claims that so-called ‘rent relief’ programs can cover the gaps when eviction moratoriums are insufficient, distributing dollars to pay off tenants’ accumulated back rent. These federal dollars have been notoriously tied up in bureaucracy and inefficient distribution methods, but what happens when the landlord won’t accept the federal subsidies or cooperate in the application process?

On August 3, only a few days after the previous moratorium expired, Sucely Murillo, backed by activists from Tenant Network R.I. (Rhode Island), held a demonstration outside the house of Providence landlord Alberto Perez. Even though Murillo qualified for pandemic rental assistance, Perez has refused to work with the program to accept money to pay off her rental debt. He is instead pressing forward with an attempt to evict the family, who have been living in unsanitary conditions which Perez refuses to address.

“My daughter has been bitten by roaches,” Murillo told Tribune, “I have rats in my cabinets, in my fridge, in my bathroom, and in my bedroom so I can’t have food in the house and I have to sleep with the lights on everyday.”

Video of protesters outside of Landlord Alberto Perez’s house (Source: Uprise RI)

As protesters chanted outside his house, Perez came outside and called the police on the protesters. When the police arrived, protesters were not intimidated and officers left after attempting to keep protesters on the sidewalk.

In an interview with WPRI, a local monopoly media affiliate, Perez complained that the eviction moratorium made him feel like “landlords have been forgotten.” However, even when the wider moratorium was standing, there were a variety of loopholes which allowed landlords to evict people. Murillo’s partner Edward was evicted by Perez himself from another property at the beginning of May and is now forced to live between his car and Murillo’s already crowded apartment.

Despite the various intimidation tactics Perez has used, Murillo says that she will continue her fight against Perez in order to stay in her home and is strengthened by her family and community members who stand behind her.

While giving a speech in front of Perez’s house, Murillo said the community would continue to confront landlords like Perez, “and anybody that comes at our families, because we’re working families, but our system sucks, and I think its time to change the tide of history.”

From Housing Struggle to Revolutionary Struggle

These examples of tenant organizing show that with greater organization and unity among the people, tenants can stand their ground to defend their homes. However, tenants and organizers must prepare for landlord retaliation and the state’s legal and police threats with stronger discipline and tactical awareness. Militant resistance against the enemies of the people is what consistently wins the most gains for the people, whether stopping evictions in their tracks or to improve living conditions. Landlords and property owners often cower in the face of organized tenants, and the state will be forced to make further concessions when this resistance is on a larger scale.

At the same time, the militancy of the people is often dampened by politics that emphasize pacifism and reformism i.e. winning reforms for reforms’ sake in order to preserve the current system. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) take government grants in exchange for subduing tenants’ anger against their enemies and push for tenants to accept weaker concessions—this is what they are paid to do. Phony socialist (revisionist) organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have weaseled into housing movements in order to push voting for their opportunist candidates and to spread their false conceptions of socialism, which they argue can be won through voting-in different managers within the imperialist system. Maintaining their independence from the NGOs and vote-hustlers like the DSA is critical for tenants fighting to stay in their homes or for better living conditions; the opportunists sell out the struggle rather than developing it towards its necessary solution: socialist revolution.

Socialism is not the same as a more regulated housing market or housing cooperatives, and can not be instituted by elected officials—the entire economic and political base of society is fundamentally different under socialism. Housing would no longer be a private commodity, bought and sold on the market and subject to drastic increases in price that force the workers into worse and worse conditions while the proportion of their incomes spent on rent steadily increases. In socialist society, basic human necessities like housing are treated as a guarantee to workers, along with employment, healthcare, food, etc., because production is for social need instead of for profit.

Capitalism can offer no viable alternative to the public ownership of housing under socialism; this means organizing to fight for tenants’ demands can only go so far within capitalism. So, how should tenants unions and organizations be understood? They are not quite like workers’ unions; tenant unions are unions of consumers, disadvantaged due to the housing market, fighting for their meager wages to go further through collective bargaining, rent strikes, etc.

Housing cooperatives, a common reformist proposal, may be collectively owned in the sense that the tenants own a share of the building or complex, however the buildings themselves and the land they sit on are still subject to the market forces of capitalism. As property value increases, so do the taxes—repairs, utilities, and materials must also be purchased on the market. At the end of the day, cooperative housing is just another form of private ownership by a limited group of people rather than society itself.

Forcing the state to hand over unused properties for housing, or taking over and defending vacant housing, both of which require more disciplined, militant organizing, are potential strategies for tenants to pursue. Tenants can demand resources from the state that can be managed by tenants themselves, without government-sanctioned NGOs, but this would still only a temporary gain under this system. Ultimately, all of these organizing approaches still eventually run up against the laws of the capitalist market.

The anarchy of capitalist society’s production and management of housing means that workers’ living situations are never a certainty, whether there is a major economic crisis, a pandemic, or otherwise. Housing under capitalism is, in the final analysis, a commodity, and it is the competition between buyers and sellers (tenants and landlords, respectively) of this commodity that determines how expensive it is—as long as these market forces exist and ownership is held by private individuals, the capitalist State will employ its legal and police apparatuses in order to enforce it.

Every protest, rent strike, and eviction defense is a tactical encounter with the enemy, individual battles within a war; and as in any war the victor will have greater discipline and organization. Uniting tenants across communities, training for confrontations, and conducting political education to understand the root of the problems that tenants face are all necessary components in this fight. A leap is made when the housing struggle unites the fight for better housing with the fight for a new society which does not produce housing for private profit but for the people’s needs. The owners of the means of production in this society will not give this up without a fight, which will be prolonged and necessarily violent, as revolutions are.

The wide movement to defend workers’ homes reflects the boundless, creative energy of the masses, but it must unite further, and be strengthened with working class politics and greater militancy to advance towards revolution. While it is necessary to fight for the people’s housing today, it can not be seen as the end goal. As long as capitalism remains, tenants and workers will be perpetually awaiting the next eviction notice rather than determining their own fate.

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