Across the US, the pandemic has turned a generation of renters into activists

Across the US, the pandemic has turned a generation of renters into activists

Demonstrators are arrested by police during a rent strike protest in New York City on 1 October 2020. The US could be on the verge of “the most severe housing crisis in its history” according to the Aspen Institute, with an estimated 30 to 40 million people at risk of eviction.

(Brian Branch Price/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News )

After an end of December scramble, the US Congress passed a second stimulus plan to help alleviate the financial distressed caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Most adult Americans will receive a one-off payment of US$600 while the federal unemployment supplement will be re-instated at US$300 for 11 weeks. A nationwide rent moratorium, which would have expired on 31 December, has been extended until the end of January. The stimulus plan also sets aside US$25 billion for renters who have fallen behind on their rent. However, there is no clear information on how local and state governments will distribute rental assistance.

Nor is there any clear idea of what will happen next. A coronavirus vaccine promises a return to elements of life before the global pandemic, but there are no assurances that mounting unpaid rent will be forgiven. Following the burst of the US housing bubble, which led to the global financial crisis in 2008, there are more Americans renting now than at any point since 1956. With an estimated 25.7 million workers in the United States hit by the Covid-19 downturn (either losing their jobs, seeing a reduction in hours or pay, or dropping out of the workforce entirely), the US could be on the verge of “the most severe housing crisis in its history” according to the Aspen Institute, with an estimated 30 to 40 million people at risk of eviction.

In response, a growing number of people are joining the movement for housing justice, with community organisers responding to the brutal economic realities of the pandemic with rent strikes, demonstrations, and the occupation of vacant homes. Tara Raghuveer, director of the KC Tenants housing rights group in Kansas City, says organisers around the country “are revitalising a tried-and-true organising tactic of reclaiming or liberating land and property for the people. They are not waiting for decision-makers to awaken to their responsibility.” For tenants’ rights activists, this pandemic has only intensified the long-standing lack of protection for renters. In May, thousands of people across the US participated in the largest rent strike in decades, followed by a wave of further local strikes as the federal government failed to provide sufficient financial assistance. Even with a moratorium in place, evictions have continued across the country and hang over those who are withholding rent.

The disruption of eviction proceedings, online and in-person, is one way KC Tenants is fighting to keep tenants housed. In October, the group organised a demonstration at the downtown courthouse, chaining themselves to the doors in protest against ongoing evictions. On 5 January, KC Tenants took to the courthouse again, blocking the entrance on a day they say had 219 evictions on the docket. In addition to the downtown demonstration, KC Tenants used online disruptions to stall virtual eviction proceedings, according to Raghuveer. “We organised 80 people from around the country. There are four judges [who oversee evictions]. They have a morning and an afternoon docket,” she tells Equal Times, “We’re verbally disrupting. One person would read from a script until they were booted. Then, the next person started.” She says the disruptions have resulted in delayed and even halted eviction proceedings.

Shared strategies

Tenant activists from different cities are sharing their strategies with each other too. KC Tenants are in contact with the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly activists who blocked the entrance to First City Court and created a physical barrier to those trying to enter the courthouse for eviction hearings on 30 June.

New Orleans activists with Southern Solidarity – a mutual aid group whose work is rooted in radical Black liberation ideology – are also committed to housing justice, although their activism focuses on foregrounding the needs of the city’s growing unhoused population. Researchers warn that the half a million people living without shelter across the United States are doubly vulnerable to coronavirus. Jasmine Araujo, a founding member of Southern Solidarity, tells Equal Times that a central principle of their work is that it is directed by the unhoused rather than dictated to them. “I make it clear to everyone: this is not charity, this is solidarity.”

Araujo says she is concerned that the economic fallout of the pandemic is not being met with the necessary, urgent policy changes. “We’ve gone to protests and tried to pressure city officials to do more,” she says. Unfortunately, the activists have seen “nothing permanent, nothing sustainable”. Instead, she and other Southern Solidarity volunteers help provide ID paperwork and medical assistance to the city’s homeless population.

There have been some victories. In Philadelphia, activists scored a big win in October after occupying a number of vacant houses owned by the city.

Organisers from the Philadelphia Housing Action and Occupy PHA (Philadelphia Housing Authority) groups pushed the city government into negotiations to turn over the houses to 50 previously unhoused families. It is a victory that could serve as a model for other housing activists in the US.

In New York, Cea Weaver works as the campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All (HJfA) where she represents organisations made up of tenants and homeless New Yorkers across the state. In 2019, the alliance successfully lobbied for increased tenant protections. Weaver, who describes the organisations as “a big, multiracial, multi-generational coalition of people who rent their homes across the state”, says HJfA has grown its mailing list by thousands during the pandemic.

“We’ve always said everyone is just one paycheck away from an eviction. In March people saw that the thing the crazy housing people have been saying is true,” says Weaver. “Nobody said that you have the right to profit during a pandemic,” she continues. “Small business owners are going out of business. One of the only businesses that has remained open is the landlord business. A lot of people are waking up to how terrible that is.”

Cancel rent

Beyond rent moratoriums, HJfA is one of several community organisations calling on the government to cancel rent, mortgage and utility payments for the duration of the pandemic, backed by a government relief fund, that landlords have to apply for rather than tenants, to cover the losses incurred by missed payments. Looking at the incoming Biden administration, Weaver sees few options. “There are basically three paths forward. The first is a massive eviction crisis; most people don’t want to see that. The second is a system of tenant-based vouchers that would pay everybody’s rent and stabilise the market. The third option is a semi-bail out, this is the path preferred by us. Sure, [the government] will pay to stabilise your asset, but they’re not going to pay you limitless profit. In exchange, there is more regulation over housing.”

Government intervention of this kind would allow current rents to be cancelled and future rents to be reined in. Even before the pandemic, an ever-increasing number of Americans were spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. So far, neither Biden nor Congress are suggesting such a plan, although Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar came closest with a proposal to cancel rent and mortgages that uses a federal fund to cover losses. The bill would also create a buyout fund aimed at stymieing real estate speculation.

Weaver points to the 2008 financial crisis, record levels of student debt, and high rates of under- and unemployment as major contributors to the growth in organising among tenants. “My generation are not going to become homeowners, so we are seeing a lot of people like me joining renter movements.”

In an email exchange with Equal Times, Saskia Sassen, the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University in New York City, also draws a line from the current housing activism in the US to the predatory loaning ahead of the 2008 financial crisis and the higher lending standards and prices that followed. According to research, six million people that could have afforded home ownership have unable to get a mortgage since 2008. At the same time, home prices have kept on rising. A Bloomberg CityLab article estimates that this loss of homeownership rates means more than US$220 billion in housing value transferred from Americans to large corporations. Moreover, the federal government incentivised corporations to buy up vacant homes after the crisis.

Raghuveer sees this gentrification play out in Kansas City where out-of-state corporate landlords, “get federal financing through HUD [the US Department of Housing and Urban Development] and other public programs like the low-income housing tax credit, etc. They tend to buy up distressed properties and do almost nothing to them.” The original tenants are pushed out and the rents are increased, in a process that Raghuveer calls the “eviction machine”. Sassen notes that this happens in cities all over the world, where companies “that operate globally are buying up modest housing complexes in a growing range of countries”, driving working-class people out of increasingly unaffordable ‘global cities’. For Weaver, the only solution is to reverse this process of commodification – a need the pandemic has made even more urgent. “What we really need to see are mechanisms to take more housing into the public good. Now is the moment to do that,” says Weaver.