You Can’t Evict a Movement: Strategies for Housing Justice in the United States

You Can't EvictIntroduction

This round­table on hous­ing strug­gles is Viewpoint’s inau­gu­ral “move­ment inquiry” fea­ture, in which we ask peo­ple across the Unit­ed States to share orga­niz­ing expe­ri­ences so that local lessons can be bridged towards more region­al, nation­al, and inter­na­tion­al strate­gies. With this resource, we encour­age rad­i­cals to make time to reflect, regroup, and more wide­ly cir­cu­late our work. We hope that as the­se sto­ries are shared, new con­nec­tions will be made, and that a larg­er strug­gle for our cities’ futures can be waged.

It seems that every week there are new, ever more dire, sta­tis­tics about how unaf­ford­able urban cen­ters in the Unit­ed States have become for the mul­ti-eth­nic work­ing and workless poor, and how quick­ly the­se cities are being forced to suit the whims of the wealthy. The vio­lence of the­se changes rever­ber­ates and affects edu­ca­tion, health, home­less­ness, police bru­tal­i­ty, and unem­ploy­ment. As neolib­er­al gen­tri­fi­ca­tion accel­er­ates to out­ra­geous lev­els, we focus on three epi­cen­ters of hous­ing strug­gles – the Bay Area, Chicago, and New York City – as well as a nation­al hous­ing rights alliance, to share emerg­ing and long-term strate­gies of resis­tance. In doing so, we intend to ampli­fy a nation­al con­ver­sa­tion about how to com­bat the dis­place­ment, inequal­i­ty, and vio­lence that con­sti­tute gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.

The­se sev­en orga­ni­za­tions shared reports with us:

In the Bay Area, the Anti-Evic­tion Map­ping Project and the San Fran­cis­co Ten­ants Union have been cen­tral to strug­gles both recent and decades-long. The Anti-Evic­tion Map­ping Project uses rad­i­cal map­ping, data visu­al­iza­tions, and oral his­to­ry to doc­u­ment the dis­pos­ses­sion and polit­i­cal eco­nom­ic land­scape of Tech Boom 2.0 in the Bay Area. For over 45 years, the San Fran­cis­co Ten­ants Union has pro­vid­ed invalu­able ten­ant coun­sel­ing and orga­niz­ing, while help­ing to write and affect hous­ing pol­i­cy in San Fran­cis­co, using a mod­el that is entire­ly mem­ber-fund­ed. Since the rise of neolib­er­al urban poli­cies in the 1980s, the Bay Area has become a ground zero of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and resis­tance, where long­stand­ing claims to the right to trans­form pub­lic space have given rise to some of the most cre­ative direct actions.

In Chicago, Cen­tro Autónomo, linked with the Mex­i­co Sol­i­dar­i­ty Net­work, opened a com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter in Sep­tem­ber 2006 in the Albany Park neigh­bor­hood that “con­structs com­mu­ni­ty, builds polit­i­cal con­scious­ness, and unites peo­ple in and around the Latin@ immi­grant strug­gle.” The Chicago Anti-Evic­tion Cam­paign, found­ed in 2009 by South Side Chicago res­i­dents and stu­dents, has trans­formed dozens of aban­doned prop­er­ties, in order to move “home­less peo­ple into peo­ple-less homes.” Both of the­se groups have helped shape a larg­er strug­gle over the future of Chicago amid­st Rahm Emanuel’s con­tro­ver­sial 2-term may­oral tenure (2011-present), the 2012 Chicago Teach­ers Union momen­tous strike, and ram­pant police vio­lence that has endured for decades.

In New York City, the Crown Heights Ten­ant Union was found­ed in sum­mer 2013 by long­time neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents, Occu­py Wall Street par­tic­i­pants, Urban Home­steading Assis­tance Board [UHAB] orga­niz­ers, and the Crown Heights gen­er­al assem­bly to build ten­ant pow­er and fight the cycle of dis­place­ment in Crown Heights, Brook­lyn. One year lat­er, anar­chists at the Base in Bush­wick, Brook­lyn, cre­at­ed the mag­a­zine Rent is Theft to “chal­lenge con­ven­tion­al wis­dom about rent and hous­ing, and attack the prob­lem from a rad­i­cal per­spec­tive.” Steeped in his­to­ries of squat­ting, ten­e­ments’ reforms, and evic­tion resis­tance, New York City now suf­fers a rapid displacement/development cycle, and in June 2015 under­went changes in rent reg­u­la­tions that may sig­nal a slow ero­sion in ten­ants’ rights.

Nation­wide, Right to the City was formed in Jan­u­ary 2007 as an alliance of eco­nom­ic, racial, and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions, and has devel­oped a net­work with 57 groups across 22 cities to “halt the dis­place­ment of low-income peo­ple, peo­ple of col­or, mar­gin­al­ized LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ties, and youths of col­or from their his­toric urban neigh­bor­hoods.” Through their work, we see the con­tours of what a nation­al move­ment for hous­ing jus­tice can look like.

View­point envi­sions this round­table as a begin­ning, not an end. We wel­come your ideas, feed­back, cri­tiques, as well as your sup­port in shar­ing this resource with friends and neigh­bors, in work­places and orga­niz­ing meet­ings, at ral­lies and direct actions, and beyond. We are eager to work with orga­niz­ers to col­lec­tive­ly cre­ate future round­ta­bles on the strug­gles unfold­ing today – Black and Brown lib­er­a­tion, cli­mate jus­tice, edu­ca­tion, fem­i­nism, LGBT pow­er, youth-led migrant strug­gles, and in trans­porta­tion, logis­tics, and the work­places of retail and ser­vice work­ers, to name just a few. To get involved, please email us at roundtables@viewpointmag.com.

- Conor and Man­is­sa 



ANTI-EVICTION MAPPING PROJECT
(Bay Area, Cal­i­for­nia)

by Erin McEl­roy and Karyn Smoot
BANNER1“Not only do we gath­er sto­ries of those who have been evict­ed, but we also include sto­ries of those impact­ed by gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in oth­er ways, such as through police vio­lence, increased racial pro­fil­ing, and immi­gra­tion strug­gles.”
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Hous­ing laws, landlord/tenant prac­tices, and indige­nous land rights vary sub­stan­tial­ly between dif­fer­ent coun­ties, cities, states, and nation­al bor­ders. First, what par­tic­u­lar laws, prac­tices, and poli­cies has your group had to address? Sec­ond, how did you learn about all the­se dis­tinc­tions (for exam­ple, through inde­pen­dent research, by work­ing with rad­i­cals lawyers, etc.)? Last­ly, do you think it would be pos­si­ble, despite all the­se dif­fer­ences, to coor­di­nate housing/tenants/land strug­gles at the nation­al lev­el?

The Anti-Evic­tion Map­ping Project [AEMP] is one of many col­lec­tives and orga­ni­za­tions in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area fight­ing cur­rent tides of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. While pri­mar­i­ly we are a data visu­al­iza­tion, data analy­sis, and sto­ry­telling col­lec­tive that doc­u­ments the dis­pos­ses­sion of Bay Area res­i­dents, we also par­tic­i­pate in direct action and mutu­al aid orga­niz­ing on the ground, often in sol­i­dar­i­ty with oth­er groups such as Evic­tion Free San Fran­cis­co, the San Fran­cis­co Ten­ants Union, Ten­ants Togeth­er, the Jus­tice for Alex Nieto Com­mit­tee, to name a few. While we endeav­or for our work to abet in col­lab­o­ra­tive efforts to shift local pol­i­cy, we don’t imag­ine that reform alone will be able to mit­i­gate gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly because it it is so con­nect­ed to glob­al cap­i­tal­ism and deep­er his­to­ries of moder­ni­ty. There­fore, while we remain in active con­ver­sa­tion with efforts to curb pol­i­cy local­ly, often engag­ing in the very research used to back such endeav­ors, (for instance, research­ing abus­es of local and state pol­i­cy that abet spec­u­la­tors and shar­ing econ­o­my cor­po­ra­tions in prof­it­ing off of the evic­tions of ten­ants), we also remain crit­i­cal of the very struc­tures that com­prise local and state under­stand­ings of prop­er­ty, gov­ern­men­tal­i­ty, geopol­i­tics, and land occu­pa­tion. Thus we effec­tive­ly embrace a two-prong strat­e­gy inter­est­ed in both reform and decol­o­niza­tion.

The strug­gle over hous­ing implic­it­ly inter­sects with many oth­er strug­gles – again­st racism and police bru­tal­i­ty, for immi­gra­tion and indige­nous rights, over high­er wages at work, etc. How has your orga­ni­za­tion tried to link the­se strug­gles and what chal­lenges have you encoun­tered?

The strug­gle for hous­ing does inter­sect with those again­st racism, police bru­tal­i­ty, immi­gra­tion, fair pay, and indige­nous rights, to name a few. We con­stant­ly work to map the­se strug­gles and shared sys­tems of oppres­sion in our data work, but we find that the­se con­nec­tions are best made through the nar­ra­tive side of our project. Our oral his­to­ry project, which maps deep neigh­bor­hood and per­son­al his­to­ries upon a back­drop of evic­tions, has numer­ous sto­ries in which the­se inter­sec­tions become vis­cer­al. Not only do we gath­er sto­ries of those who have been evict­ed, but we also include sto­ries of those impact­ed by gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in oth­er ways, such as through police vio­lence, increased racial pro­fil­ing, and immi­gra­tion strug­gles.

Our oral his­to­ries, which are on an inter­ac­tive online map, but also on a mural and in zine form, include the sto­ries of those who knew Alex Nieto, who was mur­dered by the San Fran­cis­co Police Depart­ment in May of 2014, osten­si­bly for being brown in a whiten­ing neigh­bor­hood. Dur­ing the mural ded­i­ca­tion, numer­ous ten­ants who have been fight­ing dis­place­ment gath­ered with Alex’s par­ents to speak about their loss, describ­ing his death as a trag­i­cal­ly lethal con­se­quence of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. They remind­ed us that as peo­ple are dis­placed and new set­tlers arrive, par­tic­u­lar­ly set­tlers with racial and class priv­i­lege, the police are more like­ly to sur­veil neigh­bor­hoods and “pro­tect” new­com­ers from their neigh­bors of col­or.

Alex’s mural por­trait lives in Clar­i­on Alley, across from the Mis­sion Police Sta­tion, and adja­cent to Valen­cia Street per­haps the most gen­tri­fied street in the Mis­sion today, in which arti­sanal cup­cakes and bar­ber shops line the streets, upon which Google and oth­er tech bus­es pick up tech work­ers to trans­port them to Sil­i­con Val­ley, near­ly every fif­teen min­utes. As our research has found, 69% of no-fault evic­tions in San Fran­cis­co hap­pen with­in four  blocks of tech bus stops, a fig­ure we often invoke at protests and bus block­ades.

Ear­lier in 2015, for instance, over a hun­dred peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ed in a direct action in which a tech bus was block­ad­ed in front of the Mis­sion Police Sta­tion with ban­ners that read “Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is Vio­lence,” and with signs of Alex Nieto and Amil­car Perez-Lopez, an indige­nous Guatemalan immi­grant also mur­dered by the police this year in a gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hood. After Amil­car was shot in the back and killed, his room­mates, also undoc­u­ment­ed, were evict­ed from their home, which was then adver­tised at over $4000/month. Like our mural, direct actions again­st police bru­tal­i­ty and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion call atten­tion to the fact that evic­tions do not hap­pen in iso­la­tion; they are accom­pa­nied by increas­es in racial pro­fil­ing and are fueled by shifts in polit­i­cal econ­o­my in which units are forcibly vacat­ed so that spec­u­la­tors can prof­it off of those with more mon­ey, ie. those in tech.

Con­crete­ly describe a cam­paign you’ve cre­at­ed in the past.

Last year in 2014 the AEMP part­nered with the Anti-Dis­place­ment Coali­tion [ADC] a coali­tion that encom­pass­es most hous­ing orga­ni­za­tions in the city to push for a bal­lot mea­sure that would impose a tax on real estate spec­u­la­tion, so that spec­u­la­tors who flipped build­ings with­in five years of own­er­ship would have to pay the city based on a grad­u­at­ed per­cent­age. With the  statewide group, Ten­ants Togeth­er, we researched every sin­gle Ellis Act that had occurred in the city to deter­mine how quick­ly after new own­er­ship ten­ants were evict­ed through this state based no-fault evic­tion mech­a­nism. The Ellis Act, writ­ten in 1985, allows land­lords to evict ten­ants for no fault of their own if those land­lords desire to exit the rental mar­ket, and it has been wild­ly abused by spec­u­la­tors in San Fran­cis­co from the time of the Dot Com Boom onwards.

Our research found that 80% of Ellis Act evic­tions tran­spire with­in the first five years of own­er­ship, and that 60% occur with­in the first year alone. This research informed the draft­ing of the bal­lot mea­sure, which the ADC then orga­nized for the spec­u­la­tion tax to be vot­ed upon in Novem­ber 2014, known as Prop G. The real estate indus­try felt so threat­ened by the pos­si­bil­i­ty of Prop G pass­ing that they raised two mil­lion dol­lars to defeat us through harsh pro­pa­gan­da cam­paigns. While they did defeat us in the end, orga­niz­ing around Prop G helped the ADC grow and solid­i­fy, and now the coali­tion is push­ing for anoth­er mea­sure to strength­en the Just Cause ordi­nance so that is more dif­fi­cult for land­lords to push ten­ants out for “low-fault” evic­tions, which have been steadi­ly on the rise in San Fran­cis­co. At the moment, ten­ants can be evict­ed for hang­ing laun­dry out on the line, even if they have been doing so for decades. Recent­ly a build­ing in Chi­na­town fought again­st such a wrong­ful evic­tion and won, but more and more ten­ants are being dis­placed for pet­ty breach vio­la­tions, which the ADC is peti­tion­ing to shift through the intro­duc­tion of “Just Cause 2.0.”

How do you involve home­own­ers, ten­ants, and/or land stew­ards as co-orga­niz­ers?

Recent­ly the AEMP was involved in a direct action cam­paign with a friend of ours, Ben­i­to San­ti­ago, who was being Ellis Act evict­ed from his home by a spec­u­la­tor known as Pineap­ple Boy LLC. We researched all we could on Pineap­ple Boy LLC, to find that it was one of sev­er­al alias­es for the real estate spec­u­la­tor Michael Har­rison, co-founder of Van­guard Prop­er­ties one of the largest real estate cor­po­ra­tions in San Fran­cis­co. Ben­i­to, a Fil­ipino elder born and raised in San Fran­cis­co, is well known in the anti-evic­tion move­ment for his drum­ming and chant­i­ng at protests for count­less ten­ants across the city, but he is also well known in oth­er cir­cles, as he is a teacher in the Uni­fied School Dis­trict, spe­cial­iz­ing in teach­ing drum­ming to youth with dis­abil­i­ties. He also leads dance lessons at the I-Hotel, a Fil­ipino com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter and home of the largest anti-evic­tion fights in San Francisco’s his­to­ry.

Ben­i­to, him­self a senior and a per­son with dis­abil­i­ties due to a racist hit-and-run in the 1980s, decid­ed that he would fight day and night again­st his impend­ing evic­tion, and with Evic­tion Free San Fran­cis­co, he par­tic­i­pat­ed in march­es, ral­lies, and occu­pa­tions of Van­guard Prop­er­ties. After his fourth vis­it to Van­guard in which employ­ees vio­lent­ly dragged out pro­tes­tors, Har­rison rescind­ed the evic­tion, mark­ing a huge suc­cess for Ben­i­to and the anti-evic­tion move­ment across the city. Har­rison had bought Benito’s build­ing sole­ly to flip it and prof­it, and had only owned it for three months pri­or to hand­ing Ben­i­to his first evic­tion notice. Now that the evic­tion was with­drawn, Har­rison want­ed noth­ing to do with 151 Dubo­ce, and put it back on the mar­ket. With Ben­i­to, the Ten­ants Union, and Evic­tion Free San Fran­cis­co, we con­tact­ed the Com­mu­ni­ty Land Trust [CLT], a city­wide non­prof­it that under the right cir­cum­stances can buy build­ings and take them off the mar­ket. After months of nego­ti­at­ing, the CLT bought Benito’s build­ing, mean­ing that Ben­i­to now pays rent to the city via the CLT, ensur­ing that he will nev­er again be evict­ed from his home of 20 years.

How do you apply pres­sure to state hous­ing leg­is­la­tion (i.e. rezon­ing, rent reg­u­la­tion, fore­clo­sures), real estate devel­op­ment (dis­place­ment, vacan­cies, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion), and government/business land seizures, while also doing work that is inde­pen­dent of their delib­er­a­tion cycles?

While we are active­ly involved in cam­paigns to amend and intro­duce dif­fer­ent leg­is­la­tion that would curb abuse of real estate spec­u­la­tion, Airbnb and short term vaca­tion rentals, and lux­u­ry devel­op­ment, and while we are also involved in direct action cam­paigns work­ing with ten­ants to help fight indi­vid­u­al evic­tion cas­es, we do not imag­ine that leg­is­la­tion alone will or could even solve the evic­tion cri­sis. We inten­tion­al­ly cre­ate maps and engage in qual­i­ta­tive work that points to larg­er entan­gle­ments that are root­ed in racial­ized, classed, gen­dered, and colo­nial struc­tures.

For instance, we recent­ly mapped all 311 calls made to the city, to query if such calls are an indi­ca­tor of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, given that the major­i­ty of calls are requests to “clean up,” and given the neigh­bor­hood break­down and tech­nolo­gies used to make the calls. This map was not part of a cam­paign to end the 311 mech­a­nism, but used to ques­tion the racial­ized impli­ca­tions of the tech­nol­o­gy. We’ve also mapped demo­graph­ic shifts, from the loss of the black pop­u­la­tion in the Bay Area to the loss of the youth pop­u­la­tion in San Fran­cis­co to the amount of vacan­cies in neigh­bor­hoods with high home­less pop­u­la­tions. Addi­tion­al­ly, we’ve mapped killings by police offi­cers in both San Fran­cis­co and Oak­land, and the fires that have killed and dis­placed ten­ants across SF.

With such maps, we don’t imag­ine that in mak­ing them we will undo cycles of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and dis­pos­ses­sion, but we hope that in dis­sem­i­nat­ing them that we will con­tribute to shifts in dia­logue that under­stand gen­tri­fi­ca­tion as more than being evict­ed from a home, but as a   mutat­ing process that is enmeshed in deep­er modern/colonial sys­tems that pro­duces mul­ti­ple forms of dis­pos­ses­sion along lines that are racial­ized, classed, and gen­dered. We hope that our work, while con­tribut­ing to leg­isla­tive shifts that if passed will indeed keep peo­ple in their homes  will also fur­ther expand con­ver­sa­tions and move­ment build­ing.

What read­ings and orga­niz­ing resources help inspire and guide your work?

While many of us are in active rela­tion­ship to exist­ing dis­cours­es on gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, with­in and beyond the acad­e­my, we also main­tain inti­mate ties to direct action orga­niz­ing, much of which chal­lenges dom­i­nant social sci­ence nar­ra­tives of and on gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. We find that often texts with­in soci­ol­o­gy and geog­ra­phy for instance sac­ri­fice deep nar­ra­tive his­to­ries for pos­i­tivist analy­sis. While rec­og­niz­ing the val­ue of works emerg­ing from the­se fields, we have been drawn to decolo­nial and post­colo­nial schol­ar­ship, and work emerg­ing from with­in crit­i­cal race and eth­nic­i­ty stud­ies, fem­i­nist stud­ies, and indige­nous stud­ies. In oth­er words, while learn­ing from crit­i­cal works by ant­i­cap­i­tal­ist and Marx­ist schol­ars such as Neil Smith, we real­ize that his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism alone isn’t enough to address the grav­i­ties plagu­ing the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area. Thus we find texts such as those by Kather­ine McKit­trick, Nefer­ti Tadi­ar, Denise Fer­reira da Sil­va, and Jodi Byrd extreme­ly help­ful in form­ing analy­sis around the colo­nial, gen­dered, and racial­ized his­to­ries that ren­der some life­worlds more valu­able than oth­ers. We have also been inspired texts writ­ten by local schol­ars, poets, and aca­d­e­mics, such as Tony Rob­les, Nan­cy Mira­bal, and Fer­nan­do Mar­ti, to name a few.

What role does direct action (i.e. rent strikes, resist­ing evic­tions, street march­es, land occu­pa­tions) fig­ure into your orga­niz­ing? Can you imag­ine a nation-wide direct action strat­e­gy around hous­ing?

We have par­tic­i­pat­ed in count­less direct actions with numer­ous groups around the Bay Area to fight the impo­si­tions of dis­place­ment and deter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion. We’ve dis­rupt­ed open hous­es at the for­mer homes of ten­ants killed by police or who have died due to “root shock” upon removal. We’ve occu­pied City Hall to demand a mora­to­ri­um on lux­u­ry devel­op­ment. We’ve tak­en over streets and blocked Google and oth­er tech bus­es, call­ing atten­tion to the entan­gle­ment of tech and real estate in con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal econ­o­my. Addi­tion­al­ly, at times we’ve col­lab­o­rat­ed with groups beyond the Bay Area. For instance, ear­lier this year we worked with groups in New York and Barcelona to protest the impact that the Wall Street invest­ment com­pa­ny Black­stone is hav­ing on both sides of the Atlantic. While we held a protest out­side of their SF head­quar­ters, the same day Ten­ants Togeth­er released a map and report of all of their Cal­i­for­nia owned prop­er­ties, activists in New York and Barcelona held a sim­i­lar protest, since Black­stone, inter­na­tion­al­ly head­quar­tered in New York, is behind a major wave of fore­clo­sure evic­tions in Spain. We would love to par­tic­i­pate in more actions such as this, espe­cial­ly since today transna­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions and glob­al cap­i­tal shel­ter so many of the mech­a­nisms of dis­place­ment that we wit­ness local­ly and beyond.

If you were to imag­ine a world in which hous­ing and land care works the way you believe it should, what would this look like?

Due to the nature of map­ping work espe­cial­ly oral his­to­ry map­ping we are con­scious of the wide array of voic­es that make up San Fran­cis­co, and there­by make any uni­fied analy­sis impos­si­ble. How­ev­er, it is clear that we are wit­ness­ing a time in San Francisco’s his­to­ry where the needs of many are being sub­vert­ed to make way for a mono­lithic vision of the city, fund­ed by the wealth­i­est and most priv­i­leged. It’s becom­ing clear that in order to secure any future for the region’s poor, work­ing class, immi­grant, indige­nous and black pop­u­la­tions, we need per­ma­nent­ly afford­able hous­ing, and col­lec­tive access to and con­trol of pub­lic goods. The­se are only some of the sim­ple needs that have become clear­er in the cur­rent fight again­st ram­pant evic­tion and real estate greed. Recent vic­to­ries by the Com­mu­ni­ty Land Trust have shown the city that it is pos­si­ble to estab­lish hous­ing with sta­ble rent for pos­ter­i­ty. Their vic­to­ries feel very much tied to our work because they were gained through relent­less direct action and cross-orga­ni­za­tion col­lab­o­ra­tion and as such they are a huge source of hope. Still, it is abun­dant­ly clear that we need much more than this to cre­ate a tru­ly life-affirm­ing city and world.
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SAN FRANCISCO TENANTS UNION (San Fran­cis­co, Cal­i­for­nia)
by Andrew Sze­to
sftu-logo-with-fist-2“San Fran­cis­co, long cham­pi­oned for its ‘diver­si­ty’ and ‘mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism,’ is fac­ing height­ened class war­fare, with­in which the right to hous­ing has been at the front. And it is the city’s Black and Latina/o pop­u­la­tion that is most direct­ly affect­ed by racial capitalism’s destruc­tion.”
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The San Fran­cis­co Ten­ants Union now enters its forty-fifth year of exis­tence, found­ed in 1970, in the mid­st of glob­al cries again­st neolib­er­al aus­ter­i­ty and calls to chal­lenge anti-Black­ness. The SFTU has long fought again­st the forces of urban rede­vel­op­ment that have caused mass dis­place­ment, from the evic­tions of Fil­ipino seniors at the Inter­na­tion­al Hotel in 1977 to the dot-com boom of the late 1990s that erased San Fran­cis­co neigh­bor­hoods whole­sale, and which set the stage for this cur­rent wave of tech fueled hyper-gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. The chal­lenge we face as an orga­ni­za­tion with the­se roots has been to remain rel­e­vant amongst cur­rent times of vast eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and the emer­gence of new social move­ments again­st police/state vio­lence on Black peo­ple. We must devel­op crit­i­cal analy­ses for address­ing the mate­ri­al­i­ty of such racial and gen­dered vio­lence.

Our organization’s mod­el may be posi­tioned to meet and cham­pi­on the demand that hous­ing is a human right but seri­ous con­tra­dic­tions in our work must be addressed. The San Fran­cis­co Ten­ants Union is run col­lec­tive­ly and almost entire­ly mem­ber­ship sup­port­ed. We have retained our auton­o­my to both provide crit­i­cal ten­ants rights coun­sel­ing ser­vices through our vol­un­teer run drop-in clin­ic and to push through and advo­cate for leg­isla­tive reforms with­out state or fund­ing lim­i­ta­tions. As a col­lec­tive­ly run orga­ni­za­tion, we are posi­tioned to reject the grow­ing influ­ence of the non-prof­it indus­tri­al com­plex and embrace the calls for mutu­al aid and self-deter­mi­na­tion. Still-grow­ing con­tra­dic­tions from our struc­ture are prov­ing to be lim­i­ta­tions. With­in the con­text of entrenched neolib­er­al­ism and colorblind/multicultural SF pol­i­tics, our work must be attuned to the local his­to­ries that have shaped the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic land­scape in which we meet the demands for “hous­ing for all.”

San Fran­cis­co, long cham­pi­oned for its “diver­si­ty” and “mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism,” is fac­ing height­ened class war­fare, with­in which the right to hous­ing has been at the front. And it is the city’s Black and Latina/o pop­u­la­tion that is most direct­ly affect­ed by racial capitalism’s destruc­tion. Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism per­vades the polit­i­cal com­mon sense of this city, reduc­ing the uneven ter­rain through which devel­op­ment and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion have been con­di­tions of con­tin­u­al vio­lence again­st Black and brown lives in favor of a gen­er­al­ized “hous­ing” or “afford­abil­i­ty cri­sis.” By cen­ter­ing an imag­ined polit­i­cal affin­i­ty amongst “ten­ants” and “renters,” we’ve often dis­placed inter­sec­tion­al cri­tiques about how hous­ing inequal­i­ty affects com­mu­ni­ties dif­fer­en­tial­ly.

But it is the large­ly Latina/o and immi­grant Mis­sion Dis­trict that has been cen­ter in the fight again­st gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. The neigh­bor­hood has been the sub­ject of count­less media sto­ries from across the globe as the com­mu­ni­ty has chal­lenged the tech industry’s gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of poor and work­ing class fam­i­lies through immense real estate spec­u­la­tion. The mur­ders of Alex Nieto and Amil­car Perez-Lopez have pushed the hous­ing rights move­ment to seri­ous­ly address the inter­con­nec­tions between police vio­lence and sur­veil­lance with evic­tions and dis­place­ment as a mech­a­nism of dis­pos­ses­sion and death.

The city’s Black pop­u­la­tion has dwin­dled to below six-per­cent as the city con­tin­ues to push the­se com­mu­ni­ties fur­ther into the periph­ery to make way for a class of tech work­ers, obliv­i­ous to its industry’s excess­es. The­se forces of white suprema­cist and anti-black racism man­i­fest them­selves fur­ther in the city’s recent approval to hire 700 more police offi­cers over the next few years and the pend­ing fight again­st a new jail project, where Blacks make up 56% of the jail pop­u­la­tion. The his­to­ries of racial­ized dis­pos­ses­sion of the his­tor­i­cal­ly black Fill­more Dis­trict and the cur­rent rede­vel­op­ment of the Bayview and Hunters Point neigh­bor­hoods are fur­ther evi­dence of what some have called “the after­life of slav­ery.” Indeed, it would be fair to say that Black life does not mat­ter in this city. The fight for hous­ing jus­tice must engage with the­se par­tic­u­lar his­to­ries and real­i­ties.

The San Fran­cis­co Ten­ants Union has been many steps behind in this regard as an orga­ni­za­tion that has not been account­able to such com­mu­ni­ties. Our work, which orig­i­nat­ed through 1960s and 70s social move­ments char­ac­ter­izes the city’s coun­ter-cul­tur­al ethos, but has remained at an impasse with respect to emerg­ing con­ver­sa­tions of racial jus­tice. Basic aspects of inclu­sive move­ment build­ing, like hav­ing Span­ish and Chi­ne­se speak­ing ten­ants rights coun­selors, mul­ti-lin­gual hand­outs and resources, and, impor­tant­ly, a racial­ly diverse col­lec­tive mem­ber­ship have been low pri­or­i­ties for thus far. This neg­li­gence has hap­pened despite our cen­tral loca­tion in the Latina/o Mis­sion Dis­trict.

While we remain a key “voice” in the hous­ing jus­tice move­ment, the con­tra­dic­tions of our work have become more appar­ent and are urgent­ly in need of address. Groups like the Right to the City Alliance serve as mark­ers of how a group like ours, with a mis­sion of serv­ing a uni­ver­sal rent­ing class, can engage explic­it­ly with ques­tions of racial jus­tice. Their valu­able writ­ings and reports in which they demand a right to the city is in and of itself a more holis­tic analy­sis of the forces that shape and place demands for afford­able hous­ing.

It is because of our struc­ture that we can and many times do speak out in sol­i­dar­i­ty with groups like the No New SF Jail Coali­tion (NoNewSFJail.wordpress.com), a group of abo­li­tion­ist orga­ni­za­tions push­ing to stop the con­struc­tion of a new jail and to push for alter­na­tives to incar­cer­a­tion, and autonomous groups like Evic­tion Free San Fran­cis­co (EvictionFreeSF.org) and the Anti-Evic­tion Map­ping Project, whose mutu­al aid direct action and rad­i­cal coun­ter-car­tog­ra­phy has been influ­en­tial in dic­tat­ing the terms of engage­ment with the tech­no­crat­ic and data-dri­ven play­ing field of city pol­i­tics. We are able to sup­port oth­er grass­roots efforts by allow­ing space to use our insti­tu­tion­al legit­i­ma­cy to fur­ther rad­i­cal social and eco­nom­ic change.

The spot­light is on this city, and, cer­tain­ly, resis­tance to neolib­er­al urban devel­op­ment has been strong. Clear­ly our work has been influ­en­tial in pro­tect­ing and sav­ing the liveli­hoods of count­less renters in this city and we enjoy strong pub­lic and polit­i­cal sup­port. But we must be hon­est about whether our work is build­ing towards a hous­ing jus­tice move­ment that meets the calls to cen­ter a racial jus­tice frame­work and that address­es the struc­tural con­di­tions of racial­ized urban pover­ty and dis­place­ment. As schol­ar Jared Sex­ton sug­gests, “Which side you are on is eas­ier to assert than to ascer­tain.” The­se ques­tions are of course not lim­it­ed to just our orga­ni­za­tion. We open this dis­cus­sion, now, to our com­rades in San Fran­cis­co, Oak­land, Rich­mond, and across the coun­try to reflect and grow: What kind of hous­ing jus­tice move­ment are we build­ing?
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CENTRO AUTÓNOMO (Chicago, Illi­nois)
by Bar­bara Suárez Galeano, Anto­nio Gutier­rez, Ale­jan­dro Monzón
screen-shot-2012-03-16-at-12-45-37-pm“We see land as some­thing that should not be a com­mod­i­ty. Hav­ing a dig­ni­fied home is a human right that needs to be rec­og­nized and enforced so as to ensure that we do not con­tin­ue to vic­tim­ize and bru­tal­ize the lives and liveli­hood of many in defense of a lim­it­ed few. The goal is to take land and hous­ing off the mar­ket.”

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Hous­ing laws, landlord/tenant prac­tices, and indige­nous land rights vary sub­stan­tial­ly between dif­fer­ent coun­ties, cities, states, and nation­al bor­ders. First, what par­tic­u­lar laws, prac­tices, and poli­cies has your group had to address? Sec­ond, how did you learn about all the­se dis­tinc­tions (for exam­ple, through inde­pen­dent research, by work­ing with rad­i­cals lawyers, etc.)? Last­ly, do you think it would be pos­si­ble, despite all the­se dif­fer­ences, to coor­di­nate housing/tenants/land strug­gles at the nation­al lev­el?

Cen­tro Autónomo, locat­ed in Chicago, includes mem­bers from all around the city. Our ten­ants and hous­ing work usu­al­ly starts by shar­ing infor­ma­tion with our com­mu­ni­ty regard­ing their rights as home­own­ers and ten­ants. We have done a lot of research which has been com­ple­ment­ed by what we’ve learned from work­ing with the Lawyer’s Com­mit­tee for Bet­ter Hous­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the process of strug­gling again­st 3 mass evic­tions in our neigh­bor­hood (Albany Park). An exam­ple of this was find­ing out that, cur­rent­ly, state law pro­hibits the imple­men­ta­tion of rent con­trol in any area of Illi­nois. This means that in our fight again­st gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and for ten­ants’ rights, we must be cre­ative and use both the law and social protest to make our voic­es heard.

We believe that by foment­ing a col­lec­tive con­scious­ness of our oppres­sions with­in a neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, we can build an orga­nized move­ment of resis­tance at a nation­al lev­el. This means main­tain­ing a crit­i­cal analy­sis of our real­i­ties both towards those we con­front, and towards the oppres­sive dynam­ics we may repro­duce with­in our move­ments (will­ing or unwill­ing­ly).

The strug­gle over hous­ing implic­it­ly inter­sects with many oth­er strug­gles – again­st racism and police bru­tal­i­ty, for immi­gra­tion and indige­nous rights, over high­er wages at work, etc. How has your orga­ni­za­tion tried to link the­se strug­gles and what chal­lenges have you encoun­tered?

Cen­tro Autónomo is a diverse orga­ni­za­tion with vary­ing ini­tia­tives, from the home­own­ers and ten­ants in our hous­ing move­ment, to our adult edu­ca­tion pro­grams (ESL and High School) which are guid­ed by the prin­ci­ples of pop­u­lar edu­ca­tion, as well as our nascent women’s labor coop­er­a­tive. We also col­lab­o­rate with Orga­nized Com­mu­ni­ties Again­st Depor­ta­tions [OCAD], a local Chicago orga­ni­za­tion, on anti-depor­ta­tion work in our com­mu­ni­ty, and offer dif­fer­ent talks about our inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty as indi­vid­u­als liv­ing with­in a sys­tem that exploits and mar­gin­al­izes us all, grant­ed in very dif­fer­ent ways. We try to link our strug­gles through our month­ly assem­blies, which provide a space for us to dis­cuss the Centro’s ongo­ing work and to present any pro­pos­als regard­ing upcom­ing actions, activ­i­ties, and use of funds.

There are a myr­i­ad of chal­lenges that sur­face when car­ry­ing out this type of work. Some of the­se include the real­i­ty of sex­ism with­in our com­mu­ni­ty, of racial prej­u­dice towards oth­er eth­nic and racial groups, and of clas­sism. We also have to con­stant­ly con­front the ten­den­cy of being see­ing as a ser­vice orga­ni­za­tion and not a com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter geared towards sol­i­dar­i­ty and coop­er­a­tion. Our goal in the mid­st of this all is to empow­er our com­mu­ni­ty to rec­og­nize their col­lec­tive pow­er in enforc­ing their rights, and the detri­men­tal effects of the ide­olo­gies that pit us again­st one anoth­er.

Con­crete­ly describe a cam­paign you’ve cre­at­ed in the past.

Cen­tro Autónomo is part of a nation­al coali­tion com­mon­ly referred to as the Fannie/Freddie 99 Coali­tion. As part of the coali­tion, we launched a cam­paign in the sum­mer of 2014 to pres­sure Direc­tor Mel Watt from the Fed­er­al Hous­ing Finance Agen­cy [FHFA] to sign a new pol­i­cy to allow home­own­ers fac­ing fore­clo­sure and evic­tions to buy back their homes. Win­ning this has opened up a new set of pos­si­bil­i­ties for home­own­ers that might be able to have access to this option. The buy back cam­paign first began with a set of 3 region­al actions shar­ing the same mes­sage: in Chicago, Atlanta, and Boston. Here in Chicago, we got 150 peo­ple to show up to our action, and col­lab­o­rat­ed with orga­ni­za­tions from Detroit, Min­neapolis, and Chicago to push the ini­tia­tive through.

How do you involve home­own­ers, ten­ants, and/or land stew­ards as co-orga­niz­ers?

Dur­ing our bi-week­ly meet­ings with the hous­ing mem­bers, we usu­al­ly have a top­ic of dis­cus­sion in the begin­ning of the meet­ing. The­se dis­cus­sions can go from the lat­est hous­ing news, infor­ma­tion regard­ing legal pro­ceed­ings again­st ille­gal bank oper­a­tions, or shar­ing news on actions and ini­tia­tives from orga­ni­za­tions in the US and abroad. We also provide work­shops to our mem­bers, such as: sto­ry­telling, speak­ing in pub­lic, ban­ner mak­ing, etc. In the­se work­shops we also strive to demys­ti­fy legal process­es that usu­al­ly alien­ate home­own­ers from their own legal defense. We capac­i­tate them so as to ensure they under­stand the­se process­es and are able to share this infor­ma­tion with oth­ers, cre­at­ing a chain-reac­tion.

How do you apply pres­sure to state hous­ing leg­is­la­tion (i.e. rezon­ing, rent reg­u­la­tion, fore­clo­sures), real estate devel­op­ment (dis­place­ment, vacan­cies, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion), and government/business land seizures, while also doing work that is inde­pen­dent of their delib­er­a­tion cycles?

We tend towards describ­ing our work as the sword and shield dual approach. We rely on legal bat­tles as our shield, which helps us delay evic­tions, pres­sure banks, and could poten­tial­ly prove rather cost­ly for investors aim­ing to gen­tri­fy our neigh­bor­hoods. Our sword, or rather what we under­stand to be our real strength, is social protest. We rely on strength in num­bers, our rela­tion­ship with sis­ter orga­ni­za­tions both with­in and out­side Chicago, and the courage and com­mit­ment of our com­mu­ni­ty to con­front head-on the abu­sive prac­tices of banks, leg­is­la­tors, and land­lords.

What read­ings and orga­niz­ing resources help inspire and guide your work?

One of the major orga­niz­ing inspi­ra­tions are the Pop­u­lar Orga­ni­za­tion Fran­cis­co Vil­la-Inde­pen­di­en­te [OPFVII], com­mon­ly referred to as the Pan­chos, in Mex­i­co City. They are a hous­ing orga­ni­za­tion that just cel­e­brat­ed their 25th anniver­sary assem­bled by thou­sands of fam­i­lies in the cap­i­tal alone. Their move­ment began as a reac­tion to the lack of dig­ni­fied hous­ing in Méx­i­co City, and has since grown to occu­py and even­tu­al­ly own nine dif­fer­ent tracts of land through­out the city. The­se land takeovers are now home to thou­sands of fam­i­lies who enjoy the ameni­ties of dig­ni­fied hous­ing through their own hard work (the com­mu­ni­ties are main­tained and kept safe by the fam­i­lies them­selves).

What role does direct action (i.e. rent strikes, resist­ing evic­tions, street march­es, land occu­pa­tions) fig­ure into your orga­niz­ing? Can you imag­ine a nation-wide direct action strat­e­gy around hous­ing?

The group start­ed by doing an occu­pa­tion of a house that was vacant in our neigh­bor­hood. After much dis­cus­sion, we came to the real­iza­tion that no one was will­ing to live there for fear of fac­ing legal reper­cus­sions. There­fore, although no one actu­al­ly ever stayed in the prop­er­ty, it was used as a com­mu­nal space for com­mu­ni­ty meet­ings and gath­er­ings. As a hous­ing group, we have done ral­lies out­side banks, dis­rupt­ed pub­lic auc­tions of our mem­bers’ prop­er­ties, done huge car­a­vans by bus to go to the pri­vate res­i­dence of one of the exec­u­tives of Fred­die Mac, and con­tin­ue to learn from oth­er move­ments in order to expand our reper­toire of social protest forms.

If you were to imag­ine a world in which hous­ing and land care works the way you believe it should, what would this look like?

One of our biggest crit­i­cisms of a so-called “free mar­ket” log­ic regard­ing hous­ing is that it leaves out those who are most vul­ner­a­ble in favor of those who can pay the most. In an ide­al world, land would not be part of a pri­vate mar­ket it would not be bought or sold and most of all it would not exist for the ben­e­fit of one sole indi­vid­u­al or investor. We see land as some­thing that should not be a com­mod­i­ty. Hav­ing a dig­ni­fied home is a human right that needs to be rec­og­nized and enforced so as to ensure that we do not con­tin­ue to vic­tim­ize and bru­tal­ize the lives and liveli­hood of many in defense of a lim­it­ed few. The goal is to take land and hous­ing off the mar­ket. We need to work on cre­at­ing afford­abil­i­ty in our cities and pro­tect­ing our cur­rent res­i­dents instead of dis­plac­ing them. True to our anti-cap­i­tal­ist ori­en­ta­tion, we see that the defense of land is inher­ent­ly tied to the defense of health, labor, edu­ca­tion, etc. again­st a dehu­man­iz­ing cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem.
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CHICAGO ANTI-EVICTION CAMPAIGN (Chicago, Illi­nois)
75974_388082704614281_428973136_n“Direct action is at the core of our focus on enforc­ing human rights. We rely on the pow­er of being based in the com­mu­ni­ty. If the bank puts a fam­i­ly out, we ral­ly the neigh­bors to put them back in their home. If a bank leaves a home vacant, we work with the neigh­bors to turn it into a home for a home­less fam­i­ly.”

[tog­gle title=“Read More”]
Hous­ing laws, landlord/tenant prac­tices, and indige­nous land rights vary sub­stan­tial­ly between dif­fer­ent coun­ties, cities, states, and nation­al bor­ders. First, what par­tic­u­lar laws, prac­tices, and poli­cies has your group had to address? Sec­ond, how did you learn about all the­se dis­tinc­tions (for exam­ple, through inde­pen­dent research, by work­ing with rad­i­cals lawyers, etc.)? Last­ly, do you think it would be pos­si­ble, despite all the­se dif­fer­ences, to coor­di­nate housing/tenants/land strug­gles at the nation­al lev­el?

South Africa’s West­ern Cape Anti-Evic­tion Cam­paign direct­ly inspired our group. Dur­ing a decade of mil­i­tant activ­i­ty, our coun­ter­parts built an inde­pen­dent social move­ment that brought in peo­ple rang­ing from the home­less per­son to the home­own­er. While we drew on their exam­ple, we knew we couldn’t just copy what they did, but we had to learn how we could apply their exam­ple to our par­tic­u­lar con­text in Chicago. In doing this, we ben­e­fit­ed from the advice of rad­i­cal lawyers and aca­d­e­mics, espe­cial­ly those who informed us of loop­holes in the law we could use. It is with this sort of help that we learned about the excep­tion in Illi­nois’ tres­pass­ing law for those who go onto a prop­er­ty with the intent to beau­ti­fy it, a loop­hole that pro­vides some cov­er for our home lib­er­a­tion efforts.

At the end of the day, how­ev­er, most of what we have learned has been through a process of tri­al and error, where our group has made a habit of learn­ing from our own expe­ri­ence as well as those of oth­er groups fight­ing the destruc­tion of pub­lic hous­ing, keep­ing fam­i­lies in their homes after fore­clo­sure, and reclaim­ing vacant prop­er­ty around the coun­try. Indeed, it is the expe­ri­ences of orga­ni­za­tions in oth­er parts of the coun­try that have pushed us to sharp­en our sense of how par­tic­u­lar poli­cies and laws work local­ly. In instances where nation­al strug­gles can not be coor­di­nat­ed sim­ply on the basis of a com­mon tar­get (e.g. Bank of Amer­i­ca, the Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment, etc), this sort of shar­ing of local cam­paign expe­ri­ences, and from there, orga­niz­er exchanges, could be the basis of link­ing hous­ing and land strug­gles through­out the coun­try.

The strug­gle over hous­ing implic­it­ly inter­sects with many oth­er strug­gles – again­st racism and police bru­tal­i­ty, for immi­gra­tion and indige­nous rights, over high­er wages at work, etc. How has your orga­ni­za­tion tried to link the­se strug­gles and what chal­lenges have you encoun­tered?

Since its found­ing in 2009 by Cabrini-Green pub­lic hous­ing res­i­dents and their allies, the Chicago Anti-Evic­tion Cam­paign group has lent its sup­port to a vari­ety of strug­gles. Draw­ing on the expe­ri­ences of pub­lic hous­ing res­i­dents them­selves, much of this sol­i­dar­i­ty has focused on issues of police bru­tal­i­ty, edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy, eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, and gov­ern­ment aus­ter­i­ty. At times, efforts to broad­en this sol­i­dar­i­ty to oth­er issues has been hin­dered by the tan­gi­ble mar­gin­al­iza­tion of poor and work­ing class Black fam­i­lies, reflect­ed in the sense that if we were to extend our sup­port to those in strug­gle around oth­er issues, this action would not be rec­i­p­ro­cat­ed. Over time, we have made some head­way on address­ing this issue by pro­mot­ing polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion among our mem­bers that focus­es on peo­ples-cen­tered human rights as well as strong­ly encour­ag­ing our allies to address issues of class bias and anti-black racism.

Con­crete­ly describe a cam­paign you’ve cre­at­ed in the past.

Our group is cur­rent­ly based on the South Side of Chicago. In April of 2014, Illi­nois state rep­re­sen­ta­tive Monique Davis (D), one of the most senior leg­is­la­tors from this area, moved for­ward House Bill 5395. If enact­ed, this law would have fun­da­men­tal­ly changed the way evic­tions are done in Chicago and sur­round­ing sub­urbs by mak­ing it pos­si­ble for a land­lord to have a police offi­cer or any oth­er third par­ty enforce an evic­tion order. For months, our group joined oth­er orga­ni­za­tions in speak­ing out again­st the bill, repeat­ed­ly point­ing out that it would have severe­ly weak­ened ten­ants’ rights dur­ing a moment in which Chicagoans have seen the loss of tens of thou­sands of afford­able hous­ing units. We encour­aged our mem­bers and sup­port­ers to speak out while the bill was still in com­mit­tee, near­ly swing­ing the Judi­cia­ry Committee’s vote again­st this pro­posed bill. When the com­mit­tee nar­row­ly approved an amend­ed ver­sion of the bill, a half dozen cam­paign mem­bers trav­eled to the state house to con­front their rep­re­sen­ta­tives, peel­ing away a co-spon­sor and help­ing to swing key rep­re­sen­ta­tives again­st it. Fram­ing the bill as an effort to pri­va­tize evic­tions, our group led the way in block­ing house lead­ers from bring­ing HB 5395 up for a vote, while also lay­ing a foun­da­tion that has helped to make eas­ier sub­se­quent efforts to oppose oth­er reac­tionary laws.

How do you involve home­own­ers, ten­ants, and/or land stew­ards as co-orga­niz­ers?

The Cam­paign has inten­tion­al­ly built a mem­ber­ship base rang­ing from home­less peo­ple to home­own­ers. Much of this has been done by focus­ing on the fun­da­men­tal human right to hous­ing and empha­siz­ing the ben­e­fits to the broad­er com­mu­ni­ty when this right is enforced by the peo­ple them­selves. This approach has made a lot of sense dur­ing the hous­ing cri­sis to peo­ple on the South Side, with many home­own­ers under threat of evic­tion, and many neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents liv­ing down the block from a vacant home that could become a haven for crime. This impor­tance of our human rights approach was best reflect­ed in the respon­se of our mem­bers to Rep. Davis’ evic­tion pri­va­ti­za­tion bill. Even though some of our home­own­ers are also land­lords and would have ben­e­fit­ed from weak­er ten­ants’ rights laws, they rec­og­nized that her mea­sure would have under­mined the human right to hous­ing, with the poten­tial to boomerang back again­st them at some point in the future.

How do you apply pres­sure to state hous­ing leg­is­la­tion (i.e. rezon­ing, rent reg­u­la­tion, fore­clo­sures), real estate devel­op­ment (dis­place­ment, vacan­cies, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion), and government/business land seizures, while also doing work that is inde­pen­dent of their delib­er­a­tion cycles?

While deci­sions by gov­ern­ment offi­cials and land spec­u­la­tors are impor­tant, our group focus­es pri­mar­i­ly on orga­niz­ing those who are being direct­ly impact­ed by the­se deci­sions to act inde­pen­dent­ly to enforce their human rights. We believe that win­ning the­se rights will ulti­mate­ly come from our own efforts to enforce them. It is impor­tant for us to pres­sure the gov­ern­ment and busi­ness, but at the end of the day, we win by enforc­ing our human right to hous­ing, by any means nec­es­sary.

What read­ings and orga­niz­ing resources help inspire and guide your work?

We were deeply inspired by the mil­i­tant exam­ple of the West­ern Cape Anti-Evic­tion Cam­paign, reflect­ed in “Fight­ing Fore­clo­sure in South Africa,” a 2009 open let­ter writ­ten by this move­ment to U.S. activists. We have also drawn on doc­u­men­taries about South Africa like The Shock Doc­trine (2009) and Dear Man­de­la (2012) because they put strug­gles over land and hous­ing in a broad­er con­text. Our under­stand­ing of human rights, home lib­er­a­tions, and black-led orga­niz­ing has been informed by Car­ol Anderson’s Eyes off the Prize; the U.S. Human Rights Network’s Born of Strug­gle, Imple­ment­ed through Strug­gle; Lau­ra Gottesdeiner’s A Dream Fore­closed; as well as the doc­u­men­taries Inside Job (2010) and Tak­ing Over, Tak­ing Back (2013).

What role does direct action (i.e. rent strikes, resist­ing evic­tions, street march­es, land occu­pa­tions) fig­ure into your orga­niz­ing? Can you imag­ine a nation-wide direct action strat­e­gy around hous­ing?

Direct action is at the core of our focus on enforc­ing human rights. We rely on the pow­er of being based in the com­mu­ni­ty. If the bank puts a fam­i­ly out, we ral­ly the neigh­bors to put them back in their home. If a bank leaves a home vacant, we work with the neigh­bors to turn it into a home for a home­less fam­i­ly. This approach could be the foun­da­tion for a strat­e­gy that goes beyond calls for a nation­al Day of Action by first build­ing up local capac­i­ty through tac­ti­cal train­ing and polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion. With some sup­port, this local capac­i­ty can provide the foun­da­tion for a coor­di­nat­ed series of rent strikes, much like those in the 1960’s, as well as build­ing occu­pa­tions, like those car­ried out by the Nation­al Union of the Home­less in the ear­ly 1980s. We only get what we are orga­nized to take, so we need coor­di­nat­ed actions that raise the issue of hous­ing jus­tice, call for changes in pol­i­cy, and use direct action to actu­al­ly put in place the change that we are demand­ing.

If you were to imag­ine a world in which hous­ing and land care works the way you believe it should, what would this look like?

Our vision is of world where hous­ing and land are decom­mod­i­fied mean­ing that they are no longer treat­ed as some­thing to be bought and sold on the mar­ket. Instead, we relate to land and hous­ing in a way pri­or­i­tizes our basic needs for food, shel­ter, and a broad­er com­mu­ni­ty. With our right to hous­ing secure, we have a foun­da­tion from which to ensure that all of our human rights are respect­ed.
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CROWN HEIGHTS TENANT UNION
(Brook­lyn, New York)

by Nather­lene Bold­en, Joel Fein­gold, Este­ban Girón, & Don­na Moss­man, for the CHTU Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee
tumblr_inline_nmytdseuGy1ragngr_500“The cycle of dis­place­ment and over­charge is a cycle of exploita­tion: land­lords and bro­kers force out the Black and work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties that have built up this neigh­bor­hood for gen­er­a­tions. The same land­lords and bro­kers then bring in new ten­ants, who they ille­gal­ly over­charge.”

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Hous­ing laws, landlord/tenant prac­tices, and indige­nous land rights vary sub­stan­tial­ly between dif­fer­ent coun­ties, cities, states, and nation­al bor­ders. First, what par­tic­u­lar laws, prac­tices, and poli­cies has your group had to address? Sec­ond, how did you learn about all the­se dis­tinc­tions (for exam­ple, through inde­pen­dent research, by work­ing with rad­i­cals lawyers, etc.)? Last­ly, do you think it would be pos­si­ble, despite all the­se dif­fer­ences, to coor­di­nate housing/tenants/land strug­gles at the nation­al lev­el?

The Crown Heights Ten­ant Union [CHTU] views the law and the state pow­er as blunt weapons. In the landlord’s hands, the law has been used to blud­geon ten­ants and to dis­place nations from the places they have built up for gen­er­a­tions. In ten­ants’ hands, the law could be used to achieve new social rights and advance the cause of real mate­ri­al equal­i­ty but only if we are able to over­come the cur­rent law’s bias in favor of land­lords and real estate cap­i­tal­ists over ten­ants and work­ers.  

The Ten­ant Union con­fronts and fights to trans­form the law at every lev­el:

  • First, we fight the law at its cap­i­tal base in the apart­ments and hall­ways and com­mons of our build­ings. We fight our land­lords every day to stop the cycle of dis­place­ment and over­charge.
  • Sec­ond, we fight the law’s oper­a­tion, in the court­room and in the City and State hous­ing bureau­cra­cies, where we beat back evic­tion, over­charge, and unequal repairs with mutu­al-aid legal defense.
  • Third and final­ly, we fight to trans­form the re-cre­ation of the law at the lev­el of the State’s leg­isla­tive and exec­u­tive func­tions, by demand­ing that the State write our new rights into law pro­vid­ing ten­ants and work­ers with addi­tion­al legal weapons to con­tin­ue the fight for real equal­i­ty.

We begin with direct action rang­ing from pick­ets in front of build­ings to sit-ins in leg­isla­tive cham­bers, from silent court­room takeovers to direct eco­nom­ic lever­age: the mass rent strike, a weapon that we have not yet used but believe will be nec­es­sary. To win new rights will require the exer­cise of ten­ant pow­er; we will have to shut down the landlord’s prof­it machine.

Our demand is for a bind­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment between ten­ant-pow­er com­mit­tees in the build­ings of Crown Heights and all of our land­lords to cre­ate new rights in our own build­ings and to pre­fig­ure fun­da­men­tal reforms at the State lev­el. Our demands include:

  • Imme­di­ate mora­to­ri­um on all evic­tions.
  • An imme­di­ate and per­ma­nent end to the harass­ment of long-term ten­ants.
  • An imme­di­ate and per­ma­nent end to the over­charge of new ten­ants.
  • Roll-back of all rents to pre-ren­o­va­tion lev­els, fol­lowed by a five-year rent freeze and re-reg­u­la­tion of all apart­ments.
  • Equal high-qual­i­ty repairs for all ten­ants.
  • Ten­ant pow­er over ren­o­va­tions and com­mu­ni­ty con­trol over the leas­ing of com­mer­cial space in our build­ings.

We know we have to win new rights in our build­ings before we can win them at the State lev­el. We see land­lords and their investors make their own laws in our build­ings every day through fraud­u­lent evic­tions and manip­u­la­tion of the Hous­ing Court sys­tem; by refus­ing repairs to long-term Black and work­ing-class ten­ants; by ille­gal­ly over­charg­ing new ten­ants.  

Because land­lords so fre­quent­ly use the Hous­ing Court sys­tem to harass or evict ten­ants, the Ten­ant Union has built a rank-and-file mutu­al aid sys­tem to con­front land­lords in the court­room. CHTU Hous­ing Court Sol­i­dar­i­ty Com­mit­tee mem­bers accom­pa­ny Ten­ant Union mem­bers in Hous­ing Court join­ing vol­un­teer legal aid attor­neys. This com­bi­na­tion of ten­ant-pow­er sol­i­dar­i­ty and scrupu­lous alliances with attor­neys com­mit­ted to our move­ment has allowed us to stop every attempt to evict a CHTU mem­ber in the three years since the Ten­ant Union was found­ed. We also ben­e­fit from the donat­ed staff time of orga­niz­ers from sev­er­al dif­fer­ent non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions, espe­cial­ly the old Low­er East Side squat­ters’ group Urban Home­steading Assis­tance Board [UHAB].

The CHTU believes that it is impos­si­ble to change the law in fun­da­men­tal ways with­out direct action, tar­get­ing both the land­lords and the State. Ear­lier this sum­mer, the CHTU joined the strongest city­wide ten­ant move­ment in a gen­er­a­tion to demand a rad­i­cal over­haul of the New York State rent laws, which cur­rent­ly reward land­lords for push­ing peo­ple out. CHTU mem­bers joined and helped to lead mass sit-ins in the New York State Capi­tol and overnight occu­pa­tions of the Capi­tol grounds. We dropped a mas­sive ban­ner on the avenue in front of the Governor’s New York City office, stop­ping traf­fic on 41st and Third Avenue for near­ly 10 min­utes. Hun­dreds of ten­ants were arrest­ed blockad­ing the entrance to the Governor’s offices in Albany.  We demand­ed that the State Assem­bly, Sen­ate, and Gov­er­nor rad­i­cal­ly strength­en the ten­ant pro­tec­tions under the rent sta­bi­liza­tion law.

Many of the cur­rent rent laws’ pro-land­lord pro­vi­sions were writ­ten into law by real estate lob­by­ists in the 1990s and in the first half of the last decade dur­ing the height of the neo-lib­er­al assault on the his­toric vic­to­ries of work­ers and ten­ants in the Unit­ed States.

Legal incen­tives that facil­i­tate dis­place­ment include:

  • Vacan­cy decon­trol, which allows land­lords to increase the rent 20% every time a ten­ant moves out;
  • Pref­er­en­tial rent, a blan­ket term for sev­er­al dif­fer­ent land­lord scams, all of which involve the infla­tion of the ‘legal’ rent while charg­ing a low­er rent (a rent that can be revoked at any lease renewal lead­ing to rent increas­es of hun­dreds of dol­lars, overnight);
  • The indi­vid­u­al apart­ment improve­ment [IAI] sur­charge, in which the land­lord is allowed to claim a rent increase in pro­por­tion to the cost of ‘ren­o­va­tions’ in an apart­ment;
  • The major cap­i­tal improve­ment [MCI] sur­charge, in which the land­lord is allowed to claim a build­ing-wide rent hike for pur­chas­ing or repair­ing nec­es­sary cap­i­tal machin­ery, like boil­ers or ele­va­tors, or for ren­o­va­tions to the com­mon areas of the build­ing.

The CHTU has also inter­vened in elec­toral pol­i­tics, to pre­vent land­lord pow­er from cor­rupt­ing polit­i­cal process­es in our neigh­bor­hood. We cre­at­ed a sim­ple pledge for a spe­cial elec­tion over a vacant New York Assem­bly seat, call­ing on all four can­di­dates to refuse any cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions made by real estate inter­ests (land­lords, devel­op­ers, bro­kers, and investors). Only one can­di­date Diana Richard­son, who ran sole­ly on the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty tick­et, inde­pen­dent of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pub­licly endorsed the pledge and returned cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions already accept­ed. Richard­son won the elec­tion with twice as many votes as any of the oth­er three can­di­dates mak­ing Crown Heights the first dis­trict in New York State to elect an inde­pen­dent social democ­rat to the Assem­bly in gen­er­a­tions. While Assem­bly­mem­ber Richard­son has con­sis­tent­ly fought alongside ten­ants in her term to date, the CHTU remains inde­pen­dent of all can­di­dates and elect­ed offi­cials. We make no endorse­ments we build our own pow­er as a social move­ment. How­ev­er we  are not averse to exer­cis­ing that pow­er to reshape the polit­i­cal ter­rain on which elect­ed offi­cials act, or to work­ing with elect­ed offi­cials who have pub­licly backed our demands. 

We see State pow­er as a tool to win our demands the law is a blunt weapon. But it is only one weapon one that it is impos­si­ble to wield with­out the con­tin­u­ous strug­gle of an inde­pen­dent social move­ment of ten­ants and work­ers, fight­ing the land­lords and boss­es for new rights and real equal­i­ty and fight­ing, at the same time, to con­trol the use of the State pow­er.

The strug­gle over hous­ing implic­it­ly inter­sects with many oth­er strug­gles – again­st racism and police bru­tal­i­ty, for immi­gra­tion and indige­nous rights, over high­er wages at work, etc. How has your orga­ni­za­tion tried to link the­se strug­gles and what chal­lenges have you encoun­tered?

The CHTU was built as an explic­it alliance of long-term Black, West Indi­an, and work­ing class ten­ants along with new­ly-arriv­ing ten­ants in Crown Heights. We place strong empha­sis on the lead­er­ship of Black and work­ing-class ten­ants, but we build a union of all ten­ants in Crown Heights. Our fun­da­men­tal analy­sis is that the cycle of dis­place­ment and over­charge is a cycle of exploita­tion: land­lords and bro­kers force out the Black and work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties that have built up this neigh­bor­hood for gen­er­a­tions. The same land­lords and bro­kers then bring in new ten­ants, who they ille­gal­ly over­charge. While this cycle affects long-term and new ten­ants in rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent ways, the CHTU believes that the only way to break this cycle is to unite and fight on all ten­ants’ shared and inter­sect­ing demands on a build­ing lev­el and again­st one land­lord, and on a neigh­bor­hood lev­el, again­st all land­lords.

This fun­da­men­tal sol­i­dar­i­ty of ten­ants, and this mod­el, could well be used to build ten­ant unions on a city­wide, nation­al, or inter­na­tion­al scale. Even though devel­op­ers and land­lords have mon­ey, we have peo­ple pow­er. The CHTU’s vis­i­bil­i­ty and mil­i­tan­cy strength­ens ten­ants’ for­ti­tude. It give ten­ants courage and restores their faith that they are not alone in the fight to make a hous­ing a social right under ten­ant con­trol, rather than become a lux­u­ry.

‘Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion’ the laun­der­ing of fic­ti­tious finance cap­i­tal through build­ings and land into ‘real’ cap­i­tal has wrought glob­al destruc­tion. It is rip­ping away the very fab­ric of human­i­ty.

Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion has dev­as­tat­ed com­mu­ni­ties in New York, San Fran­cis­co, Chicago, Toron­to, Cal­i­for­nia, Lat­in Amer­i­ca, Flori­da, Port­land, Atlanta, Seat­tle, Boston, Spain, and on and on and on. In Jamaica, West Indies, devel­op­ers are pur­chas­ing beach­front prop­er­ty and are able to pri­va­tize the beach­es and close access to the very beach­es that the locals have had access to all of their lives. Mean­while, in Brook­lyn, the West Indi­an cul­ture which defines Brook­lyn is being har­ried and pushed out, espe­cial­ly on Labor Day when our neigh­bor­hood is host to the largest Afro-Caribbean fes­ti­val in North Amer­i­ca.  

‘Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion’ is also an attack on the cul­ture of the Black work­ing class, peo­ple of col­or, and young migrant work­ers in the city. The steel drum bands all the bands, real­ly have no place to prac­tice. Devel­op­ers are mov­ing them from the vacant spaces to build hous­ing or recre­ation for the rich and tran­sient. Black people’s par­ties are being shut down by the police, say­ing they have noise com­plaints, or there is no license for a busi­ness. The same pol­i­cy does not apply to the recent­ly opened bars and restau­rants, the ones that cater to white peo­ple. The CHTU is cog­nizant of and fights again­st Jim Crow busi­ness­es in the neigh­bor­hood.

In the fight for peo­ple pow­er over build­ings and land, ten­ants are the class a class that is far from uni­form­ly treat­ed, exploit­ed, or oppressed, a class of all nations, each with its own his­to­ry at the hands of cap­i­tal­ism. In the Crown Heights Ten­ants Union, we have yelled, screamed, chant­ed, marched, ral­lied, taught, fought, sup­port­ed, reached out, loved, and linked. We can unite and fight, under the lead­er­ship of the ten­ants who have fought the most dire every­day strug­gles again­st the land­lords and boss­es. We believe that there can and will be a nation-wide (and glob­al) strat­e­gy for action on hous­ing.

How do you involve home­own­ers, ten­ants, and/or land stew­ards as co-orga­niz­ers?

The CHTU’s bylaws require that only rank-and-file Ten­ant Union mem­bers, and not paid staff mem­bers of the non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions or unions, are vot­ing mem­bers of the Ten­ant Union. The bylaws, which the CHTU’s Gen­er­al Mem­ber­ship Meet­ing rat­i­fied in August 2015 after a year of delib­er­a­tion, also clear­ly lay out our orga­ni­za­tion­al mod­el how we have built a demo­c­ra­t­ic union led by ten­ants. They can be read here

Every­thing that comes out of the CHTU Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee is a pro­pos­al for the Gen­er­al Mem­ber­ship Meet­ing. The rights and ben­e­fits of CHTU mem­bers will be fur­ther refined as the CHTU grows in pow­er, our bylaws are amend­ed, our rela­tion­ships with legal ser­vice providers are strength­ened.

Bylaw Pro­vi­sion 1.3, which spec­i­fies that no land­lords or agents of land­lords will be admit­ted to the mem­ber­ship of the CHTU, has pro­voked con­sid­er­able debate inside the Ten­ant Union, given the his­toric role of Black real estate cap­i­tal in open­ing neigh­bor­hoods like Harlem and Crown Heights to Black work­ers in the first decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. How­ev­er, the vast major­i­ty of mem­bers of the Ten­ant Union most of whom are long-term Black res­i­dents of Crown Heights argue that ten­ants can­not effec­tive­ly orga­nize when bro­kers or land­lords are able to influ­ence or ben­e­fit from the work of the Ten­ant Union, and that no land­lords or bro­kers should be allowed to join meet­ings of the CHTU. This is not an easy ques­tion, espe­cial­ly at a time of renewed attempts to dis­fran­chise Black work­ers and vicious cross-class polit­i­cal attacks on peo­ple of col­or in the Unit­ed States. This com­plex inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty of class and race will be dis­cussed wide­ly inside the union in a renewed debate over the bylaws. 

But for now, the bylaws stand as unan­i­mous­ly rat­i­fied after a year of debate and con­sen­sus.

What read­ings and orga­niz­ing resources help inspire and guide your work?

The CHTU draws strength and inspi­ra­tion from the labor, Civil Rights, Black Pow­er, and immi­grant move­ments of New York. Our mod­el descends from two streams. First: the ten­ant and labor orga­ni­za­tions that Black work­ers and peo­ple of col­or have built up in Brook­lyn and New York, rang­ing from ten­ant asso­ci­a­tions in build­ings to Black Pow­er union­ism on the job (with unions like Local 1199 in the 1960s and 1970s). Sec­ond: the ear­ly-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry ten­ant unions of the Low­er East Side, fre­quent­ly in alliance with the Social­ist Par­ty when Jew­ish immi­grants brought direct action from the sweat­shop home to the ten­e­ment.

The­se his­to­ries are doc­u­ment­ed in texts such as the fol­low­ing. Also includ­ed in this read­ing list are CHTU mem­bers’ favorite texts about the strug­gle for new rights and real equal­i­ty, and how to fight:

  • Mal­colm X, The Oxford Union Debate / By Any Means Nec­es­sary (Oxford: Decem­ber 3, 1964). 
  • Ronald Law­son, ed., The Ten­ant Move­ment in New York City, 1904-1984 (New York: 1986). 
  • Robert M. Fogel­son, The Great Rent Wars: New York, 1917-1929 (New Haven, CT: 2013).
  • Rober­ta Gold, When Ten­ants Claimed the City: The Strug­gle for Cit­i­zen­ship in New York City Hous­ing (Urbana, IL: 2014).[/toggle]

 

RENT IS THEFT (Brook­lyn, New York)
rent-is-theft“The goal was to provide a con­tem­po­rary, rev­o­lu­tion­ary anar­chist per­spec­tive on gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and resis­tance again­st it. Our core mes­sage was that the cause of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion was not the indi­vid­u­al con­sumers in the mar­ket (hip­sters, trans­plants, yup­pies, etc.), but cap­i­tal­ism itself, and those who hold pow­er in the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem.”

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Hip­sters, trans­plants, yup­pies, cul­tur­al inva­sion: The­se are some of the typ­i­cal rea­sons many peo­ple give for the onslaught of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. They often revolve around lib­er­al indi­vid­u­al­ism, and the “invis­i­ble hand of the free mar­ket.” To those of us on the far-left of pol­i­tics, all of the­se expla­na­tions tend to be unaware of, or ignore, poten­tial struc­tural issues for gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. In the sum­mer of 2014, The Base (TheBaseBK.org) – an anar­chist social and polit­i­cal cen­ter locat­ed in Bush­wick, Brook­lyn – host­ed a read­ing group in which par­tic­i­pants stud­ied Neil Smith’s New Urban Fron­tier: Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and the Revan­chist CityThe book was a more Marx­ist analy­sis of class dynam­ics and the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem in regards to the unseen forces behind gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. Though the book at times took a posi­tion that was too ortho­dox­ly Marx­ist for many of the par­tic­i­pants in the group, it addressed gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in a sys­temic way that most peo­ple tend to gloss over.

Before even fin­ish­ing the book, we became so excit­ed with its fresh per­spec­tive that we want­ed to do some­thing to spread the ideas of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion as a struc­tural issue inher­ent to neo-lib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism. This unas­sum­ing read­ing group began talk­ing about plan­ning demon­stra­tions, or films, or speak-outs. How­ev­er, there are already a lot of groups doing actions like the­se, so we want­ed to do some­thing dif­fer­ent. One mem­ber of the group, per­haps a lit­tle too excit­ed by talks of resis­tance, sug­gest­ed mak­ing a pam­phlet detail­ing extra-legal direct action that could be tak­en again­st the wave of con­dos and evic­tions. Pam­phlets aren’t exact­ly a new thing, but the con­tent was def­i­nite­ly going again­st the grain of typ­i­cal anti-gen­tri­fi­ca­tion rhetoric. Even­tu­al­ly, it was decid­ed that such an incen­di­ary pub­li­ca­tion would prob­a­bly get us in more trou­ble than it was worth, so we toned it down, but expand­ed the scope of the project. Rent Is Theft was born.

The goal of Rent Is Theft was to provide a con­tem­po­rary, rev­o­lu­tion­ary anar­chist per­spec­tive on gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and resis­tance again­st it. Our core mes­sage, as detailed in our mis­sion state­ment, was that the cause of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion was not the indi­vid­u­al con­sumers in the mar­ket (hip­sters, trans­plants, yup­pies, etc.), but cap­i­tal­ism itself, and those who hold pow­er in the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem. It was impor­tant to us to speak in col­lo­qui­al lan­guage, and com­plete­ly avoid archaic left­ist jar­gon and ortho­doxy. We began research­ing the his­to­ry of our own city through var­i­ous resources which are cit­ed in the pub­li­ca­tion and showed that gen­tri­fi­ca­tion was the joint pro­gram of wealthy land­lords, pow­er­ful devel­op­ment firms, con­ser­v­a­tive think-tanks, and the city gov­er­nance itself.

White suprema­cy was a con­stant the­me that con­tin­ued to rear its ugly head in our research. A good exam­ple is our very own Bush­wick. In the 1960’s, Bush­wick was a most­ly Ital­ian neigh­bor­hood, in which most of the res­i­dents owned their homes. As more black peo­ple moved from the South to New York, wealthy spec­u­la­tors began stok­ing the flames of racist fears with­in the white res­i­dents. The spec­u­la­tors con­vinced the­se res­i­dents that their new black neigh­bors would dri­ve the val­ue of their prop­er­ty down, so the spec­u­la­tors were able to buy the homes from the res­i­dents for below mar­ket price, and then sell the homes to new black ten­ants at above mar­ket price, in col­lu­sion with cor­rupt city apprais­ers. In the 70’s and 80’s, real­tors took advan­tage of the Fed­er­al Hous­ing Author­i­ty [FHA] insur­ance pro­gram to sell mort­gages to poor black and lati­no fam­i­lies, know­ing the res­i­dents would like­ly default. Through scams like the­se, real­tors and land­lords were able to become extreme­ly wealthy at the expense of the poor.

Anoth­er recur­ring the­me in our research were the police. To make neigh­bor­hoods “accept­able” to more afflu­ent ten­ants, height­ened polic­ing pro­grams like Bro­ken Win­dows and Stop-And-Frisk were used to tar­get peo­ple of col­or in their com­mu­ni­ties. Through unaf­ford­able tick­et­ing, pet­ty arrests, and gen­er­al harass­ment, they were able to begin clear­ing out the neigh­bor­hoods of “unde­sir­ables”. The role of the police is absolute­ly essen­tial to gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, thus we see an unavoid­able con­nec­tion between the anti-police strug­gles of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment which was just begin­ning at the time of pub­li­ca­tion and the anti-gen­tri­fi­ca­tion move­ment. One col­lab­o­ra­tor told a sto­ry about how he and his friend (both Lati­no) were in a city park after dusk. The park didn’t have a clos­ing time post­ed, but that didn’t stop the NYPD from threat­en­ing to arrest them for being in there. Dur­ing the con­fronta­tion, an afflu­ent white cou­ple walked by with their dog. The hypocrisy was too appar­ent for the cops to con­tin­ue their cha­rade, and they left. It’s not hard to see that if that had not hap­pened, our friend could have spent that night behind bars for legal­ly walk­ing around a local park, all in the name of prof­it.

Rent is Theft’s con­clu­sion is that the polit­i­cal sys­tem is not only com­plic­it in gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, it is a pri­ma­ry dri­ving force. Even lib­er­al politi­cians are con­cerned more about cap­i­tal­ist prof­it than the well-being of poor res­i­dents. Thus, we strong­ly advo­cate for direct action again­st the cap­i­tal­ist forces dri­ving the process, and we push for a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. Though we are just a pub­li­ca­tion, many of our con­trib­u­tors col­lab­o­rate with groups such as the Brook­lyn Sol­i­dar­i­ty Net­work, which uses turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry union orga­niz­ing tech­niques to pres­sure land­lords into capit­u­lat­ing to the demands of their ten­ants. We also advo­cate for rent strikes, squat­ting, and the force­ful tak­ing of prop­er­ty by ten­ants such as the exam­ple of Chris­tiana toward the end of the mag­a­zine. We believe, unabashed­ly, that the social rela­tions between land­lords and ten­ants are inher­ent­ly exploita­tive and unjust. Thus we sup­port any and all resis­tance again­st that social rela­tion, regard­less of whether those meth­ods are con­doned by the legal sys­tem. Through our research, it is clear that the laws of our city and coun­try are made in favor of the wealthy, and sti­fle resis­tance from the poor. Thus we don’t advo­cate for work­ing with politi­cians, though we don’t specif­i­cal­ly con­demn it either.

Rent Is Theft believes in a world in which com­mu­ni­ties are con­trolled by its res­i­dents, not by politi­cians. We believe in a world with­out land­lords in which hous­ing is com­mu­nal­ized. We exist to pro­pose anar­chism as a viable option for a human soci­ety, free from the dom­i­na­tion of cap­i­tal, state, and police. We call for a per­ma­nent rent strike!
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RIGHT TO THE CITY ALLIANCE (Unit­ed States)
by Leni­na Nadal
rttc_logo.jpglhn8ep“Often­times, orga­ni­za­tions put polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion last. The pri­or­i­ty is mobi­liz­ing the base around the pol­i­cy fight… And because we are so busy try­ing to fig­ure out how to get abueli­ta to the meet­ing, we may not have time to think through the role of neolib­er­al urban devel­op­ment in the plan­ning of cities.”
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Hous­ing laws, landlord/tenant prac­tices, and indige­nous land rights vary sub­stan­tial­ly between dif­fer­ent coun­ties, cities, states, and nation­al bor­ders. First, what par­tic­u­lar laws, prac­tices, and poli­cies has your group had to address? Sec­ond, how did you learn about all the­se dis­tinc­tions (for exam­ple, through inde­pen­dent research, by work­ing with rad­i­cals lawyers, etc.)? Last­ly, do you think it would be pos­si­ble, despite all the­se dif­fer­ences, to coor­di­nate housing/tenants/land strug­gles at the nation­al lev­el?

Right to the City is a nation­al alliance that takes on both nation­al and translo­cal work. On a nation­al lev­el we have fought for and won fund­ing to the Nation­al Hous­ing Trust Fund, the only nation­al fund for afford­able hous­ing for extreme­ly low-income peo­ple in the coun­try. We have also won some small reforms in how Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment [HUD] deals with fore­closed prop­er­ties and the offer­ing of those prop­er­ties to non­prof­its as opposed to hedge funds and pri­vate equi­ty firms. We have had a long­time rela­tion­ship with the Fed­er­al Hous­ing and Finance Agen­cy and have nego­ti­at­ed to keep sev­er­al peo­ple across the coun­try in their homes.

On the local lev­el, many of our groups have passed and won renter pro­tec­tions, and our mem­ber group in Prov­i­dence, Rhode Island DARE won just cause evic­tion in 2014. The Just Cause law pro­vides incen­tives for mort­gage lenders to work with own­ers to avoid fore­clo­sure through afford­able mod­i­fi­ca­tions and prin­ci­pal reduc­tion. It is also a dis-incen­tive to process fore­clo­sures on mul­ti-fam­i­ly prop­er­ties since the bank knows it will have to keep the ten­ants and can’t emp­ty the build­ing. We con­tin­ue to sup­port and doc­u­ment vic­to­ries around renter pro­tec­tions at a local lev­el through the nation­al Right to the City Alliance net­work. This allows for groups to learn from one anoth­er. Many of our local vic­to­ries are shared through­out the Alliance.

We work with the Nation­al Com­mu­ni­ty Land Trust net­work and oth­er allies who have already formed effec­tive land trusts, or are form­ing them now, in order to cre­ate a toolk­it for our net­work on how to cre­ate this type of per­ma­nent­ly afford­able hous­ing.

I think it is over­all chal­leng­ing to coor­di­nate a nation­al move­ment around hous­ing because some rent laws or hous­ing poli­cies are decid­ed at the state lev­el and oth­ers at the munic­i­pal lev­el, so it real­ly is assess­ing each city to see where the pow­er lies and then the groups in that city artic­u­lat­ing their needs from the Alliance. Often­times we can sup­port local work through online peti­tions, devel­op­ing sto­ry banks, and cre­at­ing more of a buzz on social media. We have also done tai­lored train­ings for our base depend­ing on their needs in top­ics like how to orga­nize ten­ants, and how to tell your sto­ry effec­tive­ly.

As a nation­al for­ma­tion, we have found that we have to tie the local pol­i­cy work to some gen­er­al demands, but we must also make a more com­pre­hen­sive state­ment and con­tribute to a grow­ing nation­al dia­logue about gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and dis­place­ment. Our idea of get­ting to scale, there­by effec­tive­ly expand­ing our base and the momen­tum of our move­ment, would be to see if sev­er­al cities could orga­nize local groups to be part of a city­wide right to the city effort.

Sev­er­al groups are try­ing to coor­di­nate at the nation­al lev­el. But the goal of why is not clear. “Homes for All” is an expres­sion of hous­ing orga­niz­ing at a nation­al lev­el. The issue is that at times, the con­sis­tent engage­ment with the Right to the City or the “Homes for All” plat­form is dif­fi­cult to main­tain with just one nation­al orga­niz­er. Also, while nation­al hous­ing pol­i­cy is impor­tant to have an influ­ence over, it does not direct­ly affect many of our com­mu­ni­ties. It takes a long time before the fund­ing trick­les down to the city, and often gets stuck there, instead of going to non­prof­it and com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ers like 5th Avenue com­mit­tee in Brook­lyn, or East LA Com­mu­ni­ty Cor­po­ra­tion in Los Ange­les, that devel­op plans with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and have a vest­ed inter­est in hous­ing that is com­mu­ni­ty not mar­ket con­trolled. We feel that the­se play­ers, often have the best plans and inten­tions for build­ing tru­ly afford­able hous­ing.

OCCUPY was the clos­est to bring­ing a nation­al expres­sion to a fight for pub­lic space. How­ev­er, there needs to be a bridge between cre­at­ing momen­tum and cul­ti­vat­ing fight­ers for the long term. Right to the City has been doing this on the land and hous­ing front, but we would need a lot more mass train­ing, polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion, and com­mit­ment to a “right to the city” in local work in order for our ideas and work to spread and cre­ate a real nation­al move­ment momen­tum.  I want to be clear that I mean a com­mit­ment to the ideas, not nec­es­sar­i­ly to the orga­ni­za­tion.  Cur­rent­ly in Brook­lyn, there is the Brook­lyn Anti-Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion Net­work (BANGentrification.org) and in Boston there is a Right to Remain coali­tion. The­se for­ma­tions are address­ing the inter­sec­tions of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and police pres­ence in com­mu­ni­ties that are tran­si­tion­ing. They are cre­at­ing large coali­tions that cross the sec­tors of hous­ing, trans­porta­tion and labor. The­se types of for­ma­tion are the future in fight­ing for sus­tain­able homes and com­mu­ni­ties.

The strug­gle over hous­ing implic­it­ly inter­sects with many oth­er strug­gles – again­st racism and police bru­tal­i­ty, for immi­gra­tion and indige­nous rights, over high­er wages at work, etc. How has your orga­ni­za­tion tried to link the­se strug­gles and what chal­lenges have you encoun­tered?

We write state­ments and arti­cles that show the inter­sec­tions as we see fit. As Right to the City Alliance’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor, I am always push­ing us to real­ly do more line devel­op­ment, mean­ing artic­u­lat­ing our stance on issues, because the media is inter­est­ed in the­se inter­sec­tions and often­times orga­ni­za­tions are hard­wired not to inte­grate. Here are two of our state­ments that try to show this inte­gra­tion:

We Can’t Win a Right to the City Unless Black Lives Mat­ter

There Goes the Neigh­bor­hood Time for Stu­dents to Ally with Long Time Ten­ants” 

Often­times, orga­ni­za­tions put polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion last. The pri­or­i­ty is mobi­liz­ing the base around the pol­i­cy fight. But as more rad­i­cal jour­nal­ists are gain­ing sup­port, the jour­nal­ists from The Atlantic for exam­ple, they are look­ing for peo­ple who are doing the day-to-day orga­niz­ing to have experts on hand who can frame the issue for them. And because we are so busy try­ing to fig­ure out how to get abueli­ta to the meet­ing, we may not have time to think through the role of neolib­er­al urban devel­op­ment in the plan­ning of cities.

But, on the hope­ful side, more of it is hap­pen­ing. You can see that Black Lives Mat­ter is inte­grat­ed with the Fight for 15 and the immi­grant rights move­ment. So, the poten­tial is there and grow­ing. We also hold webi­na­rs to check in on Black Lives Mat­ter work, and around the time of the People’s Cli­mate March, many of our orga­ni­za­tions were doing work on cli­mate jus­tice. So, we def­i­nite­ly try to make space for inter­sec­tions. The immi­grant rights move­ment has also reached out to us about shar­ing cas­es of hous­ing, but this work has not com­plete­ly devel­oped, most­ly due to our lim­it­ed capac­i­ty.

Con­crete­ly describe a cam­paign you’ve cre­at­ed in the past.

We had a nation­al cam­paign with sev­er­al orga­ni­za­tions to remove Ed Demar­co from the post of act­ing direc­tor of the Fed­er­al Hous­ing and Finance Agen­cy and to replace him with Mel Watt. We won this vic­to­ry over the course of a year. Demar­co was a Bush appointee in the pock­et of Wall Street banks, and hard­ly ever took any stance on the issues of preda­to­ry lend­ing. Work­ing with Nation­al People’s Action and the New Bot­tom Line, we cre­at­ed sev­er­al online peti­tions over the course of a year, gen­er­at­ing thou­sands of signatures.We had a direct action where 5 wom­en of col­or from orga­ni­za­tions in the Right to the City Alliance, called the “Fan­nie Fred­die 5,” held down a street in DC and were arrest­ed. We also brought an evic­tion notice to Demarco’s lawn in Sil­ver Springs.

We then had a very pub­lic action that went viral, where home­own­ers and renters in cri­sis went to a hear­ing in which DeMar­co was tes­ti­fy­ing and they snuck behind him and got into the cam­eras of C-SPAN with protest signs say­ing “Drop DeMar­co,” “Fund the Nation­al Hous­ing Trust Fund,” and “We need Prin­ci­pal Reduc­tion” This was a piv­otal action in the cam­paign. Through an exec­u­tive order, Oba­ma was able to bring Mel Watt in as the new direc­tor. There has def­i­nite­ly been a shift in the rela­tion­ship with the FHFA and hous­ing jus­tice groups, but we are now still demand­ing prin­ci­pal reduc­tion from Mel Watt.

How do you involve home­own­ers, ten­ants, and/or land stew­ards as co-orga­niz­ers?

As a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion we involve them by cul­ti­vat­ing them as nation­al spokes­peo­ple to press, and invit­ing them to help make deci­sions about all of our cam­paigns and the nation­al agen­da at many lev­els. How­ev­er, we often work more direct­ly with paid orga­niz­ers and direc­tors and so some­times that means that we can­not access them as read­i­ly as a local orga­ni­za­tion could.

We have been expand­ing our base through nation­al webi­na­rs on top­ics that real­ly engage them. Hun­dreds of peo­ple are on the­se calls. On Sept. 30th, we are send­ing a bus of res­i­dents down from Boston to DC who are cur­rent­ly deal­ing with mort­gage issues with Fan­nie Mae and Fred­die Mac. Rep. Eliz­a­beth War­ren will be present and we are call­ing it the #mas­s­ac­tion4homes. This is an exam­ple of work­ing with local lead­ers and orga­niz­ers to address a nation­al issue.

In 2015, Right to the City has shift­ed to what we call a translo­cal strat­e­gy of real­ly engag­ing in sup­port­ing the local work and the build out of local renter assem­blies. This shift has led to many more affect­ed res­i­dents on calls.

How do you apply pres­sure to state hous­ing leg­is­la­tion (i.e. rezon­ing, rent reg­u­la­tion, fore­clo­sures), real estate devel­op­ment (dis­place­ment, vacan­cies, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion), and government/business land seizures, while also doing work that is inde­pen­dent of their delib­er­a­tion cycles?

Our local orga­ni­za­tions do this and we sup­port their work.

What read­ings and orga­niz­ing resources help inspire and guide your work?

Here are some of the read­ings that have been guid­ing the morals and prin­ci­ples of the Homes for All cam­paign. The­se have been broad­ly shared amongst our base:

What role does direct action (i.e. rent strikes, resist­ing evic­tions, street march­es, land occu­pa­tions) fig­ure into your orga­niz­ing? Can you imag­ine a nation-wide direct action strat­e­gy around hous­ing?

Right to the City has been effec­tive in build­ing a good solid frame in terms of our analy­sis of the cri­sis and how to act. We have done some excel­lent nation­al actions, along with groups like the Home Defend­ers League and Occu­py Our Homes, but we have shied away from hav­ing many nation­al direct actions because of resources and mon­ey to make them hap­pen. We would need more capac­i­ty to build that out.

There needs to be more autonomous grass­roots move­ment-build­ing space because when you are mobi­liz­ing with­in the con­text of a nation­al non­prof­it, the staff are expect­ed to hold down many of the aspects of the work, while the mem­bers of the groups expect for you to house and accom­mo­date them. Plus, bail funds are often need­ed. If the hous­ing move­ment was orga­nized in chap­ters across the coun­try, like the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment is now, and imple­ment­ed the Right to the City frame and Right to the City’s polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion pro­gram, that could real­ly start gen­er­at­ing more momen­tum in the hous­ing jus­tice move­ment and may­be change that expec­ta­tion. Cre­ative fundrais­ing is key. I think we all know the rev­o­lu­tion will not be fund­ed by foun­da­tions, but we all know that we need mon­ey to have pow­er­ful move­ments.

If you were to imag­ine a world in which hous­ing and land care works the way you believe it should, what would this look like?

It would look like love­ly, beau­ti­ful, acces­si­ble, envi­ron­men­tal­ly sound hous­ing for all peo­ple. It would mean that peo­ple would engage their neigh­bors and com­mu­ni­ty in col­lec­tive plan­ning. It would mean that peo­ple would fight hard to stay and main­tain their com­mu­ni­ties and neigh­bor­hoods. It would mean, how­ev­er, a fun­da­men­tal shift in how cap­i­tal­ism cur­rent­ly works.

Our Renters’ Bill of Rights (bit.ly/RenterNationReport) lays out our con­crete pol­i­cy rec­om­men­da­tions

Com­mu­ni­ty con­trol of land & hous­ing! We are work­ing toward this by:

  • Tak­ing hous­ing off the mar­ket through estab­lish­ing com­mu­ni­ty land trusts, coops that allow for peo­ple to build equi­ty through rent­ing in a shared trust.
  • Doc­u­ment­ing and shar­ing lessons of nation­al and inter­na­tion­al mod­els of decom­mod­i­fied and non-mar­ket hous­ing.
  • Build­ing polit­i­cal pow­er through civic engage­ment strate­gies so we can have con­trol over resource, zon­ing, plan­ning and devel­op­ment of our com­mu­ni­ties.
  • Cre­at­ing real afford­abil­i­ty: Secur­ing def­i­n­i­tions of “afford­able” that are tied to local cost of liv­ing, wages, unem­ploy­ment, and oth­er social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice met­rics.  
  • Sup­port orga­niz­ing and alliance build­ing of most-impact­ed res­i­dents to build col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, win renters rights, pre­vent evic­tions, fight fore­clo­sures, and secure pub­lic options for fed­er­al afford­able hous­ing enti­ties rather than pri­va­tiz­ing pub­lic assets (i.e. Fannie/Freddie, NHTF, HUD).
  • Exper­i­ment­ing with trans-local pol­i­cy inter­ven­tions on the munic­i­pal and state lev­els, such as anti-spec­u­la­tion tax, just cause evic­tion and renters rights laws and ordi­nances.
  • Sup­port­ing local assem­blies of renters nation­wide.
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Thanks to the hard work of Alma Shep­pard-Mat­suo, we have two pam­phlet ver­sions of this round­table that you can down­load. The first is a PDF designed for your read­ing on an elec­tron­ic device. The sec­ond is for­mat­ted to print dou­ble-sid­ed on 11in x 8.5in paper, then fold­ed in half as a book­let

Authors of the article

is an illustrator, teacher, and community artist based in Brooklyn, NY. She has created visual art and puppetry with groups like Bread & Puppet Theater, Great Small Works, Free University-NYC, and the War Resisters League. You can find her work and contact info on her website or tumblr.

is an archivist, doctoral student, educator, and organizer at the City University of New York, a collective member of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, and a co-founding participant in the Free University of New York City. Conor researches twentieth and twenty first-century literatures of social movements and urban freedom schools, and will be a 2016-2017 Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

is a doctoral candidate in the Anthropology Department at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. Her research focuses on struggles over urban space, gentrification and contemporary social movements in the United States. She has organized with a few of the groups featured here and was the co-director of the Narratives of Displacement Project.