Renting a home in the United States too often feels like a game you’re predestined to lose. Landlords jack up the rent, refuse to make necessary repairs, or evict you on a whim. Too many tenants are being pushed out of their homes, often illegally, and they don’t have the money, or the know-how, to fight it. Who can afford a lawyer when you can’t afford the rent?
This situation is untenable, and across the country, more and more renters are joining together in tenant unions to protect their housing rights. In California, a loose coalition — which includes the Debt Collective, LA Tenants Union, The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, and anti-eviction lawyers and legal service providers — has come up with another important tool that is already helping thousands of renters: the Tenant Power Toolkit.
Defending an eviction is an onerous process in California. Only half of the tenants who receive eviction notices manage even to submit a response. The Toolkit enables California tenants to file papers in response to an eviction notice without needing a lawyer to do it for them, and it helps any tenant in California who’s facing eviction understand their legal rights. Just as importantly, the toolkit has come to the attention of government agencies, while simultaneously providing vital data that can be used to help organize tenants and advocate for better housing policies.
In order to understand where we are now, it helps to understand where we have been.
It’s been over 15 years since the Great Recession, and the ensuing housing crisis. But while the housing market has recovered nicely for wealthy and middle class homeowners, the reality for too many renters has been catastrophic. Rents have soared, and the lack of affordable housing has reached a tipping point. Meanwhile, private equity investors have been gobbling up huge swaths of what little housing was available, exacerbating the crisis.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and the reality of kicking people out onto the streets because they couldn’t afford their homes in the middle of a worldwide health crisis opened up a new political possibility: what if we just didn’t evict people? What if we accepted that housing was a basic human need that we have a moral obligation to guarantee, and we moved away from a system that prioritizes profits over shelter?
For close to two years, that is exactly what happened. By and large, localities greatly reduced evictions during the pandemic. And…it was okay. Eviction protections helped many California tenants, and over one million households nationwide, avoid homelessness during the height of the pandemic.
But the moratorium wasn’t going to last forever, and the people working on the problem knew it. Gary Blasi, one of California’s best known housing justice lawyers, wrote a pivotal report warning of an impending surge in evictions and homelessness in Los Angeles once the eviction protections ended. The report not only sounded an alarm about the coming eviction crisis, but also outlined how onerous the eviction procedures were for tenants. For example, California tenants had only five days, including weekends and holidays, in order to respond in court to an eviction lawsuit. Many of them could not afford a lawyer, and the few housing lawyers who did this work were totally overwhelmed by their caseloads.
Organizers from the Debt Collective decided to build a tenant power toolkit modeled after the Student Debt Relief Tool they built in 2015. Back then, organizers challenging student debt honed in on an obscure provision in the Higher Education Act — Defense to Repayment — that grants the Department of Education (DOE) the power to cancel that debt. Only a handful of debtors had used that provision in 50 years and none successfully. The Debt Collective’s Student Debt Defense to Repayment Tool helped over 60,000 indebted former students organize for debt cancellation, and also helped lead to a 2022 legal settlement in which the DOE canceled the student loan debt for former students of Corinthian College, to a tune of $5.8 billion.
Starting in 2020, the Debt Collective, with Blasi and other allies, got to work creating a new toolkit, this one for tenants facing eviction. It took two years to develop, and was launched on July 19, 2022, just a few months after emergency tenant protections expired in LA County.
The Tenant Power Toolkit is a mutual aid tool that empowers tenants and tenant organizers. It is free to everyone, and can create a precise, legally sound eviction response for everyone who uses it. It is unique in that it is an user-friendly intervention in an otherwise prohibitively complicated legal process. A tenant living in LA County using the toolkit only needs to be able to answer basic questions about their housing situation, and from that, the toolkit will file a legal response in the court system with the press of a button. Roughly one out of every 5 eviction appeals in the county are now filed through the Toolkit.
René Moya, an organizer with the Debt Collective, says, “The Tenant Power Toolkit is a game changer because it prevents tenants from facing a default judgment in their cases, buying them time to find help.” As of January, over 7,000 cases have been filed in California using the toolkit.
Part of the challenge organizers face in working with the government is that the same agencies charged with protecting tenants also have a mandate to enforce evictions and defend the financial interests of landlords. As a result, the coalition that built the toolkit has used existing relationships that were formed in recent years to engage with the city and county government over their efforts. In particular, they have worked through Stay Housed LA’s public-private legal services partnership to disseminate the toolkit.
Since pandemic tenant protections ended in 2022, rent debt from the last few years has become actionable, meaning it can become grounds for eviction. While there have been some changes in the eviction process in response to years of savvy organizing by activists and tenants (many landlords must now provide “just cause” to evict a tenant, and while tenants still only have 5 days to respond to an eviction notice, that no longer includes weekends or holidays) ultimately, the situation is untenable. Too many tenants simply cannot pay their rent. And tenants still do not have a right to counsel. Even if they did, there are only 50 eviction defense lawyers in LA County that help low income tenants, in a county with 10 million people. The toolkit takes the burden off the lawyers and empowers tenants themselves at a critical juncture in the eviction process.
In Los Angeles, organizers have disseminated the toolkit through multiple distribution channels, including with the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, a public-private initiative that raises money for municipal projects, mostly housing-related, not covered in the city’s budget. And StayHousedLA — a partnership between nonprofit service providers, the county and city — is also working to expand the toolkit from English and Spanish into many more languages.
The housing crisis has forced those in government to think about different approaches to the issue. Too often, services for poor people and people of color are difficult to access, or involve punitive measures, putting the lie to the idea of a “public good.” And ideally, eviction defense itself should be a public good. At minimum, every state should provide their tenants with a similar defense tool.
In California, some government agency leaders are now beginning to understand that if they actually want to help tenants — and prevent a new wave of homelessness — they need to work with organizers and groups that have on-the-ground experience and the trust of their communities, and work together to tackle the eviction process.
The reality is that the housing crisis in California, and how it is dealt with, will likely make or break local administrations. The new mayor of LA, Karen Bass, seems to understand this, and has declared a public crisis around homelessness, which has opened up more funding and mayoral powers. But more needs to be done.
The toolkit doesn’t just help tenants in trouble. It is also an organizing tool. Each response to the toolkit builds a database of people organizers can reach out to, from those that share a zip code or a landlord to others holding large amounts of rent debt. In addition, the toolkit provides a slew of new data about housing, evictions and rents. By simply asking for addresses and rents, organizers are getting important, on-the-ground housing information, which they can then use in their advocacy work.
As Moya explains, “We see this toolkit as a way to make the work of tenant organizers easier and to seed campaigns around issues of rent, habitability and concentrated ownership by corporate actors.” Good organizing directly helps people in need, helps enforce existing policies and helps advocate for much stronger policies. The toolkit does all three.
The next step is to expand electronic filing to every county in the state. The Debt Collective is working with InfoTrack, a company that works on document submission to courts nationwide, to make that happen. With 17 million renters in the state of California, it cannot come soon enough. After that, they hope to scale up elements of the initiative to other states, including a toolkit for addressing rent debt.
While providing mutual aid to tenants facing eviction will not solve the housing crisis, it is a crucial link towards building people power to achieve an equitable economy. “I’m thankful for this toolkit,” said Ricardo Moreno, a tenant in Los Angeles. “It’s life saving and prevents people from becoming homeless.”
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