Renters Rise Up for National Day of Action

Events are taking place across the country to raise awareness about America’s affordable housing crisis.

David Dayen September 22, 2016

Organizers hope that a renter-led mass movement will bring change. (Ironbound Community Corporation)

What if I told you about 110 mil­lion Amer­i­cans, the major­i­ty of them eli­gi­ble vot­ers, fac­ing one of the country’s great­est chal­lenges, who have nev­er been for­mal­ly orga­nized on a mass scale? What if I told you that, if mold­ed into a polit­i­cal force, they could swing elec­tions, change state and local laws, and force action to resolve a crisis?

'It’s wrong that you have to choose between a place to live and to have your basic needs met.'

And what if I told you that the first nation­wide effort to build this move­ment begins today?

Orga­niz­ers are call­ing it the Nation­al Renters Day of Action. Events are planned in some 46 cities, designed to raise aware­ness about America’s afford­able hous­ing crisis.

This is the largest mobi­liza­tion of renters in this gen­er­a­tion,” says Mal­colm Chu of Right to the City Alliance, one of dozens of coali­tions sup­port­ing the action, under the ban­ner of Homes for All. We’re focus­ing on the need to guar­an­tee that all fam­i­lies can get afford­able housing.”

The day of action came out of a nation­al con­fer­ence of hous­ing jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions this April in Chica­go. But, more broad­ly, it reflects the depths of a cri­sis that has reached epi­dem­ic pro­por­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly since waves of fore­clo­sures dur­ing the Great Reces­sion cre­at­ed mil­lions of new renters.

Research by the Har­vard Joint Cen­ter for Hous­ing Stud­ies has found that half of all renters spend over 30 per­cent of their income on rent, and 1 in 4 — about 11.2 mil­lion fam­i­lies — spends over 50 per­cent. Even low-income hous­ing has become unaf­ford­able to many low-income fam­i­lies, with prices increas­ing faster than wages and gov­ern­ment assis­tance withering.

The major­i­ty of our mon­ey goes to pay­ing the rent — 70 per­cent goes to the rent,” says Lynn Jones, a for­mer home­own­er from New Orleans who lost her home in Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na and moved to Nashville, Ten­nessee. Jones claims that rents in the Nashville area have risen dra­mat­i­cal­ly in the last four years, and data from the site Rent Jun­gle, show­ing that the aver­age two-bed­room apart­ment has gone from $920 a month in 2012 to $1,572 today, bear that out.

We have med­ical bills that my hus­band accrued because of heart attacks,” says Jones, who is her­self on dis­abil­i­ty. It’s wrong that you have to choose between a place to live and to have your basic needs met, I can’t fath­om it.”

But afford­abil­i­ty isn’t the only con­cern. Many below-mar­ket rental prop­er­ties are sub­stan­dard, with land­lords neglect­ing need­ed repairs. In a dri­ve to max­i­mize prof­its, entire build­ings get evic­tion notices when land­lords want to con­vert units to attract high­er rents. We don’t even know how preva­lent evic­tions are because they are rou­tine­ly under­count­ed. Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion has torn fam­i­lies away from com­mu­ni­ties where they’ve lived for decades. Land­lords have grown in size and influence.

The cri­sis, what orga­niz­ers call a renter state of emer­gency, inter­twines with a severe pow­er imbal­ance. Renters are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly poor and peo­ple of col­or, groups whose voic­es bare­ly reg­is­ter in pub­lic pol­i­cy debates. They can be vic­tim­ized by unlaw­ful evic­tions and preda­to­ry rents with­out local, state, or nation­al offi­cials man­ag­ing to notice. They have lit­tle expec­ta­tion of gov­ern­ment aid or pro­tec­tion from unjust actions through ten­ant laws on the books.

I don’t think they care. I don’t think any­body cares, they just wor­ry about mon­ey,” says LaSharn Brown, a grill cook at Long Beach City Col­lege in California.

Brown says he was evict­ed from his home of nine years after receiv­ing a 60-day notice in Feb­ru­ary, after new own­ers decid­ed to ren­o­vate the units for high­er-income res­i­dents. After get­ting a new apart­ment in April, this week he received anoth­er 60-day evic­tion notice, for the same reason.

It’s stress­ful. I have to be out a week before Thanks­giv­ing, that’s not right,” Brown says.

Out of this chaos, hous­ing jus­tice groups have rec­og­nized the need for col­lec­tive action. Ten­ants unions have sprung up across the coun­try, offer­ing resources and coun­sel­ing to renters with prob­lems, and orga­niz­ing for bet­ter aware­ness and out­comes. The day of action seeks to inspire more engage­ment, orga­niz­ing com­mu­ni­ties of apart­ment-dwellers the way unions orga­nize workplaces.

When peo­ple get rent increas­es, or an entire build­ing gets an evic­tion notice, you can use that as a point of entry,” says Tony Sama­ra of Right to the City Alliance and author of Rise of the Renter Nation: Solu­tions to the Hous­ing Afford­abil­i­ty Cri­sis,” a solu­tions-based guide to the afford­able hous­ing crisis.

Some events have already tak­en place. Yes­ter­day, Seat­tle activists occu­pied space out­side a city coun­cil meet­ing on afford­able hous­ing, giv­ing renters an oppor­tu­ni­ty to tell their sto­ries of strug­gle and evic­tion. Also this week, in Newark, New Jer­sey, ten­ant groups held a 36-hour ral­ly, con­nect­ed to a city coun­cil meet­ing. Renters in Lynn, Mass­a­chu­setts inter­vened in a Trol­ley Tour for Devel­op­ers,” to protest a pro­posed lux­u­ry devel­op­ment along the city’s water­front. And pro­test­ers gath­ered for a Hous­ing is a Human Right” ral­ly at Katz Plaza in down­town Pitts­burgh, where orga­niz­ers claim rents have increased 59 per­cent since 2000, while renter income has remained flat.

Today’s sched­ule includes march­es tar­get­ing evic­tion courts in Atlanta, city hall in Chica­go and a land­lord lob­by trade show in Port­land, Ore­gon. Oth­er events will fea­ture ban­ner drops strate­gi­cal­ly placed out­side the offices of devel­op­ers and land­lords and open mics where renters can speak direct­ly about con­di­tions on the ground.

We need a bold shift in the way we talk about hous­ing,” says Chu. We’re mobi­liz­ing peo­ple who are renters to take action together.”

Renter-based orga­niz­ing presents unique challenges.

I had to get over the invis­i­ble bar­ri­er that sep­a­rates us from our neigh­bors and say, I’m ask­ing you to do some­thing,’” says Dar­ren Tay­lor, an orga­niz­er with Long Beach Res­i­dents Empowered.

Tay­lor became a renter activist after his apart­ment caught fire in July. The same day he and his part­ner inquired with the city health depart­ment about whether the blaze exposed res­i­dents to mold and asbestos, he says he found an evic­tion notice on his door.

The dis­place­ment was ille­gal, but before Tay­lor knew that, he and his part­ner moved out. But instead of walk­ing away, he went back to the prop­er­ty, knock­ing on every door and explain­ing what was hap­pen­ing with ille­gal evic­tions and retaliation.

Three peo­ple were will­ing to meet with a lawyer,” Tay­lor says. Every­body else in the apart­ment told me they didn’t want any trou­ble because they need a place to live.”

Tay­lor hopes that draw­ing atten­tion through mass mobi­liza­tion can help focus the long-term goals of the move­ment. These include a mora­to­ri­um on evic­tions with­out a just cause, the rights of ten­ants to orga­nize togeth­er, con­ver­sion of unused land into com­mu­ni­ty land trusts and coop­er­a­tives to remove hous­ing from spec­u­la­tive mar­kets, and the con­cept of a liv­able rent,” fixed at 30 per­cent of fam­i­ly income.

Point­ed­ly, the activists do not share the opin­ion of econ­o­mists who believe that relax­ing zon­ing rules and build­ing new units would solve the prob­lem. First of all, they say, while this argu­ment is typ­i­cal­ly focused on high-demand coastal cities, the cri­sis is nation­al in scope. Even areas with dereg­u­lat­ed hous­ing mar­kets, like Hous­ton, Texas, have seen rents jump in the past cou­ple years.

Sec­ond, activists argue that a build­ing boom would do noth­ing to halt unlaw­ful evic­tions and neigh­bor­hood turnover.

The only hous­ing being built is lux­u­ry hous­ing,” says Chu, sug­gest­ing that the free mar­ket won’t cre­ate afford­able rental units on its own.

Orga­niz­ers hope that a renter-led mass move­ment will bring change. Sev­er­al cities in Cal­i­for­nia have bal­lot ini­tia­tive cam­paigns for Novem­ber to insti­tute rent con­trol and man­date that evic­tions must not hap­pen with­out a just cause. A just cause evic­tions ordi­nance is also being debat­ed in Boston and Chica­go. In Salem, Ore­gon, a Renters Day of Action event will launch a statewide cam­paign for both just cause evic­tions and rent control.

Even pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Hillary Clin­ton addressed the afford­able hous­ing cri­sis yes­ter­day, pledg­ing to increase low-income hous­ing tax cred­its for devel­op­ers that cre­ate afford­able units. But the Renters Day of Action has much more rad­i­cal goals in mind. 

More than any­thing, the mobi­liza­tion could spark a new polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty: the renter activist. Tay­lor expe­ri­enced that trans­for­ma­tion first-hand.

I real­ized that all of us are in the mid­dle of the same thing, no mat­ter if we don’t know each oth­er or don’t like each oth­er,” says Tay­lor, who now helps run a sup­port group for renters in Long Beach, pro­vid­ing legal resources and emo­tion­al aid. If I don’t offer help to peo­ple then nothing’s going to change. We’ll all get kicked out and prices will con­tin­ue to go up.”

David Dayen is an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. His book Chain of Title: How Three Ordi­nary Amer­i­cans Uncov­ered Wall Street’s Great Fore­clo­sure Fraud won the 2015 Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. He lives in Los Ange­les, where pri­or to writ­ing about pol­i­tics he had a 19-year career as a tele­vi­sion pro­duc­er and editor.
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