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?
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.”