With the rental crisis in the US hitting catastrophic levels, institutional solutions failed but tenant solidarity networks booked a string of victories.
By Shane Burley. Published 2-28-2016 by ROAR Magazine
As we get further away from the shocking chain of foreclosures that marked the 2008 financial crisis, it has become more apparent just how deep the catastrophe hit. The crisis led to 2.9 million foreclosures that year — a level of housing displacement comparable to an active war zone.
For those without the means to even own a home, the crisis never had a clear beginning or end. In major cities across America, rents are responding to the influx of massive internet start-ups, “creative-class” corporations and financial institutions that are bringing in large incomes in small numbers.
A recent study showed that around half of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent — the recommended percentage by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development — and a quarter spends 50 percent or more. This lies against a rental market that is expected to increase by four million people in the next decade as people wait to purchase homes in a stagnant entry-level job market.
Where many neighborhoods in places like Brooklyn, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon had generations of working-class residents, rents that are jumping three and four times their previous rate are washing out these older populations to keep the streets clean for the rich.
Plainly put: we can’t afford to live in the cities we built any longer.
It is with this in mind that the housing justice movement, which spiked with a lighting blast during the first waves of the financial collapse, is shifting entirely in the direction of tenant organizing.
Today, the crisis is less about housing itself simply being the unstable commodity and more about the entire system of neoliberal capitalism teetering on the edge of a cliff. This has seen real wages, benefits and job security plummet for working families while a tiny upper-class sector has experienced huge jumps in income.
Housing justice organizing has conventionally been built around the quest for increased state concessions into the social safety net. This means more subsidies for the Section 8 voucher program — a system where the government provides partial funding for private-sector housing — and public housing complexes, inclusionary zoning, the implementation of rent control to stave off tenant displacement, and the creation of transitional housing for those who end up unhoused because of market forces.
Even when these services are accessible, the institutionalization of tenant exploitation through extra-legal means has robbed many of these systems of their ability to function in the new terrain. Illegal, fee-gouging, retaliatory evictions and discrimination in rental options are commonplace, and the legal standing means little to those who do not have the financial means to challenge it.
Within this framework of landlord control, many are grasping at a new model that can confront these issues directly as they are happening in their lives. It was within this atmosphere that the Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol) tried something new.
STRIPPED DOWN COMMUNITY ORGANIZING
SeaSol started in late 2007 as a model to confront the kind of lived class exploitation that most people experience regularly. Stolen security deposits, for example, can amount upwards of a few thousand dollars in many cases, and apartments regularly tack on fees and false maintenance costs that can leave people in years of debt.
The model that SeaSol created was community organizing stripped down to its bare essentials. They would look at a specific instance of tenant exploitation, such as refusing to release deposit funds, and then give it a set dollar amount.
The group would work with the former tenant to develop an “escalation campaign” around this financial demand, increasing the intensity of actions like public posterings, picketing and staged confrontations. This created a climate of empowerment where the community came together to support this one instance of exploitation, extending the notion that this campaign is one that the community has a stake in since other members could just as easily find themselves in the same situation.
SeaSol’s string of successes, both in tenant and wage-theft campaigns, has created an easy-to-start model that has spread around the country. In places like San Francisco, Brooklyn, Boston, San Jose, Houston and Portland, groups have popped up under this model to confront the issues that seem to be the same even if the neighborhood changes.
In Portland, the Portland Solidarity Network (PDXSol) formed with the support of SeaSol, with a unique eye to the way that Portland was changing. Building on much of the same principles, the Portland Solidarity Network began taking on both tenant and wage-theft campaigns in 2011. In the years since they have grown, becoming an important component of the labor and political sphere of an area seeing unexpected growth and displacement.
“Portland is facing the same kind of crisis we are seeing in other urban areas,” argues Kevin Van Meter, PDXSol organizer and author of the forthcoming book on everyday forms of resistance, Guerrillas of Desire. He points out:
The key way that it is unique is that it is taking advantage of a particular image of the city that was produced due to the fact that Portland has been a location for solid working class jobs and service jobs that allowed the cultural producers, radicals, artists, musicians, others, to function.
It is exactly Portland’s image as an artistic, stable and progressive community that has allowed gentrification to take hold and uproot those very elements from the community. The upper-middle-income liberal communities are returning in mass to the urban core, which is displacing working-class and marginalized communities in cities around the country. It is Portland’s “brand image” that has accelerated this process.
Within this structure, where political action is both a tool of social struggle and of commercial branding and displacement, solidarity networks offer an option that is embedded in direct participation. Van Meter:
What our model in fact provides is the challenge of direct democracy against the representative. Our organizing model is a direct challenge to the left’s image about itself. Because we believe that anyone, any individual has the possibility of not only understanding their conditions and the challenges they face, but also to be at the center of their organizing.
The option here is to find an entirely new process to confront a growing housing crisis that conventional left institutions have not only failed to confront, but have often played a role in by branding high-valued urban landscapes.
This has likely played directly into the mass influx of residents coming to Portland from around the country, and giving landlords the freedom to raise rents over 33 percent in the last five years. If tenants want to alleviate the strain of price increases while also undermining the system of landlord-driven capital, then they will need a model that puts them in the driver’s seat.
REALIZING THE RENTER’S COLLECTIVE POWER
With the tenant crisis rising like a wave, how can a militant force of renters build a barrier between their community and the coming wave of gentrification? The correlations to the labor struggles of a different generation are obvious, as are the ways that organizations have taken on economic exploitation while also seeing how other types of oppression can have material consequences.
Having working-class organizations at the exact point of exploitation is the only strategy that can move from softening the blow of capital to completely reshaping urban housing. This means first that it has to be driven by the tenants themselves at its core rather than through representatives in liberal state agencies or NGOs, as well as using multiple organizing models to hit the crisis at every available point of contact.
As Matt Bloomfield discussed in a recent article at ROAR Magazine, this will also mean reviving the rent strike as a solidarity model for asserting tenant control in their buildings.
If the foundations of the 21st century tenant movement is in state concessions, then a temporary slow-down to mass displacement is the best that can be hoped for. The second that the tides shift, just as they did in 2007-’10, the state has the ability to rip back that funding in a brutal move of austerity. Instead, renters will have to collectively realize their power as renters, their ability to withhold payment, the solidarity between neighbors, and the possibility of large coalitions and mass action.
Effectively, we will need to build a labor movement for housing. Solidarity networks can provide both a piece in this larger housing movement puzzle, but also the option for starting the different organizing models that do not already exist in an area.
In Portland, the idea that a “Renter State of Emergency” is underway has taken shape and the narrative is beginning to shift. The local alternative newspaper, the Portland Mercury, labeled the hot months of 2015 “A Summer of Evictions”, where a state-wide ban on rent control has left lower income residents with no options as rents are doubling and tripling to make way for affluent tech workers.
The Renter S.O.S. campaign that came out of the local Community Alliance of Tenants demanded that the city respond to an epidemic of forced displacement happening in the city’s core.
This call was then taken up by Charlie Hale, Portland’s mayor. With this emergency dynamic he intends to address the issue of houselessness by waiving zoning codes, using city-owned buildings to create shelters, and building permanent housing for people utilizing the psychiatric emergency center that has yet to be built in Portland. The concession would include extending the notification for rent increases to 90 days, though this is being challenged by landlord organizations.
With this sub-par offering from the city, there is nothing to undermine the massive rent hikes that gentrifiers are using to completely whitewash popular parts of the city. One unintended consequence of this was a wave of rent hikes happening before its November implementation, a cruel turn for landlords who want to move out lower income residents quickly. Hale later announced a $67 million plan to develop more affordable housing over the next decade, a fraction of what is needed.
This process is almost identical in other cities, as we see the rush of AirBnb properties and companies like Twitter using tax-breaks to demolish entire blocks in places like San Francisco’s historic Mission District. While New York City has often been considered the capital of overpriced urban dwelling, San Francisco leads most of its boroughs in price increases, where less than 10 percent of one-bedroom apartments will cost you $2,000, and the average is closer to $3,000.
Even if we take the idea that the growing Fight for $15 movement is successful nationwide, this still leaves no rental options for those at the lowest end of the spectrum.
THE POTENTIAL OF THE SOLIDARITY NETWORK MODEL
The Portland Solidarity Network joined organizations like Portland Tenants United, a new metro-wide tenants’ union in the Portland area, in marching and rallying at City Hall against an increasingly victimizing climate for renters. This called for implementation of protections against discrimination and retaliation, which is language that could protect renters who are beginning to organize into neighborhood organizations and formal tenant unions built on a collective bargaining strategy.
This action came right as State Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer put forward a bill that would include moderate renter protections including increasing no-cause eviction notifications to 90 days and for landlords to pay relocation costs for an evicted tenant up to the cost of one month’s rent.
These moderate additions did nothing to quell the surging crowds who are doing more than demanding a temporary alleviation to the pain they are feeling. The bill eventually was moderated after meetings with the landlord lobby, the type of behavior that has always underscored the move from lobbying to direct organizing.
These type of institutional solutions cannot undermine the foundations of this crisis since they lack the ability to challenge the landlord-tenant dynamic. The solidarity network model provides a starting point for such a challenge, whether it is to create a community-wide institution to confront the ongoing theft of tenant resources by landlords, or to build long-term institutions and bargaining units across property management companies or specific buildings and regions.
The gains that have been made in the anti-foreclosure and tenant struggles are very real and need to be seen as a sign that there is a fault-line here that can empower a groundswell of grassroots action.
About the author
Shane Burley is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared at places like Truthout, Labor Notes, In These Times, Waging Nonviolence and the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review. His work can be found at ShaneBurley.net.