Fighting for Our Lives: Tenant Defense in a Pandemic

Organizers mobilize for outreach to tenants in Mt. Rainier, MD

by Karyn Pomerantz and Linda Green, 3-1-2021

Over 30 million people face evictions from their homes during the deadly Covid 19 outbreak.  Losing housing is nothing new. As neighborhoods gentrify, public housing deteriorates, and people lose jobs, more people have no or unstable homes. The US lost four million affordable housing units and seven million apartments for low-income residents over the last decade.  Before the pandemic, 25% of renters spent 50% or more of their income on rent, and 25% of people under the poverty line spent 70%  (Aspen Institute)! This serves the financial interests of the developers and banks who build and finance luxury, high priced apartments and houses, adding to the oppression of the entire working class. Since black, Latin, and indigenous people earn less and face higher rates of unemployment, this situation exacerbates the racism fundamental to capitalism. Larger proportions of families of color, including Asian families, expect to apply for assistance. Families with children have higher eviction rates, causing long-term trauma and other health problems.

The pandemic has worsened housing security. What kind of society kicks people out of their homes during a public health crisis!? Obviously, the drive to profit off of workers’ lives has no limits. The moratoriums on evictions only postpone pay-up day. Despite the federal moratorium and financial assistance to landlords, property owners apply laws that allow them to evict, such as requesting evictions for people who stay in their homes past their leases. As of March 1, 2020, a judge has ruled that the moratorium is illegal, throwing millions of people into limbo.

What Can We Do?

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Communist Party, unions, socialists, and Unemployment Councils organized 10s of 1000s of people to block evictions, moving belongings back into homes or stopping marshals from removing them. They didn’t wait for federal assistance or testify for state legislatures. They organized a mass, militant, multiracial movement. Can we replicate this strategy while organizing for a society that ensures homes for everyone? The following describes campaigns to defend tenants threatened with houselessness.

Stamp Out Slumlords (SOS)

In Washington, DC, Stamp Out Slumlords of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) engaged in grass roots tenant organizing. Rejecting the legislative, policy wonky approaches, these self-identified Marxist activists met with tenants at risk of eviction. They helped residents hold large anti-eviction demonstrations throughout the city, organize rent strikes, create committees in seven apartment complexes with the residents taking the leadership to petition for rent cancellation, develop phone trees, and respond to information requests. The organizers confronted the challenges of educated, largely white radicals base building with residents, often Asian, African, and Latino residents, many classified as essential. The SOS members rejected using academic language and working with non-profits whom they characterized as maintaining systems of oppression, not overthrowing them.

MORE: Mt. Rainier’s Campaign to Stop Evictions

Outside of DC, residents of the small town of Mt. Rainier, MD mobilized to stop evictions. Overall, 200,000 families in Maryland face eviction. About one-third of renters who make under $50,000 could not pay their last month’s rent.  Black families comprised 75% of those requesting financial assistance in late 2020 and early 2021 (NLIHC).

In late 2020, neighbors learned that a family faced eviction. They mobilized others and gathered at the house to protest to stop the family’s removal. A truck driver arrived to take the belongings. However, when the protestors told him this was an eviction, he refused to cooperate and left the scene. This is working class solidarity!

A week before the Inauguration, the local mutual aid committee called housing activists for help. A Latino family was facing eviction in the Heritage Park Apartments in Maryland, a large complex with seven buildings for renters and others for condos. The father was not working but had been working for a church, the mother was six months pregnant with no prenatal care, and they had a five year old and a three year old with vision problems since coming to the US. There was no money for food, no health care, no way to pay rent. An eviction was scheduled for February; they only had donations of $1500 to cover months of rent.

Members of a local antiracist community group, MORE (Mount Rainier Organizing for Racial Equality), quickly gathered information on health care, delivered food and money, and arranged a meeting with the family to start organizing tenants. Two days later, MORE printed flyers and joined the Prince George’s County (PG), MD Tenants Defense and PG Mutual Aid to meet the father and canvass the apartments. The landlord, Dreyfuss Property Management, owns the  Heritage Park Apartments and 33 other buildings in Maryland, DC, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. In November it had enough money to buy another building for $15 million.

Thus, another landlord was added to the list of targets to prevent evictions. Since the summer, there have been two rallies to stop evictions and several organizing efforts in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Latino advocates in CASA in Langley Park, MD have held rent strikes and negotiations with landlords. 

MORE discovered that residents did not know about or use rental assistance because there was little advertising and outreach. MORE reached out to the apartments and signed up more people in December than in the three previous months. MORE members reached people with flyers and tables in the neighborhood and at the food pantry. At the LaSalle Apartments in Chillum, they canvassed and organized Zoom meetings with residents, and held a rally on a chilly, snowy day in December. The hot line for mutual aid finds residents with threatened evictions and other rental needs while Community Legal Services provides information to residents.

Tenant organizing has introduced people to the way the landlords benefit; they are not held accountable or required to follow the law. Under the moratorium, it was “illegal” to raise rents, evict residents for non-payment of rent. Meanwhile the “rental assistance” programs by the government forced residents to apply for money that went to the landlord. Most renters were not sure if that was used to decrease their rent or not. Some landlords took the money but still threatened evictions. The courts have been closed for rental evictions, but residents are afraid and often leave before getting evicted since that can hurt their credit scores. Undocumented renters face additional threats of detention and deportation. Many believe it is illegal to accept this form of government assistance since accepting social services like Medicaid endangers their approval for green cards.

More Than Moratoriums

While people need housing now to survive, real housing security demands an end to capitalism where housing is a commodity that is bought and sold depending on the money people earn instead of housing as a necessity essential to our well-being. With wealth inequality growing and workers unable to earn enough to cover the essentials, reforming housing policies to temporarily suspend rent and mortgages does not work. Most wealth derives from home ownership. Stealing people’s homes exacerbates the outrageous differences in wealth between black and white families and between all workers and the ruling class.  With unemployment so high, businesses have plenty of workers to hire while not giving a hoot about those who remain jobless and more often, homeless and ill.  The risks caused by capitalism and the horrors of Covid 19 offer rich opportunities for workers to unite across all backgrounds. As people fight to prevent and stop evictions, antiracist activists can advocate for unity and revolution against this system.

For further information:

Aspen Institute. The COVID-19 Eviction Crisis: an Estimated 30-40 Million People in America Are at Risk – The Aspen Institute

Desmond, Matthew. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Random House, 2016.

NHLIC (National Low Income Housing Coalition). Eviction Update | National Low Income Housing Coalition (nlihc.org)

Stamp Out Slumlords and DSA. No Job, No Rent: Ten months of organizing the tenant struggle, February 2021.  Stomp Out Slumlords – Metro DC DSA’s anti-eviction and tenant organizing campaign

Further reading on housing racism:

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

Race for Profit by Keeanga Yamhatta-Taylor

2 thoughts on “Fighting for Our Lives: Tenant Defense in a Pandemic”

  1. Very informative! I don’t know whether the following fits into “tenant organizing” but I live in a co-op under the NY State Mitchel-Lama law and belong to committee that’s fighting a privatization group that wants to leave M-L and while forcing huge rent increases would enable them to sell their apartments at “market value,” hoping to become millionaires. Meanwhile working-class families would suffer higher rents and become subject to commercial bank loans at 6% and higher rates for dough to fix our building. M-L loans come in at lower 1% loan rates. Most of our residents do feel like we are tenants. Anyway, keep up your great organizing.

    A

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