As we sheltered in our private homes and apartments, we watched with excitement as Berlin tenants expropriated major corporate landlords and Barcelona moved to seize vacant investment properties. As our governments released paltry sums of emergency rental assistance, we witnessed unhoused individuals and families take houses and hotels in Los Angeles and Minneapolis. As governors sweated over the consequences for landlords of eviction moratoria, we took courage from activists in Kansas City and New Orleans who physically shut down eviction courts. And as we marched in the streets against the police murder of George Floyd, we saw BLM activists in Philadelphia make long-term encampment across from the city’s public housing authority and force it to release vacant units to the unhoused.
As vaccines start to arrive and the ruling class plans reopening, these bold actions underscore the basic fact that it is not enough to return to normal. Covid-19 launched us into a collective emergency, but capitalism results in housing crises as a permanent, normal, and racialized condition. Reform, electoral, and protest movements of the last decade have broadened the political imagination of the working class so that everyday immiseration is no longer automatically accepted as natural. And in the last year, we have seen working-class people take organized action directly challenging the legitimacy of private property, rent, and repressive state power. These institutions have compounded the harms of our collective emergency, and their abolition is necessary to return to something better than normal.
Politics during a Housing Emergency
While we have fought for years on the terrain of rising rents and gentrification, shifts in the property market resulting from Covid-19 may enact their own cruel and temporary form of rent stabilization as people with means flee to the telecommuting suburbs and up to 30 or 40 million people without means could face eviction. Covid-19 threatens to collectivize the state violence exercised every time the state drags an individual through eviction court and tosses their possessions to the curb. This violent machine has temporarily stood down but stands by to unleash the kind of disaster that capital loves best while the major political parties perseverate about how best to demonstrate that they can keep everyone under social and fiscal control.
Against this threat, activists nationwide have made the call to cancel rent—not for more financial assistance to hand over immediately to landlords and bankers, not for leniency, payment plans, or financial assistance—but cancellation. This would take back private property estimated as of December to be as high as $70 billion in debt alone (about 39 percent of Jeff Bezos’s estimated wealth, by the way). At the same time, rent strikes and online tenant organizing kits captured the imagination of millions within weeks. With the Great Recession’s foreclosure crisis a recent and traumatic memory for even more millions, we can see a reflexive disdain for the rights of private property setting into the emerging skeleton of a fighting mass. The mass rent strike may have been a mirage, and we have yet to see whether any rent gets cancelled. But we can feel the mass thirst for an end to the violence that keeps landed capital fed.
Despite numerous successful and bracing actions, any static look at the field of struggle will yield a bleak assessment. The stranglehold of real estate and financial capital on state and local governments in Illinois has not loosened during the pandemic. On the one hand, Illinois’s billionaire philanthropist governor J.B. Pritzker unilaterally ordered an eviction moratorium early in the pandemic, before activists were even able to demand it. This stands in contrast to the meek reaction of state and local governments during 2008–13 and against the despicable inaction and delay of numerous other states, and likely reflects the militant activism of the last decade.
On the other hand, Illinois Democrats killed a bill supported by a coalition of unions and community organizations in spring 2020 that would have cancelled rents, expanded assistance, and strengthened the moratorium. The bill briefly resurfaced in a January 2021 lame duck legislative session, watered down even further, only to disappear into a pocket veto by another Democrat. Never one to be left out of a swerve to the right, the Lightfoot administration cut off negotiations last summer for reforms limiting the reasons a landlord may use to evict a tenant when a lease expires. It would have required them to state a Just Cause (such as illegal activity, failure to pay rent, property damage) in order to evict a tenant or else pay significant relocation assistance to the tenant. Instead, her administration introduced and passed a more landlord-friendly measure that simply extends the amount of notice a landlord must give a tenant they plan to evict when a lease expires.
And there are hard limits to what a billionaire philanthropist will do on behalf of the masses. After Lightfoot and other public officials claimed that the Rent Control Preemption Act of 1997 prevented any local government from taking action to cancel rent, the Lift the Ban (on rent control) Coalition organized relentlessly to pressure Pritzker to use his emergency powers to temporarily suspend the ban on rent control. As activists set up “Pritzkerville” demonstrations, staged marches, confronted him at public appearances, engaged in civil disobedience, and went to jail, he held the line, claiming there was nothing a billionaire governor could do. Finally, in November, the governor weakened the eviction moratorium in several ways, likely at the insistence of the real estate lobby. It now requires tenants to file a sworn declaration under penalty of perjury, stating they have lost income due to Covid-19, that they will make best efforts to pay, that an eviction would cause them to become homeless or to double up, and that they earned less than $99,000 in the prior year ($198,000 for couples).
This can feel like a dose of cold water after several important reforms passed around the country in 2018–19, including: statewide rent control in Oregon and substantial statewide reforms in New York and California; right to counsel in eviction court in San Francisco, Newark, Cleveland, and New York City; and Good Cause for eviction in Philadelphia. Under the pandemic we have won fewer breakthrough reforms of this nature as activists scrambled to respond to Covid-19—right to counsel in Boulder and Baltimore are standouts—and experienced at least one prominent defeat in California. Nevertheless, many DSA candidates won elections in November 2020 leading with housing demands, and two Moms 4 Housing activists won public office in the East Bay. Nationwide, we can see capital regrouping to fend off reforms, but we can also see the popularity of demands springing from the movement for housing justice. And we can see the limits of strategies relying on insider collaboration with Democrats. This lesson will be especially important as we negotiate the terms of recovery.
The Politics of the Permanent Housing Crisis
We cannot accept a return to normal, but the ruling class only allows debate about how much brutality is acceptable in bringing people back to work and what measures are most appropriate to restart accumulation. In housing, the best we have seen from the state during the pandemic is eviction moratoriums and rental assistance. In other words, measures that ensure any relief given to tenants comes in the form of compensating landlords not only for their losses but also for their expected profits. Many demand tenants demonstrate their need for relief though questioning landlords about their need for profit remains beyond the pale. These are the outer edges of acceptable politics, even for progressive Democrats. They frame relief as exceptional or emergency measures on the premise that Covid-19 presents such an unprecedented set of events that we can temporarily defend landlord profits in a slightly different way. By this reasoning, the crisis within the housing market is a passing phenomenon, so we must avoid setting any new precedents.
But collective violence has always defined the normal housing market for Black communities, sustaining a permanent crisis economy where the scummiest business makes profit. We can think of the violent defense of neighborhood boundaries by a young mayor-to-be in 1919, subdivided kitchenette apartments of the 1940s and ’50s in Chicago’s Black Belt, and contract sales in the 1960s. In today’s racial capitalism, the courts lock Black men up and lock Black women out. Nationwide we’re talking about four evictions filed every single minute of every single day. This exposes individuals, communities, and whole generations to traumas and legal barriers resembling those of incarceration, and researchers now debate whether eviction is a cause or consequence of poverty. Either way, the courts work hard to mitigate harm to landlords’ balance sheets by wrecking lives. The resulting institutional dispossession reproduces a racialized working class one rental unit at a time.
In a normal year, Chicago landlords file approximately twenty-three thousand evictions in court. Landlords “informally evict” an unknown additional number of tenants every year by removing front doors or appliances, shutting off utilities, or using direct intimidation. Many more tenants leave when their leases expire and landlords wager they can capture significantly higher rents. The vast majority of court cases concern less than twenty-five hundred dollars in back rent, and 60 percent end with a visit from the sheriff. In our city’s kangaroo courts, the overwhelming majority of landlords and only the smallest minority of tenants benefit from legal representation. Tenants in majority-Black neighborhoods are four times more likely than tenants in majority-white neighborhoods to face eviction.
After decades of disinvestment and worse, capital has returned to cities and neighborhoods covered again in blood and dirt and engineered a permanent housing crisis. In rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, developers purchase large multi-units and hand out thirty-day eviction notices so they can complete quick rehabs, move in more affluent tenants, and send long-term residents to who-knows-where. In poorer neighborhoods like South Shore and Austin, firms like Pangea watch for incoming public investments (Obama Library, Invest South/West) with the hope of cashing in down the road. In the meantime, they overcharge for rent relative to market value and rely on eviction court when tenants can’t make their artificially inflated bills—factoring the likely costs associated with eviction into their up-front rental fees. Outside the city, large equity firms buy up trailer parks and raise rents and service fees.
The Return of From-Below Movements against the Permanent Housing Crisis
These conditions defined the new wave of organizing for housing justice reforms. Forty years ago, a wave of community and tenant organizing swept the country, contributing to several important reforms. Chicago organizers proposed a Tenants Bill of Rights, including rights to withhold rent money for repairs as well as rent control, which passed in 1986 as the Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance, albeit without rent control. But within twenty years, observers wondered what happened to the tenants’ movement? Since then, half of renter households have found themselves cost-burdened, and a generation of Black wealth was wiped out in the mortgage crisis. Few members of the working class escaped unscathed. Now the looming eviction crisis gives this general experience a monstrous, concrete form, with nameable politicians enforcing boundaries around policy and debate while people face trauma and death. Experts predict twenty-one thousand evictions in Chicago alone during the first month after the moratorium expires.
But since 2010 we have also seen the tenant movement return to the stage in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, the East Bay, Omaha, Philadelphia, Chicago, and many other cities, as well as the revival of the National Union of the Homeless. This introduces a wild card into the balance of forces shaping our lives in the permanent housing crisis, and we won’t know what it means until history turns it over. As reform and organizing strategies focused on moving public officials encounter the limits laid down by the ruling class, we must do all we can to build this bottom-up power of the working class. Capital will likely impose these limits with even more force as governments apportion the costs of recovery and entrench austerity even further, and we will require strategies that do not depend on the political calculus of politicians. But as tenant movements draw members of the working class into a political space that can organize for equality between landlord and tenant, or even for a housing system built on collective ownership and self-management, we can see the fledgling contours of a new force whose demands can overstep the boundaries of reform. The magnitude of this force has yet to find its measure, and it is approaching a historic test.
A few days before Halloween, the Mac Tenants Union distributed winter coats, space heaters, thermometers, naloxone, and know-your-rights materials at a “Heat Strike” protesting inadequate heat in buildings held by the largest landlord in Hyde Park. At a march they organized in early April, passersby stopped and publicly shared their own stories about rent hikes and dilapidated buildings. Organizers in Chicago and elsewhere build on this phenomenon, creating organizing spaces extending beyond specific buildings and landlords. Just as tenants face the same problems with rent and repairs, their struggles to assert and defend their rights encounter the same forms of landlord pushback—retaliation and threats, whisper campaigns against organizers, cutting deals, and so forth. These aren’t the actions of individual bad landlords, but a feature of landlord class power. Likewise, tenant campaigns do not stay sequestered within their buildings, but frequently pull surrounding residents into action to support tenants fighting for better conditions. They politicize economic relationships that are normally experienced individually, and lead people to take collective action in solidarity against representatives of landed capital.
The pandemic has already released a proliferation of overlapping efforts to defend the most vulnerable from the police state and landed capital, revealing exhilarating and messy new contours of struggle. We’ve seen mutual aid groups mobilize for protests in support of homeless encampments. In Chicago, a temporary project to give people rides home after being arrested at protests has morphed into a permanent presence at Cook County Jail. Tenant unions march through neighborhoods and distribute supplies and know-your-rights materials. They mobilize neighbors to take actions against the normalized everyday threat of landlords. These efforts group into different organizing spaces, implementing different political strategies, but we should pay closest attention to their basic alignment. At their edges, these new formations act beyond their immediate organizing priorities to align with other struggles and carve out for themselves an embryonic class consciousness.
For these reasons, we must be careful not to assess the significance of this force in challenging the crisis before us in solely numeric terms, like how many building-level campaigns are underway or whether we turn out enough people to defend an impossible number of houses. We must also consider the larger political effect of directly challenging landlord power. In terms of organizing one building at a time, we have a steep mountain to climb. But much like the sudden breakthrough of socialist politics that has inspired an explosion of organizing, the visible proliferation of organizing activity adds material weight to reform demands like rent control or cancellation.
Surviving the Recovery: What Is a Win?
Will these politics survive the pandemic? The most important thing to remember is that the crisis is not unprecedented. Much like police violence and mass incarceration, for many working-class BIPOC communities eviction and unstable housing is a fact of life, at most a few degrees of separation away. This has two implications. First, the struggle to develop self-organized tenant power from below must remain a priority in building class politics beyond the pandemic. Whatever ability we have to defend against evictions right now rests on the organizing work of tenant unions in the years prior to the pandemic, building on the anti-eviction and anti-foreclosure work following the financial crisis. We will need this defensive infrastructure to respond to inevitable future climate, health, and political crises, as well as the crises stemming from the routinized violence in a private housing market.
Second, we must cohere the elements of class consciousness emerging out of struggle in the last year and insist that housing under capitalism is a permanent crisis. We must vocally push back against any call to return to normal, even on a safe schedule. This means that we have to acknowledge the grounding of today’s housing instability in the four-decade and four-century history of state and military land expulsions that define outwardly expanding capitalism from the Puritans to Palestine to Pilsen. This also means reopening strategic questions about the fight for land and space as an element of class struggle. What are the vulnerabilities of the $300 trillion of capital invested in real estate? What kinds of political and insurgent power can occupants of land exert? How is possession of land and space related to class formation?
The rapidly approaching eviction crisis is a classwide event, potentially condensing four decades of housing austerity into a single month. But the pandemic has been a classwide event, too, and has generated something other than linear growth. Whether the eviction crisis comes to pass or not, we are experiencing a collective drama staged at a scale that lays bare the basic class relations deciding who has a right to live in safety. This gives us an opportunity to throttle capital not one landlord or one vote at a time, but on the terrain of mass politics—to delegitimize and denaturalize the state violence which underwrites every dollar of landlord profit.
The tenant, mutual aid, and protest organizations that have grown during the pandemic will provide a vital bulwark against the forces gathering to push us into barbarism, but we need not accept a one-sidedly defensive orientation. A mobilized and class-conscious tenant movement can put forward more radical and permanent demands and visions of the type intimated in calls to cancel rent and for housing occupations. Maybe we organize beyond winning concessions from landlords or reforms within the state, and demand the collective ownership and self-management of large landlords like Pangea. A staggering number of landlords in poor and working-class neighborhoods only survive due to federal subsidies delivered through Section 8 and Low Income Housing Tax Credits, disguised as subsidies to the tenant. Maybe our movement stops the use of tax money to subsidize landlord profits and uses that money to convert their holdings into publicly owned and tenant-managed housing. Maybe we defund a global military apparatus and build new social housing.
We must define the farthest reaches of our politics by the most advanced demands of the working class, not by the stunted calculus of the capitalist state. Our ability to articulate demands like these as real political forces when we return to the normal permanent crisis will depend on what we organize this year.