A large group of cheering people wearing yellow T-shirts hold a sign that reads "Homes Guarantee". In the background, a large sign reads "People before profits, politics, polluters."


Housing Justice Organizers Don’t Want to Return to ‘Normal’

As they organize for immediate relief for those whose housing was affected by the pandemic, tenant leaders are also building power to demand long-term changes.

Photo courtesy of People's Action

Housing justice: A crowd of cheering people in yellow T-shirts holds a sign that reads "Homes Guarantee". In the background, a large sign reads "People before profits, politics, polluters."

Photo courtesy of People’s Action

The shelter-in-place mandates instituted across the country as result of COVID-19 have made it clear that everyone needs to have a safe home in order to mitigate this public health emergency and any future ones. In these times, it’s much easier to explain why housing is a human rights issue and a matter of public health and safety. Building on that change, housing justice activists have seized this political moment to not only advocate for local relief and urgent housing-related provisions in the next federal coronavirus package, but to advance their long-term goal of guaranteeing a home for everyone, nationwide.

“COVID-19 has served as an unfortunate wake-up call for a lot of people that we need structural change. People are seeing in real time that the sorts of things we as a society tolerated, like no water, homelessness, being unhoused, or precarious housing for people, was wrong,” says Tracey Ross, the director of federal policy and narrative change at PolicyLink. “The crisis is highlighting that too many of our systems are not compassionate to the realities of everyday people’s lives.”

“It’s a moment of incredible clarity to see that the systems that we relied on for decades to deliver housing are a complete failure,” says organizer Tara Raghuveer, the housing campaign director for People’s Action. “Housing has been treated as a commodity rather than a public good.”

Big upheavals like the pandemic create opportunity. But it’s opportunity that is usually taken advantage of by those with power, at the expense of already vulnerable populations, like people of color and those with low incomes, people who are more at risk for negative outcomes. For example, larger landlords and investment firms may exploit people who are unable to pay their rent and mortgages during this time. If that were to happen now, it could lead to a housing market collapse like that of 2008.

Maurice BP-Weeks, the co-executive director of the Action Center for Race and Economy, was working as a housing organizer in 2008. He witnessed how brokers encouraged people to take out risky mortgages, banks foreclosed on their homes, and large private-equity firms bought up thousands of properties. He’s hoping that concerted action now will avoid such a disastrous outcome.

“I know how this story ends if we don’t act immediately,” BP-Weeks says. “The people who lose are Black and Latino renters and homeowners. Those who will win big are Wall Street, private-equity firms, big landlords, and big developers.”

Chris Schildt, a senior associate at PolicyLink, says her organization is working to win policies that will allow people of color and those of lower income to thrive moving forward, rather than going back to an intolerable and inequitable situation. Policylink has  launched Our Homes Our Health to advocate for solutions including rent cancellation

“We’re not striving to return to the status quo because the status quo was not working for low-income communities and communities of color,” says Schildt. “The housing cost burden is highest for low-income workers and people of color, especially Black women heads of household.” Housing cost burdens affect 62.9 percent of Black women, as compared to 40.8 percent of white men.

Housing justice and tenant activists affiliated with organizations that include People’s Action, PolicyLink, Right to the City, Action Center for Race and the Economy, and the Alliance for Housing Justice, among many more, have acted quickly to introduce visionary housing goals into the conversation around the next federal coronavirus bill. They are serious about winning immediate relief for those who are struggling and also committed to using the moment to advance the sense of what is possible.

Organizing for Immediate Relief

People’s Action and its Homes Guarantee coalition have developed a list of seven demands for immediate relief when Congress reconvenes in early May.

  1. Cancel rents and mortgages, or barring that, enact a rent/mortgage freeze and provide rental assistance.
  2. Enact a nationwide eviction/foreclosure
  3. Ban utility shut-offs and restore service to all households.
  4. Provide safe shelter for everyone who is homeless, provide emergency sanitation sites and health clinics in the meantime to serve those who are still unhoused, and end encampment sweeps, closures, and vehicle tows.
  5. Fund the Public Housing Emergency Response Act, which will provide funding to make immediate critical repairs that will make public housing a safe and livable place to shelter at home.
  6. Transfer $2,000 in cash to all people in the United States, immediately, with repeated transfers if people cannot return to work in the next six weeks.
  7. Ensure a just, green transition post-pandemic.

The Right to the City Alliance and its Homes for All campaign also have published a list of “Beyond Recovery” demands, which similarly ranges from the immediate to the visionary.

  1. Immediately cancel rent, mortgage, and utility payments for renters, homeowners, and small businesses.
  2. Provide safe, dignified, and cage-free shelter, sanctuary, and homes for all. Turn vacant units into safe homes and decrease the spread of COVID-19 by releasing people from cages.
  3. Implement a permanent moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and raids and sweeps of homeless encampments.
  4. Prohibit utility shut-offs and rate increases, and restore service to all households.
  5. Guarantee unemployment, sick time and paid leave, health care, safe conditions for workers, and a living wage for all.

Most of these demands are building on organizing that is happening, and programs and policies that have been won, at the state and municipal level. Oakland, California, passed a two-month eviction moratorium in late March, and Massachusetts passed a very strong one in late April. Cities like Cleveland, Memphis, and San Diego have ordered moratoriums on utility shut-offs.  In San Francisco and New York City, and in many other locations, people experiencing homelessness are being moved to private hotel rooms.  

But those results are piecemeal and don’t cover everyone in need, and so national networks like People’s Action and Homes for All are supporting their member organizations to elevate the voices of their members into a coordinated, consistent message to their governors and federal representatives. They are hoping to generate momentum from local tenant organizing in order to pressure officials to act now to keep tenants who can’t pay rent from being put out on the street.

“Right now, we’re seeing an unprecedented number of folks engaged broadly in housing and other issues through necessity,” says BP-Weeks. “People are talking about rent strikes and organizing in ways that have never happened before. So many people are working in this moment to win.”

A Stepping Stone to Homes for All

Both organizing networks see these packages of COVID-response demands as an opportunity to lift up their existing work to define housing as a human right and advance policies that will assure everyone a decent and stable home. The Homes for All campaign pledge, for example, which pre-dates COVID by many years, includes the principle that “land and housing should be accessible, permanent, quality, and connected to economic, social, and cultural networks and institutions. No person, regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, ability, citizenship, or previous criminal or housing record should be denied a home nor forced to live apart of the networks and institutions our communities rely on to survive and thrive.”

People’s Action defines a “homes guarantee” as a “policy that will ensure every person in the U.S. has housing that is safe, accessible, sustainable, and permanently affordable.” Their organizing asks for an end to homelessness, the building of 12 million social housing units, a reinvestment in public housing, and the de-commodification of the housing industry. The organizers are proposing the repealing of the Faircloth Amendment, an add-on to the Housing Act of 1937 passed in the 1990s that prohibits any net increase in public housing units. They are also calling on Congress to transfer hundreds of billions of dollars into the National Housing Trust Fund and approve the construction of carbon-neutral social housing to address the persistent shortage of affordable housing.

Raghuveer of People’s Action sees the organizing around the immediate demands, especially the call for rent cancellation, or “Rent Zero,” as the first step toward a national homes guarantee. “We need Rent Zero today and a homes guarantee tomorrow and forever,” she says. “My duty as an organizer is to leverage this crisis into the clear case for a homes guarantee, the establishment of housing as public good and a guarantee of a safe, accessible, and sustainable home for everyone.”

“The demands we’re putting forward are meant as a means to not only move demand federally and regionally,” says Davin Cardenas, national field organizer for the Right to the City Alliance and coordinator of RTTC’s Homes For All campaign on the West Coast, “but also to organize a larger base of renters to have more political power while we’re in this crisis, and as we get beyond this crisis and into the next.”

Raghuveer and other organizers say that building power in a network of organized tenants now will position them to build on previous work to enact long-term system change.

And it might not even be that long term. “We’re hearing from people in the House and the Senate that there might be a fifth, sixth, or seventh coronavirus package,” says Raghuveer. “Our view is that the politics shift so fast that we can win a rent and mortgage suspension in the next package and then we can win a Homes Guarantee in package seven.”

Organizing While Distancing

Needing to gather to advance these ambitious proposals, but unable to rally in person, organizers are taking to digital platforms to garner support. Right to the City Alliance has been hosting a series of digital rallies on a combination of video-conferencing platforms like Zoom and livestreaming via Facebook. The rallies feature spirited chants and even musical guests such as Ana Tijoux and Aloe Blacc. People’s Action is hosting a weekly video conference workshop led by Raghuveer called Homes Guarantee Thursdays, where tenants discuss strategies for organizing around Rent Zero and a Homes Guarantee.

“The highlight of my day is joining a digital rally,” Schildt of PolicyLink says. “Organizers are coming together virtually and pushing for a common vision for what people need to shelter at home, which is to have a home, a safe and stable home.”

But while the digital rallies and workshops are effective, not everyone has the means to access them. “What we’re seeing is a pivot in the nature of organizing towards virtual means, which is mostly good, but it runs the risk of excluding people who can’t organize virtually,” says Raghuveer.

However, she’s also witnessing analog methods of organizing through innovative communication tactics between tenants. Individuals are writing letters about the issues and dropping them at each neighbor’s door. People are inviting friends to digital organizing rallies and relaying information they heard at those calls to those without access to technology.

And neighbors are taking collective action at the building level by presenting their landlords with written demands about how rent should be canceled or laundry should be free during the pandemic. These local actions are part of building the kind of power and organization among tenants that will be needed to pass strong policies on a larger scale.

While the COVID-19 crisis has deeply affected the lives and health of the American people, organizers say it’s also opening up an opportunity to make things better for all Americans, especially the disenfranchised and neglected who were already suffering before pandemic. With these new digital and analog techniques of collaboration, organizers are feeling positive about their demands and the potential for change, and are prepared to push their agenda to Congress when it reopens.

“This level of coordination between grassroots networks is remarkable and exciting to us,” says PolicyLink’s Ross. “We’re feeling positive and optimistic about being able to pass this agenda.”

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