Housing Organizing in the Year of the Pandemic

California housing organizers reflect on what changes, and what stays the same, during a pandemic.

Photo by Daniel Lobo via Flickr. CC0 1.0

Photo by Daniel Lobo via Flickr. CC0 1.0

One evening in 2018, a stranger knocked on Lenea Maibaum’s door.

At first, she was hesitant to open it. Random door knocks are not common in dense apartment buildings near San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. But she decided to answer the knock. At her door was Brad Hirn, a lead organizer with the Housing Rights Committee (HRC) of San Francisco. He had been talking to residents about displacement in the building due to their corporate landlord’s abuse of San Francisco laws, which allowed for massive rent increases.

As a native San Franciscan, Maibaum often could not recognize the city she grew up in. “I was thinking, if they’re doing this to me and my neighbors in my building, I can just imagine what they’re doing to others,” she says. At the time, her landlord, Veritas Investments, was engaged in a campaign to push out long-term tenants from their buildings. A typical tactic of theirs was “Constructive Evictions.” This practice allows landlords to take advantage of loopholes in the city’s rent ordinance, passing along the cost of building repairs to residents.

Housing costs and evictions had long since pushed many of Maibaum’s friends and family out of the city. In 2018, rent for a one-bedroom apartment there was $3,560 a month. A renter such as Maibaum, working in the service industry, would have to work approximately 60 hours a week to pay that kind of rent. Suspicious of the motives of the organizers, but wanting to make a difference, Maibaum began attending HRC meetings. There she learned about the economics driving the housing crisis. It wasn’t long before she was the one knocking on strangers’ doors.

For decades, the Housing Rights Committee has been a pillar of the tenants’ movement in San Francisco. It played a major role in the 1979 campaign to win Rent Control in the city.  Its tenant counseling hotline equips residents in crisis with the information they need to defend themselves against evictions and organizes trainings to build the participation of activists like Maibaum, teaching them necessary organizing skills such as outreach and coalition building. Over the past decade, the organization embraced community organizing as a larger part of its repertoire. Maibaum was a quick study. Taking every opportunity to apply what she learned in the classroom to real life, she became the type of leader who could be counted on to hit the doors. Face-to-face outreach is the foundation of organizing.

In spring 2020, HRC hired her as a full-time organizer. Then she had to unlearn much of what she had learned because a few short weeks later, Bay Area authorities declared a shelter-in-place order that forced Maibaum and HRC to revise many of the traditional approaches to organizing. 

Innovation Amid an Epidemic

Creativity and flexibility are essential to housing organizing in the year of the pandemic, says Maibaum. “We still do outreach; tenants still call us. Our physical clinic is closed but the phone lines are still open. We hear their stories and see what’s the problem and what issues they might have. And then we start to help them organize themselves or try to find an organic leader. We ask them ‘who do you know in your building?’ We help them come up with a plan to flyer in their own buildings. We can’t go out door-knocking like we would back in the old days.” The art of door-knocking in community organizing has been a constant for decades. Organizers talk to residents about the issues impacting their lives, hoping to find people willing to get involved with campaigns. The pandemic has made organizers lean in on their already existing networks of leaders and contacts.

The reality of COVID-19 complements the organizing model the HRC has adopted. HRC staffers have trained with influential labor organizer Jane McAlevey, author of No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, among other books. McAlevey emphasizes the need to support community leaders who can move their neighbors to action. These leaders are the ones who have the phone numbers, can distribute literature in their buildings, and have the trust and respect of those they know. Reflecting on McAlevey’s lessons, Hirn said,  “We are training our volunteers on how to hold one-on-one conversations over the phone. It’s part of a process of reimagining everything organizers do. We ask what a face-to-face meeting would look like in that medium. From the beginning of shelter-in-place [order], we just tried to do more meetings over Zoom. We look for leaders who can bring their neighbors with them. [Maibaum] is excellent at doing outreach to people all over the city. But thankfully, she was also good at talking to her own neighbors. That is one of the qualities we look for.”

Just as outreach has become a challenge, so too has the art of mobilization. Organizers typically take action in person and in close proximity to one another, which violates commonsense ways to avoid spreading a virus. One way that the HRC has gotten around this is the tactic of the car caravan. On May Day, along with several labor unions, HRC organized a car caravan to pressure Gov. Gavin Newsom to cancel rent and mortgages in California. At a time when demands for total rent and mortgage cancellation seemed like a possibility, housing organizers in the state felt shorted by the governor’s response. Lupe Arreola, executive director of Tenants Together, explained, “I would be hesitant to call what came out of the governor’s office ‘tenant protections.’ His executive orders basically told cities and counties that they should pass some sort of rental protections. This left some tenants fairly well protected, but others, maybe in the next county over, with next to nothing.” Ironically, it was California’s Judicial Council—pushing an emergency order in April 2020—that banned evictions and foreclosures from moving forward during the pandemic, plus 90 days.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged housing organizers to innovate and improvise. Challenging the well-funded landlord lobby to a fight is something that groups like Housing Rights Committee and Tenants Together do on a regular basis. It is difficult to win meaningful relief in normal times. The crisis hasn’t changed this, but the debate around housing rights has reached new audiences. now openly discuss the idea of rent and eviction moratoriums. In June, HBO’s John Oliver dedicated an entire show to the housing crisis. Arreola’s frustrations reflect a world where most of our expectations around organizing are now topsy-turvy. “There were thousands and thousands of people that contacted the governor trying to get him to pass an eviction moratorium.”

A Right to the City

The inequities embedded in the housing crisis are compounded by massive job loss. If the rent was too damn high before, it is impossible today. The crisis has opened a space in the public dialogue to move the discussion beyond short-term fixes. At the same time, immediate relief is exactly what is needed for many.

Joseph Smooke, a longtime housing activist and filmmaker, described the housing crisis before the pandemic as a scene of “out-of-control speculation, and a constant barrage of media and political pressure to deregulate housing. This was just to make sure the developers have minimal risks and maximum profits. The message that we kept getting from city officials was ‘no more community input, we just got to keep building.’”

The demands of housing organizers during the pandemic have ranged from explicitly radical political demands to more practical demands. As Tony Roshan Samara of Urban Habitat explained, “We talk about rent cancellations and rent moratoriums and then the more conventional demands around just relief. People are in deep, deep financial and other kinds of crises. And they just need breathing room, right, they need some space to like, collect themselves and figure out a way forward for themselves, their households, their families.”

[Related: Housing Justice Organizers Don’t Want to Return to Normal]

From Samara’s vantage point, there have been a lot of promising proposals to push housing rights forward but a lack of coalescing at a mass level around any one of these solutions as a political strategy for right now. For him, organizing for housing today means negotiating complex dynamics of visionary projects and survival demands. Propose only the abolition of rent, and risk alienating the people who need direct relief. Samara asks, “How do we help people get through this crisis, with no real discussion or even real acknowledgment of the kind of the deeper structural problems that put us here in the first place?”

Beyond the issue of political will in the statehouse, Arreola also believes there exists a gap between activists ready for big structural reform—and their advocacy for radical actions such as rent strikes—and tenants hoping to pay their rent on time. So even as the idea of a national rent strike spread through social media, only a few strikes have lasted for long. “Usually, rent strikes are used to stop an eviction or it’s to get repairs or to stop unjust treatment from the landlord … They are [an] extremely powerful tool. We also found during the first months of the pandemic that most of the tenants wanted to pay rent, to uphold their end of the contract,” says Arreola.

The calls for big structural change in housing and the slower base building done by groups like Tenants Together should be reconciled. With Columbia University projecting a 40-45 percent increase in homelessness due to COVID, it can be argued that we are long past the point where piecemeal reforms can do the job. The types of action needed to alter this sad state of affairs won’t be possible unless organizers build durable organizations capable of talking to those who find themselves facing evictions, high rents, and displacement.

Curiously enough, one of the ideas that animate many housing organizers in the United States is “the right to the city” (le droit à la ville), advanced by Henri Lefebvre, a French radical theorist. Lefebvre’s ideas argue that those who build the city through their labor should have a future and a democratic role in determining that future. As sociologist Neil Smith, author of The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City, put it, Lefebvre “put the urban on the agenda as an explicit locus and target of political organizing.” In this case, Smith referred to “the urban” meaning that the city itself, not just factories, was a point of resistance, disruption, and organization.

Samara describes the Right to the City as a search for answers to the question, who is disenfranchised in the contemporary city? “We are looking beyond just material production, we’re looking at productions of space, and productions of culture within the city,” he says. “Policies should reflect the needs of the people who do the work. Now, it has a much more expansive meaning and many contradictory meanings.” Looking at the contemporary city, the production of space is largely determined by developers, planners and politicians. Occasionally, social movements open up spaces for everyday people to participate in the decisions that shape their communities. But development in the United States tends to be a private instead of a public affair.” The term “production of space” refers to the financial and political power relations that determine what gets built in a city, for whom, and why.

Lefebvre theorized about cities at the dawn of the neoliberal era, in the 1970s. Neoliberalism is the political project of rolling back policies that benefit working-class people, be it regulations, public investment, or popular power. Throughout the next few decades, it was mostly neoliberal public policy solutions that triumphed and remade cities. New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s provided the Ford administration with opportunities to test corporate-friendly policies. By refusing to assist New York’s exit from bankruptcy, the federal government forced the city to slash social spending, including free tuition at the City University of New York. Hard-won gains of labor unions were curtailed. Banks received the green light to end lending the city money.

The signal was sent by the federal government that experiments in urban social democracy, rooted in the New Deal ethos, were mistakes of a bygone era. The Reagan-era deregulation of the banking industry resulted in a Savings & Loan scandal only after facilitating rampant property speculation. The Clinton era placed the battle for cities front and center again through the large-scale destruction of public housing through the HOPE VI program. In this sense, the elite also claimed their own version of the right to the city—one that centered their own prerogatives and posed their own solutions: deregulation and privatization.

It is impossible to predict whether the survival campaigns during the pandemic will coalesce into a new conversation around housing as a human right. The Right to the City Alliance (which Samara serves on the advisory board of) has launched the “Beyond Recovery” program. In addition to immediate demands for rent and mortgage cancellation, they demand a housing guarantee for all. Given the alliance’s membership of base-building organizations, this might become a vehicle for bridging the gap between pragmatic organizing and structural change.

Samara believes that we should be thinking of this as a transition moment. “In the early days of the shelter-in-place order when we started to see that first wave of calls for rent cancellations and rent strikes, we didn’t connect enough to the grassroots. Why didn’t this lead, at least in its first wave, to kind of a kind of upsurge of rent strikes around the country? We’re in the early stages. I mean a year from now we might be looking at rent strikes all over the country. We just don’t know and you just can’t predict this kind of stuff.” He emphasized that organizations with a good “preexisting ground game” would be the ones most likely to score victories in the changing policy landscape.

Arreola has a simple hope that tenants will start to recognize themselves as tenants. “By the time the pandemic is over, I want all tenants in California, all 18 million of them, to have a class consciousness about what it means to be a tenant. This pandemic has proven that evictions can happen to anybody. I hope that this consciousness results in more solidarity. When so many people have been out of work it is hard to maintain blaming oneself or your neighbors for the housing crisis.”

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