Despite months of scattered rent strikes across the U.S. and a growing national campaign to cancel rent, there’s no sign of mass cancellation of rent anytime soon.
There has been some form of rent relief in a number of states, but flaws abound in those relief programs. Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, a co-founder of the LA Tenants Union, highlighted three of those flaws for The Nation—limited funding turns public assistance into a lottery system, means-testing excludes the undocumented and those working in the informal economy, and relief requires that tenants, rather than landlords, apply. “Tenants don’t need a bailout. They need a jubilee,” says Rosenthal.
Congress has not yet taken action on unemployment insurance, rent relief, or protection from the tsunami of evictions expected to take place once eviction moratoriums expire. In early September, the CDC announced a national, means-tested eviction moratorium that would be in effect through the end of the year—buying time for those tenants who are covered, who file a declaration with their landlord, and whose landlords won’t skirt the law. But many judges aren’t helping the situation, either because they don’t understand the CDC order or they don’t wish to assure it’s upheld. In places like New York and Houston, housing courts aren’t uniformly enforcing details of the order, or even consistently asking if the proper declarations have been filed. Many landlords have rushed to file evictions before tenants understand the protections they now have, or have filed for reasons other than nonpayment. Before the CDC moratorium was announced, eviction protections in 30 states had expired or were nonexistent, and so there are currently many eviction cases working their way through the courts.
Tenant organizers across the country—in places like Virginia, Louisiana, and New York—have taken direct action against surging eviction cases through tactics like mass outreach, shutting down court hearings, and picketing lawyers who represent landlords.
The city of Richmond in Virginia is known for its high rate of evictions. From 2000 to 2016, the city had the second highest eviction rate in the nation, and so when a statewide eviction moratorium ended in late June, the Richmond Tenants Union (RTU) was ready to take action. RTU has tried to clog courts by reaching out to tenants who don’t know they have pending eviction proceedings in progress. Typically, many tenants don’t receive court papers, and those who do either don’t understand the papers or don’t think their case has a chance to be heard, so they don’t attend their hearings. When cases are called, if tenants aren’t in attendance, landlords can file for default judgments, which judges can grant, thus churning through evictions. In Richmond from July 27 to Aug. 28, an average of about 170 eviction cases were on the court docket each week.
RTU members hoped that if most tenants showed up to their hearings, the churn would come to a near-standstill, breaking down the system, and forcing a formal decision to be delayed.
In an August presentation for a town hall on resisting eviction court held by the North America-wide Autonomous Tenants Union Network(ATUN), , one RTU member, who asked to be called Bee to prevent reprisal, and a co-presenter shared the nuts and bolts of RTU’s outreach success. RTU’s 15 core members had nearly doubled the organization’s capacity after publishing a social media call for short-term volunteers. The new volunteers worked in two groups of five, one visiting the local courthouse to get the addresses of tenants who had eviction complaints filed against them, and the other delivering letters to tenants’ homes. Of the 170 weekly eviction cases on the court docket for the end of July through the end of August, outreach volunteers visited an average of about 60 homes a week, says Kelsey, another RTU member.
The letters delivered by RTU volunteers informed tenants they had eviction filings against them, and explained how to look up the complaint, what papers they should have received, how to address the judge, what documents they need to bring with them when they go to court, and how to get legal aid. With the core members of RTU relieved of the bulk of outreach, they were able to focus on canvassing and building a tenant council, says Bee.
Despite the union’s success in reaching out to tenants, Bee says RTU has not been successful at clogging the courts. While it has notified many tenants of their evictions and has had some days when a large number of tenants showed up to court, on many days the churn continued. Without individual follow-up for practically every letter, it would probably be impossible to slow down the pace of evictions. One report from early September described a day when 200 evictions were on the docket and only 10 tenants showed up.
So RTU has concentrated its outreach efforts on tenants of Zacharias Brothers Realty, a real estate management company that owns over 600 rental units throughout Richmond. In the past decade, the company has filed more than 10,000 eviction complaints. Concentration has borne returns. The Zacharias Brothers “had one day where they were filing cases against 90 people and all but like a handful of them … either got dismissed or continued because so many tenants showed up,” says Bee. Tenants who have lost income due to COVID-19 may receive 60-day continuances under a Virginia emergency law. “Additional months buy us the time to hopefully organize with that person” and their neighbors, says Kelsey.
In July, with a coalition including Richmond Strike, Leaders of the New South, and Virginia New Majority, RTU held rallies at Richmond’s John Marshall Courthouse. At a July 1 rally against the lifting of Virginia’s eviction moratorium, hundreds blocked the building’s entry and were pepper-sprayed by police. One participant threw a brick at a window. The result—a couple of arrests and the court shut down.
The actions leading to the court’s closure weren’t planned but rather the result of the “spontaneous energy from these uprisings,” says Bee, referring to the nationwide rebellions that followed the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. On top of months of rent strike and #CancelRent campaigning, these rebellions and accompanying boosts to anti-racist organizing have charged up many in the tenants’ movement to take direct action against evictions. Some have explicitly connected the tenants’ movement and police abolition campaigns, with slogans like “evictions are police brutality,” referring to the role law enforcement plays in executing court-ordered evictions, sometimes backing up landlords’ extralegal evictions, and in maintaining residential segregation more broadly. In Richmond, the movement crossover had been deliberately cultivated, with abolitionist organizers inviting RTU to speak at their rallies. “Anti-racism has always been an integral part” of tenant organizing, says Kelsey, citing the persistence of residential segregation in Richmond.
At another July rally, Kelsey says the focus was on the Zacharias Brothers and on supporting their tenants who faced eviction. In keeping with their union strategy of encouraging tenants to organize with their neighbors, RTU has supported as many as 20 of Zacharias’ tenants by forming the Chamberlayne Tenant Council, named for a street where they reside.
On Aug. 7, RTU and its partners won a temporary victory when the Virginia Supreme Court again suspended eviction proceedings for a month. In September, the court lifted the suspension in light of the CDC moratorium.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Also at the ATUN Town Hall in August, Y. Frank Southall of the New Orleans Renter Rights Assembly (NOLARRA) detailed how his organization planned a successful shutdown of its district court.
In May, NOLARRA had petitioned local officials, resulting in the city council passing nonbinding resolutions calling on state and city courts to maintain court closures through Aug. 24, in keeping with the CARES Act eviction protections, and for the governor and federal legislators to cancel rent. These weren’t picked up by Gov. John Bel Edwards, nor, as mentioned, by Congress. In July, NOLARRA again called on the governor to do the same, but he did nothing. That same month, courts resumed hearing eviction cases after Louisiana’s moratorium ended.
Left with no other path, the group decided to garner support from a wide coalition and also allow autonomous groups to conduct direct actions, says Southall. NOLARRA invited local housing and mutual aid groups to independently prepare actions that would collectively shut down court. “[T]he only way we’re going to get our demands met is [by having] the people out in the street,” Southall told Shelterforce, adding, “We just got to take a page from what happened to the George Floyd protests.”
A video of a July 30 action went viral. In it, crowds block each of the court’s doors, holding their arms up to avoid assault claims and shuffling to prevent a person wearing a polo and khakis from entering the building. A video of the action produced later showed several people chaining themselves in front of doors. As the video cuts to show the full crowd, a speaker says, “They indeed have the power to stop evictions in the middle of a deadly pandemic, during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” then calls to the crowd, “What have they done?” The crowd responds, “Not enough!”
The action hasn’t has any effect on state policy. However, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell did launch a rental assistance crowd fund, since existing and emergency relief tied up in local bureaucracy has reached few tenants. A total of $67,446 has been raised so far, enough to cover one month’s average rent for only 56 households.
A week earlier, landlord Joshua Bruno—who had been illegally issuing three-day eviction notices to CARES Act–protected residents during the eviction ban—sent NOLARRA a cease and desist order to prevent them from canvassing his property, despite the fact that those inviting the canvassers included Section 8 tenants who have a federal right to organize. The group’s response was to bring what they call Slumlord Action Tours to Bruno’s properties, where they distributed literature on tenants’ rights and organizing. “[T]he group’s dream is to start organizing apartment complexes,” Southall says, but with the city’s current tenants movement still small and Louisiana tenants’ rights the sixth-weakest in the nation, people facing eviction typically come to the group only a few days before an eviction hearing. This has kept NOLARRA focused more on emergency case support than on longer-term council building.
Meanwhile, in New York, where the tenants movement is over a century old, COVID-19 unemployment drove masses to rent strike, with others joining the strike in solidarity. Ali, who didn’t provide a surname, says his tenants association met a half-dozen other associations in adjacent Brooklyn neighborhoods through the NYC Rent Strike website. Geographically there was a hole there in terms of organizing, Ali says, so in May the group founded Bushwick Bed-Stuy Tenants Coalition (BBSTC).
Landlords wouldn’t cave to rent strikers’ rent cancellation demands, and so the group realized it needed to “push the people in power, the people, [and] the landlord lobby, who actually make decisions that need to be influenced,” Ali says. This also meant extending community support to prepare for direct action. Through online media, flyering, and canvassing, the coalition met with another half dozen associations.
As Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to restart evictions in mid-June, BBSTC joined with other New York City tenants’ movements, like their fellow autonomous tenants union in Crown Heights and the statewide Housing Justice for All Campaign. The movement shuttered courts in late June—successfully pushing for an extended moratorium. “It was three days of actions to shut down housing court for three days straight,” says Ali of actions Aug. 4 to 6. These courts were easier to close because “they are very tightly packed and actually practice social distancing guidelines and the judges themselves, a lot of them are older, they’re not keen on being in like tightly packed quarters inside.” With the atmosphere altered by the social justice movement, police did little to interfere with the dozens of protesters who showed up at the Brooklyn housing court in August. The city’s Legal Aid Society estimated that as many as 14,000 households could face evictions if the courts opened.
On Aug. 5 Cuomo ordered state courts to extend the moratorium. Uncertain of follow-through, tenants continued direct actions. On Aug. 6, BBSTC marched from housing court, where about 300 people had shown up to shut down the court, to the nearby real estate law office of Balsamo, Rosenblatt, and Hall, filling it with dozens of people. Balsamo, Rosenblatt, and Hall were targeted because they mainly serve landlords and trade on their specialty in evictions through their web domain, nycevictionlawyer.com. Chants included “quit your job” and “no landlords, no cops, all evictions gotta stop.” The latter, of course, resonates with the current of police abolitionism. As for the “quit your job” chant, Ali says the disruption should make attorneys who also defend tenants think twice about representing landlords and could indirectly pressure landlords to settle because “their lawyers are kind of feeling this pressure around the case.” The hope is that continuous actions against landlords from all sides will make rent cancellation increasingly likely.
Shortly after the office action, BBSTC was called on by Tasha Rose, a tenant it had supported through weeks of harassment by her landlord. “The slumlord landlord at 181 Palmetto attempted again to illegally evict a tenant using a hired henchman, in violation of a restraining order,” the coalition tweeted. Previously, members of BBSTC had stayed with Rose in shifts throughout the night to prevent a person—believed to be an agent of the landlord but who had claimed to be a tenant—from gaining entry to her unit. This time, when the coalition arrived, the landlord and the agent fled.
Landlords who do not have the legal right to evict sometimes turn to so-called “self-help” eviction attempts. This includes intimidating or harassing tenants into leaving, locking them out of their homes, and relying on tenants’ lack of knowledge of their rights, fear of law enforcement, and the likelihood that they will just leave rather than spend the energy and resources to fight back. Self-help evictions are a tactic of landlord desperation where eviction protections remain in effect.
The Los Angeles Tenants Union has had success preventing such evictions, even when police take the side of landlords. In one successful defense, on May 29, a photograph shows a defender in Mission Hills deploying a similar hands-in-the air blockade tactic to prevent police unlawfully entering a tenant’s unit while avoiding pushing back on the officer. While the landlord stopped trying to lock the tenant out, other forms of harassment continued, including a power shutoff, and the tenant and her family decided to move. According to LATU, it has responded to at least a dozen attempted illegal lockouts since March, preventing or reversing the majority.
Like RTU and NOLARRA, LATU has educated organizations across the country in eviction defense tactics via town halls held by the Autonomous Tenants Union Network. The Bay Area Tenants and Neighborhood Councils has built up preparedness for the oncoming eviction wave by attending these trainings and studying the resources made available at them, as have hundreds of other tenants union members and members of the broader public.
By learning from those who have fought to stay above water at earlier cycles in the present eviction tsunami, the broader movement has some chance, however small, of dampening the impacts that federal, state, and local governments have failed to address. These tactics and others like them are happening across the country. “I think sometimes it can be intimidating for smaller places that have really, really, oppressive tenant rights [laws],” says Bee. “But it’s important to know, if we can do it here, you can do it anywhere.” Bee is referring to Virginia, where the eviction rate is nearly the highest nationally, and pandemic protections among the weakest.
Southall of NOLARRA agrees. “I just want people to realize that this needs to happen everywhere.” Kelsey of Richmond’s RTU highlighted the quiet, subtle parts of organizing, like outreach, that make more spectacular acts possible. And Ali of BBSTC in New York says, “I think now is the time to start preparing for really creative escalations of this struggle.”
With the new CDC eviction rules, which were perhaps brought about by unprecedented tenant militancy, further creative escalation of both outreach and street action may not only protect some individuals from eviction, but may force a situation where something like rent cancellation on a wide scale becomes possible.