We Keep Us Safe: A Socialist Case for Grassroots Eviction Defense Organizing

Inadequate government response to COVID-19 has set the stage for our country’s long-simmering housing crisis to become an imminent housing catastrophe, the likes of which have not been seen in the United States since the Great Depression. Despite its massive scale, dire implications for working people, and the domino effect it will have on the national economy, government at all levels has provided, at best, a deficient and short-sighted response.

Congress has gone on recess until mid-September while letting expire the $600/month unemployment benefits that served as essential rent supports for millions. Trump’s phony unemployment executive order won’t cover up the fact that expenses and rent are piling up for those who cannot afford it, ultimately putting up to 40 million renters at risk of being evicted in the next several months.

In New York, the state government is similarly stagnant. Over the summer, momentum has built for a progressive three-bill package that proposes to cancel rent during the pandemic, extend an eviction moratorium until one year after the pandemic ends, and provide housing vouchers for homeless New Yorkers. This is the solution that is needed to ensure no New Yorker is left behind in procuring desperately needed rent support, but it’s crawling along. Instead, Albany has opted for smaller interventions such as bite-size extensions of the eviction moratorium and providing vouchers to landlords whose tenants can prove income loss under COVID-19. These policies, pushed by Democratic politicians from establishment Governor Andrew Cuomo to relatively progressive Senate Housing Chair Brian Kavanagh, are wholly insufficient. The Democratic Party in New York may have delayed a wave of mass evictions, but its current approach will not stop it.

Meanwhile, landlords have been ruthless toward tenants who are struggling to pay rent, eagerly preparing to evict as many as possible. Thanks to organizing pressure, the statewide eviction moratorium has been extended several times. However, landlords are hungry for rent and turning to informal, illegal evictions. These are particularly traumatic events for tenants and often come with very little warning, sometimes taking place in the middle of the night. They are intended to make tenants feel powerless, alone, and unable to fight back. Eviction defense responders from Los Angeles to Brooklyn have reported instances of law enforcement refusing to help tenants during illegal evictions, yet another demonstration that police are on the side of landlords and owners, not renters and workers.

What has been proven to deter informal evictions is a two-part strategy of eviction defense. As responders physically barricade the apartment with the tenant and their belongings inside, people gather around the building as witnesses, and conduct press and community outreach—all to prevent landlords from hiding their actions.

Renters cannot rely on legislators who are overwhelmingly not accountable to our interests. What renters need is an organized mass fightback made up of working people who understand that the tenants’ movement must take back power from the landlord class. The grassroots organizing strategies of organized rent striking and eviction defense have already changed the dynamic of the housing crisis under COVID-19.

Yet eviction defense is ultimately a stopgap and defensive strategy that cannot by itself address the conditions that have caused the housing crisis in the first place. Eviction defense organizations must actively link their fight to other working people’s struggles, and politicize who is at fault for the housing crisis: the capitalist class, of which real estate and landlords are a crucial part.

This capitalist class is also responsible for the divide-and-conquer strategy of racist policing and the bloated police budgets that enforce it. Racism infects housing injustice: according to the Housing Justice for All Coalition, 51% of black households report having missed a month of rent between April and July, while only 6% of white households did. The police play a brutalizing role during evictions, informal or court-ordered, and punch, choke, and mace homeless people. Both of these groups are disproportionately people of color, demonstrating that Black Lives Matter issues are housing justice issues, and vice versa.

Another example is within labor. Labor unions fighting for better working conditions should actively and vocally support tenant action, to protect their members’ communities from a devastating wave of evictions. Labor unions should lend their resources to building cross-movement structures to help organize and plan eviction defense and mass rallies. As budget cutting and unsafe COVID-19 reopenings continue in both the public and private sectors, an organized labor movement can build on the global strike wave of 2019 and push back against racist austerity. Imagine how quickly power would shift into the hands of working people if a mass general strike coincided with a mass rent strike!

Socialist Alternative works to build closer solidarity between our movements, and we call on housing, BLM, and labor activists to deepen their collaboration—an approach taken by the national Rent Strike 2020 movement, which Socialist Alternative members are proud to support. Our movement’s demands should point towards a bold, integrated program that identifies the root cause of these issues, with demands such as “defund the police and tax the rich to fund affordable housing.”

Socialists have an important role to play in showing to renters, youth, and working people that our social movements are stronger when united. The system of capitalism, so exposed by this pandemic as incapable of meeting human need, is dying—but a new system of socialism is not yet born. We must connect eviction defense to Black Lives Matter and labor movements, in particular, to build strength in numbers, amplify our voices, and lay the basis of a workers’ party and sustaining mass movement at a critical hour.