Socrates Guzman tends to get tearful when he talks about his housing troubles. For 11 years, he says, he lived in a small apartment in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, traveling back and forth from his job as a janitor and paying $1,000 a month in rent. Then, one day in 2016, he learned that his home had been sold to a new landlord, and that the landlord wanted to raise his rent to $1,850 a month. He would be out on the street within a month if he didn’t pay up.
“There was no way I could catch up to $1,850 a month,” he says. “I can’t pay that amount. That is a crazy increase.”
Guzman thought the price hike might be illegal under city law, but soon realized that rent control does not exist in Boston. So he connected with a group called City Life, a local eviction-defense group that helped him organize his neighbors. Together, they fought in housing court and stretched the legal process long enough that their new landlord eventually gave up and agreed to sign a three-year contract that significantly reduced the proposed rent hike.
Now, nearly two years later, Guzman is a full-blown tenants’-rights organizer, helping other renters navigate housing court and working with City Life on a long-term campaign to enshrine rent protections in Boston. “Rent control is the key,” he says. “Nothing else is going to help.”
Araceli Barrera is a housekeeper at a hotel in Denver. Last year, the apartment where she lives with her husband and two children was overrun with an insect infestation. She says she had to trash most of her belongings and move out. When her landlord took her to housing court to force her to fulfill the final months of her lease agreement, she turned to a local renters coalition called Colorado Homes for All. The group provided her with a pro bono lawyer who helped defend her in the case.
The experience politicized her. Now Barrera is helping Homes for All push a bill in the state legislature that would allow Colorado tenants to withhold rent from their landlords if their housing is in disrepair.
“I lost everything, my belongings, my home, and the life of my family was uprooted,” she says in Spanish. “That makes me want to fight harder. I want to go to the capitol and tell my story and be heard.”
In 2013, Cynthia Berger found herself living in her minivan in Santa Cruz, California. She had lost her job after the 2008 financial crisis and had to ask friends to let her park on their property. During this period, she started studying the housing market, trying to understand why people like her were forced to live such precarious lives. She contacted a state-wide renters’ organization called Tenants Together. Its staff members trained her in the art of organizing.
“I learned that renters have few rights in this state,” she says. “And I learned that rent gouging is the order of the day.”
Soon after, she started a hotline for tenants in her city. She connected with other outraged renters and housing activists. Today she and a group of allies are running a campaign to put a rent-control and just-cause-eviction ordinance on the 2018 ballot in Santa Cruz. (Just-cause-eviction regulations stipulate that landlords can evict tenants only if they fail to pay rent or somehow breach their lease. They cannot evict renters arbitrarily.)