A New Housing-Rights Movement Has the Real-Estate Industry Running Scared

A New Housing-Rights Movement Has the Real-Estate Industry Running Scared

A New Housing-Rights Movement Has the Real-Estate Industry Running Scared

In cities across the country, tenants are demanding robust regulations to keep rents affordable and stop unjust evictions.


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.)

“The landlord lobby is a billion-dollar lobby,” Berger says. “It will be hard, but we have to do it.”

These stories and others like them are the visible roots of a nascent tenants’-rights movement taking form across America today. From Massachusetts and Minnesota to California and Colorado, renters are in revolt. They are organizing in individual cities from coast to coast to form tenants’ unions and push new rent regulations, including rent control, just-cause eviction and similar policies. They are working in state legislatures to overturn long-standing bans on commonsense tenant protections. And under the aegis of a national campaign called Homes for All, they are connecting with each other. Out of their disparate and localized concerns, they aim to build a mass movement that can lift housing justice to the very top of the national agenda.

“If we are going to win we have to organize a critical mass of impacted residents across the country,” says Anthony Romano, director of organizing at Right to the City, which is leading the Homes for All campaign. We have to “build an army.”

For countless Americans—black, white and brown, immigrant and native born, documented and not—housing is a source of wrenching, and deeply personal, desperation.

There are more than half a million homeless people living on America’s streets or in shelters, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. One fifth of them are children. At least 11 million tenants across the country are severely rent burdened, meaning they pay more than 50 percent of their income to their landlords. Twenty million Americans live in housing poverty, a situation in which people pay their monthly rent and don’t have enough money left over for food, medical care, and other necessities. Since 2007, median gross rents across the country have climbed by 6 percent. In the same period, median income for tenant households has inched up by just 1 percent. Gentrification is rapidly displacing long-time residents in urban centers across the country. Evictions, meanwhile, are a widespread plague.

“Every year in this country,” writes Harvard social-sciences professor Matthew Desmond in Evicted, his Pulitzer Prize–winning book on the housing crisis, “families are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands, but by the millions.”

This is the housing catastrophe that Homes for All and its allies hope to eradicate. And they are mobilizing against it in many places and from many angles, building their base among the more than 40 million households that rent in America today. They want to create a national coalition that can finally harvest popular discontent about the state of this country’s post-financial-crisis housing market.

In Denver, for instance, the Colorado Homes for All campaign is recruiting tenants like Araceli Barrera to construct a political base that is capable of pushing legislation at both the local and state level. As in many places across the country, a preemption law passed by the state legislature in 1981 bars Colorado cities from establishing rent control in their jurisdictions. Colorado Homes for All aims to overturn that prohibition, but first it has set its sights on an easier objective. This year it will be rallying its supporters to pass a “warranty of habitability” bill in the state legislature that effectively allows tenants to go on rent strike if their housing is infested with pests, in disrepair or otherwise fails to meet adequate standards.

Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, an organizer with the group, says the bill will be introduced in the legislative session this year. It was born directly out of the experiences of Barrera and other tenants living in substandard housing.

“It is really exciting,” she says, “because it’s the first bill that came directly from tenants’ stories.” In the months ahead, she adds, her group’s members will be lobbying at the state capital and holding continuous meetings and rallies to advocate for the legislation.

Anthony Romano, who helps steer Homes for All at the national level, says the “warranty of habitability” bill will be a crucial organizing tool.

“Warranty of habitability is very strategic,” he says, “because it essentially legalizes rent strikes and can help you expand the movement tremendously.”

Tenants in Boston are taking a similarly strategic approach. Massachusetts law prohibits rent control too, and so the tenant-defense group City Life—a key member of the national Homes for All coalition—has successfully pushed a bill in recent months that uses other means to protect renters facing eviction. Called the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act, the law requires landlords to inform the city when they intend to evict tenants. This requirement will give local officials and advocacy groups the ability to more comprehensively assist tenants in eviction proceedings, inform them of their rights and organize them. The bill passed the City Council in October, and must now be approved by the state legislature.

“It is a step in the right direction,” says Helen Matthews, a staffer at City Life.

In Minnesota, Oregon, and Rhode Island too, tenants groups aligned with the Homes For All campaign are building power. In Minneapolis, for instance, a group called Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia is currently organizing tenants into collective-bargaining units capable of resisting rent hikes and demanding repairs at scores of buildings. In Oregon, the Portland-based Community Alliance of Tenants recently helped launch the Southern Oregon Tenants Union, the first-ever such union in the state’s rural southern region. In Providence, Rhode Island, a group called Direct Action for Rights and Equality, or DARE, is beginning to collect signatures to put a rent-control and just-cause-eviction ordinance on the 2018 ballot. The ordinance will tie rent increases to the rise in the Consumer Price Index and eliminate the ability of landlords to evict tenants without a legally justifiable reason, among other protections.

“The landlords’ association and the apartment association are going to throw out big money to stop this,” says Malchus Mills, a tenant who organizes with DARE. “So we are going directly to the people.”

There are many barriers to establishing rent control in cities across the country, but the most formidable is this: preemption. At least 27 states currently have laws on the books that explicitly bar city governments from establishing rent control and other forms of tenant protections. Landlord and real-estate lobbies, as well as right-wing groups like the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have pushed these prohibitions for decades. In Illinois in 1997, for instance, state legislators passed a law that banned local governments from enacting, maintaining, or enforcing “an ordinance or resolution that would have the effect of controlling the amount of rent charged for leasing private residences or commercial property.” According to the Chicago Reader, Michigan, Arkansas, South Dakota, and numerous other states passed strikingly similar bills in the years that followed. All of these laws, in turn, are nearly identical to a model bill called the “Rent Control Preemption Act” that the ALEC first adopted in 1995.

Tenants, however, are chafing under these punitive restrictions. In Chicago, a coalition called Lift the Ban is organizing across the city to put an end to the state’s prohibition on rent control. Backed by unions, neighborhood organizations and faith groups, the coalition has held at least 20 community meetings since its efforts began in earnest last year. It has organized door-to-door canvassing in communities across the city. It has convened large town-hall meetings to build support for its efforts. It has lobbied state legislators directly and run a social-media outreach campaign, and it plans to engage in direct action this year too. It has also placed a referendum on the March ballot in numerous wards across Chicago that will give voters an opportunity to express their support for rent control. Its ultimate goal is to build massive public support for a bill currently before the state legislature that would repeal the long-time ban.

“We are at a crossroads in Chicago,” says Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and a leader in the Lift the Ban coalition. “Working families are fleeing the city simply because it is getting harder and harder to make ends meet. We have to find a way for people to survive in this modern economy.”

Halfway across the country, in Washington State, organizers and sympathetic state legislators are also preparing to fight for a repeal of the state’s ban on rent regulation. Over the course of the last two years, the city of Seattle has witnessed the rise of a vigorous local tenants’ movement. In 2016, housing-justice organizers there won a suite of new rental protections through legislation passed by the City Council, including an ordinance that places strict limits on the kind of nonrefundable fees and deposits that landlords can impose on tenants. Now organizers want to take the crucial next step.

“Washington has some of the weakest tenant protections in the whole country,” says Xochitl Maykovich, the political director at the Washington Community Action Network, or Washington CAN. “Until cities are able to do what they want to solve the housing crisis, it is not going to end.”

A progressive base-building group that played an essential role in establishing Seattle’s recent renters protections, Washington CAN is currently partnering with the Washington Federation of State Employees to press the fully Democratic state government to overturn the rent-regulation prohibition. And they have an ally in State Representative Nicole Macri, who announced in this past December that she intends to introduce a bill to that effect.

“[The] last attempted repeal of the ban on rent regulation took place in the nineties,” says Maykovich. “This is the first repeal effort in well over a decade.”

That fact alone indicates just how radically the politics around renters’ rights have changed in recent years. Indeed, much of that change can be traced back to California, a state that has become the leading edge of the tenants’ movement. When the Bay Area city of Richmond passed a new rent-control ordinance in November 2016, it was as if someone flicked a flaming match into a parched forest. The new law, which tied rent increases to the Consumer Price Index and established just-cause eviction in the city, set off a conflagration of agitation and organizing and hope.

“It was enormous that rent control passed in Richmond in 2016, because that hadn’t happened for 30 years in California or anywhere really,” says Aimee Inglis, the associate director of the California-based renters group Tenants Together. “People didn’t think it was possible.”

Since then, California’s renters’ movement has exploded in scope and intensity. Last fall, Tenants Together, Homes for All, and their allies hosted a statewide renters’ assembly in the Bay Area that drew more than 500 tenants and organizers from every corner of California. They came together to meet their comrades, to discuss strategy, and to make common cause in the fight for housing rights.

People came, adds Inglis, because “they are fighting to stay in the places they care about.”

Such places include Santa Cruz, where Cynthia Berger and her group the Cruz Tenants Association are currently working to collect 8,000 signatures to put rent control and just-cause eviction on the 2018 ballot. Berger says the group’s steering committee of 25 people is recruiting canvassers from among local tenants.

“Tenants have to be at the heart of the effort,” she says. “You cannot win rent control if the tenants are not on board.”

More than 300 miles to the South, in Long Beach, the movement is also ramping up for a rent-control ballot initiative. The campaign is being led by Housing Long Beach and the Long Beach Tenants Union, alongside allies like the Long Beach Grey Panthers, a group called Latinos in Action and faith organizations. Josh Butler, the executive director of Housing Long Beach, says his group recently conducted a poll and found that 70 percent of those polled support rent control in the city.

“Long Beach has the largest population of renters on the West Coast without any basic protections, whether rent control or just-cause eviction,” he says. “We have to do something to help people during this housing crisis.”

Tenant advocates in the city have already filed paper work with local officials to place an initiative on the November 2018 ballot. Once they get approval to do so, they plan to start collecting signatures right away.

And still there’s more. Organizers in Inglewood, Glendale, and Pasadena have also announced their plans to push rent-control ballot initiatives this year. Meanwhile, in places like Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, San Diego, and Concord, tenants are actively laying the groundwork for future rent-control campaigns. And additional tenant organizing is ramping up in dozens of other cities, from San Jose to Oakland to Los Angeles to Petaluma. The movement is everywhere.

Finally, progressive groups of all stripes are working to repeal California’s Costa-Hawkins Act, a law that prohibits rent control in buildings constructed after 1995, among other provisions. The powerful Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment as well as the AIDS Healthcare Foundation filed paperwork last October to put a repeal measure on the 2018 state ballot. At the same time, Tenants Together has been working to recruit politicians to back a repeal bill in the state legislature. If universal rent control is to be established in California, as organizers hope, then Costa-Hawkins has to go away.

Ultimately, however, these fights are about more than universal rent control. They are about the ownership structure of this country’s housing market.

“We have to build a base of tenants, a movement,” says Anthony Romano of Homes for All. “And no movement is going to be strong unless it is rooted in democratic, participatory tenant unions.”

If a horizontal and participatory movement truly emerges all across this country, tenant organizers believe the possibilities are boundless.

“What we are trying to do is change the structure of ownership, not just the fees imposed on people,” says Helen Matthews of City Life in Boston. “The more that we can prevent speculation in the housing market, then the easier it will be for us to help nonprofit and community organizations take property off the private market and put it in community hands.”

She sees a future where community land trusts and non-profits and limited equity co-ops own a city’s housing supply. It’s a future where the capitalist class no longer controls the living conditions of Socrates Guzman, Cynthia Berger, Araceli Barrera and millions of their fellow Americans.

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