In the spring of 2017, at a house party celebrating May Day in Washington, DC, a small crew of socialist organizers identified an enticing vulnerability in their city’s local eviction machine—one that might help them slow or even stall its gears.
With beers in hand and electronic music in the background, members of the Metro DC chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America hashed through the facts: Each year, landlords in the city submit between 30,000 and 50,000 eviction filings in DC housing court, trapping tenants in a complex and intimidating legal system that rids them of their homes with frightening efficiency. Tenants often don’t show up for court and are evicted by default. Sometimes tenants aren’t even informed that they are facing eviction and have no chance to advocate for themselves. Many renters don’t know where to go for legal help. Many don’t know their rights. But what if people pushed back, the organizers wondered? What if tenants started clogging up that too-efficient court system? The house party ended, and a new housing campaign began.
“We decided to go to the courthouse and pull all of the dockets and start canvassing tenants facing eviction,” says Margaret McLaughlin, the chair of the Metro DC DSA chapter. “We wanted to let them know their rights—that they have a right to a lawyer. That they need to show up to court.”
The chapter started sending out 10 to 20 volunteer canvassers each weekend to do long days of door-knocking at rental units across the city. They hit roughly 200 doors on any given weekend, encouraging tenants to defend themselves from eviction. They wrote an organizing manual to guide their efforts. And they chose an aggressive name for the campaign: They called it Stomp Out Slumlords.
“While we obviously want to help individual tenants avoid eviction, our project has an immediate political goal: to disrupt the operations of D.C.’s landlord-tenant court, and, as far as we can, end eviction in the city,” the chapter wrote in a recent report on the campaign. “Landlords need the threat of eviction to do business. We want to make that business impossible by preventing them from evicting tenants.”
Chapter organizers keep data on every door they knock so they can measure the impact of their work. They have found that tenants they directly contact are nearly twice as likely to show up for court as tenants they aren’t able to reach. So far, in 14 months of canvassing, Stomp Out Slumlords has reached more than 2,500 people.
“The court system is mostly working right now as a conveyor belt to evict people,” says Allison Hrabar, a member of the chapter’s steering committee. “We are throwing a wrench in that system.”