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.”
So are other DSA chapters. From San Francisco to Austin, Chicago to New York, democratic-socialist organizers have led or joined an array of promising campaigns meant to protect tenants, resist gentrification, combat homelessness, and establish new rent regulations, among other goals. DSA members in these various cities say they are focused on housing justice because the ongoing affordability and homelessness crises have infused the issue with incredible urgency. These crises are displacing their neighbors, tearing at the bonds of their communities, and making urban life ever more unequal.
But they are also honed-in on housing for strategic reasons: eviction, gentrification, homelessness, and exorbitant rent are an indisputable illustration of the capitalist market’s failure to deliver basic human needs. “There is not one city in the US where a person working full time at minimum wage can afford a one-bedroom apartment. And…that makes no sense,” says Jen Snyder, an organizer with San Francisco DSA who has worked on numerous housing campaigns in that obscenely expensive city. “When we talk about building a movement, we’re talking about getting the most amount of people to see that capitalism is working directly against their best interests. And housing is a damn good way to talk about that.”
It’s also a powerful way to organize a political base, explains Cea Weaver, a member of NYC DSA’s steering committee as well as its housing working group. “As socialists, our goal is to build working-class power—whether at the polls, in our homes, or in our workplaces. New York tenants are a millions-strong constituency that cuts across lines of race, class, gender, and age. Many of us may vote as workers, students, or parents, but if we unite as tenants, we represent an unstoppable political force.”
And so the democratic socialists are mobilizing to challenge private capital’s control over where and how we live. They are emerging as energetic new players in a growing national tenants’ movement that aims to challenge the power of the real-estate lobby and reshape the way this country provides housing to its people. Their vision is to make dignified housing a universal human right, rather than a commodity, just as Medicare for All proponents hope to do with health care. First, though, they are organizing from the bottom up, alongside many allies, in the buildings and neighborhoods and cities where they live.
On June 5, the residents of San Francisco overwhelmingly passed Proposition F, a ballot initiative that establishes a universal right to legal counsel for tenants facing eviction. The initiative will give every tenant in the city, regardless of income, a publicly funded attorney to help them navigate housing court and avoid homelessness.
Proposition F didn’t happen by accident. It was born from months of prime-grade campaigning on the part of the city’s 800-member DSA chapter and its allies, including the San Francisco Tenants Union.
“DSA members were the vast majority of the canvassers and door knockers,” says SF DSA’s Jen Snyder, who was the campaign manager for Proposition F. “We were the main driving volunteer force, we were the campaign staff, the campaign office was the DSA office.”
Over the course of roughly five months, the campaign’s hundreds of volunteers stopped by more than 60,000 doors, called and texted thousands of people, held energetic rallies, and, much like the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaign, sought to expand the electorate by reaching out to low-frequency voters in neighborhoods with high numbers of renters.
“Our message was like: ‘I am a renter like you and, this time, something that is actually important will be on your ballot,’” says Snyder. “‘It is the most important thing for you and me since rent control, so I need you to show up.’”
When the polls closed on June 5, the campaigners headed to a local bar, uncertain whether they’d be drinking to celebrate or commiserate. Voters gave them cause for the former: Proposition F passed with 56 percent of the vote.
“Prop F is proof that people are ready for a hard line. They are ready to forget…all these incremental solutions that have let us down,” says Snyder. “In San Francisco, we walk over our homeless neighbors to get to work. We have reached a point in the housing crisis where people just want to fix it and they’re willing to try something bolder.”
As part of this effort to go bolder, SF DSA has joined with other DSA chapters across California and a slew of tenants’-rights organizations and advocates to press for a statewide ballot measure that would repeal California’s Costa-Hawkins Act, a law that places severe restrictions on the ability of local jurisdictions to enact rent control and other tenant protections. It will be a bitter brawl. The repeal initiative faces well-funded opposition from landlord and real-estate interests in the state—just last week the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the repeal initiative’s foes have already amassed a $20 million war chest thanks to generous donations from a handful of massive corporate developers. Only an army of on-the-ground organizers will be able to overcome that kind of money power, and that’s precisely how DSA, with its young, growing membership, hopes to plug itself in to the housing justice movement.
Consider New York City, where the 4,000-member DSA chapter is knee-deep in a housing-justice campaign of its own.
“The city-wide leadership and steering committees came together and decided to make housing one of the two top priorities for our chapter,” says Weaver, the NYC DSA steering committee and housing-working-group member. “The housing campaign for New York City DSA is a fight for universal rent control.”
Along with tenants’-rights organizations around the state, the chapter has joined the Housing Justice for All campaign, an ongoing effort to pressure Albany to eliminate loopholes in New York City’s rent-stabilization system, expand that system to the rest of the state, and enact just-cause eviction protections for all New Yorkers. To that end, in June, the group helped lead a march of more than 1,000 people through the streets of New York City. They walked up Park Avenue, past the offices of “oligarch corporate landlords like Blackstone,” as Weaver describes them, to a building where Governor Andrew Cuomo was receiving an award from real-estate contractors. Now, NYC DSA is in the midst of training its members—nearly half of whom live in rent-stabilized buildings—to become tenant organizers and recruit their neighbors to form tenant associations and fight for universal rent control.
“We really want to emphasize as NYC DSA that this campaign is led by longtime New Yorkers and people of color, and we are sensitive to the fact that many of us, though not all of us, are newcomers to the city,” says Weaver, acknowledging that some members are also gentrifiers. “Our niche, though, is this: We have 4,000 members across the city who are willing to put in work knocking on doors to build a powerful grassroots tenants’ movement, following the lead of their longtime neighbors. We are excited to help build that base.”
DSA is playing a similar support role elsewhere. In Chicago, the local chapter has joined a campaign called Lift the Ban to rescind Illinois’s long-time prohibition of rent control. In Austin, Texas, the local chapter has been advocating for a massive new housing bond that would help fund public-land acquisition and affordable-housing development in the city. And in the Twin Cities, DSAers are working in solidarity with important local tenants’-rights groups like Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia to help organize renters.
Taken together, DSA chapters across the United States have emerged as an important new force in the housing-justice movement. And as The Nation reported in June, that movement is ascendant. From coast to costly coast, tenants and organizers are fighting both to establish new rent regulations and promote a new era of social- and public-housing development in the United States.
Their cause is rapidly gaining traction. Just last week, Kaniela Ing, the Ocasio-Cortez–backed progressive running for Congress in Hawaii, unveiled a “Housing for All” plan. Drawing on recent research from the leftist think tank the People’s Policy Project, Ing’s plan calls on the federal government to build 10 million units of social housing in the next ten years. He wants to take this radical platform to Washington, DC, where the Stomp Out Slumlords campaign, for its part, continues to organize at the grassroots.
In recent months, the Metro DC DSA chapter has expanded its anti-eviction efforts in the city and is now actively offering organizational support to renters who are attempting to establish tenants’ associations in their buildings.
Shanel Wilson is a tenant in one of the buildings where Metro DC DSA has been active. She lives in an apartment near Washington’s northeastern edge, where she says tenants regularly receive mass-eviction notices from their property’s corporate manager. Some months, nearly half the tenants in her building are threatened with eviction, even as renters there live in subpar conditions.
“Stomp Out Slumlords noticed that there was a big influx of people going to court from my building every month,” says Wilson. “So they started coming in here and telling tenants their rights.”
Soon after, renters in the building decided to form a tenant association of their own, with Wilson as the vice president. DSA worked with the group to circulate a list of demands for their landlord, including an end to the threat of mass eviction each month. The tenants there now aim to hold the property manager accountable in more particular matters, too. They are making sure the walls get fixed and the trash gets taken out and the water bills aren’t too high. They are laboring to improve their living conditions.
“When you get people together and figure out they all have same complaints about their landlords,” says Hrabar, of Metro DC DSA, “it is really powerful.”