“If you think about it one way, we’re in the midst of the biggest rent strike in national history,” Tara Raghuveer, director of the KC Tenants union, told me over Zoom: “There’s massive noncompliance from inability to pay the rent, and hundreds of thousands of people are politicizing that inability, as they should.” In Jackson County, where Kansas City is located, the eviction moratorium expired at the end of May. The following months have mirrored the rest of the country: nonstop organizing, mutual aid efforts, and crushed hopes of state intervention.
Raghuveer, who grew up in Kansas City, is also the director of the national Homes Guarantee campaign, a platform put forward by tenant and advocacy groups and endorsed by dozens of politicians, including many of the new wave of young leftist candidates for Congress and state legislatures. “The idea of the Homes Guarantee is very simple,” Raghuveer said. “We live in the richest country in the history of the world; we can and we must guarantee everyone a home.” On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control issued a federal eviction moratorium through the end of 2020. I talked to Raghuveer before the announcement; our discussion covered the strategies and limitations of nationwide tenant organizing and the need for tenants to assemble over the next few months, regardless of what happens next year.
NA: Has your base been growing since the start of the pandemic?
TR: Yes. This is a moment of incredible clarity for people who may not have identified their self-interest with our group before. There’s a whole class of people who have never politicized their housing experience before who are seeing it as political now—and that is good. But relationships are our currency in organizing, and while our numbers have been growing, the real challenge has been the depth of relationship and figuring out how to maintain those while we can’t be physically together.
NA: What does the Kansas City tenant base look like?
TR: Kansas City is not San Francisco, it’s not New York, it’s not Seattle. It’s Milwaukee, it’s St. Louis; it’s Boulder, Colorado. Mid-sized cities, maybe with a history of segregation, recent gentrification; the eviction rates are the same, the way that housing policy plays out at the local level has been pretty similar across all these cities. The majority of people in Kansas City are owners. There’s an increasing renter class, especially in the last decade, as more people are unable to own property and are saddled with other debt. A lot of recent city policy has been focused on developments, like making downtown cool for yuppies, who are mostly renters, but also mostly privileged gentrifiers increasing rents for the rest of the city. Kansas City was the site of massive real estate speculation, just like a lot of other mid-sized Midwestern cities across the country, so for the past decade there’s been a huge influx of corporate ownership and corporate landlording. I can see in the data: As the real estate market changes, more and more the biggest eviction filers are corporate landlords, most of which are not based in Kansas City.
NA: Where are those landlords based?
TR: It’s a massive challenge to follow the money and figure out where the money comes from. That’s by design. Some are investment companies in New York and California. Some of those private-equity firms have investors all over the place, like in New Zealand or whatever. We’ve identified property owners in China and various European countries.The whole design of corporate landowning is obscuring real ownership and protecting investors and completely avoiding accountability from tenants, from neighbors, from local governments.
We had a big fight against a local slumlord called TEH Realty last year, based in Israel. They were the biggest evictor in Kansas City, filing 300 evictions every year. TEH got away with this because nobody knew who they were. The tenants thought the management company was the owner, which is pretty typical. Landlords like this know that they are the owner of last resort. It’s a business model for some of them to rent to the most vulnerable people on the market: people who have evictions on their records, people who are returning from prison, people who are undocumented. They can smell desperation in the leasing offices and write the most exploitative leases. Then they use eviction as a way to get people out, because they can get a new tenant tomorrow. Eviction becomes a moneymaker for them. We started organizing at a bunch of their properties, we drove in a bunch of complaints to our local health department, we called our officials. Once the building was handed over to a receiver [at a judge’s orders], the tenants won everything they wanted. TEH basically imploded across the state of Missouri.
NA: You mentioned that the gentrifiers moving in are also renters. Is it possible to build connections between them and the existing tenant communities at all?
TR: KC Tenants always aspires to center the experience of people who are the most directly impacted, which is to say Black women in particular, who have been bearing the brunt of racial capitalism and bad housing policy in Kansas City and across the US. Most of our core, most public leaders are Black women who have lived that experience. We also have a ton of young art students in our base. A ton of allies in the community who are of a different lived experience but are clear that their self-interest involves living in a city that includes the folks who are housing-insecure now and were before Covid. But housing is an issue that cuts across race and class almost unlike any other, and there’s a lot of solidarity to be found among groups that otherwise would not have a lot of shared interests.
NA: What’s the process in getting people from point A (“I’m having difficulty as a tenant”) to point B (the ideas underlying the Homes Guarantee, racial capitalism, etc.)?
TR: Most of the people affected by racial capitalism are clear that they’re being fucked over. That said, housing is seen as individual responsibility. There’s still a lot of shame associated with being unable to pay the rent or experiencing homelessness. The project of transforming personal shame into power and public anger is one we take seriously.
We’re doing political education through direct action. One of the first direct actions we did was line the entire highway between St. Louis and Kansas City, the whole width of the state, with cars parked every five miles along the highway with signs to win our demands from the governor for rent cancellation. Everyone was wearing yellow masks, there was a banner drop, and there were people to call from inside your car.
In the beginning, the Homes Guarantee was a grassroots project of imagination for each other and for the movement. Because we embarked on this project of imagination, to define the world that we deserve, we are better positioned to respond to this crisis moment. We see a Homes Guarantee as a massive stimulus project, like a green jobs project, something that can be a central part of bringing our communities back to some degree of stability. The vision for the Homes Guarantee has become a political tool. We put out a pledge for down-ballot candidates to sign on with the principles of the Homes Guarantee, which includes pretty radical things like rejecting and returning developer and landlord and real estate money. When you think about local elections, that’s so much of their money. We worked with the Squad and some friends on a package of bills that was introduced in January, about progressive housing policy in the future.
We work backwards—what can we do today so we can do tomorrow what we could not have done today? The alternative to a racially capitalized relationship to housing and land is a homes guarantee—housing treated as a public good as opposed to a commodity. So today we need to cancel rent, to intervene in the relationship between landlord and tenant. If we don’t have that vision, the conclusion might be that we need rental assistance, a Band-Aid; the system’s OK, people just need help to pay their rent.
NA: How easy has it been to translate that collective imagination to other people?
TR: The ideas within the Homes Guarantee can sound radical, but for our folks who have been living with such entrenched housing insecurity for decades, if not centuries, these ideas are not radical. They are what we are owed. American racial capitalism has allowed housing to be treated as a commodity. The theory of the Homes Guarantee is to turn that on its head: decommodify housing, deliver housing as a public good, and guarantee housing as a human right. Mainstreaming that concept is difficult, because the imagination of the general American public and most of our elected leaders is quite limited.
For decades, we’ve been force-fed the notion that housing must be delivered by the private market. Of course, that’s not how it’s always been, and that is not how it is across the country and in many other countries. The American dream is about private property and ownership and a picket fence, and unpacking and unraveling that is a massive project. But Covid has offered us some openings. Housing was the prescription; in this public health emergency, the prescription was to stay home. Our understanding of the importance of home has been so intensified. The organizing challenge for us is extending that into a more mature understanding of how housing should be guaranteed as a public good.
NA: Is the most straightforward path to mainstreaming it through the elected officials you’re working with? How difficult is that?
TR: The people who make decisions, are, by and large, a property-owning class. They do not share the experience of the millions of tenants who are suffering and have been for a long time. And Democrats have taken as much money, if not more, from the real estate industry than Republicans. We don’t have the power to buy politicians. We have people power, but that means something different. But housing is an issue that needs to be taken seriously as a federal policy issue, simply because of the amount of money that we need from the government to solve our problems.
NA: Do you have high hopes for any legislation proposed or passed?
TR: To be honest, no. We’re seeking a reinstatement of the eviction moratorium in Jackson County, we’re seeking a statewide eviction moratorium. At the federal level, we’ve been working on rent and mortgage cancellation for several months, we introduced that legislation with Representative [Ilhan] Omar in April. The Democrats rallied around a different thing: rental assistance. That was the main thing they were hoping to get into whatever the Senate put out, and of course the Senate hasn’t put anything out. Everyone was telling us, “Rally around this rental assistance thing because it’s more winnable, don’t go for this crazy, radical, ‘cancel rent’ demand.” We haven’t won rental assistance. Even if we had, it’s three months too late for Kansas City residents.
In Kansas City and throughout the country, we’ve begun to channel the energy of “If we don’t get it, shut it down.” We didn’t get it, and now we have to shut down the process. Everyone that we’re talking to is willing to take actions way above and beyond what I would have assumed.
NA: How has reopening affected people’s circumstances?
TR: Reopening is only an option for a handful of people in reality. It’s given our elected officials a false understanding of where poor and working-class people are right now. Landlords are evicting people and justifying it to themselves by saying, “Well, things are opening up. People can go find a job.”
NA: How do you get disparate tenant unions connected to each other?
TR: All of our tenant unions are virtual these days, so it’s very easy to bring organizers from Arkansas and Nebraska onto our calls. There are what we call “free radicals” in small towns across Missouri who are clear that they need to be organizing their neighbors, even if they don’t have an organization that does tenant work. We have the rare ability to invite all of these comrades to our tenant meetings. While it sucks that we can’t build deep relationships that we used to, Covid has broken down some of the barriers that were there before. It means so much to feel a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s critical to maintain people’s energy and commitment to a movement, to make them feel like part of something bigger than a neighborhood or a city.
The reality is we’re all going to have to show up in new and different ways to organize against this eviction crisis. And the exciting thing is the base-building potential right now is basically limitless. There are so many people who are affected by this issue. There needs to be tenant unions everywhere, in rural, suburban, urban areas, in every building, in every neighborhood.