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Housing Activists Unite to Fight Mass Evictions and Defund Police

“I just don’t feel that police evicting people is a way to ‘protect and serve.’”

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Demonstrators in NYC
A protester holds a flag with the words "Black Housing" in New York City's Times Square during a Black Lives Matter rally supporting policing, housing and education reforms on June 7, 2020., Ira L. Black/Corbis/Getty Images

As COVID-19’s second wave bears down, nearly half of all states’ eviction moratoria have already expired or are set to expire in the next two months. A federal moratorium that bans evictions of people in rentals backed by the government expires July 25. To make matters worse, the CARES Act’s supplemental boost to unemployment insurance ends July 31.

The country is already in the beginning stages of a massive eviction crisis as housing courts nationwide reopen. As many as 28 million renters could lose their homes in the coming eviction wave, boosting the national homeless rate by as much as 40 to 45 percent by the end of the year.

The wave will hit low-income Black and Brown people, who are twice as likely to rent as white people, the hardest. According to an Urban Institute survey in which half of adult renters reported having trouble paying rent or bills from late March to mid-April, Black and Brown renters were most likely to report reduced spending on food, depleted savings or increased credit card debt. According to the latest census data, 44 percent of Black tenants reported having little or no confidence they could make their next rent payment.

Last week, the U.S. Labor Department reported more than 1.5 million Americans filed new state unemployment claims, bringing the national total of claims to more than 44 million since mid-March. Rising Black and Brown unemployment coupled with mass evictions could spark renewed uprisings in the streets amid a national reckoning over racial justice following the police-perpetrated killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Even before the pandemic, the U.S. was facing affordable housing, eviction and homelessness crises disproportionately impacting Black and Brown people. In 2019, about 568,000 people experienced homelessness on a single night, with Black people making up 40 percent of those experiencing homelessness despite being 13 percent of the U.S. population.

While Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently introduced legislation that would extend and expand federal eviction protections for nonpayment of rent for one year, Congress is not expected to begin negotiating a new economic relief package until after July 4. Meanwhile, the $3 trillion HEROES Act stimulus package, which also includes a nationwide eviction moratorium, continues to languish in the Senate.

Without federal rental assistance and an extension of renter protections, the coming eviction wave could send the nation’s already dire homelessness numbers skyrocketing, overwhelming already overburdened shelters and emergency rooms.

This is the reality that housing rights activists across the nation are bracing for, and they say they won’t let it unfold without a fight. While calling for rent and debt cancellation for millions of tenants impacted by the pandemic, many activists are also tying their housing demands to the national movement to defund police as some prepare to face off with city marshals, constables and cops forcibly evicting renters.

Militarized Evictions in Oakland

Dominique Walker, an activist with Moms 4 Housing, a collective of unhoused and housing insecure mothers in Oakland, California, told Truthout that the collective’s organizing pressure has been key in city leaders’ decision to extend Oakland’s eviction moratorium to August 31. Nonetheless, several of the mothers say their housing is still in danger: They won’t be able to pay their owed rent when the city’s moratorium expires.

The end of the city’s moratorium, she says, will have severe, disproportionate impacts on Black and Brown renters, as gentrification and tech wealth has accelerated a housing affordability crisis that was already among the nation’s most dire before the COVID-19 crisis: The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland is $2,300.

When the moratorium lifts, many tenants could owe $10,000 or more in back rent. Many simply won’t be able to pay, and could wind up on Oakland’s streets, where they join an unhoused population that has already jumped by 47 percent in the past two years.

After struggling to keep her family housed while working two jobs, Walker and three other working mothers reclaimed a vacant, investor-owned house on the 2900 block of Magnolia Street last November to call attention to the city’s “displacement machine.”

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office evicted the moms and their children in a high-profile, militarized raid in early January. Sherriff’s deputies decked in riot gear and armed with AR-15s showed up with an armored tank and a specialized robot. The eviction ultimately cost the county $40,000 — well beyond the cost of simply housing the families — a point the moms are now zeroing in on ahead of a looming eviction wave.

Walker tells Truthout that in addition to calling for full rent relief, the moms are targeting the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office for funding cuts. They want that money reinvested in organizations that provide housing and a jobs training program focused on providing mothers with the necessary skills to land jobs that make at least $40.88 an hour — the minimum wage required to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland.

The January eviction “was a very violent display and was meant to cause terror in folks who are standing up for their human rights,” Walker says. “This is the police state that we live in, where they will spend tens of thousands just to make you get out of a speculative-owned property rather than help you get permanently housed and fix the issue. It was unreal.”

Walker says the group is still working to plan actions this week targeting the Alameda County Board of Supervisors budget.

The January eviction “looked like a war scene out of a movie,” she says. “There still hasn’t been an explanation of why they came with that much force for mothers and babies, so we still want to hold them accountable for that while redirecting some of those funds to get mothers and babies off of the streets.”

Targeting Cops and Marshals in NYC

On the East Coast, New York’s City Council voted this week to cut $457 million from city’s housing agency while also allocating an additional $8.6 million to city housing programs. The council also cut $1 billion from the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) budget, canceling the planned hiring of about 1,160 officers.

Both housing and police accountability activists, many of whom have protested at City Hall since last Tuesday, argue the budget doesn’t go far enough to address the twin crises of police violence and mass evictions, and say the council used accounting tricks to move money around, such as shifting funding of school policing over to the Department of Education.

Hundreds of renters also rallied last week outside newly opened housing courts in at least five city boroughs and in upstate New York to call for debt and rent cancellation and to protest the end of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s eviction moratorium, which expired June 20.

So far Governor Cuomo has resisted extending the moratorium, siding with landlords he says must continue to pay property taxes, utility bills and mortgages. Housing advocates fear up to 50,000 new eviction cases could be filed in the coming days, and that thousands of cases that were already in progress but were paused in March will resume.

A separate state order shielding tenants directly affected by the pandemic is set to expire in late August and could result in an explosion in the number of eviction cases, transforming the coming wave into a tsunami.

At least 19 legal services organizations, including The Legal Aid Society and The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition, oppose the state’s reopening of housing courts, arguing that continuing eviction proceedings not only spells disaster for renters but could also expose legal aid workers to COVID-19. Sixty-nine housing advocacy organizations recently penned an open letter to Governor Cuomo demanding a universal eviction moratorium for all renters in New York State for the duration of the pandemic.

The New York-based coalition of tenants and housing activists, Housing Justice For All, is calling for the extension of the New York moratorium for the remainder of the year as well as rent, mortgage and utility payment cancellation. The group has helped coordinate the city’s largest rent strike in nearly a century, with at least 400 families in buildings each containing over 1,500 rental units withholding rent in May.

Housing Justice For All Campaign Coordinator Cea Weaver tells Truthout that the group is supporting efforts to confront police violence in the city and is calling for the firing of all city marshals, responsible for serving eviction papers. The coalition’s actions outside housing courts and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office have heavily emphasized the role of police in evictions.

The coalition has also organized several teach-ins on the intersection between housing and racial justice. This week, coalition organizers are training tenants and activists in both direct action and legal tactics for eviction defense in anticipation of hundreds of renters being forced out of their homes.

“Police violence is an extension, the most brutal expression, of the ways police exist to protect private property interests and not people, and that’s very much a part of what we are pushing and framing in this moment,” Weaver told Truthout. The coalition is not trying to replicate the work already being done by its affiliated groups, but instead, center anti-police brutality messaging in its housing work because the issues are interconnected.

Housing rights activists in New York highlight the NYPD’s 1984 murder of Eleanor Bumpurs, a 67-year-old Black woman, in her Bronx public housing apartment during her scheduled eviction. Advocates also point to more recent cases of Black people killed in their own homes, such as Botham Jean in Dallas, Texas, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

“We need to prevent people from being evicted when the marshals come, but in reality, we want a much earlier intervention,” Weaver says. Ultimately though, she says, direct action and legal tactics aren’t a transformative solution. “We need to be able to use principles of eviction defense to heighten the political urgency to pass a real ‘cancel rent’ program. We can’t permanently block marshals from coming to get people through direct action alone.”

A “real cancel rent” program means a policy that would automatically forgive all rent, mortgage and utility payments accrued during the COVID-19 pandemic that would apply universally to all homeowners and renters. Beyond pandemic-related protections and rent cancellation, Weaver says there must be a broader expansion of tenants’ rights in the private housing market, an end to homelessness, and investments in public and decommodified housing.

She is heartened by recent primary victories of progressive Democratic challengers Jamaal Bowman, Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres, who ran strongly on affordable housing platforms. Bowman, who ran on a national homes guarantee, joined housing justice organizations and tenant leaders this week in supporting a national eviction blockade as part the rent cancellation movement and “We Strike Together” campaign.

New Data in Boston

Housing advocates with City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston have organized eviction blockades in defense of renters since the 1970s, according to the organization’s executive director, Lisa Owens. Now, she says, the group is working to bring renters into a series of online trainings that encourage tenants to form associations while guiding them through a series of escalating direct-action tactics. The group is also pushing two state bills that would provide a year of housing stability for renters and lift a ban on rent control.

“We believe in escalating direct action tactics based on the level of consciousness that gets developed when you’re beginning to figure out how to fight your case,” Owens says.

At least one of the group’s staffers have been directly involved in organizing efforts to redirect 10 percent of the Boston Police Department budget to community needs and services, including affordable housing. Last week Boston’s city council passed a city budget that only contained small cuts to the police department’s overtime pay, but Owens says police accountability and housing activists have since worked together more closely as a result of efforts to defund the department.

A report released Sunday based on three years of housing court data collected by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers and City Life/Vida Urbana found that 70 percent of market-rate eviction filings in Boston occur in neighborhoods of color — and most starkly in Black neighborhoods — even though only about half of rental housing is in these neighborhoods. The pandemic produced a spike in eviction filings in Boston before the state issued an eviction moratorium in April; 78 percent of the suspended cases were in communities of color.

Annie Gordon is one Black tenant at risk of eviction once the state’s moratorium lifts. She is the tenant association leader at the “SoMa Apartments at the T,” a Boston apartment complex she’s lived in for 44 years. The complex had already priced her out when it raised rents in 2018. Then the pandemic struck, laying off a family member Gordon relied on for financial help.

Gordon told Truthout tenants in her building are committed to defending one another from city marshals attempting evictions, if it comes to that, by using nonviolent, physical blockade tactics. She supports the city’s cuts to the police department’s overtime pay, saying that funding affordable housing is “much more important” than paying cops overtime.

The association is working to negotiate with the building’s management company to work out “a little more reasonable” rent increase than what was initially asked. They haven’t received a response from the company as of yet, Gordon says.

“Myself, as well as other tenants here, we didn’t even realize we had rights or that we could speak up when it comes to our housing. We didn’t know that. We just automatically assumed landlords have all the rights,” Gordon says.

City marshals and constables forcibly evicting renters in Black communities only adds to the stress and anxiety these communities face while struggling to survive the nation’s multiple crises, she says. “I just don’t feel that police evicting people is a way to ‘protect and serve.’”

Copyright © Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.  Reprinted with permission.

Candice Bernd is senior editor/staff reporter at Truthout. Her work has also appeared in several other publications, including The Nation, In These Times, the Texas Observer, Salon, Rewire.News, Sludge, YES! Magazine and Earth Island Journal. Her work has received awards from the San Francisco Press Club, the Fort Worth chapter of Society of Professional Journalists, the Native American Journalists Association, and the Dallas Peace and Justice Center. Follow her on Twitter: @CandiceBernd.

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