Rent Strikes 3
(Build a Tenants’ Union)

3

Hear from organizers Kat and Daisy of the Ithaca Tenants Union about their campaign to cancel rent as well Ali from Regal Tenants Union and Bushwick-Bedstuy Tenant Coalition. Both these tenants unions are fairly new and have built up mostly during the pandemic. If you’re trying to build up tenant power in your area, their experiences may shed some light on how to get started and what tactics have worked for them.

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This is our 3rd episode on rent strikes. The first episode focuses on starting a rent strike. The second episode focuses on strategy and history. Find lots of resources in the show notes for those episodes.

Kat and Daisy are organizers with the Ithaca Tenants Union. Read the op ed that started the union, “The Case for an Ithaca Tenants’ Union” by Elijah Fox, here on the Cornell Daily Sun’s website.

Ali is an organizer in the Regal Tenants Council and is part of the Bedstuy-Bushwick Tenants Coalition. He’s also a filmmaker with Paper Tiger. You can hear more from him in our movement media episode and our 2nd rent strike episode.

Ithaca, New York, is the first U.S. city to say it will cancel rent during the pandemic” by Adele Peters in Fast Company.

For more podcast episodes on tenant organizing, take a look at our Spotify playlist.

News mentioned:

How the eviction crisis across the U.S. will look” by Annie Nevo for CNBC

US faces 'avalanche of evictions' as rent protections expire” by Vanessa Yurkevich for CNN

What Happens If You Can’t Pay Rent?” Hasan Minaj, Patriot Act

Coronavirus IX: Evictions” John Oliver, Last Week Tonight

US faces 'avalanche of evictions' as rent protections expire” By Vanessa Yurkevich for CNN Business

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Welcome to Rebel Steps! I’m your host, Liz.

This is the 3rd Rebel Steps episode on rent strike organizing. March 2020, when I put out the first rent strike episode, feels like a lifetime ago. And recently, the rent strikes have been eclipsed by the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the subsequent uprisings. The beginning of the pandemic, before the uprising, feels like a different universe.

But, of course, it’s not a different universe. And the rent strikes are still happening around the US alongside a flurry of other tenant and housing organizing. In New York and other cities, there have been protests outside of housing court when cities attempted to reopen the courts. With eviction moratoriums coming to an end in most areas and the $600 extra unemployment no longer going out, evictions are on the way in huge numbers. CNBC reported that 40% of renters are at risk of eviction. They published a map showing that in several states over 50% of renters are at risk of eviction. The problem is huge and pretty much every news organization is taking note:

John Oliver: Our main story tonight concerns the corona virus. As if things weren’t already bad enough, in the middle of a pandemic we may be about to see evictions on the rise.

CNN: Renters in 42 states have been protected under eviction moratoriums, postponing rent payments as the economy stutters due to COVID 19, but 40% of those moratoriums have lifted, and more than 45 million Americans are still without a job.

Hasan Minaj: Welcome to Patriot Act, I’m Hasan Minhaj. We can debate all day about when the vaccine is gonna drop. We’ve read the articles. Is it 12 months? Is it 18 months? People aren’t worried about 18 months. They’re worried about this month. Because this month is when rent is due.

So the struggle for housing justice in the US is really just getting started. We have a long road ahead of us to keep each other safe from eviction. Our 2nd rent strike episode ended with the conclusion that to level up the rent strike struggles, everyone needs to be joining tenant unions in every neighborhood of every city. But after putting that episode out, I realized that for many communities these organizations just don’t exist, at least not yet. Most people don’t have the ability to just go out and join a local tenants organization. For example, here in New York, there’s a patchwork of some neighborhood tenants unions and non-profits. But these don’t come close to representing all neighborhoods. Since joining an existing tenants union isn’t an option for many, tenants looking for collaboration will need to build these organizations. It’s a crucial part of avoiding mass evictions. And these organizations can carry struggles into the future and help us move toward long term change and a world where housing is a human right., As I’ve said in other rent strike episodes, there is no way that this crisis will be the only one we face. There will be a second and maybe third wave of lockdowns in the US. Climate change and gentrification will continue to threaten housing for many. Tenants Unions will be helpful no matter what comes.

So in this episode, I’ll be chatting with a couple organizers from Ithaca Tenants Union about there campaign to cancel rent as well Ali from Regal Tenants Union and Bedstuy-Bushwick Tenant Coalition. Both these tenants unions are fairly new and have built up mostly during the pandemic. If you’re trying to build up tenant power in your area, their experiences may shed some light on how to get started and what tactics have worked for them.

Ithaca Tenants Union

The Cancel Rent Campaign

Kat: Hi My name is Kat. I am a Cornell rising senior, co-founder and organizer with the tenants union. And I’m also a member and organizer with the People’s Organizing Collective, which is United Students Against Sweatshop local on my campus.

Daisey: My name is Daisy Wiley. I’m an artist from Virginia. I’m currently working in Ithaca as a graphic designer. I’m organizing with the Ithaca Tenants Union.

The Ithaca Tenants Union made headlines recently when its proposal to cancel rent passed in the Ithaca Common Council, which is basically the equivalent of a city council in Ithaca. This makes it the first place in the US to have passed any rent cancellation measures. Due to COVID-19, the New York State Health Department had to approve it, so it hasn’t actually been passed into law yet. However, it’s still an exciting step toward the goal to cancel rent. I wanted to talk to them about how the tenants union made this happen. Also, so many of our episodes focus on cities, especially New York. So I was excited to hear what tenant organizing looks like in a college town.

The path toward rent cancellation started before the pandemic had reached the US, when the Ithaca Tenants Union was founded in late 2019. The goal of the union was to protect both community members and students from rising rents and poor conditions. Kat has been involved since the beginning alongside co-founder Elijah Fox.

Kat: The Ithaca Tenants’ Union started when one of our cofounders Elijah wrote an op-ed for the Cornell newspaper The Daily Sun and made a case for the Ithaca Tenants’ Union at the end of last year. I read this oped and it sparked my interest because I’ve been doing labor organizing in the United Students Against Sweatshop local I mentioned earlier. We were fighting for economic justice for low income and first generation students. And we saw that there was an intersection with financial aid issues, working issues on campus, as well as like housing issues because working class students can’t afford rent off campus when they become upper classmen. We decided to meet as a group alongside Liel who had been doing ACLU work on campus as well and decided to start up the union. We were really excited by the prospect of bringing locals and students together to fight against landlords, especially since they benefit from keeping us divided. So we also decided to emphasis the importance of education in our work, because we realized there was a gap for students who many times it’s their first time signing a lease and knowing what laws were protecting them against landlords. We just had a lot of organizing conversations with the locals and with folks on campus in starting the union.

At the beginning of the pandemic, a new wave of organizing kicked off with the formation of the Rent Freeze campaign. Daisy got involved at that point.

Daisy: So this whole idea of cancelling rent really did start with the Ithaca rent freeze campaign in March. And this was like it’s own movement to try and cancel rent in the city of Ithaca, started by some organizers in the Ithaca Tenants’ Union and some local organizers and some people that really hadn’t organized before but just were really like feeling the urgency of the moment with everything going on. And the rent freeze movement included like a 3 day phone zap, conversations with Common Council, and a petition that went around and got like thousands of signatures. And that did eventually merge with the Ithaca Tenants’ Union and that is what continued the movement in form of the cancel rent resolution that was brought up to Common Council. When we were starting the idea, thinking about freezing rent, it was a little more vague. But really, we realized that we have to like outline everything we want in very specific language to actually get people to pay attention to it and really understand what it is we’re asking for.

As many of you may know firsthand, the pandemic created challenging conditions for organizing. But that didn’t stop the Rent Freeze campaign and the tenants union from continuing to organize.

Kat: While it was difficult to have campus close down and completely change our initial plans, as we planned on canvassing door to door and local communities in Ithaca as well as starting a hotline which was delayed because of the whole entire COVID crisis, it was incredibly amazing to see that amount of folks who were ready to dedicate so much time and labor to organizing through the rent freeze campaign. To pushing local politicians to protect working class and low income locals and students.

Daisy: Some of the tactics that we used to continue the push for rent cancellation were continued calls and conversation with the Mayor and Common Council members, flyering around town, circulating petitions online. Then we actually co-sponsored the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s “Cancel the Rents” Car Caravan. This was our means of really getting people out onto the streets and getting a lot more visibility for this. And that was actually somewhere that one of our members announced the resolution in a speech that she was doing. And then at one point, also a small group of protesters actually showed up outside the Mayor’s house during the vote, something he was not very happy about. But I’m sure that played some role in it as well.

All that organizing brought a proposal to a vote at Common Council, aka Ithaca’s City Council. The final proposal put in place a protection against eviction, by forgiving back owed rent.

Daisy: So the resolution itself which you can see on our website at Ithacatu.org. Cancel Rent is perhaps a little bit misleading, because it’s really asking to forgive the rent accrued since the beginning of the pandemic for people that can’t pay it. So it’s keeping them from being evicted. Basically, though, people who apply and can prove economic hardship can have all rent forgiven. And the money actually comes from the state. It’s not even really on the landlord’s back. It’s the idea of taking that pressure off of tenants and putting it on the state.

The successful vote was shocking to organizers. Being the first city in the US to pass such a measure is no small task.

Kat: Our initial actually through the rent freeze campaign before this resolution was passed, literally I think almost none of the council members even approved of the idea of cancelling rent. I was in disbelief when the resolution passed. Just a month prior, we had no support. Folks did text me that it did pass. It felt really empowering to see the power of solidarity organizing and how it can change our political system. Especially during a time in which coronavirus has really highlighted the ails of capitalism, where racism and inequality, income inequality, are really exposed. It reaffirmed my belief that real substantial political change aren’t created by politicians, but they’re created by folks participating in organizing from the bottom up. And until the government realizes and actively protects people’s rights to fair and decent housing, and addresses the ways in which laws are written in favor of landlords, our work organizing and uplifting folks from working class backgrounds, black and immigrant tenants, will continue. This win, though it isn’t confirmed yet, really encouraged us to continue doing the good work to fight for these vulnerable communities.

Bizarrely, the proposal is now in a kind of purgatory. The New York Health Department will need to approve it before it will actually go into effect.

Daisy: So typically, the city’s resolutions would not need state approval, but the governor signed an executive order during the pandemic which requires local orders to get approved from the health department. So the intent of that was to keep cities from circumventing the state’s lockdown orders. But also then means that things like the rent cancellation resolution has to go through the Department of Health as well. Which is something that we’re working toward tactics to really get their attention and get mass approval for that. You can actually see some of those on our website as well right now. We just put up info for a phone zap for example. And that’s something that you can do really from anywhere. The push right now is to have it kind of get outside of Ithaca and get support from all over. And if this gets approved at a state level, then that will mean that kind of paves the way for other cities to do something like this.

Day to Day

For those of you starting from square one, it might be challenging to envision successfully pulling off a cancel rent campaign. So I asked how they started the campaign. They began by reaching out to already established groups to jump start their organizing. They especially looked to connect students with the surrounding the community.

Kat: In our initial steps of organizing the Ithaca Tenants Union when it just the 3 of us, Liel, Elijah and I, we really wanted emphasis the importance of building coalitions with locals, because we understood that as students up on the hill at Cornell, that Cornell’s presence drives up rental prices, and causes substandard housing. So we decided that we were going to build coalitions with local organizations whose basic principles are founded upon collective liberation to work toward building a hotline, which we have now, which has a bunch of Cornell law students and pro-bono lawyers working on it to help tenants right now in the housing crisis. One of our first steps was actually reaching out to the Tompkins County Workers Center, which has a really great reputation here in the Ithaca community since they’ve done a lot of great work helping workers through any crises that they may face or organizing issues. So we decided to base our offices there since it was more accessible for locals. We didn’t want to have our offices in Cornell, because it’s up on the hill and it intimidates a lot of locals from coming, as well it kind of pushes the notion that we’re just a project at Cornell, rather than something that’s trying to promote the unification of both locals and students. We also reached out to the Democratic Socialists of America chapter in Ithaca where they also had a housing committee. And we met with them several times before unfortunately Cornell had to close their campuses due to coronavirus. Through those connections, we were able to create a bunch of committees. And then also through the rent freeze coalition, we were able to get more of a substantial group of core organizers.

No matter what sized city you’re in, looking towards established organizations to help you start is a great idea. During the pandemic, the tenant organizing had to move online. This has caused an array of challenges. Kat says reaching out to older tenants is especially important.

Kat: I’ve realized that older tenants are more comfortable communicating through email. We have a slack group, that we both notify people of meetings that are happening both in the Slack group but also through email. Obviously right now, we’re not able to get everyone we want on Zoom meetings. Because first off not everyone has access to Zoom. And then also on top of that, there are questions about wifi accessibility and also just folks being really busy and stressed with the prospect of being evicted. So we always have to keep that in mind.

On top of the extra technical challenges, there are the usual challenges of scheduling that come up in any context.

Kat: Folks are just pressed on time, taking care of their families, especially finding a meeting time is really hard as well. Because a lot of folks, who still are working, aren’t available until after 5pm. But for folks who have families, they’re cooking meals, they’re having dinner with their families. So there’s a lot of like considerations that need to be made about who, like what time these meetings are being held, and what communication platform are we using to notify folks about meetings. In terms of like, who are the folks who actually show up to the meeting.

Another issue that crops up in all meetings is communication. And when we’re using exclusively electronic platforms, communication can be even more challenging. To work toward better communication, the union has also devised some community agreements to help make the electronic meetings run more smoothly.

Kat: It’s really prudent for us to be cognizant of who’s taking up space, and who’s not taking up space during meetings. So we’ve created like a set of community agreements, wherein people have acknowledged like social norms and ways in which we’re gonna address each other and converse with each other within the awkward platform that is zoom. So that we try to have different facilitators for each meeting that we have, and also that have different folks making agendas and then also, we have different folks taking down notes for meetings. We also have, in our community agreements, specific space where we talk about how we only use “I statements” when talking about the way we feel, about the way which we are organizing, or are personal experiences, as well as uplifting the voices of Black, Brown, immigrant, and other communities that are incredibly vulnerable during this time of eviction.

Daisy: Another thing that we try to keep in mind, when we’re having these meetings, because we have all these people from different backgrounds and maybe varying political views. And we try to assume that people are coming from a place of good faith, as well as, if there is some difficult that we’re having, kind of trying to have it a comradely matter, and not just assume that somebody is attacking you, or take it personally. So that is something that I think that I also really helps when we’re having meetings. Because this is, it is an emotional thing to be working on. And it’s a lot of difficult conversations around it. And that’s something that kind of helps mediate it a little bit.

As evident by the legislative win, the organizing has gone very quickly in some ways. But, the Ithaca Tenants union is still a very new organization. So They’re still working on questions of structure and decision making. One question that’s still open is how to organize smaller chapters. In some cities, it makes sense to organize smaller chapters by neighborhood. In other cities, it might make sense to create chapters around each LLC or landlord, so as to be able to exert pressure on that specific property owner. In Ithaca, they’re still exploring the options.

Kat: There has been conversations about how we should structure, if we should structure based on where you live in Ithaca or rather which landlord you’re under, in order for to you to press and mobilize against that one landlord, if they are practicing or breaking any laws.

Daisy: Since we’re still a fairly new tenants’ union, and have mostly, up until this point, been working in response to the pandemic, our structure is still pretty fluid, and we’re still figuring it out, and it will likely change in the future. Right now we kind of have, in terms of how we function in a leadership way, we kind of have a bit of an unofficial steering committee, working groups, media production, data and security, and stewards, or you know people that in unions traditionally reach out to members. Organizing for us, is kind of yeah, we’re still figuring out what the best way to do that is. I think that it can function organizing landlords and buildings. We haven’t quite figured out what the best way is yet. But that is something we’re working on right now.

Those questions of structure will factor into the final decision making process. For now, they’re making most decisions as a large group. And at present, they haven’t taken on the question of whether the entire tenants union should strike.

Daisy: So it really depends on the decision that we’re making, how the decision is made. For larger decisions, we vote on them in general body meetings, which right now are held over Zoom. But eventually we’re hoping we can have some of those in person. And any tenant who’s a member holds a vote in those decisions. In terms of other smaller decisions, we kind of have those made more autonomously around individual working teams. And those really decisions that don’t have a huge sway in the direction of the union, and really need to be made faster than if you have them made in these weekly general body meetings.

Long-term Goals

Even as they sort out these day to day questions, the Ithaca Tenants Union is setting goals for the future and building toward long-term tenant power in the city.

Kat: A continuing long-term goal is organizing across Ithaca to build working class solidarity, even though we’re still a relatively new group. One of the ways we’re doing this is working with other local groups that are embedded in different communities. We just had a meeting actually with the Multicultural Resource Center which is a local group and are working with other folks as well. Establishing a more extensive base will mean that we will be able mobilize more on a dime to protect individual tenants from things like evictions and things of that nature. And this will be feasible with a larger base. And also with more dedicated organizers, with community ties, and who are leaders within different communities. Being able to organize on the ground as things are opening a bit will also speed up the process since we’re able to have more in person interactions. We also want to do more work to include folks who don’t have housing, who are homeless and the fight in working towards a home for everyone, housing as a basic human right.

Daisy: We have a team that’s working on things like mapping and data collection. And one of the goals of that team is to be able to provide a landlord review database for tenants. And this will function as a place where tenants can see past reviews of landlords and avoid particularly abusive landlords. Worst landlords of Ithaca, which we already have info on quite a few of, will likely have something akin to a wall of shame, which I’ve seen other tenants’ union have. So we’re hoping that that data collection will really help people avoid these really abusive landlord-tenant relationships in the first place.

Advice

Kat and Daisy have learned a lot over the past few months. Here’s a few pieces of advice they’d like pass on.

Kat: You don’t necessarily need funding to organize people. So don’t let that barrier stop you. All you need are a few folks who are dedicated and willing organize and put in the labor. This is exactly how the rent freeze contingent of the union started out. The internet makes it way easier to organize and mobilize and it’s free for folks who are low income. But also that you need to be cognizant of older tenants who may not feel as comfortable in online spaces as well.

Daisy: When we started this, we were continually told that what we were doing was crazy and made no sense. And that the landlord class held way too much power and that it was never going to work out. But we just kinda kept pushing for it. And didn’t really water down what we were pushing for… I mean who knows. Obviously common council added some edits to it, which don’t make it as radical as it would have been. But I think that the fact that we did not stop pushing and it still made it this far says something.

Daisy: One key piece of advice that we’ve figured out is that the way you’re union is structured really depends on the specifics of your community. For example we’re a smaller college town, so the way we function is really different than organizing an union in say Washington DC or New York City. I’d suggest learning from other tenants’ unions in cities with similar population size, demographics, things like that. And then even off that, being flexible based upon how it actually works in your city and the specific conditions there. Another thing in that same vain is really don’t hesitate to start a union just because you don’t have a huge base yet. Because really when you build those individual relationships, and start to get small wins, that’s when it really builds up. And we started out as a very small but dedicated group. And it does work.

As we are all learning, the political landscape since the beginning of the pandemic has shifted what’s possible. Ithaca’s Cancel Resolution is just one example of that.

Daisy: It is unlikely that this resolution would have passed in a political climate other than the one that we’re in now. Amidst a global pandemic, the worst economic crisis since the 1930’s depression, protests against police violence erupting across the nation, what seems to be instances of growing class consciences. At times like these, governments are likely to make concessions to quell to an increasingly discontent working class. And don’t think that you can separate this from our current historical moment. So right now, it is in fact the time to get out on the streets and push for whatever changes you’d like to see.

The Regal Tenants Council and the BedStuy Bushwick Coalition Union

Protesters in Call and Response:

Cancel Rent (Cancel Rent)

Whoa (Whoa)

Yeah (Yeah)

Everywhere we go (Everywhere we go)

People wanna know (People wanna know)

Who we are (Who we are)

So we tell them (So we tell them)

We are the tenants (We are the tenants)

The mighty mighty tenants (The mighty mighty tenants)

Fighting for justice (Fighting for justice)

Cancel Rent (Cancel Rent)

Ali: Hi this is Ali from the Regal Tenants Council part of the Bushwick Bed Stuy Tenants Coalition.

I spoke to Ali in the last rent strike episode when things were just getting started with Regal Tenants Council, an organization he helped start along with other tenants in Regal buildings. But since then, the association has joined other tenants groups in the neighborhood to create the BedStuy-Bushwick tenants Coalition. I asked him about what’s happened since that first interview.

Ali: So we delivered a letter with demands that was really immaculately well written and researched and all that stuff. And I believe it was dated on May 1st and it was informing Regal Management Services that the Regal Tenants Council would not be paying rent until those demands were met. Since then like all tenants associations we found that the landlord is loath to even acknowledge the existence of the tenants association. And you know have just been trying to get across to individual tenants to try to have them break strike or intimidate them in various ways. And we sent responses that were you know really legally minded responses around harassment that managed to actually get them to curb their harassment which is good and seen that actually happen with other tenants associations as well. It was cool that we didn’t have to have a lawyer directly involved so we just reached out for some advice and crafted some letters and responses to instances of harassment and that got them to stop doing that but they didn’t make them come to the collective bargaining table with us. It’s been a situation of waiting it out and seeing where things will fall and I think that they’re doing the same thing. ou know I think that they don’t want to give away anything that they don’t have to and they’re waiting to see whether the government’s going to step in is what I imagine. You know similarly we’re trying to push the government to actually do something because it’s completely insane that one million or whatever plus more are unable to pay their rent and are still being asked to and are going to be up for eviction very soon if the courts open. It’s an untenable situation. I think they have like maybe 30,000 cases for eviction per year in New York City and it’s just not at all possible that the amount of cases for eviction that’d be coming up they would be able to actually make it through the courts in any the kind of time frame that makes sense and especially during a pandemic when we absolutely cannot be in tight close quarters with each other. It’s completely untenable, unrealistic to imagine that a million people are going to file through these really old tightly packed housing courts and that everyone’s going to be safe and that there it won’t result in transmission of COVID. So yeah for all those reasons we are now pushing towards a more political outlook along with Crown Heights Tenant Union along with Housing justice for All, along with Met Council on Housing Rights. These groups are huge groups now that are pushing, for years they’ve been pushing against the housing crisis, and now they’re just pushing for that cancellation rent that we all need.

Part of the landlords’ response has been to issue lease non-renewal notices, which are notices telling tenants that they will not be allowed to renew their leases. This is challenging to push back on.

Ali: Recently a number of our units in our tenant council received notices of a lease non-renewal. And so what that means is that the landlord, Regal Management Services, does not intend to renew the leases. We know that the reason that they would have for sending these notices out is because they are not receiving rent, because people are are either can’t pay or are rent striking in solidarity. And as a result they are trying to put pressure on people to move out so they can get new tenants in who will pay is the idea on their end. The only issue is we’re in the middle of a pandemic, it’s very difficult to move, and people need housing. And the people who have been affected by this crisis economically to the point where you don’t have any money for all these months, especially right, there’s no way that they can be asked to move when they aren’t even being given the money to move, because they haven’t gotten the economic stimulus that would be required for them to survive in the middle of this pandemic. And so given that the next step would be you know people would imagine “okay well how can we respond we can go the legal route right.” The difficulty there is just that legally speaking corporate landlords have set up a situation where it makes it difficult to take a court case against them as a whole because they split up all of the different properties into different LLCs. These are legal structures that allow them to skirt any kind of accountability. So we’re not going to see an easy route to suing them for retaliating by sending out these notices or anything like that. It’s not an easy route to take. You would think okay so a landlord is doing the same tactic to all these different tenants across many of their buildings, should be easy to do like a class action lawsuit or something like that. And it’s not as easy as it seems. Some lawyers are going to go that route it seems, but most lawyers will advise you that that’s not something to be done because there are technically different LLCs owning different buildings even though it’s actually the same owners, if that makes sense. So unfortunately yeah currently we don’t have like a particular response that we can muster to them bringing forth lease non-renewals as a form of retaliation so we’re still figuring out what to do but the clear thing is that we do need to be fighting to make sure that rent is canceled. We should also be fighting to make sure that evictions are halted going forward for the rest of the crisis. The question is does that mean also that we demand that lease non renewal notices do not go out for the rest of the crisis. That’d be a route to consider.

As Ali mentioned, the layers of LLCs protecting landlords can feel impossible to penetrate. In some cases, it’s difficult to even understand who the actual landlord of a building is. But some lawyers are taking that challenge on.

Ali: There are lawyers who are trying this route. There’s a lawyer named Jack Lester who’s a real firebrand housing lawyer who’s been around for decades and won a number of notable cases. You know when those lawyers who’s just fighting for the little guy. And they think that there’s a route to go fighting a class action lawsuit especially in the case of the tenants association that they are representing, which is actually part of the Bushwick Bedstuy Tenants Coalition because of a really clear case that they feel can be made for the the legitimacy of the tenants association and its ability to collective bargain, but also against retaliatory measures being taken against the units and tenants that did join the association. What every lawyer will tell you is that it’s very case by case situation but certainly Jack Lester thinks that they have a clear case for a class action and definitely look forward to seeing how that case plays out. Hopefully those kind of lawsuits can set a precedent but in terms of like what is typically done in what is expected in a situation where you are going up against a landlord. If their corporate landlord and they split all their buildings into different LLCs, well then they’ve done that to decrease the liability and it is effective because usually you can only really easily sue or take a lawsuit against the one LLC as opposed to the many.

Bushwick Bushwick Tenant Union Kick Off

As the Regal Tenant Council has continued its own fight, it has joined forces with other associations to create the Bushwick Bedstuy Tenant Coalition. Bedstuy and Bushwick are two adjacent neighbors in Brooklyn, New York.

Ali: So it’s the Bushwick BedStuy Tenants Coalition. We started out just by reaching out to each other because we saw that there were other tenants associations that were forming in our geographic neighborhoods and it made sense to see if there would be some utility in sharing resources. Now we are a collection of eight tenants associations that are in Bushwick and Bed Stuy. We you know initially were just sharing resources talking about the experience of tenant organizing, talking about legal routes that can be taken, talking about how we do outreach, what’s been effective. Even just talking about political outlook and what we are striving for and what we’re hoping to see come from this situation, this awful situation we’re finding ourselves in. It was really great to be able to just share those things and have the resources to draw upon. You know one TA might have made a legal FAQ and now we can share with everyone and everyone is benefiting from it across all the T. A.’s. Or one may have made these really dope fliers that are useful across organizing just tenants generally and that’s all that’s been useful. And so those kind of things are how we started, but just from there we started to see that landlords were not going to come to the table for any of us. In fact it’s eerie how similarly the landlords responded to our requests for a collective bargaining situation. And so we knew that we’re not going to get a response because they made that very clear that they were not going to bargain with us, that we were not going to get we need, that all the demands would not be met. So we pretty quickly started also talking about how could we lobby politicians, how can we use our voice and use our ability to do outreach to really get a drumbeat going for some pretty specific changes that need to happen, specifically the cancellation of rent, but also the halting of evictions.

The Bedstuy-Bushwick Tenant Coaltion had its first event in July. The kickoff was a great success.

Protesters: What do we want? Housing Justice! When do we want it? Now! If we don’t get it, shut it down!

Ali at Rally: First of all thank you all for coming out on this hot ass day to begin the process of Bushwick and Bed Stuy joining the fight with Housing Justice for All, joining the fight with Crown Heights Tenant Union, all these orgs that have doing this great work on the ground to cancel rent, to end evictions, to halt gentrification which we know is a predatory colonialist process. So thank you, this is our first inaugural action as the Bushwick Bed Stuy Tenants Coalition.

Ali: We had this really beautiful rally in a local park in Bushwick where we got over a hundred people to come out and support this cause of canceling rent and not only that of building up our ability to respond if anyone, if any landlord, tries to evict anyone in Bushwick or Bedstuy. So by doing this action we were letting it be known to the community we are here to push against rent, demand that it be cancelled, demand that no one be forced to pay any amount of money that they can’t, or would put them in a really bad financial spot. We got a lot of positive feedback from the community around us that, certainly makes sense given a lot of people are unable to pay rent, that that when they see a group of a large group of people marching through the streets chanting cancel rant that they feel positive, feel like okay we we are not alone in this situation. There are other people clearly going through it and they’re out here advocating for it. So that was cool, we had flyers that we were giving out, we’re having lots of great conversations. And people were you know by and large just there to say I want to support the coalition’s growth and I want to make sure that we are doing outreach to the most vulnerable communities in Bushwick and Bedstuy, to force the situation saying, to any landlord, if you’re trying to evict your tenant, we are going to go out there, and we are going to support that tenant and to go against you know this attempt to evict people We brought in speakers from both local organizing groups, from the community, from folks who our coalition represents and we even had some local celebrities The speeches went really well, we had the Leia Delaria from Orange is the New Black.

Leia Delaria: Hey Bushwick! I was I was just hanging out my living room on Thursday night, watching some TV and I heard chanting outside. So if there’s chanting going on and a protest going on, I’m going to fucking go see what’s going on. So I opened my window and I see a peaceful group of people holding signs that say Cancel Rent, walking on the sidewalk, not blocking traffic, chanting you know, like we do, like everybody with me now, “Eat the rich, [crowd chimes in] eat the rich, eat the rich…” exactly like they’re just on the fucking sidewalk and then I see not one not two not three but not four but five fucking cop cars, five fucking cop cars and walking with them, as many police as there are protesters on the side walk. Now I’m not standing for that, fuck that shit, right. I am not standing for that so I started screaming out the window. And then I didn’t even put my underwear on, I just threw my fucking clothes on and I ran the fuck down there and just started talking to the cops. I went right to the white shirt I said “Why do we need so many police? There’s twenty people here on the sidewalk, not even dropping blocking traffic.” And she said “Oh we’re here to protect them.” Right they’re there to protect us. With five cop cars one of which is blocking Stockholm street and twenty police officers when there was maybe fifteen protesters. They’re there to intimidate us. They’re there to intimidate us. They do not like to see their power going. And for the last month their power has been going. Because we’ve been showing up. We are not backing down. We will not go peaceful into that dark night. No fucking way. Why do we have to pay rent when the landlords have been given a break by the banks and United States government? Why don’t we have to pay rent when they don’t have to pay their fucking mortagage. It’s completely fucked. Rent is fucked in the first place. This is the richest country in the world, we have more homelessness than pretty much any country and there’s plenty of room for each and every American citizen to have their own fucking room. Cancel Rent! Cancel Rent!

Ali: We had Paper Boy Love Prince whose a local celebrity politician because they they’ve really have kind of captured the imagination of the younger generation especially just through their willingness to go against the grain with the democratic establishment and say some pretty obvious things like housing is a human right or that everyone should have a right to health care and do it while also being queer and like also having this kind of persona. They even put on a performance of their their own track “Cancel Rent”

Paperboy love prince: When speak to a lot of the politicians and the ruling class here in New York this is controversial to them. This is controversial. Every single person all over the world deserves a place to live. How dare they, how dare they sell us an American dream with a white picket fence and a house in suburbia and they can’t sit here and make sure everybody has a house to begin with. What type of American dream is that. We need to cancel rent right now because it’s the right thing to do. And it’s so ironic, they tell us to stay home because a coronavirus, forgetting about the hundreds of thousands of homeless people in this city that don’t have a home to go to at all. You gotta have a place to live. You gotta have a place to stay. I don’t know if any of you have been without a home or been housing insecure before, but it is a psychological battle. I’ll be honest, I haven’t paid my rent since March. Hahhha paper yeah. And you know what, I haven’t been late on my rent before maybe once or twice, let me no lie, maybe once or twice. Haven’t been late on my rent, so this was hurtful to me. I didn’t want to be in this position. And we don’t want to be in this position. We didn’t ask for Coronavirus. We didn’t ask for them to wait too long to shut everything down to make sure that now we can’t go to work. Okay thank you so much… This is an emotional song.

Paperboy Love Prince: Turn it up a little bit… [singing] We need to cancel rent, we gotta cancel it, yeah. The city can’t work so you know you gotta cancel rent…..

Ali: There’s a group that’s been doing a lot work around anti gentrification and around you know just housing in general but also just like the kind of on the anti-capitalist tip of just like we need to support our communities that are struggling. The name of this group is Mi Casa Resista. They spoke to obviously the fact that people should not have to pay rent during this crisis but also to the broader issues that have affected these communities which is that they’re not thought of as you know being entitled to human rights. So one thing that they spoke about was there’s a fracking gas pipeline that’s attempting to be built through Brooklyn. And they’re doing a huge push against that. It really brought home the fact that there is a crisis of just livelihood. We do not have the right and specifically the most vulnerable communities are facing absolutely inhumane conditions whether it’s the slum landlords like our corporate landlords who don’t take care of our properties or whether it’s oil/gas pipeline barrons who are trying to build these horrible unsafe things throughout our city and we’re definitely not going to put up with that. And so it’s great to see this kind of you know put this coming together of messages around just the idea of like what we want as a community righ? As a community, as people who live in Bushwick andBbed Stuy, we do not want people who are poor or immigrants or do you know any classification of P. O. C. or what or what have you you know queer people to be kicked out of their homes because the landlords just want to make a buck and want to jack up the rent to levels that only you know well off straight white men can afford and things like this. We want to live in a community where we get a choice over how we want to share our resources. And one thing that everyone seems to be on board with thankfully is that housing is a human right. Another thing that people seem to be on board with is the idea that we should have the ability to decide what is built in our communities. And so it was really great to just have an event that that brought those strands together, that strengthened the bonds between our coalition and these other other groups and individuals, and we’re fully intending to go forward organizing with more more local groups. And we are going to support them in any way that we can. It’s about building those relationships, strengthening our outreach ability. And just getting the word out there that whatever you’re going through as tenants, the coalition wants to be there to support.

How It’s Organized

The Bedstuy Bushwick Tenant Coalition is more or less a coalition of associations. Each of those associations is organized by building or landlord and they are each very different.

Ali: Each tenants’ association that’s in the coalition has a different organizational structure. Some of them have presidents and vice presidents. Others just have an organizing body of people who volunteer to be more involved in the organizing. And really, everything in between. And so we left it up to the discretion of the individuals TA’s as far who would attend our coalition general meetings. But just through the natural way that some people are more interested in organizing than others or have more time, it shaked out so really like 2-4 people from each tenants’ association has been really on the ball about attending meetings or taking on roles that help us to remain organized. And as our goal has shifted towards actually working together to effect a direct political change, we’ve now kind of shifted into another register of really working together towards a common goal. And so the coalition is now acting like a unified group, that is committed to doing outreach ,that is committed to planning actions. Just doing all we can to get the word out about how everyone really should have a tenants association in their building or across their landlords. And if we can get to that point where more and more people are and you know especially most people who lived under corporate landlord were part of a tenants situation, then we can really start to act collectively to change what is a deeply inhumane and greed ridden system.

These associations work together to make decisions by consensus during virtual meetings.

Ali: Decision making happens via voting during general meetings or consensusing through text and email when it comes to smaller decisions. But the larger decisions certainly are made during our virtual chat meetings where we are discussing a tactic or an idea, whether it’s an action, or how we’re going to do outreach. And then we vote on what makes the most sense. And so that’s you know simple like thumbs up, thumbs down. And if we don’t have a hundred percent of people who are on board, then we will discuss further. And if there’s anyone who has like a hard block then that will become a bigger discussion. Nobody is like boss over anyone else, even if somebody is leading you know one facet, say somebody’s running social media whatever, everyone else still gets a say on whether things are you know working right in terms of how we’re representing things on social media. Very democratic, horizontal. Everyone is volunteering for the roles that they’re taking on and anyone can say that you know that you want to switch to roll or you know help out with something else. It allows us to be very effective and efficient when you have that horizontal structure and people are allowed to kind of flow to whatever’s working best for them or whatever they have the best input and talents for.

If you live in Bedstuy or Bushwick in New York, the Bedstuy Bushwick Tenant Coalition would love to organize with you.

Ali: If anyone has any questions about you know the coalition, or wants to get involved, right now of course, specifically people who live in Bushwick or Bed Stuy but even if you live in an adjacent neighborhood and want to chip in how you can attend actions you can drop us a line at BBSTC@proton.com, BBSTC@proton.com. In terms of joining the coalition to be a part of the organizing of the coalition, we are asking that folks either create a tenants association in the building or even if you can do it across multiple buildings owned by your landlord or even just on your block. We have the resources to share about how to form a tenants association within your building. Forming a tenant association would allow you to join the coalition and organize. And the idea there is that we are pushing people to create these organizing bodies and these relationships and getting to know the people that are in your building, getting to know the people on their block, so that they can call upon this people if mass evictions start to happen. So that’s going to be the thing to do for sure I and so anybody who has questions about forming a tenants’ association, anyone has questions about how to you know even just like how to write a letter to your landlord like anything like that, feel free to reach out to the coalition. We’re happy to help happy.

If you haven’t started your organizing yet, check out our first couple episodes on rent strikes. And Ali has this advice as well:

Ali: Anyone’s who’s trying to start a coalition of tenants’ associations in their neighrbor, I think the first thing to do is to see if there are any online spaces, whether it’s a website or a Facebook group or whatever where renters are visiting. Whether they are posting about their own personal experiences, especially if it’s if it’s around a specific city, specific neighborhood, right then you can say, “Hey we you know I’ve started a tenants association? Has anyone else done that? Are you in these neighborhoods or do you want to talk about it? I’d be interested in forming a coalition with other groups.” If in your city there is a Housing Justice for All or one of these bigger groups, they might be able to point you in the direction of tenant association’s that have existed maybe for you know many years prior or even ones that have formed recently. So it’s really it’s about trying to get the word out there about your intention and then starting to talk with those organizing members of those T. A.’s about you know what would the coalition be doing. What you like to see? And also let’s do some more outreach, let’s go knock on doors, let’s create some fires, and see who responds and see what else is going on there. This is such a huge crisis moment that there’s really no reason why we shouldn’t be forming large coalitions. But it is going to be about outreach and crucially and this is what we’re finding right now is you can have your corporate landlords, those apartment buildings are oftentimes made up of more gentrifying populations, people who haven’t lived here their whole life etc. Sure you could just organize those groups but that’s you know then you’d only be protecting the gentrifiers. So really being about anti gentrification means that you want to do outreach specifically to the more vulnerable communities around you, so you know immigrant populations, you know longstanding generational members of the of the community who live in rent stabilized apartments and are very much in the crosshairs of landlords trying to gentrify them out, trying to have you know forcefully evict them, and or give you know give them a little situations that they’ll just leave you want to get those people on board and make them aware of your coalition and crucially listen to what they need, what is going on with them. And from there you can start to build okay, what are we really going to be doing, how are we gonna really be supporting people, what can we do. And in the case of Spanish speaking populations, you definitely want to have Spanish speakers and really Spanish speakers on from your coalition and if you do not have any members your coalition who are Spanish speakers, just reach out to friends who speak Spanish, have them come into canvassing with you, doing that outreach door to door knocking. Yeah and of course wear a mask but definitely definitely of course if you do need to go door to door and speak to people if you want to get the word out about your group. And really also get the word out you know just about the fact that you’re there to support the needs of people and so you wanna hear what those needs are, you want to actually be a face that is listening to them and getting all the nuance of what they’re experiencing

Paperboy Love Prince [singing]: We need to cancel rent, We gotta cancel it. The city can’t work so you know you gotta cancel it. Yeah, hey what’s up, utilities and mortgages. They need to cancel utilities too! Sing this song, Paper feeling so down, can’t pay the rent, what’s going around, things having problems, need some love, gotta couple of bucks, gotta show love. Paper yeah. So many people homeless, pay the rent, know where is my home is. Cancel rent. We gotta cancel it. Utilities and mortgages…..

Conclusion

Tenants have the deck stacked against them in so many ways. This crisis illuminated how vulnerable people are, and also gave us a small window where the tables are turned against landlords. People are newly aware of their own precarity and the precarity of the neighbors. The sheer size of the issue has to force some kind of response from those in power. Let’s seize this moment to build up organizations. Let’s make it a goal to leave this crisis with vibrant tenant associations in every building. Let’s work toward cancelling rent and halting evictions.

Also one more note, as I mentioned, since these rent strikes began, an entire uprising has been unfolding. It’s good to remember that the push for defunding the police and eventually abolition of the police is not separate from housing struggles. Here’s Ali:

Ali from Interview: Right now we’re seeing huge upswell of organizing activity around Black Lives Matter, around the unfettered completely outrageous racist use of police force in this country. And really at the core of it all is an abolitionist perspective that sees rightfully that the police are only there to guard property. They are not there to guard human beings. The only human beings that they could be conceived of as actually being there to guard would be you know straight white people. And so given that, we now are just having to come to bear with the fact that the police are protecting property and thus the state is valuing property over people. And we see that as well in this moment where instead of canceling rent, instead of getting people to guarantee to being housed and being safe from COVID during a pandemic, they are actually giving preference to the the landlords, to the banks, that hold the mortgages and saying “you know what yeah we’re still going to allow you all to demand rent payments, rental payments during this time.” That’s viewing property over people. And so our housing movement is saying housing is a human right, but really fundamentally beneath that is the assertion that people are more important than property or as you see it on slogans now as people over property. But the the idea here is that George Floyd was killed for a twenty dollar bounced checked allegedly, twenty dollars of property, for you know for food some something sustaining and necessary is more important than his life. And we’re saying that anything that is necessary for life, be it food, be it a roof over your head, be it water. That is something that you should have a right to. And so we’re definitely against this kind of Necropolitics that says that we can sacrifice people. And we’re just not gonna allow it to happen. And thankfully we’re seeing that a whole lot of people are completely done with that Necropolitic that we see enforced by a neoliberal pro-capitalist order. [Meow] I think it’s got my cat on there. we’re gonna keep that cat in keno you’re gonna be in the we’re gonna be in the podcast right kitty.

I appreciate it turned off I can only have one thing to be fuck the police.

Protesters [singing]: Oh the rent, oh the rent, is too damn high, Oh the rent, oh the rent, is too damn high, Because of Cuomo, because of Cuamo, oh the rent, is too damn high, Because of Cuomo, because of Cuamo, oh the rent, is too damn high.


If you’re organizing your own neighbor tenants’ association and want to share your story with us, drop us a line at hello@rebelsteps.com.

You’ve been listening to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, Liz. Believe in yourself, trust one another, and get organized.

Protesters [singing]: Oh the rent, oh the rent, is too damn high, Oh the rent, oh the rent, is too damn high, Because of greediness, because of greediness, oh the rent, is too damn high, Because of greediness, because of greediness, oh the rent, is too damn high.

This episode was written, edited, and produced by Amy and myself. Special thanks to our interviewees Ali, Daisy, and Kat. For more resources, check out the show notes for this episode on rebelsteps.com.

If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider supporting us on Patreon or sharing this episode with your friends or via social media. This podcast is part of the Channel Zero Network, an anarchist podcast network run by radical media makers. Head over to ChannelZeroNetwork.com for more podcasts and stay tuned for a message from one of our comrades in the network: Ransom Notes, anarchist and anti-authoritarian music podcast that’s gonna come out every Monday.