Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Just a Renter

Founding member of Portland Tenants United (PTU), Margot Black, has often spoken at rallies and recounted the story about when she first became a tenants' rights organizer. She was a renter supporting her small children at the time, when her landlord one day announced to her that if she wanted to stay in the apartment she lived in with her family she had to suddenly come up with an additional $300 in rent each month. That was impossible on her income, so she had a month to find another place for her and her family to live. After thus evicting her, her landlord said to her, “you'll be OK. You're just a renter.”

Upon discovering that everything that had just happened to her was perfectly legal in the state of Oregon and the city of Portland, she became an activist, among other things. What happened to her isn't unusual, and it's happening in cities and towns across the US. And while the words of Margot's landlord were perhaps especially crass and offensive, they also serve well to illustrate a broader point about how society functions – or doesn't.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said “there's no such thing as society.” Believers in society -- and idea that government has an important role to play in maintaining some kind of harmony in society that requires things like affordable housing and health care -- argued vehemently with her in so many ways. But as I look around me now, among the shambles of a society ravaged by decades of a heartless, bipartisan neoliberal assault, among the tents and the walking wounded shuffling down the sidewalks with their shopping carts and matted hair, I think Thatcher was right. There is no such thing as society.

And why should there be? Half of this city rents, and the other half owns. It's true that most of those homeowners are homeowners in name only. But if they have a stable mortgage, then they're living in a different world from the rest of us who rent. For anyone who owns a house, things like clean streets, nice parks, good schools, a low crime rate, these things are good, naturally enough. And while renters also appreciate these things, we know that every one of them comes with not just a potential but a very real, inevitable cost – the nicer the city gets, the higher the rents will rise.

And as long as half the city wants property prices to rise and the other half wants them to fall, when you consider everything that that contradiction implies, there is no possibility of having any kind of functional society. Unregulated capitalism and real estate speculation have precluded that, and now we're living with the consequences.

Residents at the Wimbledon Square and Gardens, a 600-unit apartment complex across from Reed College here in Portland, Oregon are organizing a tenants union, the Wimby Tenants Union, with the support of PTU. The mass of three-story wooden structures they live in there is an obvious, 600-unit fire hazard with blocked fire exits, ancient fire extinguishers, toxic, rotting, moldy walls and a rodent problem – to name only some of the challenges faced by the tenants.

One of the tenants fell through a stairwell that collapsed while he was walking up it, badly damaging one of his knees. A lawyer for Prime Group, the multi-billion-dollar corporation that owns the complex and makes a million dollars a month off of the renters in that complex alone, was overheard commenting that the apartments were in such bad shape that perhaps the best thing to do was to throw a match at them and start over. In my more cynical moments I think maybe he was on to something.

Just A Renter

Ten thousand yuppies just moved here
Ten thousand others came last year
The rent has doubled since I moved in
Each month I take it on the chin
Each month I wonder how many more
Can I stay in Portland before
Before I move into my car
Or end up somewhere behind bars

Ten thousand yuppies say don't complain
Now that the city is in the fast lane
It's just the market and it knows best
That's how the bankers built the west
So just get rich and you can stay
Otherwise just go away
There's no room here for us
Holding on under the bus

I'm just a renter, this ain't my town
Might as well just burn it down 

For all I care

Ten thousand yuppies think it's great
To invest in Portland real estate
“Keep Portland weird” they like to say
But that was over yesterday
Of their achievements they're so proud
Living lives in some cloud
But unlimited data will get you nowhere
If you can't afford to care


Ten thousand yuppies and on each block
They're flipping houses and taking stock
Where's the next place they can transform
Tents and mansions, the new norm
They like Ted Talks, they like greed
They like wine bars, they like weed
They like bike lanes, they want more
They're the face of the new class war


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