Monday, March 15, 2021

The Housing Crisis: One Year After Lockdown

One housing activist's assessment of where we are now with the ever-worsening housing crisis in the USA, and some lessons from 2020 on how we might begin to reverse course, with well-organized eviction defense campaigns as a primary tactic. You can also find this in podcast form if you look for This Week with David Rovics wherever you get your podcasts, or under the Latest News tab at

All the folks moving to Portland from California or New York and talking about how great the real estate prices are here may not know it (note: I was once one of them), but this city is the most rent-burdened city in the United States, and it exists within a country that, like this city, is undergoing multiple long-term crises, one of which is a housing crisis. The housing crisis, like so many other crises, got much worse one year ago this week, when the country, and much of the rest of the world, shut down.

Although this is a city that lost half of its Black population to the rise in the cost of housing between the years of 2000 and 2010 alone, according to census data, one year ago this week, if we talked about the housing crisis as one neck-deep in institutional racism, we would often be met by blank stares. One year on, the fact that there is racial discrimination in the real estate and rental markets, and the fact that housing justice is also a question of racial justice is largely accepted as self-evident in mainstream circles.

Less examined are the outrageous levels of profiteering on the backs of pretty much the whole of the society, led by a class of super-rich oligarchs, in their quest for ever more profits, as they systematically engineer a constant rise in the cost of buying or renting housing, across the country, as real wages continue to stagnate, nowhere near rising along with the cost of housing, except among corporate executives, investors, and a select strata of six-figure workers. But this entire phenomenon of sucking the wealth of society constantly upwards, towards the corporate landed gentry, is finally receiving at least a bit more widespread scrutiny than it has received in a very long time -- if not nearly enough of it.

To be clear, it's easy to see that we are in the midst of an epic struggle. Several major genies have come out of their bottles, and they're not going to just go away now. How all of this unfolds is unknown, because "unknown" is the nature of the future. But it's been a year since the lockdown, and a long three months since I've written anything on the class war that we call the housing crisis (not that I wasn't thinking about it much of that time, and reposting articles about related news on anti-social media).

Of course, a major development since I wrote about what was at the time the most recent iteration of eviction moratorium and renter assistance legislation in the state of Oregon, in late December, is the Biden administration managed to take office, and even managed to squeak in with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. As I write, the latest round of stimulus checks are arriving in bank accounts across the country, unemployment assistance for gig workers like me has been extended until early September, and a new child tax credit is apparently going to lift tens of millions of families in this country out of poverty over the next year, including mine, with an unprecedented, almost two trillion dollar government spending package. (Unprecedented, but only equal to what we normally spend on the military during a two-year period.)

What we have seen up til now, prior to the lockdown, and more so since the lockdown, is a dramatic rise in the number of people living in tents on the sidewalk or in broken-down cars on the street, a dramatic rise in young adults moving back in with their parents, and a rise in evictions. The rise in evictions has been hugely mitigated by local, state, and federal eviction bans that have come and gone over the past year, depending on the locality. Although caused in particular by a combination of an already burdensome cost of housing combined with low wages, when those wages were in so many cases lost entirely, eviction bans and government aid have so far prevented the "eviction tsunami" that the business press has been concerned about. Concerned, of course, for reasons of capitalism's self-preservation in the face of this unacceptably high degree of societal chaos, if not out of empathy for the millions of people who face the horrors of eviction in a typical, non-pandemic year in this country, who are normally ignored by the corporate media.

Now, we don't have a $15-an-hour minimum wage, but significant amounts of aid is coming in, which will significantly affect the lives of many people. First of all, this needs to be acknowledged. Government response to the pandemic was largely a disaster, economic aid for suffering people has been too limited and badly apportioned, but now there's a lot more of it, and it's going to make a difference.

If we take a moment to reflect on the situation and consider the future for the still-very-much-ongoing housing crisis in the US, among other crises, we can wonder whether this new stimulus package would have passed if Biden and Harris had not won the election, and we can wonder whether it would have been as significant as it is if not for a year dominated by constant domestic unrest. And we can ask what forms of unrest might have been more influential than others, in inspiring such generosity from that gang of several hundred millionaires (with a nice little squad of righteous progressives) that we call the US Congress.

Regardless of how we got here or why this happened -- by which I mean how this society got into such a stratified mess, and how the government got inspired to spend so much money to try to get us part of the way out of it -- what we can be sure of, according to copious precedent, is that any solution to the housing crisis that just involves paying the back rent is no solution at all. Even canceling all rent and postponing all mortgages for everyone during the whole of 2020, none of which is remotely on the Congressional agenda, wouldn't solve any long-term problems.

This is because the housing crisis predates the Covid crisis, so getting us back to where we were in 2019 would mean returning us to the housing crisis we were in already. But were the rental and other housing assistance to be sufficient to meet the need that's out there -- and as far as I understand, even with this new spending package, it isn't -- then what the corporate landlords and their management companies would do is raise all the rents. Those who have studied history are aware that one of the biggest friends of the labor unions during the early years of the industrial revolution in New York City were the landlords who owned the buildings the workers lived in. Why? If they were paid better, the landlords could charge more rent.

Meaning, of course, that most of the extra tax money raised, most of the new government debt incurred, even if it is ostensibly being spent in the name of keeping the housing-insecure housed, among other things, is ultimately just going to make the rich richer. And if there's more aid, that's just more money to be funneled upwards.

So what's the solution, if not aid? Control over costs. Only this can prevent the landlords from just charging more, as we earn more, or get more government aid, or institute a universal basic income, or whatever other such programs come along. A lack of good regulation of the housing market will inevitably sabotage all such efforts.

Of course, regulating the landlords means regulating the very corporate entities that spend the money that gets most of the politicians from both parties elected in the first place, in this auction that we call democracy, so changing policies around regulating what landlords can charge -- or even questioning whether and to what degree anyone should be allowed to practice this particular form of business enterprise, of running little monopolies that "provide housing" for people who would otherwise have none – is inevitably going to be extremely controversial among the kleptocracy. So getting this kind of regulation passed requires lots of resistance. Even more resistance than was required to get the $1.9 trillion bailout passed.

And what kind of resistance is that of which I speak? People will, have, and do argue about points like this endlessly. Did all the burning buildings in cities across the country inspire politicians to spend more to alleviate poverty and address institutional racism and other endemic problems, or would the politicians be even more inspired towards egalitarianism if all the protests had been permitted marches and candle-lit vigils? Unknown.

But if we are assessing the housing struggle and wondering where to go from here, I think there are some important observations to be made about the recent past, that speak to where we might focus efforts in the future.

There are many tenants unions and other networks cropping up all over the country that are focusing on a wide variety of issues of concern to renters, but if we were to boil their efforts down to two major demands, they would be the demand for actually affordable housing in the form of real, effective rent control legislation, and the demand for an end to the practice of forced eviction, and any threats to that effect. In other rich countries housing is a guaranteed right, rent control is widespread and practiced effectively, much housing is cooperative or government-owned, and well-maintained, and forced evictions are extremely rare.

Here in Portland, the scene around the Red House on Mississippi Avenue has, overall, been a great example of the potential for eviction defense tactics to change the whole equation when it comes to whether or how often the authorities, real estate investors, landlords, etc., will consider carrying out forced evictions or foreclosures. There is clear reason to believe the local authorities are far less enthusiastic about carrying out forced evictions since their failed effort to evict the residents there in north Portland, in the latter days of 2020.

While there are many cliquish aspects to the elements of the autonomous scene that tend to be attracted to the history and practice of eviction defense -- and that's true in the US and in other countries as well -- I think we can say unequivocally that when several dozen people (with the potential of quickly becoming a couple hundred people) are committed enough to risk arrest and police violence, among other things, by re-occupying a house after an eviction was carried out, and then by occupying streets in the neighborhood around the house, setting up fencing and tire spikes to prevent vehicular assaults as people did around the Red House, then we will affect policy moving forward.

Aside from the importance of inclusiveness, and the effectiveness of the various forms of civil disobedience practiced in the course of the Red House eviction resistance, there are other things to note about how events unfolded here in Portland over the course of the past year that might help us think about the next moves.

There are clearly many reasons for Portland being one of the flashpoints of resistance over the past year in the US, and also one of those places where resistance around race and housing most naturally intertwined. I wouldn't want to under-emphasize the importance of factors like the cost of rent relative to the average wage here (what they call "rent burden"), which, as I mentioned earlier, is the nation's highest, or the long history of housing discrimination against people of color here. But I think an important psychological element on this front is that so many of the people here, activists or not, moved here after being priced out of New York City, Seattle, or California, and this experience colors their perspective on everything. Many of them -- us -- feel like we have nowhere else to go, in many ways. Cornered.

Another factor that seems worth noting is the way the local movement organized itself into different blocs responsible for different activities related to maintaining a social movement, from feeding people to caring for their wounds to fixing their cars to providing legal support to providing sound at protests. This phenomenon was not limited to Portland, of course, but was more of an organized thing in some places than in others.

Especially since the January 6th Capitol siege, people, organizations and networks across the political spectrum have been losing their social media accounts. I personally know many people around the world who are solid members of the left, not the sort to be making death threats or spreading outrageous conspiracies, who have lost their Facebook or Twitter accounts in the past few months. Long before all this deplatforming was a big news item in early 2021, the movement in Portland was actively pivoting to stop relying so much on the corporate platforms. Although Twitter is still a very useful place to stay abreast of happenings on the street here if you follow the right accounts of grassroots activists and journalists, activists in Portland increasingly do their communicating in private Signal groups and other more protected spaces, less vulnerable to disappearing at the whim of a Silicon Valley billionaire.

One of these blocs, essentially, has been an initiative I've been very involved with called PEER -- Portland Emergency Eviction Response. There are several other groups, or committees within larger organizations, involved with doing very much the same sort of thing, such as the eviction defense committee within Portland Tenants United, which itself is part of a broader network of tenants unions that has recently formed, the Autonomous Tenants Union.

On PEER's website folks can sign up to receive text alerts about evictions that may be happening. PTU's eviction defense group has a similar setup. PEER's web and text operation is very intentionally set up independently of any major corporate platforms. Anyone who can receive a text message can sign up, anonymously. As things continue to develop with Big Tech and Big Data, along with the suspensions of so many social media accounts, it becomes more and more clear how important it is for essential communication, and lots else, to be, as much as possible, independent of corporate platforms, and at least slightly less subject to mass surveillance.

As these networks here have been growing, we have made a very conscious effort to plaster the town with stickers. Posters, too, but especially stickers. They last much longer -- sometimes months, in prominent places around town. We have focused our stickering campaigns on neighborhoods and parks where protests happen often, as well as near Class C apartment complexes, which can be found all over Portland, in some parts more than others.

The focus on physical media is because we don't want to just communicate online, and we feel that the physical presence of such messages around town has a different sort of impact than a post on the web. It's also not subject to Facebook's insidious algorithms or censorship efforts. The slightly illegal nature of spreading the word by putting stickers on public property, such as on the otherwise blank, shiny steel backs of the many signs poking out of the sidewalks, seems to have a somewhat comforting effect on many people who may be wondering who these eviction defense people are. Whoever they are, they like to deface public property, so maybe they're OK. The medium communicates as much as the message does.

As the person responsible for answering PEER's email, I have developed the distinct impression that there are a few folks around town who identify with this nascent eviction defense squad much the same way people who feed the hungry in public parks without a permit identify as Food Not Bombs. In either case, what some people are identifying with is simply a tactic, more than anything else. In the case of Food Not Bombs, you needn't have met anyone else engaged in the practice, necessarily -- if you're feeding people for free in a public place and risking arrest by doing so, that's more or less the whole shtick.

And if you believe in eviction abolition, and risking arrest by trespassing or perhaps engaging in other forms of civil disobedience in order to keep people housed, rather than pitched onto the sidewalk, then you're a PEER of mine and others. It's just the basic concept of solidarity, coordinated by text mob, rather than the old tin horns of the Rent Strike Wars in the 1840's, or the telephone trees in the age of the land line.

Or to put this whole update into one sentence:

However big or well-targeted the bailout may be, in all likelihood, lasting change won't happen until we take on the corporate investor landlord class, demonstrate how much support this cause has, stop business as usual, and force the politicians to pass the kind of legislation that will control the rent, now -- not in some capitalist's imagined future.

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