The Next Steps In Eviction Defense

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Above photo: Tiago Fernandez/Getty Images.

A few thoughts on intentions, tactics, and building eviction defense networks.

Oregon – Here in Portland, there are signs that the movement for Black lives and the movement for actually affordable housing are increasingly intersecting in all kinds of ways.  Among the networks engaged in popular education and resistance organizing efforts around housing issues, you’ll find groups normally focused on the massive problems of killer cops and institutional racism, such as Don’t Shoot PDX.   Outside of the home of a family facing foreclosure in North Portland on Mississippi, you’ll find people who have long been involved with the daily protests that have been going on in Portland since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th.

No one who has been deeply involved with these struggles is surprised by the interweaving of these struggles, since they are obviously inseparable from each other.  To state what is abundantly clear to anyone involved with either one, if Black lives matter, then the working class matters, and affordable housing matters.  In pre-pandemic Portland, a market-rate two-bedroom apartment was not affordable by an average Black family in the US, and that is even more true now.  If Black lives mattered in Portland, this city would not have been ethnically cleansed of most of its Black population through the uncontrolled rise in the cost of housing over the past twenty years.  This could have, and would have, been prevented, in any city where Black lives really mattered to those in power at City Hall, in Salem, and in Washington, DC.  Local police can stop enforcing evictions.  State houses can pass rent control legislation, and control how much landlords are able to charge for rent, like they do in most of the civilized world.  The federal government could spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on building green, subsidized housing everywhere, instead of on the military.

Of course, that’s not the world we’re in — far from it.  In the real world, the federal government long ago gave up on the idea of building anything other than missile silos.  In the real world, 48 out of 50 states have banned municipalities from instituting rent control policies — including the neoliberal, Democratic-run state of tree farms, forest fires and overpriced cities called Oregon.  In the real world, most of our city councils are more concerned with appeasing those who Governor Brown likes to call “the stakeholders,” by which is meant the owners of the city, not those who rent from them.  Not the working class, and certainly not the rapidly-dispersing Black population of Portland.  Most definitely not the burgeoning ranks of those living in cars and tents that line our city’s thoroughfares and can be found alongside so many bike paths and park boundaries.

But here we are, on this precipice, where the possibilities are so epic, in so many directions.  With a nationwide moratorium on evictions mostly preventing the eviction tsunami that the business press was alerting us about with great alarm for months prior to the CDC’s edict going into effect, the can has been kicked down the road until the beginning of 2021.  In Portland, a bit longer, since rent that’s past due due to the impact of the pandemic doesn’t have to be repaid immediately, but over the course of six months.  (So the can gets kicked down the road a bit further.)

The CDC may be worried for epidemiological reasons, but the rest of society is concerned about a potential eviction tsunami for other reasons.  For those facing eviction, the worries are fairly obvious.  For the powers-that-be, they may be OK with the societal wreckage imposed by what passes for normality, that is, evicting one in ten renters every year in order to maintain the extremely rent-burdened status quo of the post-2008 economic order, but they know they need to seriously worry when the business press is singing in harmony about the kind of chaos and misery that would ensue if the landlords tried to evict 40 million people at the same time.

Clearly, when on such a precipice, things have to change.  NPR reported this morning that the US overall is an estimated 21 billion dollars behind on rent at the moment.  In Portland the rent arrears are estimated to be well over a hundred million dollars.  But change doesn’t just happen — change is made by people, and social movements that, in combination with the dire economic, political, epidemiological and ecological circumstances, force political leaders to follow us.  That’s how it works, in the real world, historically and currently, and the examples abound, though there are powerful interests at work always trying to hide this reality from us, and keep us in their fabricated capitalist matrix of renter/gig worker peonage.

One of the ways the kinds of changes that need to happen in this broken society can begin to happen in terms of addressing the impossible inequities from the bottom to the top of the whole mess is to embrace the idea of eviction abolition.  By itself it may be a very crude tool, but it’s a simple, straightforward beginning to a process of reconciliation with an unknown destination, that would surely have to involve lots of government involvement in negotiating solutions with landlords of indigent tenants, government involvement with housing people directly, and of course with heavily controlling things like rent, mortgages, and much, much more — as they do in functional societies where the state actually shows an interest in the welfare of the people.

The way we force the hand of the state to stop enforcing evictions, and ultimately to ban the practice, is through solidarity with each other.  There are far, far more of us renters than there are of corporate landlords.  When the crisis is such that the friends and relatives of the police and certainly of the soldiers in the military are all also facing things like eviction and chronic unemployment, the state will not want to rely on brutality alone to try to solve this problem.  People are already spontaneously coming to support each other in some neighborhoods where evictions have taken place in recent months, in different parts of the country — notably two of the most rent-burdened parts, New York and California.

And what does that solidarity look like, in practice?

One thing anyone quickly discovers who is doing anything remotely related to mutual aid or organizing tenants in some way is there is a lot of suffering out there.  A lot of people in precarious situations who need help.  There are frequent, sudden emergencies that arise, where calls are made for support, sometimes without anyone knowing important details about the situation that might be relevant in terms of whether it’s even a good idea for outside people to get involved or not.  One in six people in the US are said to be food insecure right now, there’s so much hunger, and also, although landlords can’t evict tenants for their inability to pay rent during the pandemic, tenants can and are being evicted for other reasons.

While it is impossible and unwise to try to predict the future, especially now, with so many different forces at play, with major developments often happening on a daily basis both locally and nationally, I wanted to lay out the basic strategy and tactic (both singular) that Portland Emergency Eviction Response is oriented around.

We’re looking forward — not in a happy way, but just in terms of direction of sight — to the time things come to a head, when the eviction moratorium is lifted.  When that actually might happen is anybody’s guess.  Whatever the outcome of the November election, if the pandemic worsens significantly through the winter as expected and the economy continues to tank, the eviction moratorium will likely be extended, and some form of assistance for renters and/or landlords will also have to be instituted, if not the kind of housing policies and rent control policies that could start to truly address the problem.

But whenever that moratorium is eventually lifted and the free market is allowed to once again reign supreme, when the evictions begin to happen en masse, this, in effect, is our moment, the basic reason for our existence as a network.  Which is not to say that all kinds of other mutual aid and solidarity and other organizing isn’t crucial — but PEER is a small network with limited means at this point, with only one strategy, and one tactic.

The goal is the abolition of forced eviction as an option for landlords and police forces.  The implementation of the goal is to form a large and militant rapid response team that can respond quickly to attempted evictions as they are occurring, and at that point either stop them from happening, or move the tenant back in to the property after the police leave the scene.

Specifically, or at least ideally, the process we’re talking about goes something like this:

Tenants facing potential eviction because they’re pretty sure they’ll be unable to pay the back rent due when the eviction moratorium is over are faced with various decisions.  They may have family they can move in with — a majority of young adults now live with their parents in the US, for the first time since the 1930’s.  A tenant will often prefer to move into a vehicle or do any number of other things other than attempt to stay in their home after receiving an eviction notice.  Forgive the harshness of this sentence, but these are not the tenants that are tactically of interest to PEER.  We are looking to work with tenants who want to challenge their eviction notice by attempting to stay in their homes.  We realize the stakes are high, and you do, too.  People may decide to try to stay in their homes because they have no other options they want to consider, or because they want to challenge the whole system of forced eviction, or both.

We want to be in touch with such tenants in advance.  We want to know something about you, your landlord, why you’re facing eviction.  Not to be judgmental, but to be strategic.  If you’re a gun owner, this is something we’d like to know in advance, too.  Not because we’re opposed to gun ownership, but because this could become relevant information for us all to know in the course of a tense confrontation with the police.  Once we understand the situation we’re getting into and determine that our participation makes good sense, the tenant with the eviction notice keeps in close touch with us, and lets us know when the police come to their home.  At that point, we notify the network, and people drop what they’re doing and head to your place, hopefully to chase the police off, keep people housed, and ultimately to continue to engage in this tactic on a daily basis, until the authorities re-think their approach.

If you think a few dozen people reliably showing up every time the police show up to try to evict someone couldn’t possibly work, think again.  It has worked in many parts of the world, including in the US, at many different recent and historical junctures.  When the police always need to call in backup every time they have to do something, this in itself changes the equation.  When a few dozen people are showing up, the authorities will then be concerned that many more people will start arriving more spontaneously.

In order for this kind of direct action to work, it obviously requires a lot of participants.  Our efforts have been focused on getting the word out about eviction defense in local Portland neighborhoods through postering, online communication of various kinds, and word of mouth, with a particular focus on networking with the youth and others who are already out there doing mutual aid and protesting against police brutality and institutional racism.  We are also closely in touch with other eviction defense networks that are being built along similar lines, as part of bigger projects such as Portland Tenants United and the Portland chapter of the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America).  When there are attempted evictions taking place that any of these networks are responding to, PEER will be activating our network as well.

PTU, DSA and other groups are regularly holding online and in-person discussions and trainings of various sorts.  There are many people wondering about how things might go, when we try to prevent an eviction.  It’s good to understand how these confrontations have gone before, what the laws are, and so on.  But how things actually play out in the real world is always unpredictable.  We may know what the laws are, but how they may or may not be enforced is another matter.  Whether or not the police will obey them is another matter.  Whether the cops are under orders to carry out an eviction, or not to pulverize a journalist, this doesn’t mean they will carry out the eviction, nor does it mean they will refrain from beating the journalist.  There are many other forces at play here than the letter of the law.

The discussions and trainings are also handy because they give people a chance to consider different outcomes.  For example, if most people are standing in front of the entrance of the apartment with banners and signs, but some people are open-carrying guns, standing on the sidewalk, as they are legally allowed to do in Oregon, how does this change the dynamic?  In the end, we can’t answer the many very legitimate questions that will arise in these discussions.  When there are multiple sides to an equation with different interests that are potentially all very committed to their positions, outcomes are impossible to predict.  But it’s unlikely that we’ll win unless we are at least as committed to the abolition of eviction as the corporate investors are committed to their stock portfolios giving them a good return.

PEER will eventually also be organizing discussions and trainings, but for the time being, everyone is encouraged to participate in such discussions that Don’t Shoot PDX, PTU, DSA and others are facilitating — and everyone is especially encouraged to sign up to receive notifications from PEER (scroll down to the bottom of this screen) and be ready to show up when a notification arrives.  And encourage your friends to do the same.