The Southern Tenant Union Playbook

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Above photo: A 2019 protest at Kansas City City Hall. Photo by Mason Andrew Kilpatrick via KC Tenants on Facebook.

The fight to keep people housed in the South didn’t begin with the pandemic, and it won’t end here either.

Despite an eviction moratorium that was intended to keep people housed during the pandemic, landlords filed more than 95,000 evictions in just eight major cities across the South last year.  With the passing of the most recent stimulus bill, Senate Democrats approved more than $45 billion in rental and mortgage assistance, but it won’t be enough to stave off what housing advocates call the “tsunami of evictions” still to come.

But the fight to keep people housed didn’t begin when the country shut down, and it won’t end when people can safely dine in restaurants. 

The solution to the current crisis requires novel tactics just as much as it builds on old ones, tenants’ unions and advocacy groups say—particularly in the South. Unlike the East and West coasts, where renters’ rights movements have longer histories, Southern groups are younger, less established, and face harsh laws enmeshed in the region’s history.

“Our strategies have to be rooted in the South,” said Frank Southall of the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly. “There’s no route that involves copying what’s done in New York.”

It would feel revolutionary, Southall said, if Louisiana residents had 20, not 10 days, to leave their homes after an eviction, or if unpaid rent in Arkansas was no longer a criminal offense.

Southall, along with activists from Kansas City, Missouri, and Little Rock, Arkansas, spoke with Scalawag about their respective fights, the unique challenges they each face, and what strategies are working to keep people housed.

KC Tenants: Kansas City, Missouri

KC Tenants stopped a total of 919 evictions—or 90 percent of all scheduled evictions—in Kansas City in January, using a combination of in-person and online direct actions.

This wouldn’t have been possible without the exponential growth the organization saw in the early months of the pandemic. “We probably had like a 300 percent growth rate,” said founding director of KC Tenants Tara Raghuveer. It took months to streamline the techniques they’ve used to shut down courts.

“Blockades in this part of the country are very, very unlikely to be effective, because the cops get called in two minutes and they have no problem escalating and arresting everyone,” Raghuveer said. Online disruptions, however, can shut down court dockets for days at a time.

Here’s how it works: after scraping court websites for eviction docket information, KC Tenants organizes small groups of 12 to 20 people to call into the meetings usually held over a conference line or WebEx, a video-conferencing application. When the judge calls the first case on the docket, activists unmute and “create chaos,” Raghuveer said. “They can’t evict anyone if they can’t hear anything.” The script condemns the judge’s actions and lets tenants know they’ve got their back.

“We can shut down a conference call in two minutes,” she added, but WebEx is another story.

Similar to Zoom, WebEx requires a username to sign in. Activists often join using fake names, or the same name as a tenant they’re showing solidarity with. To avoid being muted too quickly, activists will open WebEx on multiple tabs and devices to populate the video call with as many dummy accounts as possible. As soon as the moderator bans one voice, three more seem to appear.

Raghuveer attributes the union’s success to its deeply organized base.

Before the pandemic, KC Tenants had created a community space where they sometimes spent 20 hours a week in person together. Now, they’re organizing in a “completely virtual format,” Raghuveer said, but “we have really, really deep relationships and trust among our base of people.”

“When tenants throw down and take escalated direct action, we build muscle, we build alignment, we build relationships, and we build power,” Raghuveer said, which is why unions are so important in this moment. “An institution that people can throw down with, feel part of a collective with, and believe in is so critical when the government is failing to do that.”

New Orleans Renters’ Rights Assembly, New Orleans, Louisiana

For the New Orleans Renters’ Rights Assembly, the name of the game is consciousness-raising. In Frank Southall’s view, tenants first and foremost need to know their rights before they can participate in large-scale direct action.

“New Orleanians are some of the most underpaid, overworked people in this country,” Southall said. It’s impossible to look at the housing crisis in the Big Easy or the rest of the country as separate from wage suppression and gentrification, which has pushed many low-income residents miles away from their former communities, but here, the swampy land surrounding the city means that land on which to build housing is a particularly finite resource.

Rent in New Orleans has risen 49 percent over the past 17 years, controlling for inflation, while income has seen an 8 percent decrease. If a tenant is priced out of their house in-town, odds are they’ve also been priced out of the surrounding suburbs, Southall said, meaning their closest opportunity for housing might be 40 to 50 miles away from their job in the city.

“The South, in particular, doesn’t have a strong history of renters’ rights movements, but now, over the past three, four years, you’ve seen this upswell” of people intent on changing things, Southall said.

Last July, the New Orleans Renters’ Rights Assembly blockaded city hall to raise awareness and stop evictions. Since then, they’ve shifted their strategy away from direct action in opposition to the local government in order to build up their base of support.

“The thing about direct action is it has to be tied to a really good strategy. It has to be something built by the people in the moment who share a sense that there’s no other option.”

Right now, they feel they have options. Southall is hopeful that the change in presidential administrations spells progress for renters in his city.

Arkansas Renters United: Little Rock, Arkansas

Arkansas is the only state in the country where being late on rent—even by one just day—is a criminal offense, and each day an evicted renter remains on the property after a 10-day notice is considered its own separate criminal offense. In 2020, more than 3,000 households in the state faced criminal eviction for late payments. Arkansas also does not have an implied warranty of habitability, meaning there are no health or safety standards landlords must meet in order to rent out their property.

“The renter has no due process,” said Neil Sealy, executive director of Arkansas Renters United. “You could be trapped in a house with lots of mold, cockroaches, a leaky roof, and you can’t [legally] break the lease… because you either paid rent or you didn’t.” It rarely matters in the court of law why rent has gone unpaid.

Because the law heavily favors landlords, Sealy’s work in Arkansas the past 30 years has focused on Section 8 housing projects, where it’s easier to win improvements using HUD requirements than it is to win similar cases in other low-income housing units.

But right now, renters have a “better chance than ever before” to change that, . Arkansas Renters United is throwing its support behind House Bill 1563, which sets one eviction standard for both tenants and landlords, guarantees that tenants get hearings before they make deposits to the court registry, and initiates a warranty of habitability.

Despite the Republican supermajority in both houses, and the Arkansas Realtors’ Association lobbying against it, Sealy still sees a path forward. It’s the same path that saw Arkansas raise its minimum wage for the first time to $11 an hour: a public referendum.

Since the 2020 election, Republicans in states like Florida and Arkansas have pushed to make ballot initiatives harder to pass, increasing the threshold for voter approval. But Sealy still likes those odds—more than one-third of people Arkansas are renters themselves, not to mention those who used to rent.

“We’ve sort of conquered public opinion, but not a tightly corporate-controlled legislative process,” Sealy said. “I think it would be a great way to organize renters.”

The potential referendum would be two years away, but there’s hope, Sealy said, and he and his fellow tenants aren’t going to stop working. “You can’t win the revolution on social media or zoom,” Sealy said.

“So you got to get out there and hit the doors. Be safe and be bold.”