Archives May 2023

Abolish Evictions Q&A

In talking with folks about the notion of abolishing evictions, both online and off, there are many different reactions from both people who are in complete solidarity with the idea, and people who are very critical for various reasons.  Here are some of them, in Q&A form.

Why focus on evictions?  The rent’s too damn high, that’s why most people get evicted.

Very true!  The rent being unaffordable is why people get evicted, the vast majority of the time.  Housing and getting evicted from housing thus becomes a cycle for so many people.  It’s a cycle that can only be completely ended when housing is both in theory and in practice treated as a human right.  But how do we get there?  It seems to us this cycle needs to be interrupted, and a sensible place to do that is at the most traumatic point in the cycle, when a tenant faces eviction.  Let’s just start by making this practice a thing of history.

So if someone can’t pay the rent, or won’t, what’s a poor landlord to do?

There’s a general assumption in the US that a housing arrangement is made between a tenant and a landlord, or a borrower and a bank, and the government is standing by if needed to enforce the law, such as to send in the cops to forcibly evict a recalcitrant tenant.  But what if the government isn’t allowed to evict the tenant, but is empowered to do other things, like negotiate directly with the landlord about working out a deal on behalf of the tenant?  This is how it generally works under Portugal’s 2019 Basic Housing Law.  Similar laws are in effect in many other countries.  It can happen here, too!

If landlords can’t hold the threat of eviction over their tenants, won’t the whole system of tenant-landlord relations just collapse?

Well, yes, we figure that’s quite likely the case.  The system based on landlords charging as much as they can and openly colluding to fix prices because people need housing is not even based on supply and demand, it’s a monopolistic practice involving a scarce resource (land, and specifically urban land).  But even if it were based on supply and demand, a housing policy would need to exist that would effectively — in fact, not in theory — supply housing to the neediest among us in any case.  The end of the violent practice of eviction can be the beginning to the process of a complete overhaul of landlordism in the USA.

But what about my aunt Liz, who makes a living from owning and renting out several houses?  How will she survive if she can’t evict the tenants who won’t or can’t pay the rent?

It’s true that the inability to evict tenants will change the balance of power between landlords and tenants, which will inevitably also change the relationship between tenants and small landlords, as well as big ones.  But as can be seen in many other countries, there are many ways that a landlord-tenant relationship can be mutually beneficial, if it’s not based on one side of the relationship being the far more powerful one.  In societies free of this violent threat, landlords still make plenty of profit.  In the short term, things might be quite disruptive for your aunt Liz, at least until the authorities figure out what their next move will be, in terms of resolving disputes that used to result in evictions.  Which in a society where housing is a human right can involve direct rent subsidies paid to the landlord, or the authorities finding alternative housing nearby that’s of a similar quality.

If landlords can’t maximize their profits by being able to evict tenants easily, they will have less incentive to be landlords and to build housing, and this will result in less and more expensive housing, the opposite of what we want, won’t it?

No, this is a popular myth put out by the real estate lobby, but it’s based on free market mythology, not actual practice on planet Earth.  On the real planet Earth, governments play a huge role in regulating markets and determining prices, and that is especially true with scarce resources like land and housing.  With scarce resources, the principles of free competition don’t apply the way they do with other goods or services, it’s very easy for those who own the scarce resources to set prices without ever even talking to each other, and it’s very necessary for governments to step in and make sure that sort of thing doesn’t happen, by regulating housing as a human right, rather than as an investment market.

Even if I agree with your orientation here, how is a movement to stop evictions supposed to work, when the law is not on our side, and neither are the cops?

Of course one possibility is to change the law, which in the state of Oregon could potentially happen through a popular referendum, although as we can see with other similar efforts, the real estate lobby has massive resources at their disposal to prevent laws like that from getting on the books.  Direct action — civil disobedience — on the other hand, has been an effective means of changing all kinds of parameters.  The same sorts of tactics that were so successful in rent control struggles in New York and Chicago in the 1930’s have also worked in more recent times, and could be employed on that kind of scale today.  Cities like Portland, Oregon have progressive prosecutors and broadly sympathetic populations of hard-pressed renters.  Even the police know there’s a housing emergency, it’s impossible not to know this.  Faced with sufficient numbers of concerned and outraged neighbors, they will back down, un-evictions will happen, and policies and practices will change.

That all sounds nice, as pipe dreams go, but specifically what are you suggesting people do?

Our humble proposal is a rapid-response eviction defense squad.  (Sign up for text notifications at!)  The bigger the better.  And the more grassroots, connected initiatives taken by groups of individuals as well.  If an eviction defense movement is going to happen, if such a movement might be jumpstarted, we think this will need to involve an eviction response team ready to show up quickly where needed, to physically prevent an eviction and/or un-evict a tenant, through tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience.  At least as importantly as the team is the existence of someone(s) to play the role of what we could call the Rosa Parks of the tenants rights movement.

Who is the Rosa Parks of the tenants rights movement supposed to be?

In the real world, people don’t often actually go from being comfortably housed to living on the streets.  There are often many steps in between, such as staying with relatives, or moving to a more affordable town in some other state.  What we need here in Portland are people who are sufficiently fired up to be willing to take a big risk, and stay put, rather than moving to Kansas, or moving into your sister’s living room.  We need people who want to resist eviction, and if they’re part of a housing collective of some kind rather than a family, we need households where everyone involved is on the same page.  We need people who know and get along with their neighbors.  With one or more households like that wanting to stay put, in combination with the rapid response squad (which already exists, but needs to grow vastly), the possibilities for re-imagining society are limitless.

Priced Out Fight Back

Here in Portland, Oregon there’s a referendum on the ballot to fund legal representation for all tenants facing eviction.  How much more than this might it take to truly address the housing crisis we face?

On the May 16th ballot here in Oregon there is a Multnomah County referendum that, if it passes, will fund guaranteed legal representation for anyone in the county facing eviction.  The idea is clearly way too radical for the local political elite, and according to OPB it is being opposed by our local “progressive” Congressman and by the entire Portland city council, now that the bothersome radicals on the council have been eliminated.

The opposition to the referendum is being funded by the real estate industry, of course.  The “progressive” mouthpieces of the real estate industry on our city council and representing us in Congress say they oppose the bill not because it would help protect tenants facing eviction, which they claim they support, but because it funds the legal representation of tenants by levying a .75% tax on capital gains.  Although they admit this tax would overwhelmingly affect the wealthy, they claim it could affect some other people as well.  They are fairly blatantly bullshitting in order to discourage us from voting for a law that would clearly positively impact tenants and make it slightly harder for the landlords to make quite as much profit off of the need for the working class to live somewhere.

These same politicians have not offered any other substantive plan for doing anything about the fact that the eviction rate in Portland has doubled since the days just prior to the pandemic, aside from opening up camps for the unhoused, and agreeing with the new governor’s toothless declaration that we are experiencing a housing emergency in the state of Oregon.  The “progressive” leadership of Portland and the state of Oregon are once again demonstrating, in effect, that although they like to talk about the housing crisis and they have sympathy for those affected, there’s nothing much to be done about the general, ongoing trend towards more expensive houses, higher rents, and a growing population of people living and dying on the streets.  It is, after, a national trend, in this and many other countries.

If Representative Blumenauer and the Portland City Council can’t find it in their hearts to support the rights of the renting half of the population to have legal representation when facing eviction, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to guess at what they might think of legislation that could actually turn the tide in the course of the housing crisis.  Under the Basic Housing Law that Portugal passed in 2019, for example, in many cases if a landlord wants to evict a tenant who can’t come up with the rent, this is an issue to be worked out between the landlord and the governing authorities, while the tenant stays put.

Here in the US, however, we have the relatively crude tool of the popular referendum, but we don’t have any political equivalent of any of the main political parties in Portugal that got the Basic Housing Law passed — namely, the Left Bloc, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and the Social Democrats, who worked together to pass the law, opposed by the conservatives.  Here in the US, on the other hand, we have a political establishment that has systematically gotten rid of rent control laws in most states of the country over the course of the past several decades of neoliberal retrenchment.

If we can’t referendum our way out of this crisis, and the corrupt, bipartisan political establishment won’t do anything more than shed crocodile tears while opposing real reforms, what is to be done?

One option is to keep on losing the class war being waged against us by the banks and other entities buying up most of the housing across the country and selling it back to us at an outrageous profit, or just renting it out themselves and becoming gigantic landlord entities, rather than brokers for the landlords.  This is the current way we’re going, with a mortgage for a small family home or the rent for a three-bedroom apartment in Portland being roughly equal to 100% of the average American’s annual earnings.  Which is why my family of five, and so many other families my children go to school with, are growing up crammed together into a two-bedroom apartment.  So many of us have already essentially been priced out of the city, but we’re still here, just hanging on, like ghosts of a community that used to exist.

Another option, at least for some, could be to move to a place where the housing market is affordable, or where it is effectively regulated.  But if you don’t have citizenship in another country, that’s a very challenging option.

The other possibility is to fight back.  Without being able to predict the future, I can’t say what such a fight back might look like, but going on precedent, I can imagine.  The movements for tenants rights that have won major victories in the past have employed different forms of civil disobedience.  Physically standing against evictions.  Carrying belongings back inside.  Having our own locksmith to replace the lock.  This is the story of rent control in Chicago, New York City, and Glasgow, to mention a few.  Of course, battles once won can later be lost, and the only one of these cities that is affordable for an average person to live in these days is Glasgow.

For a movement like that to take off, judging from history, certain conditions are required.  The existence of a deepening crisis is one, and the widespread understanding that this crisis does indeed exist and is a big problem for society.  Everywhere I go, everyone I talk to talks about the same things — the impossibly high cost of housing being number one.  They talk about how untenable this is, and they wonder what will ever cause this impossible trend, this death spiral, to change.

But as social movement scholars will tend to agree, the elusive element in addition to the crisis needed for a movement to develop that seeks to address the crisis at hand is a widespread sense of optimism that by working together, we can change things.  For that kind of vision to take hold, a spark is needed.  You can’t start a fire without one, as the Boss says.

What that spark will look like, I don’t know.  That the ground it will burn on is very dry, of that there is no question.  On my more hopeful days, I think a new poor people’s movement, a new movement for tenants’ rights, a movement to abolish evictions, just needs its Rosa Parks to get jumpstarted.  One for each city, hopefully.

It’s easy to imagine the discussions behind the scenes among the leaders of the civil rights movement in Alabama in 1955.  The continuation of institutional racism and segregation seemed just as inevitable then as the ongoing rise in the cost of housing does today.  But people organized to stand against these massive institutions nonetheless, and they talked a lot about what should be the one symbolic act that they should rally a movement around, and who should be the one to commit it.

Most people aren’t like Rosa, though.  When faced with horrendous oppression, if people have the option of going somewhere else, that’s what they tend to do.  Thus, the Great Migration from south to north in the early twentieth century, and the immigration from so many other places as well.  Thus, people tend to quit bad jobs and find new ones, rather than organizing a union.  Or keep their noses to the ground, and hope they win the lottery, or maybe inherit a house from an elderly relative eventually, before they’re forced to live in their cars.  What it takes for someone to get to the point where they’re ready to stick their necks out is endlessly impressive.

But in addition to the tinder-dry ground, despite the moribund, landlord-friendly state of politics, we do have a progressive District Attorney in this city, along with a population that broadly understands the scale of the housing emergency.  There’s probably never been a better time to get arrested for civil disobedience.  If we do find that Rosa Parks of tenant rights ready to risk arrest by staying in a home she can’t afford to continue to pay for as the rents rise, we can be reasonably sure that she will have a lot of friends ready to get arrested with her.