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.