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 abolishevictions.org!)  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.