News & Updates

November rent (or lack thereof)

Open Letter to My Landlord #6

If you think we’re taking advantage of the moratorium on evictions, you’re damn right we are. You have been taking advantage of the tacit threat of forced eviction ever since you bought your first apartment complex.

Dear CTL/Randall Group,

(Please forward to corporate.)

I appreciate the advice you’ve been sending to your tenants about rental assistance that is available from the local authorities, most of which, as you may know, actually is not available, because the need here in Portland and around the country far outstrips the supply. This is in the news regularly, especially in the business press, which you and I probably both consume daily.

Since we’re giving out free advice, I have advice for you, too:

Recognize the fact that we’re in an economic crisis, and dramatically lower what you charge. Since we moved in, our rent for this two-bedrom apartment went from $500 a month to $1,200 a month. Property taxes and other expenses did not rise at anything resembling that kind of rate. You did that because you could, and because you are a capitalist creation with no feelings and no conscience. In fact, you’re not human — you’re a corporation, and you do not exist in any form recognizable by the five senses. You are purely a legal entity — amoral, unaccountable, a product of a broken system. You can’t be evicted, you can’t get sick, you can’t be unemployed. But I’ll refer to you as “you” because, of course, humans are involved with running the company, whether they are ashamed to identify themselves by name or not. (As the rent rises, the communication from you becomes more and more anonymous, as you may be aware. Probably tired of all the hate mail from tenants, I assume.)

Portland is the most rent-burdened city in the country, according to the business press, and you are responsible for this situation, very directly, through your landlord practices, and through the lobbying entities you support, that have corrupted our political system.

The situation as it is is totally untenable, and was, long before the pandemic. This, in large part, is why renters in Portland are now over $125 million behind on rent. We were already the most rent-burdened renters in the USA, before the pandemic hit. We already lost more than half of our Black population, long before the pandemic hit. Because of you, and other landlords like you, and the corrupt politicians who serve you. This is called institutional racism, obviously. Although no one is keeping track, I can say from copious circumstantial evidence that Portland also lost more than half of its artists during the same period.

Send in the police (when you’re eventually allowed to), take us to court (when you’re eventually allowed to), or change your ways. Those are your options.

If you choose the latter option, I look forward to receiving a new offer for a rental agreement that is in keeping with basic standards of morality, decency, and human rights. You more than doubled our rent since we moved in to this apartment in 2007. This is reprehensible. If there’s an adjective more reprehensible than reprehensible, it’s that, too. I’m a songwriter, by profession — one of the few left who can afford to live in this city — and I still cannot come up with an adjective to describe how abhorrent the Randall Group is to me, and to any other civilized person.

Don’t send us useless advice about rental assistance. Send us a new rental agreement. We’re on rent strike. (Look it up — it’s a thing, in the US and around the world, it goes way back, and the landlords often lose, if people fight hard enough. In fact, whole systems can change overnight, because of such struggles.) Also I still haven’t gotten any money from the Oregon Employment Department for being unemployed since March. The fact that I’m unemployed and receiving no aid from the state may be technically the reason we can legally withhold our rent from you under the federal CDC moratorium, so maybe that’s relevant on some level, but on the moral plain it’s completely beside the point.

The rent we have been withholding since April is in our savings account, for the most part. We are and have been prepared to pay rent — but not just whatever you feel like charging. We are not prepared to leave this city, like most of our friends have had to do. We will fight back. We are fighting back right now. This is just the beginning of the class war which you have started by doubling the rent on people like us.

The press is full of sob stories from landlords who say their tenants are taking advantage of them by withholding rent that they could maybe afford to pay, even under the circumstances of the pandemic and the economic crash. But what about solidarity with other human beings? What about all those people who can’t afford to pay? Will you evict them all?

If you think we’re taking advantage of the moratorium on evictions, you’re damn right we are. You have been taking advantage of the tacit threat of forced eviction ever since you bought your first apartment complex.

In another, earlier message sent to us tenants in the spring, you inferred that you would have to lay off staff because so many renters aren’t paying rent. So you applied for PPP loans and got turned down? There is zero transparency involved with your landlordism, so we would have no way of knowing, obviously. In any case, appealing to the concern we renters may have for our friends who work for you was a disgustingly low blow. We know who your staff are and so do you — they’re mostly people of color, and obviously so badly paid that they can’t afford to live in this neighborhood.

You were inferring in that email that you charge rent largely in order to pay your workers, which we all know is complete idiocy to suggest. You are a for-profit corporation — and a very profitable one at that, in an extremely profitable industry (corporate landlordism) which you have made sure remains profitable, by bribing politicians in Salem and Washington, DC. What happened to all your profits? Did you lose them? Did they fall out of your socks? Do you have a bank account? Oh, I forgot, you are bankers, and you give your quarterly dividends to the stockholders, who make all the money.

So maybe you really are broke landlords. In that case, a suggestion — some more free advice: sell us the building and we’ll take care of it. Or, on second thought, we’ve already paid enough rent to you to build this building all over again many times, so you can just cut your losses, declare bankruptcy, and we can buy it from the foreclosure corporations, where you buy your distressed properties, that you then turn around and gouge us to live in.

Or, on third thought, if you’re not making enough money from corporate landlordism, why don’t you get a real job? Amazon is hiring. Or you can try being a professional musician. I’ll give you some tips, in your virtual guitar case.

David Rovics and family

The Next Steps in Eviction Defense

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

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.