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Articles Issue 6

The Illusion of Victory

Tenant protection regulations are crucial to bottlenecking the tide of evictions, harassment, and violence against housed and unhoused tenants, but their enforcement is always left up to a political class with interests antithetical to our own. In the end, only collective action can free us.

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The COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, and specifically the inability of millions of people to work and pay rent, sharpened the social contradictions inherent to private property for Americans resulting in a renewed wave of militant tenant organizing. With the federal eviction moratorium in place, many cities saw tenant unions form, initiate rent strikes, and further politicize the issues surrounding tenancy into a more general critique of capitalism. Despite the lifting of the moratorium and the prophesied deluge of evictions brought as a result, the tenant union movement continues to grow and strengthen. Meanwhile, non-profits and activist groups push for pro-tenant legislations in state and city jurisdictions. Even the Biden administration is forwarding what it calls the “Renters Bill of Rights,” probably for political capital due to the upcoming election, but not to the exclusion of pressure brought on by calls for relief from tenants vulnerable to the vice grip of landlord harassment and increased rent.

As DSA chapters look to contribute to this political atmosphere, they find themselves sorting into two categories: 1) tenant union organizing and 2) coalition efforts with non-profits to bring the sort of relief renters felt during the pandemic into the long-term. Unfortunately, the latter reform campaigns are often born out of a depoliticized mindset that posits legislation as the only legitimate and/or lasting way for tenants to interact politically, leaving tenant union organizing as a somewhat tangential notion ideally suited for developing tenants and voters. As socialists, we need to focus ourselves on building class-independent worker organizations and developing their capacity for egalitarian invention and political experimentation.   

Tenant protection legislations—rent control, “good cause”, anti-harassment, expropriation, just to name a few—are all vital for the continued survival of tenants in the face of the rapacious appetites of landlords for profit. The coalitions that spearhead these regulation campaigns are well-meaning and noble for their endeavor, however, in an effort to pass these bills the coalitions have a tendency to court power by watering down the critique of capitalism that mass work organizers bring with them. “Do you want to feel good and be right, or do you want to win,” is a phrase that typifies this sentiment and one often seen in debates surrounding these projects. The notion is that socialist language and messaging is too fringe, socialist ideas too abstract or their reputation too loaded with toxic historical baggage to appeal to the average person, let alone to the council people and assembly members in government who hold the future of these concessions in their hands. For many would-be organizers, the easiest response here is to cede ground to the liberal or non-profit approach, delimiting their criticism to only “corporate” or “large” landlords and abandoning the critique of landlordism and private property as such. In addition, the enforcement of regulations is necessarily left up to the bourgeois political class whose interests are most antagonistic to that of the tenants.

The sacrosanct nature of private property is perhaps the most foundational principle of liberal democracy, not only in the legal sense but also socio-culturally, broadly speaking. As landlords push the notion that their investments, funded by our rent, are somehow unique in the structure of capitalist speculation, that their rate of return must ever increase and never fail, we find members of our political class echoing these sentiments as undeniable fact. Because of that irrefutability, even when passed, these protections often remain symbolic at best, unenforced by lawmakers and agencies or outright smothered in the courts, leaving tenants and activists depoliticized, disillusioned, and still in danger. 

This tendency of affirmation through negation, whether in the form of legislative nullification or tactically non-committal language, is not only universal but, in a sense, necessary under neoliberalism. The capitalist state, in its articulation with capital accumulation, requires this deft maneuvering that seeks to “resolve” the class contradictions while leaving the status quo unharmed and then offloading that thinking onto the working class as somehow logical. One example is the Cap The Rent campaign in Connecticut, which involved dozens of coalition members along with CT Tenant Union, CT DSA, and the CT branch of PSL, and chose to include “small landlords” in their 22 hour long testimonial lineup in front of the state legislature. Their statements were to demonstrate how the rent cap wouldn’t significantly hurt their profit margin. Regardless, the state legislature allowed the bill to die in the housing committee saying the issue needed to be studied further, which is itself a common tactic in killing legislation. Even after this failure, the campaign’s statement says “Our movement has also shown that the fight for housing stability does not match the simplistic narrative of renters vs. landlords.” Where does this leave the socialists in the coalition whose politics hinge on recognizing the irreconcilable antagonism between the working class and private property? Thomas Sankara once said that “[imperialism] gets us to think like it does.” The same could be said for property and the bourgeois system which enables its exploitation. 

A similar case arose in the Berlin Expropriation Referendum campaign last year, with some communist members of the project saying the target of the messaging surrounding housing in capitalism was reduced to “speculation” for tactical reasons. As the authors of the article put it:

“[The campaign’s] focus on large corporations narrows the critique of private property to supposedly particularly sinister actors and ‘speculators,’ as if they alone were responsible for the rent explosion of recent years and “small” landlords had not also exploited the tight housing market to maximize profits—or their personal retirement savings—on the backs of tenants. The end result is the vulgar opposition of ‘speculation’ to ‘general welfare,’ not a critique of the property relations that make the housing business possible in the first place.”

In the event that pro-tenant legislation passes, the ruling administrations have other tactics in their employ, including purposeful underenforcement and the dreaded constitutional review of the courts. For two years, the Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD) has refused to enforce regulations targeting short-term rental corporations like AirBnB which have contributed to rising rents and evictions. This refusal has resulted in an estimated loss of $300 million in revenue for a city which consistently allocates increases for the LAPD budget at the expense of social services. For two years and despite receiving thousands of complaints per month, LAHD has also failed to prosecute any landlords for harassment of tenants as it was directed to do with the passing of the Tenant Anti-Harassment Ordinance (TAHO), instead choosing to reclassify the incidents as code violations and close the cases. Today, the LA city council, after voting 14-0 to approve the city’s purchase of the former affordability covenant building Hillside Villa, is dragging its feet in actually following through with the proposal. As the issue languishes in committee hell, infamous slumlord Tom Botz is already evicting the tenants.

As for the power of the courts in this system, they wield the authority to declare, in one fell swoop, anything that disrupts the flow of capital from property to be unconstitutional, killing Good Cause Evictions in upstate New York and likely the Biden administrations Renters Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court could soon hear a case brought by two NYC landlord lobbying groups, the result of which could set the precedent for abolishing generations-old rent stabilization across the country. The much lauded Berlin Referendum, seen by many in DSA as an example to emulate, also faces similar issues of judicial review, with the measure falling under the purview of their constitution’s Article 15, which would place judges as the defenders of private property and capital. “Since Article 15 has never been applied, it is completely up in the air what sum the courts will ultimately judge to be an ‘equitable balance between the public interest and the interests of those affected’. Regardless of the amount of compensation, it is questionable whether the courts would even allow this so-called expropriation.”  

The reflexive response among many in DSA and in activist circles, when faced with these anti-democratic behaviors, is to lean into electoralism. To run our own left-wing candidates and replace the bad acting liberals who stand in the way of improving the lives of tenants. Yet even in the best case scenarios, such as the passing of legislation in the presence of a left-wing or friendly government, the material gains are temporary. This is manifested most infamously in the Berlin local government—known as Red-Red-Green based on its ruling coalition of Social Democrats, Die Linke (The Left), and the Green Party—which sold off the state-owned public housing left over from East Germany in order to respond to a tax revenue shortfall. As the Friends of the Classless Society put it, “Therein lies the crux of every left-wing government: it, too, must court capital, because without investment, there are no jobs and no tax revenue.” This would be no less true in municipalities in US cities and state assemblies, which are undeniably more right-wing than those abroad. 

While pro-tenant bills certainly strike back against the landlords by limiting, say, their ability to extract rent to the degree they demand or their ability to evict “undesirable” renters and to socially cleanse whole neighborhoods for the sake of their bottom line, their enforcement is by no means certain and their protections never permanent. They are at best a temporary stay of execution for tenants in the face of the day-to-day onslaught of private property. “Decommodified housing,” no matter what type, be it a community land trust or state-owned and administered housing, is only so until it isn’t. Tenant protections are only as good as the agencies or administrations that have the will to enforce them, and ultimately all of that is up to the interpretation of our notoriously tenant-hostile court system. 

For those whose theory of change revolves around organizing through state power this outlook may seem bleak, but bear in mind that no one should suggest that legislative campaigns should be abandoned; rather, organizers should know what to expect. Instead of the presumption of self-enforcing rights once a law is passed, which so often attends the sort of legal and electoral fetishism we see in activist circles and US politics today, organizers need to pick up the red banner from fallen campaigns and generalize their critique towards capitalism as a whole. From the article “No Ship Will Come To Save Us” in Brooklyn Rail, “…anyone who is serious about the housing issue should beware of the illusion that the battle has already been won. It should really start now, first and foremost through a radicalization of the forms of struggle and a generalization of the critique, which should not be limited to individual real estate corporations but tackle property relations as a whole.”

We see this already in Connecticut DSA, with a reinvigorated call for tenant union organizing arising from the ashes of the failed Cap The Rent bill. The Hillside Villa tenants, in their response, also radicalized their language, even going so far as to hold a press conference in mid-August where they publicly burned their eviction notices. LATU has begun their Freeze The Rent campaign, working to fight the proposed 7-9% increase on rent stabilized units. As LA city council members, in their bourgeois magnanimity, work to compromise the increase down to 4-7% and a “palatable” thousands more newly unhoused tenants, the union is doing outreach to educate and agitate tenants, most importantly to organize more tenant associations. For the union, no increase can be justified, no compromise can be acceptable for an easy victory; for them, the watchword is “we demand 0%.”

Ultimately, emancipation can only come through politicized, collective action. It is not the collection of statutes, civil codes, and regulations or sympathetic but roundly powerless political representatives that give tenants power; truly that can only come from us. A fight has begun and we must all join it.  

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