Rebel Steps speaks with members of the Autonomous Tenants Union Network about rent strikes and eviction defense.
As landlords continue to threaten tenants with evictions, newly formed tenants unions and associations as well as community organizations and neighbors will have to move quickly to try and assist vulnerable tenants, both now and in the coming months. So, in this episode, I’ll be looking at eviction defense with Lupe and Rose of the LA Tenants Union.
RebelSteps is a member of the Channel Zero Network. Head over to channelzeronetwork.com for more anarchist podcasts. Please consider supporting us on Patreon! Get in touch with questions or comments at [email protected] We’d love to hear from you!
Both Rose and Lupe are members of the LA Tenants Union (LATU) and organizers with the Autonomous Tenants Union Network. Reach out to ATUN at [email protected]. ATUN has many resources available. In particular, check out the notes on their eviction defense training and resisting eviction courts.
- It’s Going Down: “Building Renter Power With The Autonomous Tenants Union Network” with ATUN
- For more podcast episodes, check out our other tenant organizing episodes and our Spotify playlist of Rent Strike content.
News Research for this Episode:
- “Around 20 million renters could face eviction by the end of September because of the pandemic —with the impact falling heavily on Black and Hispanic renters” by Sarah Al-Arshani in Business Insider
- “Millions in US face eviction amid COVID-19 crisis” from Al Jazeera.
- “Sleeping Outside in a Pandemic: Vulnerable Renters Face Evictions” by Caitlin Dickerson in the New York Times
- “Laid off and now evicted amid Covid-19, a Houston father contemplates homelessness in a pandemic” by Kyung Lah on CNN
- “CDC Issues Sweeping Temporary Halt On Evictions Nationwide Amid Pandemic” by Chris Arnold on Morning Edition, NPR
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Reporter 1: The coronavirus pandemic shows no signs of slowing. With so many out of work, the specter of mass evictions is now real.
Reporter 2: Deputy Gant, an officer of 35 years, is just starting his day (knocking). 8 evictions are on his list.
Reporter 3: The Bronx Housing Court is the busiest court in the 5 boroughs. Tenants and organizers here fear that in the next coming weeks not only will this court be inundated with new eviction cases, but also COVID-19 cases.
With potentially 40 million Americans facing eviction, the housing struggle is far from over. Recently, the CDC put in effect an eviction moratorium which only protects renters if they are struggling because of COVID and if they claim they will definitely be homeless if evicted. It still allows landlords to evict for other reasons, so it incentivizes various types of harassment like calling the police or ICE on tenants . It also doesn’t forgive any rent debt, meaning that at best it just sets renters up to face eviction in January. And politicians seem set on not addressing the housing crisis in a comprehensive way. So as landlords continue to threaten tenants with evictions, newly formed tenants unions and associations as well as community organizations and neighbors will have to move quickly to try and assist vulnerable tenants, both now and in the coming months. So, in this episode, I’ll be looking at eviction defense.
Lupe: So hi, my name is Lupe. I am with the South Central local of the Los Angeles Tenants Union.
Lupe has experience with eviction blockades, so I was thrilled to chat with her about how the LA tenants union, sometimes called by its acronym LATU, organizes their eviction assistance. Like many other tenants, Lupe got involved in tenant organizing after experiencing issues in her own apartment building.
Lupe: So I actually became involved with the union last year, just before fall. I contacted LA Tenants Union was because I was having some issues with my apartment building. So what had happened was May, a big chunk of that just fell. And thankfully, no one was hurt. No one was under that when that happened, but it could have been really devastating. had someone been there, and that, you know, the balcony it just collapsed. In July, there was a large earthquake here in LA, And there was another large earthquake that happened the day right after. And so when these earthquakes happened in July, I was like, Well, you know, we were so lucky that no one was hurt. But, you know, months passed since this part of the building collapsed. And we heard nothing from management, no acknowledgement, no notice, nothing, like, like radio silence. And I was like, what’s going to happen? Who’s doing something about this? Who’s gonna fix this? It wasn’t until August, September that I contacted the union. I reached out and I explained what had happened, Why I was concerned. And immediately they invited me to one of their meetings. And I came out, I listened and I shared my situation. Ever since then, you know, I’ve been attending the meetings regularly. I’ve,little by little become more involved. I’m a little bit more active now, especially with the pandemic hitting and, you know, thankfully the tenants union was able to help me and my neighbors and we organized and we actually formed a tenant association for our building. And so that’s how I became involved right just based on my own personal issues with my apartment, and I’ve been a member since.
Lupe was fortunate to be able to connect the union. The LA Tenants Union is one of the largest in the US and has developed a structure to support its large membership.
Lupe: The tenants union has been around for five years now. The tenants union really started out because their were tenants coming together and recognizing that although they were all coming from different parts of LA, essentially they were all facing very similar issues when it came to their living situations. What the folks that founded the tenants union realized was that it wasn’t going to be easy to have like a central group, right. And Los Angeles is pretty big. And so what was decided was that there would be locals and these locals would cover different areas of Los Angeles. And so there would be like, a West Side local, South Los Angeles, Wilmington Bay. And so that’s really how it started.
LATU has grown tremendously since the pandemic began as more and more tenants have faced challenges.
Lupe: So union-wide, we have definitely more dues paying members now. Every local has grown quite a bit. We even have at least one other local that formed since the pandemic. In the South Central local specifically, in the beginning, we have to act fast because what we started seeing was people through no fault of their own being unable to pay rent, they notified their their landlords or managers, and a lot of the response was awfu.l Tenants were being threatened with eviction. They were being harassed and landlords were demanding that tenants pay rent. Tenants were facing illegal lockouts. It was very prominent here in South Los Angeles. People that are not able to pay rent because they’re not working, they are not only struggling with paying rent, they’re struggling with other things and just having the stress of a landlord that’s harassing you or that is unwilling to make repairs, because you can’t pay is it’s something that’s been happening a lot. And it was happening before, but I think like everywhere, it’s just become so obvious and so apparent now with the pandemic.
What’s Eviction Defense?
As the pandemic has continued, LATU has started to respond to evictions, which have already begun despite a moratorium being in place in LA. If you haven’t experienced an eviction first hand, it might be difficult to envision what it looks like. A lot goes into this sort of defense, and I’ll outline some of the behind the scenes roles later in the episode. But the most apparent part of eviction defense is usually the eviction blockade.
Lupe: Like the blockade itself will literally be people that are onsite, they could be chanting, they can be like locking elbows or yelling at the police. So like an agitator. And trying to support the tenant. When you’re there it can be a little bit chaotic. But there has to be like a group of people that are literally physically standing like side by side next to each other and so that the landlord and the police don’t have like easy access to the tenant. Because they’ll try to be like, “Oh, I just want to speak to the tenant, like, I’m only going to speak to the tenant.” And we don’t want that. We want them to see that we’re not going to let you isolate the tenant or threaten the tenant even more.
While blockades are often the primary tactic in eviction defense, the details of the action will be different depending whether it is a legal or illegal eviction. It’s key to account for what type of eviction you’re dealing with.
Lupe: Right now, a lot of places have eviction protections and so I guess technically landlords aren’t supposed to be evicting tenants. And so if they do, if they go ahead and proceed with that, and they try to force tenants out, those are what we call illegal evictions. Legal evictions, unfortunately, those are the ones that go through the court, right. And so tenants will get not only the three day notice, but the landlord will go and serve them unlawful detainers, which are like official evictions notices, and these are signed by the judge. And in a legal eviction, the sheriff’s will be the people that are in charge of actually making sure that the tenant does, you know, move out and vacate the premises. Whereas an illegal evictions again because it’s unlawful, the tenant should not, you know, be forced out of their unit Unfortunately what’s going to happen soon in a lot of places with the eviction protections ending is that we’re going to start seeing legal evictions. But what we’ve seen since the pandemic started, you know, March, April, up until now is illegal evictions where landlords are, you know, by any means necessary trying to force tenants out of their homes.
South Central has started experiencing many illegal evictions, in the form of lock outs, which is when a landlord changes the locks. Lupe shared the story of her first time helping with eviction defense on the ground which happened in response to one of those lockouts.
Lupe: In South Central, we started seeing a lot of incidents of lockouts. I was one of the people that responded to one in our community just a couple blocks away from where I live actually, with one of our long term members. He, you know, notified the landlord that he wouldn’t, he couldn’t pay rent because of COVID. And the landlord completely disregarded that and completely disregarded the current protections and threatened him. Since then we started like a rapid response efforts to respond to lockouts. And what happened in that incident, basically, the landlord went as far as changing the locks on this tenant. When they got a chance, they saw a chance, they entered the premises and removed this person’s belongings forcefully without his permission to try and force him out. This was the first time that I became involved with eviction defense on the ground. It was you know, it was a kind of like a learn as you go type of thing for me. And for a lot of folks, actually, but basically what happened is, you know, we sent out this like chat on our thread. We made a call to action, you know, this is happening like one of our, one of our members is getting kicked out of their homes in the middle of a pandemic. We asked people like come out if you can, let’s support our friend and people came out. It was a struggle, we were able to help him stay inside the unit. But it was a struggle because the landlord called the police multiple times on the tenant and on the organizers, you know, the neighbors for different reasons, like we were trespassing or stuff like that. Each time the police came out, they wouldn’t really listen to what the organizers and the tenant was trying to say, like “They’re kicking me out and they’re not supposed to kick me out.” You know, eventually we had a good like 30 or 40 people come out that day. And we started chanting and we invited the neighbors to like join us and to support the tenant. It was very chaotic almost, I mean, it got very intense at so many points. But eventually we were able to pressure, you know, the landlord and the police, that this was wrong, and that they had to let the tenant stay inside his home, you know, because he had nowhere to go. And how are they gonna kick someone out? In the middle of this, this crisis? Like, where was this person supposed to go? It wasn’t easy. And it was again a learn as you go type of thing. But you know, with the help of everyone that showed up, and people that didn’t show up, you know, they were filing reports and calling city council and I started a live stream and people were sharing and commenting. And that really was what it took right pressure from everyone, everyone in the community to help this person stay in their home.
As evictions keep coming, both illegal and legal, we will need to be prepared to act fast. One way to get ready for this is by forming a rapid response network.
Lupe: Rapid Response, It’s a group of folks that are on call so whenever we hear of a tenant that is in this situation, folks that are available, they will respond immediately and they’ll show up on site, assess the situation based on, like different factors, right. So does a tenant feel comfortable escalating the situation? Is this a lockout? Or is it just an instance of harassment? There’s different scenarios that you can encounter. For example, one could be a landlord is trying to evict the tenant for non payment. Another could be a landlord is trying to evict the tenant because they’re trying to move into the unit themselves or the house. A landlord is trying to evict the tenant claiming that they they’re going to make repairs or they’re going to do renovations. A landlord is trying to evict the tenant and has taken out a restraining order against them. And so the way that the group responds really is going to v depend on that specific situation.
When putting together a rapid response network for your community, Lupe says streamlining communication is crucial. In LA they’ve used the encrypted messaging app Signal, but the most important thing is having one way to communicate with everyone involved, no matter what platform you’re using.
Lupe: Folks are not always going to be on the same page when there’s not one channel of communication. So we did have to learn this just by doing it and like you know messing up and doing it all over again. But it helps right to just have one channel of communication.
Even in a tumultuous moment, it’s a good idea to try and assign some roles to organizers and participants. Lupe outlined a few key roles to consider.
Lupe: You need to have a person that is in contact with the tenant that is just gathering facts and staying in communication with the tenant, just ensuring, that whatever we do is centered around tenant goals. So that’s someone that we call the tenant ally. We also need to make sure that we have someone that again, if the tenant feels comfortable, someone that is working on a press release, this person can also be lthe person that’s going to be talking to the media. And then we need someone that is comfortable and able to deal with the police. Unfortunately, that is something that every single one of these actions we’ve had to deal with. Landlords or neighbors even will call the police because they see like an escalating situation. And so having a police liaison that can communicate with the police and ensure that you kno the tenant doesn’t have to also take on this role. Something else that is helpful is having someone that is in charge of just materials right that are going to be necessary right now obviously, we want to make sure that folks have hand sanitizer, masks, gloves. But also aside from the safety measures, someone that can have fliers on hand. Once the situation settles down a little bit, we can use that as an opportunity to do outreach in the community outreach with neighbors, right. And a lot of what you’ll find is that people are also experiencing similar things. And so it’s a good opportunity to do a little bit of outreach.
You can also think of roles in terms of risk level. It’s crucial to remember that these situations can escalate.
Lupe: There’s different safety or like risk levels involved. Folks that are on the ground really that like, obviously, that’s high risk, but not everyone has to be like highest risk. So far we haven’t had people that have been arrested or anything like that. But if it comes to that, then there has to be people that are willing to take it that far, right. And so that’s gonna be highest risk. And then for people that can’t show up, like on site, you know, they can always help with contacting media putting together a flyer, you know, sharing on social media. So there’s something that everyone can do, right. You don’t necessarily have to be on the ground to be helpful. We need folks that are researching right researching, like, Who is this landlord? Do they own any other properties? What is their contact information? Where do they get their funding and things like that? That’s gonna you know, it’s gonna be lower risk.
As you and your community participate in eviction defense, keep your organization’s goals in mind. On a broad level, we need to politicize these early eviction attempts in order to continue growing the movement.
Lupe: We really want to politicize this moment, right. This is the moment where folks are struggling, right, struggling to pay rent and having issues with their landlord, facing harassment/ It didn’t start with the pandemic. It’s just more obvious now. This is the moment to demand for all of this to stop. Everyone has a right to feel safe in their housing. People right now are starting to realize what is it that we want to prioritize? Do we really want to pay rent, even if that means that I have to limit other things like food, like child care, like transportation. The LA Tenants union right now, we have our Food not Rent campaign. And really what that is, is a rent strike that we were telling folks if you are having to choose between rent and food, don’t choose rent you know. And you’re not the only one right? You’re not alone. You know, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed if you can’t pay rent. Like our elected should feel ashamed that they’re not handling this any better.
When it comes to individual evictions, each one will have slightly different goals. And centering the tenants’ needs and safety is always the most important thing.
Lupe: What a lot of us have learned in the union is that it’s really important to also think about what the tenant wants, what the tenant’s goal is. Because ultimately, at the end of the day, they’re the ones that are going to stay in this situation, right. And we get to walk away, but they have to stay there, right. And you don’t know, like what happens afterwards. You might have just forced this tenant to stay in an unsafe situation or you know, just different reasons that the tenant may not want to stay there. Every situation where we show up and we engage in like eviction blockades, aside from just having people you know, have somewhere to stay, we wanna make sure that the tenant is aware that they have like an entire community that is willing to support them and fight with them. We want people to feel empowered, to fight back and to really stand up for themselves and know that you have a right to fight for your right to housing, your right to feel safe in your housing. Really that’s one of the things that we envision when when we get called out to these situations.
Crowd chanting: El pueblo unido jamás será vencido… The people united will never be defeated.
Autonomous Tenant Union Network
Rose: My name is Rose and I’m a member of the VyBe local of the LA tenants union. And I’m also really involved in helping get the Autonomous Tenants Union Network (ATUN) off the ground. And about two years ago the LA tenants union started organizing along with a couple other big tenants unions, these calls to basically coordinate action and do shared political education and to just share information and ideas. And we are now trying to formalize ourselves into this group, the Autonomous Tenants Union Network, which is a collective of autonomous tenants unions all around North America. And by autonomous I basically mean member-led and member-funded. So we don’t have paid staff. We don’t have boards of directors, we’re run by our own tenant selves. The purpose is to build tenant power and to sort of, kind of coalesce a tenant movement that is farther left than the progressive kind of housing alliance and that doesn’t talk about “affordable housing” and doesn’t talk about “transit oriented development” or any of that. But talks about abolishing landlords and abolishing rent.
Evictions are a nationwide problem so this network is working to connect organizers around North America and share expertise. The network is a relatively new organization. And like many tenants groups, the pandemic sped up their growth and also changed their plans a little.
Rose: All the groups that we’re organizing with are very young, or they’re kind of like revitalized versions of things. So people were just having calls to share information and coordinate action. And then there started to be this feeling like we’re all informally affiliated, but we don’t have an central organizing committee or we don’t have a way of really making decisions, or people keep asking what this thing is, and it’s not really clear who’s in and who’s out. So we need to formalize ourselves and create a points of unity document and figure out what our structure is going to be. And we were in the process of doing that, in planning for our founding convention in LA in September when the pandemic started. So now we’re trying to do a zoom version of that. But as you can imagine, like things just really took off when the pandemic started. We got such an influx of people who were interested in rent striking, who wanted to tenant to organize for the first time, who realized that suddenly nobody was going to have any money and there was going to be a huge eviction crisis unless we all learned how to organize ourselves and support each other and rent striking and support each other and doing eviction defense really quickly.
One way ATUN has brought new people into the tenant movement is by hosting online town halls. These often take the form of trainings and share crucial information about different facets of organizing.
Rose: We were first holding these tenant organizing town halls every two weeks. And now we’re doing it once a month. And we’re basically trying to help people form new tenants unions, and also to help smaller tenants unions develop skills that they need. So, for example, we’ve held several different eviction defense kind of trainings. So we had this town hall with the Debt Collective, who’s done a lot of student debt organizing particular and organize debtors unions about about rent debt. We had one about media and media strategy. That’s some of them.
I’ve attended a few of these myself and I can’t recommend them enough. They usually feature several experienced tenant organizers talking about an array of tactics that work. And ATUN is how I got connected with Lupe from LATU. Definitely check out these town halls and get in touch with ATUN if you’re interested in learning more about tenant organizing of any kind.
Rose: Our website is ATUN-RSIA.org. People can go to that website and then they can also email us at [email protected] Right now we hold office hours for people who are trying to do tenant organizing on Mondays and Thursdays. And basically, if you’re, you know, some someone in a place where there’s not attended union, but you want to get one going, you can email us and then we’ll make sure that people from places where there are big tenants unions can be there to support you and answer questions and talk through how you can get your tenants union off the ground.
Doing eviction defense might sound challenging. But Lupe reminds us that we can’t let our fears keep us from engaging with this vital work.
Lupe: This kind of work can be a little bit intimidating when you’re approaching for the first time. You might be like, Oh, I don’t know a lot. But honestly, like, you shouldn’t feel that way. Because again, you are going to learn as you go, you know. As long as whatever you do is centering the tenant. Like really, that’s, that’s the goal, right, centering the tenant, their safety, and making sure that as you go as you, as you, you know, encounter more of the situations that you’re building relationships, because these are the people that you’re going to, you’re going to start seeing the same people over and over and over again, you know, it’s going to be the same people responding to these things. And so, you know, don’t be afraid to ask questions. That’s going to help you build relationships that are going to be super helpful, you know, in case like, in my situation, perhaps the quote unquote main organizer was not always able to come out. And so after a while, I feel comfortable, right? It didn’t feel like I had to ask someone for like, direction, right? I could just like, figure it out with others, right? So it’s important to build relationships and not be afraid to reach out because again, you just learn as You go.
We need everyone to become engaged in the struggle for housing justice, and social movements in general.
Lupe: As a union we really want this to be like a call to action, like get involved with with your local union. Because this is greater than just the Coronavirus. This is greater than just this moment. When the Coronavirus is no longer you know, an immediate threat, people are going to be devastated. There’s so many people that have been unable to pay rent for months. We can’t go back to normal. People aren’t going to have jobs to go back to. It’s something that we’re gonna have to deal with for years to come. And so we really want this moment to be something that inspires people to get to get more involved.
As I’ve noted in the past, the struggle for housing justice is not separate from the abolitionist organizing happening. The uprisings that continue to flare up have impacted the way that eviction defense is evolving. This is in part because people are becoming more comfortable with being in conflict with the police. Here’s Rose.
Rose: To me what’s really exciting about what’s happening right now is the ramp up in militancy. So the fact that people shut down eviction court in a few places recently, the fact that there are these Rapid Response Networks, the fact that people are doing eviction blockades. Short term, the hope that I would have is that this comes to be normalized. So, all these kinds of actions like that, you know, bring back the idea that any eviction is unacceptable. There’s different historical moments where the resistance to eviction has been so much more militant and organized. I’ve read, for example, that in Chicago in the 30s, somebody would face eviction, and they would say, “Go run and find the reds.” And they could get 5000 people within a half hour to fight this eviction. I’m hoping that as we start doing this kind of thing, and as we get a lot of publicity for it, and as we bring in more and more people, that it will be something that people do spontaneously rather than that organized tenant groups have to make happen, so that when people see that an eviction is occurring on their block, even without being members of a tenants union, they go out and they try to prevent that from happening.
Let’s keep fighting for an abolitionist future where housing is a human right. You’ve been listening to Rebel Steps. I’m your host Liz. Believe in yourself, trust one another, and get organized.
This episode was written, edited, and produced by Amy and myself. Special thanks to our interviewees Lupe and Rose. For more resources, check out the show notes for this episode on rebelsteps.com. Music for this episode was kindly gifted to us Tutlie. And also includes a few tunes that I created.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider supporting us on Patreon or sharing this episode with your friends or via social media. This podcast is part of the Channel Zero Network, an anarchist podcast network run by radical media makers. Head over to ChannelZeroNetwork.com for more podcasts and stay tuned for a message from one of our comrades in the network: The Final Straw