The union is a pedagogical space, where tenants educate each other on their rights, discuss the possibilities and risks of collective action, trade organizing and escalation strategies, and co-learn about the broader tenant struggle. How do I protect myself against a violent landlord? How should I respond to this legal notice? What is the best way to talk to my neighbors about joining a strike? How do we shape our union to better meet the needs of unhoused tenants? What the hell is rent, anyway?
The union is also a democratic space. Tenants exercise decision-making power over tactics within their building associations, such as what to include in a demand letter or when to withhold rent. They collectively determine the work of their local chapter, including what to prioritize as a group or how to best design an event. What steps should our building take to prepare for retaliation for organizing? Who will pick up the food this week for our chapter’s distribution? Can we reach consensus on the theme of our next protest? What should we discuss together next week?
LATU’s place-based organizing builds power from the bottom up. Neighbors within individual buildings who are committed to working together are organized into tenants associations which take part in their local neighborhood chapter. Our sixteen local chapters confederate into a city-wide union that provides an infrastructure for establishing new chapters and sustains cross-union initiatives such as media campaigns, new member orientations and solidarity events.
As our membership grows, we organize more local chapters, rooting our work in the neighborhoods which tenants have built shaped, and given life to. We are committed to building 100 local chapters across the city, rebuilding the social bonds threatened and broken by capitalist development.
In April 2020, tenant households were confronted with the reality of shelter-in-place orders, lost work and an uncertain future. By May, UCLA reported that as many as 500,000 tenant households in Los Angeles were at risk of eviction. As the scale of the emergency became clear, LATU committed to a principle of “Food Not Rent,” holding onto our rent to prioritize our basic needs over landlords’ profits.
Federal assistance for tenants throughout the COVID-19 crisis has been minimal. Unemployment insurance discriminates against undocumented people as well as those working in the informal economy. Underfunded, means-tested lotteries for partial rent payments provides subsidy to landlords, not to tenants in need.
California’s Democratic politicians and nonprofit groups followed suit with the US federal government’s watered-down measures. In August, California passed a law that provides a legal defense for tenants in eviction court but does nothing to stop eviction filing or enforcement. In January, the state delivered another victory for landlords by passing a law which prevents local governments from passing stricter rules.
The current California law burdens tenants with applying for subsidies to finance up to 80 percent of their rent debt, while granting landlords unilateral power to refuse those funds. The government’s willingness to cancel 20 percent of rent debt for subsidy applicants proves that it does indeed have the power to eliminate back rent, but will not. Rent debt cancellation is not a question of legality, but of political will.
These new laws have not stopped eviction. They do nothing to protect tenants from illegal lock-outs, intimidation campaigns, self-eviction or the lengthy, frightening process of going to court to keep your housing. If a tenant fails to respond to a notice, they will be evicted by summary judgement whether or not they have a legal defense. Most of those who make it to court lack legal representation and have to prove their own cases, making them likely to fail. More, these laws do not cancel rent or erase rent debt. Rather, they direct public resources to private landlords or convert owed rent into consumer debt for which landlords can sue us, bankrupt us and wreck our credit.
During the pandemic, LATU more than doubled in size. We now boast thousands of members. Many of them went on rent strike during the past year, some now continuing into their fourteenth month. LATU’s central demands remain consistent: cancel rent, eliminate all rent debt and stop both formal and informal evictions.
LATU has helped thousands of tenants out of individual suffering and into a movement. Within our tenant associations, we have solidified the rent strike as a road to cancel rents through collective bargaining and to pressure landlords to accept the aid that tenants receive. Meanwhile, our consistent eviction blockades intervene in the formal court process that terminates a tenancy as well as in informal lock-outs — both of which are aided and enforced by police.
We have built the capacity to mobilize at a moment’s notice to keep people in their homes, even providing emergency plumbing and carpentry to ensure tenants return to safe and habitable housing. Our local meetings and outreach help prevent self-evictions by those who would otherwise move out of fear. Our Food Not Rent campaign has conducted food distribution and collectively raised $100,000 in funds for basic needs.
Safe and stable housing has been the only effective prescription throughout the COVID-19 crisis. As politicians and the capitalist housing system fail to meet this need, self-organization continues to be the only rational path.
Over 60 percent of Los Angeles residents are tenants, yet in the history of the city, there has never been a mayor or City Council representative who was not a homeowner. Many city representatives are landlords themselves, a fact which directly pits their self-interests against the majority whom they represent. Every year there is a new scandal of representatives caught accepting real estate bribes. Los Angeles has 99 Neighborhood Councils on which tenants sometimes do serve, but these groups cannot veto or propose new legislation or intervene in any planning decisions. Effectively, these councils are hamster wheels of participation without power.
In contrast, LATU’s dues-based funding structure allows us to maintain autonomy from the interests of donors and the government. A rank-and-file union creates an infrastructure outside of charities and nonprofits. We are not paid professionals offering services, we are comrades empowering each other to organize and become experts in our own right at imagining, demanding and implementing the solutions we need.
Although the union is only five years old, LATU is beginning to transform Los Angeles tenants’ political consciousness, as we show each other that our collective power promises to displace the power of those who oppress us. One framework through which we can understand our work is dual power, a political project which links the creation of institutions for working-class self-determination with the destruction of the capitalist order.
First theorized by Proudhon in 1851 and later observed by Lenin during the formation of the soviet workers councils of 1917, dual power creates a tension in which working-class institutions exist alongside and compete for legitimacy with capitalist ones. In the words of Black Socialists in America, dual power means “building a new world that can make the old world obsolete.”
Today, dual power offers a strategic horizon for what an anti-capitalist organization can accomplish over time while making consistent gains in the present. In this way, our tenants associations, local chapters and the union as a whole plant seeds for a future of rent-free housing, self-organized community safety and community control of public resources and space.