Ari Brostoff: Hi, everyone, and welcome to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. This is Ari Brostoff, I’m a Senior Editor at Jewish Currents. I’m in Los Angeles right now because I’ve spent the weekend at a tenant organizing convention here. It’s the first in-person convention held by ATUN, the Autonomous Tenants Union Network, which is a kind of confederation of independent tenant unions across North America. So I’ve been here as a member of the Crown Heights Tenants Union in Brooklyn, along with a couple of hundred people coming from 20 different tenant unions across the country, from Worcester, Massachusetts to Washington, DC, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Eugene, Oregon.
I’m guessing some of you listening know what Labor Notes is, which had its convention in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, so you can think of this as kind of the tenant-organizing equivalent. It’s a lot smaller, but give us a few years. And it’s been a really amazing weekend, and I have three guests with me today, who came here from three different parts of the country to participate as well. And we’re going to be talking about what’s going on with their organizing projects back at home, and what they have learned this weekend.
So I would like to introduce you to Danya Martinez-Spider, who lives in West River, South Dakota, and is a member of the West River Tenants Union. Danya, is it actually Rapid City? Is that the way to actually say where you live?
Danya Martinez-Spider: Yeah.
AB: Okay. So Danya, correction, lives in Rapid City, which is in West River, which I’m sure she could explain more about later. Claire Spiehler, who lives in Houston, Texas, where they’re a part of the Houston Tenants Union, and Kenia Alcocer, who lives here in Los Angeles, and is part of LATU, the Los Angeles Tenants Union. So I think to start with: can everyone talk about why you decided to join the tenant union in your city and what’s kept you there? Like what’s been meaningful enough about it that it’s kept you doing what you’re doing, and also brought you to LA for this convention? For those of you who aren’t already living here. Kenia, do want to start?
Kenia Alcocer: Sure. Well, we’re Union de Vecinos, the East Side local of the Los Angeles Tenants Union. And Union de Vecinos is unique in the way that we’ve been existing for the last 25 years, organizing in our neighborhood, Boyle Heights in East LA. And when we had a fight against gentrification and a fight against this, quote unquote, affordable housing coming over, we lost a lot of our funding. We got blacklisted by non-profits and foundations. And when we made a call for all of our friends and comrades to come together to figure out how we were going to continue the organizing without funding, and without any of this process, we reached out to a lot of our comrades, and we started having a conversation.
And we started realizing that a lot of our comrades were having the similar issues that we were having in our neighborhood. So it didn’t make sense for folks to come and help us organize in Boyle Heights, they needed to organize within their communities. And something needed to be created that would help us break away from the isolation that Boyle Heights was doing. And that’s when the Los Angeles Tenants Union was born. And I think that that’s one of the things that, for us, what keeps us going, is the fact that we have a commitment in organizing in our communities beyond just tenant rights.
Like tenants–the foot on the door issue that everybody experiences in LA, especially with all of the housing crises that we’ve been dealing with–but the reality for us, as Los Angeles Tenants Union, is the fact that we need to address all of the issues that are impacting our communities, whether it’s housing, whether it’s a pothole on our street, whether it’s City Councils that aren’t listening to our needs, access to health care.
KA: Or, I mean, one of the things that I think the pandemic taught us is that we’re not just being harassed by our freaking landlords, we also have bosses that are harassing us and violating our rights in the workplace. Our children don’t have access to good education. So all of these fights are interconnected, and I think that that’s what keeps us in the fight. It’s the fact that we honestly do believe that it’s unit by unit, block by block, city by city, a national movement and an international movement, that we need to continue to free ourselves. Claire, want to go next?
Claire Spiehler: I guess how I got involved is a little bit different, because my partner, AJ, was a member of the Union before I was. And I would participate by just being there in solidarity as a neighbor, and I’d go to pickets and actions and demand-letter deliveries. And I was just incredibly moved by the sense of community, and the sense of shared commiseration, and what it means to be a renter and have to face that constant insecurity.
And while I was attending many actions during our campaign with Villas del Paseo complex in Houston–and I can get into what that campaign meant ultimately later–I ended up being so moved that I wanted to be directly a part of the movement, and do what I can to participate in direct action and contribute. And just being very invested in ways I can empower my fellow organizers. And it just connected me to the community in a way that I had never been able to previously experience, living in Houston. And I think we’ve made a lot of great strides.
DMS: So mine’s a little bit different, too. So back in November, my little sister passed away, and my nephew is still on the lease of their house or whatever. But they were like, “You have two weeks to get out.” So I had gotten in touch with somebody that knew the other people that were with the tenant union. And so they came and they got a hold of an attorney because the situation that we were in was really, really, really complicated. So I ended up getting a different apartment. I moved, but I didn’t really have time to focus on that, so like, we just moved, whatever.
So after that, I started going to meetings, started going out and doing flyering with them. Fundraising, I did a lot of fundraising with them. And it’s just my way of giving back to them for being there for me. Because I really felt like I didn’t have anybody at the time, you know, because my mom just passed away, probably like a year before. So it’s just really a hard time for us.
I’m so sorry to hear that. And it’s a very powerful introduction to the tenant movement. So I think most people probably know what a labor union is. But not everyone knows what a tenant union is. Can somebody say how you understand what tenant unions are, and what they do?
DMS: Thank you.
KA: Well, for me, a tenants union–it’s a body of tenants coming together and having conversations about what are the issues and how we’re fighting back against this. But the reason why we call it a union, it’s because we believe strongly in the collective-bargaining aspect of unions. No tenant should be negotiating with their landlord by themselves. And that is the reason why we chose this model of tenant unions, to make sure that there is a collective bargaining of tenants. Whether it’s in the same building or because all these buildings have the same landlord, like that is the power of the tenants union. But also because I feel like it’s a body of space, that it’s trying to create power for a sector of the class. Tenants are not identified as a class, but we are part of the working class. And we are a sector of the working class that is trying to unify itself.
AB: Yeah, and I’ll add something that I think came out of LATU–or at least I know it from LATU people–is the idea of understanding tenancy as something that is not just a condition that you’re in if you’re a renter, but also might be a condition that you’re in if you are an unhoused person, or a person in prison, or anybody who doesn’t control your own housing. And I thought that that was a really important breakthrough in my own understanding of what tenants are and what we have in common.
DMS: My understanding of it is, not it being like a service, you know? Like you coming to them and having them help you, and then be gone. You guys have the same idea, of fighting for the same cause, I guess. That’s what I got out of the tenants union.
AB: Yeah, I think that’s a really important point, that it’s not service provision.
AB: Right. Like, it’s not like what you get from a non-profit.
DMS: Yeah. Like they’re not getting paid. They’re all volunteer, you know? It’s nice.
AB: Is that something that’s come up for you guys? Like when you’re doing outreach, that people think that you’re from a non-profit, and you have to explain that you’re not and why that matters?
CS: Well, one time I was just asked–well, because I’m like the finance coordinator for the Houston Tenants Union. And one time we were doing outreach and I was asked like, “Well, if you want people to be housed, why don’t you give them money for rent?” And it’s about confronting the fact that like, that’s not going to solve any of these long-term issues that are ultimately just going to be reproduced. Because one, we can’t provide infinite rent relief for folks.
AB: Right, who’s the “you” in that?
CS: Yeah, cuz the Union is definitely not-for-profit. And we don’t really–like we have like an operational fund, but yeah, that’s an impossible ask. And all that money would just go back to landlords anyway. And that’s not going to solve more pervasive issues of communities being pushed out. It’s not going to solve issues of gentrification. It’s not going to solve the inhabitability of a lot of these units. When we do mold testing for tenants and it comes back that their units have black mold in it, just because we give you rent relief to give to your landlord, they’re not all of a sudden gonna, like, change your HVAC system. These issues that we face, big and small, can only be really confronted, not through charity and rent relief, but rather collective action.
KA: Yeah, for us, it’s a little bit complicated. Union de Vecinos is a non-profit. We were operating as a non-profit from the beginning so it’s always crazy.
AB: But LATU is not a nonprofit.
KA: LATU is not a non-profit. But we do see the benefits of having non-profit as a tool. When it comes to services, I think Union de Vecinos has always had the line that we’re not a service provider. Which is important for us, because we’re not going to give you the turkeys during the Thanksgiving events, we don’t pass out the toys like most non-profits do. You’re part of the organization, one, because you’re trying to build your own agency and are trying to protect yourselves.
KA: And there’s this one thing that, at the beginning I was organizing with Union de Vecinos–that’s almost 18 years ago–one of the things we would say was like, “You know, city council members come and go. The cops come and go. All these nonprofits come and go. Who stays in the community? It’s you.” So you need to learn how to figure out how to solve your issues. Even if Union de Vecinos were to no longer exist, there needs to be a creation mechanisms for folks. Knowing your neighbors–the basic part of this departure in order for you to start creating some of those mechanisms–knowing the Señora that takes care of all the kids in the neighborhood, or getting to know the people that are doing a lot of the community work. Even before some of us started organizing, those are the spaces that we need to be taking care of, and making sure that we’re fundamentally nourishing, in order for those things to grow.
The other thing I would say is a lot of our LATUs– and some of them are moving away from that part of the work–we were doing solidarity casework, where people would come, we would do their issues, we would help them write letters, if it was court get them lawyers and things like that, but that’s very individualistic. We’re trying to figure out ways in which we can collectivize that process. At Union de Vecinos, I do a lot of the case management for the organization. But I don’t do it just because I’m helping individuals, and I know that a lot of those individuals are not going to turn into organizing aspects. But it also gives us the ability to know what’s happening and what are the new tactics that landlords are using in our neighborhood.
So for a while, for example, one of the biggest things was Ellis Act, which was basically landlords going to city, pulling out this permit, saying that they were going to take the building out of the rental market, evicting everybody, and then renting those same apartments all over again. Others saying that they were going to pull it out of the rental market because they were going to build something there, and destroying the building and building something new. So it gives us the ability to also learn what’s happening in the neighborhood. What are the new tactics? What are they’re using in order to–Cash for Keys, all of these other things that are coming out of the neighbors when they come to us. We are starting to learn what are the new trends.
So one of them, for example, was Dennis Block–which is one of the worst frickin landlord lawyers in LA–would do classes for landlords to tell them when to put notices on. So he would say: go on a Friday night, post a notice, because that means that they have Saturday, Sunday, and Monday to fix up whatever it is that you need to fix. Usually tenants don’t do it on the weekends. Therefore, now you can use that notice to do an eviction process.
CS: Oh my gosh.
KA: This is the same dude that, when COVID started and tenants started going on rent strikes, said that landlords should just get guns and start killing their tenants.
KA: To get them out of their properties.
AB: Oh boy.
KA: I feel the need to clarify, as the Houston Tenants Union, we are an incorporated 501(c)(4), which legally makes us a non-profit. But I would agree with you, Kenia, that we don’t want to be a service organization, to contribute to this kind of dependency that won’t break any necessarily harmful cycles. But we do operate that way, because in Texas it offers a certain level of protection to our organizers. That’s important to us.
So like these are the things that, I think even though we want to move away from those things, when you have communities that are having individual cases you learn something, too. But we’re not a service organization, I don’t think any union should ever do that. Because there’s a dependency that comes from that. And that dependency immobilizes our tenants, to think critically and to start actively being agents of their own futures.
Yeah, I mean, there’s protection there. I mean, being a nonprofit, we were able to get a space for free, here in in LA, to host this event. So the status allows you to do some creative work around this, but it’s not what should drive our movement or LATU. Like we need to be autonomous.
AB: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that that’s one of the big tensions that I’ve seen in the movement. That if you include the larger movement around housing–beyond the tenant union movement, like beyond even the people who would show up at a convention like ATUN–there are also a lot of people who look at things a very different way and say: What we really need to be doing is appealing to the state for better tenant protections, and for regulations to prevent rent from skyrocketing, and all those kinds of things.
And I actually think, probably all of us who are here this weekend would agree that there is good–I mean, I don’t want to speak for everyone, because I think there’s actually quite a wide range of opinions on this–but I think many people would agree that there is some good that comes out of trying to at least, let’s say, enforce protections that exist, or trying to create new ones.
And so like, CHTU, where I’m a member, sees its core mission as organizing buildings and creating tenant power within the neighborhood. But we also do fights that exist at the level of formal electoral politics. And there’s, again, there’s debates about this, within the group, outside the group, like how much time do we want to spend fighting for something like Right to Counsel, which means that if you are being threatened with eviction, you automatically get a free lawyer? Like that’s helped a lot of people. How much do we want to expend our resources on that, as opposed to organizing another block? So I think those are things that I’ve seen come up a lot.
I’m wondering–you know, you’re all from very different parts of the country. I think what I was hearing over the weekend is that a big theme, and big excitement for people who are at the convention, was realizing the commonalities in people’s struggles in really different places. And I’m curious what you would say–like now, having gone through this weekend and had all these conversations–what are you most struck by, of what your struggles back at home have in common with the other people that you’ve talked to? And what are things that are jumping out at you as being very unique and specific about what the fights are in your city,
CS: I think something that really resonated with a lot of people is, sometimes, struggles with capacity. Because tenant organizing is a bit of a working-class movement. And time kind of becomes a commodity of the organizer. And it’s very, sometimes difficult, when you go through phases of having lots of involvement, and phases where people are maybe a bit in survival mode and can’t contribute as much to organizing as they used to be able to. And it was really great this past weekend, to be able to speak with people who are all very much empathizing with issues with capacity and mobilization. But then being able to talk about what kind of strategies or tools can we provide to our fellow comrades to help them be able to participate. And we’ve been doing things like providing like childcare, transportation, food, and trying to provide accessibility options for all sorts of different kinds of folks to be able to participate. And it was great to be able to brainstorm better ways to do all of that with folks from many different cities.
DMS: I was actually really intrigued by a lot–you know, because I’m new. Like what we deal with up in South Dakota, for the Indigenous people, is racism. And you know, it’s really bad. I went to two sessions, one of them was about Crown Heights. That one was–I was shocked, because, you know, I thought it was bad where I’m from, but like yeah, you don’t really see much of that.
AB: Do you want to say a little bit more about what the Crown Heights thing was that you were listening to?
DMS: Yeah, okay. So the Crown Heights, was the family that came that owned–
CS: The brownstone, yeah.
DMS: Yeah. And then ended up becoming the tenants. And then pretty much come in and change the locks and make them leave. And yeah, it’s just yeah, it was just really, really shocking to me. Where I’m from, you don’t really hear of things like that happening. And then actually seeing the videos and stuff of it, like that was just really, that really shocked me a little bit.
AB: But it sounds like there’s a similarity there, too. Like what is the shape that the racism against indigenous tenants takes where you are?
DMS: I myself, you know, I’ve talked to landlords over the phone in the past. You know, they’ll be so nice over the phone, but when you go to meet them in person, and they see you, then everything just completely changes from there. And then you got, “Oh, you know, you got so many more people ahead of you, you know, we’re gonna go through applications, make sure you’re approved” and whatever. But it’s like, when they don’t see you, compared to when they do see you, it’s just, it’s pretty bad up there. You know, they call it the Deep North. But it’s pretty bad. I don’t know if you guys have heard anything about the Grand Gateway Hotel?
AB: Yeah. Do you want to talk about it?
DMS: Yeah, so that. The owner, actually–her name is Connie Uhre–she went on to social media, she wrote that she wasn’t going to be renting to Native Americans. Native Americans weren’t allowed to rent at the hotel after there was a shooting or something. And then the one that got shot, anyway, he ended up passing away. But, the tribes actually came and went up there, because you know, the majority of people in Rapid City are Indigenous. So it’s just crazy.
KA: Well, for me, I think that one of the things that came out of this weekend was trying to really consolidate and figure out: how do we unify our class? There’s 140 million poor and dispossessed across this country that are suffering. And a lot of them are tenants. I mean, here in the city of Los Angeles–and most cities–it’s like 70%, of everybody that lives in the city are tenants. And how do we start unifying that? Through political education. Through understanding the system, that it’s actually oppressing us.
Because one of the things that we’ve been really talking about, throughout these processes: I want to challenge the homeowners. Especially the people that own their single homes that are struggling, just like us–it’s like, you have the worst landlord, which is our banks. You don’t necessarily own your own home. 30 years, 40-year mortgage, and you can still get evicted. And we saw that during the 2008 housing crisis. So like, how do we start challenging that particular sector of our class as well?
But as tenants, I think it’s building also a unifying vision of what it is that we want to see in this world, and how we want to live as tenants. It’s not just about our housing conditions. It’s like we’ve seen through the pandemic, and even before that, that we can no longer sustain a system that oppresses us in a way that it forces us to pay rent, which forces us to work three-to-four jobs. And I can just think of like, during the pandemic we had these conversations, talking about why we were going on rent strike. And I mean, I can always remember the face of one of our members, who’s a male, crying and saying, “You know, I’ve spent all my life working. And it’s until now, that I don’t have a job, because I was forced to stay in the house with my children, that I’m getting to meet my children. That I’m getting to like, know who they are, and what they’ve grown up to be, without me being present there.”
So I think that part of like, the work that we’ve been doing, it’s building a lot of consciousness within tenants. But how do we politicize that consciousness, from now on, in a way that gives us the ability to really have clarity of who our enemy is, and that that enemy needs to be stomped. Just like the SOS logo, we need to stomp that enemy.
AB: Do you want to say what SOS is?
KA: Oh, I guess it’s the–stomp out–
AB: Slumlords, yeah.
CS: Stomp Out Slumlords, in DC.
AB: Yeah, the DC tenant union. Something you were saying just reminded me of a really intense struggle that my local union, the Crown Heights Tenant Union, was involved in earlier this year, and still is, which is the family that Danya was mentioning. Who–one of them was here speaking–who were victims of a deed-theft scheme, and went from being owners to being told that they were tenants in their own house. And I think that really pointed to the way in which there’s solidarity possible between, particularly, homeowners who are the most vulnerable to those kinds of schemes, because they’re people of color in a gentrifying neighborhood, for example, or are underwater on their mortgage, or whatever the case may be. And that family actually lives on my block, and I wrote a story about their situation for Jewish Currents earlier this year.
But I want to go back to something that you were just saying, about political education, which I think really came up a lot this weekend. I’ve been in a whole bunch of different conversations this weekend about the need for political education in our movement, how to bring members into our unions to become really full fledged, active, politicized members. A lot of conversations about–okay, for those of us who see tenant organizing not just as a way to get more rights for tenants, but also as a way to build a movement to overturn the entire system in which some people can extract rent from others who live on their property–how do we organize people into questioning the idea that this is the way that we have to live? So I’m curious about how you’re all thinking about those kinds of questions and what you were hearing this weekend?
KA: Well, I think, at least for us within LATU, I think it’s not just about talking about the new world we want to live in, but it’s actually practicing it. And I think that tenants associations allow for a lot of that. When tenants come together and start collectively talking about their issues, and collectively start talking about how they want to approach those issues, it’s important.
And I think that a huge example of that is the Second Street Tenants Association–which a lot of you might have gone to the party yesterday. This particular landlord has been harassing these tenants for such a long time, has put them through eviction, after eviction, and even though he loses, he figures out ways–now putting cameras all over their apartment. But I think the way that the association has created a culture, where this is not just our building but this is the community’s building–and that’s where we have meetings, and that’s where we do food distribution, and that’s where we do all of this work–it’s collectively, already, starting the process of deepening their consciousness into a more political-educational process. That gives us the ability to see that this is the way in which we are operating: it’s as a community, it’s as a collective, and it’s not as individuals. And I think that that, for us, it’s been a way of approaching this process.
But it’s also about a lot of the theories and the things that we need to learn. People have been practicing it in our communities, they just don’t have the words to it. And I think that that’s something important, that we need to create spaces for that. But we also need to create spaces where we’re learning who our enemy is. I mean, when we talk about our landlords, it’s not just the landlord; it’s the entire apparatus behind our landlords that we need to fight back against.
So I think that it is important to expose capitalism for what it is, and not just say our landlord’s the only aspect of the things that we’re fighting. Because we can get rid of landlords, that doesn’t mean we’re getting rid of the bank institutions that are owning the land, and that are keeping us away from that. Or the fact that, when we’re talking about land ownership, it’s a private aspect of it and there’s no communal aspect to it.
I mean, we see in Latin America, there’s like processes–ejidos in Mexico, for example, where entire communities own the entire land, there’s no one single person. Or where people do this parachuting in communities, where then they are given the rights to the land, like in Brazil or South Africa–there’s no such thing here. We’ve seen moments and spurs when we try that and we’ve seen how it’s been defeated, because constitutionally, we don’t have the right to land. And those conversations, I think, are part of the political education that we need to do, of how we fight for those rights.
CS: In one of the the last discussions this afternoon, something I thought was really interesting was how, perhaps the win on East Second Street, the celebration was a bit of an example of–and this is my first time I’m hearing this phrase this weekend–was like, public education? If I’m remembering that correctly?
Popular. Thank you. I guess–well, because the way I internalized hearing that term–popular education–is that you’re creating–how do I put it–like education, or movement, based off of the community’s needs, in the way the community wants to grow. And so, something I feel like we’ve always thought was important was political education, which is why we have an onboarding process for members, and we talk about different political strategies, and why we do things certain ways, and how we’ve come to these conclusions.
CS: But I thought having popular education brought into this discussion as well, it’s something I’d like to bring back. Because I think it’s something that’s focused on the tenants and the community, each community’s individual needs brought upwards, and learning from people’s lived experiences today. And not, perhaps, like a theoretical framework that we’re hoping to embody–even though it is important to know the history of movements in certain cases–but rather, how does this community want to create a structure to move forward? When engaging more neighbors and getting people involved in this idea–like you said, Kenia–that we don’t have to live this way. And I think popular education is important to getting your neighbors to question why we are, maybe, stuck in this cycle of having to work two-to-three jobs for what is literally a necessity, which is just like having a place to call your home.
AB: Here’s a very organizery question. What do you all, if you’re going to knock on doors in a building, what do you all tell people about why they should join the union? Or to maybe broaden this out a little bit: you’re talking to the audience for this podcast right now, like why should they join a tenant union in the city that they live in, or start one?
CS: We protect each other. And I feel like the most important thing is to let people know that your neighbors have a face, like you have a community that is there that you can reach out to. And the world doesn’t have to be isolating, and you don’t have to shoulder all of your burdens alone, because we are all struggling, in this system built against us, together. And together, we can protect each other. But alone, it’s really hard to fight those battles.
And when we’re usually knocking on doors, it’s not necessarily to, I guess, recruit members into the Houston Tenants Union. But rather, we’re usually knocking on doors when tenants come to us and we’re trying to help them reach out to their neighbors, and get them involved and help them grow whatever their movement or issue is. So they can all connect and come up with solutions to their issues, together, that they’re facing under, sometimes, the united landlord. And sometimes it’s based on an area, et cetera. But yeah, we need to do it together.
KA: Well, for me, I think that I would tell that person that if, next week, you have to sit on your table and figure out if you’re going to be able to buy your child a gallon of milk, how much gas you’re going to be able to put in your tank to go to work; if you have to figure out if you’re going to be able to buy your child a pair of shoes, or if you’re going to have to eat less to make sure that your children have something to eat, then those are the reasons why you need to get into a tenant’s union. Because we shouldn’t be figuring these things out. We shouldn’t be on a survival mode, we should be thriving, and we should be having the things that we need access to. If you can’t pay your gas, or your electric bill, or your water bill, then those are the things that need to push you towards joining a tenants union. Because this is not just a you issue.
There’s millions of folks across this country that are sitting down every frickin day, thinking about “How am I going to make it through this month?” If you’re a paycheck away from homelessness, if you get sick and you know you can’t get sick because you’re not going to be able to work and you’re not going to be able to make it next month, those are the reasons why you need to join the tenants union.
And I think that COVID taught us that we don’t have to pay rent. Right? COVID taught us that even when we don’t pay rent, our landlords are not starving, our landlords are not suffering, that the only people that suffer and struggle is us. And we either make the decision of joining a tenants union and fighting back against this injustice, or we continue to sit on that freakin table, every month, figuring out if we’re going to be able to survive. And I really urge people to do the other. I mean, come and join the tenants union, you don’t have to be alone through this process.
DMS: For me, it’s the same, pretty much. I know, dealing with a lot of things I was dealing with–at the time, I felt like I didn’t have anybody, or didn’t have anything to fall back on. And so, dealing with everything with my sister passing away, and her landlord and stuff, to them, I wasn’t considered her next of kin, even though I’m the only living relative that she had. So with the tenants union and stuff, I really felt like I wasn’t alone when I was going through a lot of that. And that’s a good feeling to have we you are going through stuff, you know? Because you don’t have to go through things alone. Some things, you know.
AB: What are what are some of the challenges that you’ve all experienced, or that your unions have experienced, in trying to convince people that they really do want to be a part of this?
DMS: I think for us, because a lot of the things–for the Indigenous people it’s racism and stuff like that–it’s them being scared to be to be on that side of standing up to the landlords. Just them wanting to but being scared to, is what it is.
CS: I’ve definitely encountered that fear in other people as well. I think it’s definitely the first thing that comes to mind for a lot of people, is fear of retaliation from the landlord. And a campaign we’ve been trying to work on with Brompton Mutual Aid–it’s a complex in Montrose, which is a historically LGBT area in Houston that has been very intensely gentrified over the past 20, 30 years–and they were facing issues like being personally targeted by management, owners knocking on their apartment doors, threatening them, serving a few of them with illegal fines. And it’s hard, with those things they do that are very intimidating for tenants.
CS: And a lot of folks, once they begin to hear about these things, it becomes even more important to unite and band together against these kinds of intimidation tactics. But then when you start trying to get their neighbors involved, some of them who maybe hadn’t been involved yet have now heard that these intimidation tactics are happening, and it scares folks away. Especially in these huge complexes that inevitably–because they’re kind of awful to live in–have a very high turnover rate of tenants, and you don’t really have a lot of people who have been there for longer than two years. I think these things end up adding up together.
KA: Yeah. Well, in Los Angeles, I would say, there’s two things that stick out in my mind. One, I would say, us as organizers sometimes are an obstacle because we fear for folks. And we don’t ask the questions that need to be asked for folks to take agency over their own situations. And we’re scared for them, so therefore, like when we called for a rent strike, and people being, “Well, no, let’s think about this for a second because people might lose their home.” But it’s like, folks are going to lose their home anyways. It’s up to them, whether they want to fight and collectively collect power to fight back. I think that that has been one of the things that I’ve seen, that I think we need to push ourselves to really allow communities to make those difficult decisions. Some folks are more ready than we are to take those decisions. So I think that that’s one.
And the other one, I think that–especially being here, where people are gentrifying and things are happening–Cash for Keys has been a huge obstacle. I mean, people get intimidated into them sometimes. But there are tenants that they tell, “We’ll give you $25,000 to move out.” Their first thing is like, well, $25,000, they’ve never seen that much money, I believe, in their lifetime.
AB: And why do landlords do that?
KA: Because they want to they want to evict them, to either redevelop the property, hike up the rent. It’s cheaper for them, in the long run, to pay–I had tenants that have negotiated up to $70,000 to move out. But the thing for us is like, one: how much is that money going to last you, to pay the new rent they’re gonna have? Are you able to find something that similar to what you were renting in the neighborhood? And the reality is no. A lot of our folks end up in San Bernardino. Kern County, which is like Bakersfield, or Lancaster. So like that mentality that they sell our tenants, that with those $20,000 as a down payment for a house, you can own a home.
KA: Those are the things why political education is important. Because even if you do use those $20,000 and try to buy a home, one: are you going to qualify? Two: are you even going to be able to pay the mortgage in the house and knowing how real estate works? Like, will you be losing your home within the next crisis, the bursting bubble of housing crisis that might come? Again, because we know this is cyclical, right? We’re always in a state–I mean, capitalism is always in a state of crisis. So I think those are some of the obstacles that we’ve seen. But again, I feel like the union is the place where we can start talking about those contradictions and really push back against them.
AB: I’m curious, actually: Claire, since you’re in a state that I know–it’s come up over the weekend–how bad tenant protections are in Texas. What are what what specific kinds of things are you dealing with? Is there particularly egregious stuff, where you feel like you do have to appeal to the state, in some way, to legalize certain kinds of organizing? Or how are you even thinking about that?
CS: Yeah, it’s a bit of a tough question, and is definitely something that is debated and discussed within our own union as well. Texas is one of the most landlord-friendly states in America. And I know in 2021, 30% of homes were bought by corporations in Houston alone. If you were served with an eviction notice, you do not have a right to counsel. I don’t think any provision exists there that we could even try to enforce. So it’s tough. We have a partnership with Texas Legal Aid, and a few of them there have, when necessary, assisted. Some of the tenants we organize with–and, you know, a good cease and desist letter will sometimes help out someone more than you know.
But I think for us, at the moment, trying to change any laws or policies that are 100% made and constructed in the landlord’s favor would be a difficult task to imagine at the moment. But what I will say is, the state’s built to protect the landlords, and landlords respond to agitation. And if you agitate enough landlords, the state will begin to respond in kind as well. And I think that that’s something we’ve tried to keep in mind, on the horizon, as we try to fight and organize with our community members.
KA: Well, for us here in Los Angeles, and even in California, I think it’s–this is where, again, political education is very important, because I think that there is strategy, and then there’s tactics. So is our strategy, long term, to keep changing laws and policies within a system that doesn’t work, or is designed for us? That should always be the question. Then there’s the tactics, like tactically, it is important for us to–for example, when in 2019, we were trying to pass the statewide rent control proposition–for all of us to unite and work hard on that. Right? We lost.
But strategically, I think, if that wasn’t the end goal and it was just a tactical idea. do we need to work on some policies? Do we need to get some people elected? Yes. But how do we utilize those processes as moments, also, for education? And I think that that’s important, because we don’t want to let our community believe that saviors are coming to support us and help us, because that’s not the reality. We might elect one person that promises to give us something and we’ve seen, time and time again, that they don’t give a shit.
So for us, it’s like, we’ve done a lot of GOTV. Why? Because it allows–one: sometimes it’s paid, and it allows our communities to make a little bit of money while doing some of their GOTV door knocking before elections. They get paid to canvass and do all these things by different processes. One, that’s one. But two: it also allows communities that have never knocked on a door to knock on a door, to learn what a rap is, how to convince your community to vote for someone. Then you can turn that into a way of like: well, you’ve done this for a politician, why can’t you do that for your union? You know? It takes away that fear from our community members.
So I think that we also need to think about how all these spaces can be creatively used for our purposes, and not necessarily just for electing someone, or passing a certain bill, or fighting for a certain policy. Like having our community members, for example, go to Sacramento and speak and give testimony of why they need, for example, Ellis Act reform. It’s important for us because that’s how our community learns to put their stories out there, and to really speak truth to power. But do we think that that’s going to change anything? No, we need to do the work on the ground in order to change it. So I think that we need to have that clarity.
AB: That’s so interesting that you’ve encountered people who feel more ready to do door knocking for elections than they do for the union. Because in my experience, it’s a big like revelation for me, and doing tenant organizing is–I think it’s so much more fun to canvass than any electoral canvassing I’ve ever done. Because you’re just asking people like, “What’s going on in your apartment?” Which, at least in New York, is the question that literally everybody wants to answer all the time and will talk your ear off about it.
So I think there’s something too about the experience. There’s such a nice meeting of form and function; you’re knocking on a person’s door to their apartment, and then you’re hearing about their apartment. Sometimes they invite you in and and point things out to you, like there’s the leak, right? I don’t know, there’s something that feels extremely organic about it as a process that I think I’ve never experienced, personally, with electoral canvassing. I mean, I think some people come come to electoral canvassing much more naturally. And I think that’s actually a very cool skill. But I’ve never quite been able to internalize that in the same way.
KA: Yeah, well, a lot of this is pre-LATU work that Union de Vecinos has done. But when you’re canvassing for a campaign, they partner you up with someone so that takes away the fear of walking your neighborhood. And then the other things that they do is that they provide you with what you’re going to say. And I think that that’s something that sometimes people are scared of, is like, “What am I going to say? What do I am I going to do?”
I think it led to us, at least at Union de Vecinos, to like–at that time, I think it was like from 2004 to 2012–to really train 300 of our members to do that type of work. They became really good at it. And now they are able to go and do it in their neighborhoods and do it in there for the organization. So I think that that was important for us. But it’s like, how do we continue to utilize these spaces for our purposes, and not the other way around? Because we’ve seen the other way around–especially coming from an immigrant-organizing background, as well as some undocumented–and we’ve seen how the electoral process has organized undocumented people to get out the vote for them without ever giving them anything.
AB: Well, we only have a few minutes left. So I’m going to ask everyone, one more question, which is: what’s something that you want to take back to your union at home that you’ve come away with from this weekend?
DMS: There’s a couple things. I’ve been actually really inspired by a lot of the things that I’ve heard and seen this weekend, and it’s just even getting people to join in. You know, I really wish that a lot more people from where I’m from could actually have come and seen. Just because where I’m from, it’s really smaller. So it just showed me how much power–if we stick together, fighting for the same cause, how much can be accomplished.
CS: Definitely. I agree that it’s really empowering to see that part of the Autonomous Tenant Unit Network, to meet my neighbors across the country, who are all kind of united under these ideas of political education and housing as a right. And what I really want to bring back from the convention is the knowledge and work that we’ve all done that can be shared together. I want to continue to foster these relationships. And I’ve also learned a lot about maybe–at least, you know, living in Houston–better ways to prepare our community for the next disaster, and prepare folks for, I think, the imminent fight that is to come, as we face in our city hundreds of eviction filings, weekly. And I want to take the strategies that have been shared with me, lovingly, by the other unions that have attended, and bring those back to my fellow comrades, so we can continue to empower each other for fights to come.
KA: Well, I think for us at Union de Vecinos, one of the things that we’ve been talking about and thinking about, is how do we strengthen our entire union? How do we also become more active within ATUN to ensure that there’s continuity to the processes that we started this weekend, and making sure that we continue to have those conversations?
But also, ultimately, how do we start creating not just our own local or our own union, but long-term vision of what tenants unions should be working on? How do we start collectivizing a more national vision for tenants? I think that that, for us, it’s very important because it’s not just about us here. It’s like we need to start thinking broader. And then, once we start doing this nationally, how do we do this internationally? Union de Vecions is this connector with a lot of tenants unions in Latin America and other parts of the world that are also struggling through this. And I think that, if we were to really start having these more international conversations, there will be also like a bigger vision, for them and for us, to really develop better mechanisms of fighting back a system that has been oppressing us for so long.
AB: This has been On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. Thanks so much to Kenia, Claire, and Danya, for joining us today, and thank you to everyone tuning in. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks.