ስራ የለም? የቤት ኪራይ የለም!; Or, No Jobs? No Rent! Organizing Dispatch from Alexandria, VA

The special impact of the COVID-19 health/economic crisis on working-class tenants around the DMV has generated mass protests, notably in Alexandria, that continue at time of this writing. Across the country, the banner of full-on economic depression is unfurling. Communities long locked out of the gains of this (up to now) much-vaunted economic boom, including the Ethopian community of Alexandria, VA, have learned they will also be the first to have their jobs fall under the scythe to appease the “animal spirits” of the capitalist class. Capitalist practices have already unleashed the single sharpest spike in unemployment, more than 22 million, in generations. The rapid contraction in business investment coupled with multiple sharp spasms in stock prices and commodities (such as oil) have sent economic life for millions (billions, when including our fellow workers overseas) into a tailspin. While nobody is sure how long this new reality will be with us, one thing is certain: it is here, and workers are pushing back here and around the country.

In response, local, state, and federal government officials have been doing their best to shovel money into the flatlining economy. At the Federal level, less regressive measures cohabitated with plutocratic outrages in the form of the $2.2 trillion dollar stimulus package passed in March. This bill included more desirable policies such as an immediate $1,200 check for every filer based on the 2018/2019 tax filing, tapering off with income. The policy hints at the possibilities of even a modicum of social democracy for helping the working class, even if these benefits pale in comparison to those afforded to the investor class (the much-vaunted program amounts to just over 10% of the total value of the package). Even this herculean amount of resources, with the deposit program alone amounting to over half the allocation in the United States’ single largest discretionary budget earmark— defense— was only a small part of the federal government’s bid to stay the spectre of a full-on meltdown. Talk of several more rounds of bailouts for industry are already in the works. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Dean Baker tersely put it: “It looks like we are seeing an effort to do a replay of 2008 where we were told that we had to give all the money to the banks or the world would end.” The stimulus bill makes abundantly clear that the focus lies in reviving the capitalist system, and not in protecting the working class.

After all, what is the merit of such stimulus measures if they will merely serve to insure the assets of the rich, as in the case of bailouts for the airline and (potentially) oil industry, or trickle through the pockets of the working class back into the hands of their employers and landlords? And what does it say about our economy when the threat of a pandemic bans workers from working, but not capitalists and landlords from collecting? Who does this economy really serve?

This question is being asked nationwide, and here in Alexandria is no different. On Monday, April 20th, residents and activists across the NOVA region convened on Southern Towers, a drab series of charmless apartment complexes administered by Bell Partners, a charmless investment company with more than 60,000 units under management across 13 states. The cramped, overpriced, and poorly-kept apartment complex is home to thousands of working-class families, including a large African migrant population. Most residents number amongst the precariously employed who were the first to be let go.

Bearing signs stating “No Jobs, No Rent” and “Cancel Rent”, often in both English and Amharic, activists from Metro DC DSA, UNITE HERE Local 23 DC, and African Communities United (ACU) formed a chain of cars around the entire sprawling complex, honking their horns, and drawing out residents from across the complex to cheers and applause.

The date itself was significant. Like the nearly one-third of the American population forced to pay rent and unable to access government assistance in housing or housing payments, many of the tenants of Southern Towers, many recently laid off, were inevitably going to be late in their rent payments. In lieu of any compromise worthy of the name, Bell Partners gave April 20th as the last date tenants could sign up for a payment plan to pay the accrued rent, and all future rent. This came despite an Alexandria City Council resolution inspired by the organizing work in Southern Towers that passed unianimously to suspend evictions and place a moratorium on both rent payments and credit reporting among residents. In an economy in which the average lower-income family has just $700 in savings, 60% of Americans cannot meet an emergency expense of $400, and the rent of a one-bedroom in the apartment complex runs over $1,000, Bell Partners’ presentation of a debt treadmill rather than a fig leaf for residents was the last straw.

For that is exactly what the landlords of both Southern Towers and across the United States offered. On top of privileged access to federal relief, the propertarian belief in the right of landlords to rule over their tenant’s finances is in reality a demand that those with the least pay the most, financially as well as physically, during this pandemic. Residents are being laid off en masse, and those who aren’t are seeing drastically reduced hours in order to avoid catching the disease and infecting their fellow citizens. In the face of all this, it is inconceivable that the narrow interests of a tiny sliver of landlords continue to win out over the vast majority that makes up the working and middle class.

Meanwhile those who insist, as some in the business press and in more ideological circles of newspaper commentary do, that forcing penniless renters to cough up money they don’t have is just sound economics betray more than they know. The common refrain that tenants, who as a class represent those that own no property, must pay their landlords, who do, lest the latter risk defaulting on their mortgages, gives up the game entirely. Who is paying for the rentier class’ mortgages exactly? For whom, exactly, is our housing market designed? If the rent strike at Southern Towers does not translate into real, substantive rent reductions and cancellations, the answer certainly cannot be those who must pay to live in residences without even the possibility of ever coming to own them. The system itself is a treadmill.

All of this reminds us of something we already know: the working class “works for all and feeds all”.

This is what makes the divide between those who advocate for moratoriums on rent, as some liberal politicians do, and those who advocate for wholesale cancellation, as Metro DSA does, so critical. It is not enough to simply say that residents need more time to make up their payments. This was the sentiment expressed in an open letter issued by Justin Wilson, the mayor of Alexandria, shortly after the hearing. It was a letter with noble sentiments, such as providing tenants a year of relief to get caught up on delinquencies, without any punishment for late fees, but it is too much for landlords and too little for tenants.

Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to rage around us. Since its first detection in November of 2019, coronavirus has transformed from recent creation to one of the top killers in the United States. At present, COVID is killing more people in America than cancer. Make no mistake, the decision to force Americans to return to work is a matter of life and death, and it will continue to be until there is either a vaccine, sufficient preventive or curative measures, or, a new Beltway favorite, “contact tracing”; a measure that would require the mother of all surveillance states and removal of the last semblances of privacy Americans have left in the age of “surveillance capitalism.” The efficacy of such a proposal is seriously questionable, but its potential for abuse is not.

But the protests were just the beginning. More work remains to be done. The City Council resolution passed in Alexandria is being mirrored elsewhere, but only the state government can suspend rent payments or seriously move to cancel rent. All of this will require a lot more organizing. The fight continues to ensure the common decency entailed in the slogan “no jobs, no rent” becomes a reality. Those interested in helping should sign the UNITE HERE petition to cancel rent, organize amongst tenants in their own building, and talk to their local tenants rights group.

The next action of this movement is our date of publication, International Labor Day.

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