“Housing is a human right.” The refrain is so simple as to appear a truism. And yet, in the capitalistic housing market, the denial of that basic right is the rule of business. Without the possibility of mass-evictions— hanging, along with a black mark on their record, like the Sword of Damocles over all renters— the irrationality of a system in which the laboring majority of workers must hand over a third, and often over half of their income to property owners merely for the privilege to live indoors, would not be possible. Ever since its birth in the mass-evictions known to history as the Enclosure Acts during the late Middle Ages, capitalism has regarded private property in housing, and the consequent homelessness for those who cannot pay, as a privilege. “Beasts find fare, in woody lair// When storm and snow are in the air” wrote the Radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. “All things have a home but one— // Thou, Oh, Englishman, hast none!”. Then as now, evictions and homelessness were the product of design.
In the latest chapter of this centuries-long struggle, DSA’s Stomp Out Slumlords has continued to work with UNITE HERE Local 23, African Communities Together (ACT), and other community organizing outfits to fight the barbaric housing practices of Bell Partners, a massive housing conglomerate based out of Greensboro North Carolina. As covered in our previous dispatch, this involved organizing several distanced protests by car which attracted nearly one hundred striking tenants and supporters. Another demonstration which took place shortly after shut down parts of I-395 as knock-on protests moved to other buildings owned by Bell Partners, working to weave together the web of relationships necessary to have a robust tenant’s union.
Sami Bourma, a tenant who has recently been laid off from his two jobs, has been a vital figure in this growing movement for housing rights. Its origins were as modest as they have been desperate. “I started talking to people in the hallway and the lobby just to have an idea how people feel,” he told a local reporter. “Within an hour, Bourma says, his neighbors were in tears. “Some of them, they don’t have money completely, because they’ve been laid off early.” Bourma, who struggled to make ends meet even before the pandemic, is the face and the voice of an American working class that knows it is being cheated, and has resolved to do something about it.
The embryo of his tenant’s union was out in full force in front of the Alexandria City Courthouse on Wednesday, July 15th. Despite record new daily infections of covid-19 and an economy still on life support, the first series of eviction papers have begun to be processed by the courthouse. With unemployment benefits for tens of millions set to expire in the next few weeks, the working class of this country risks being driven out into the streets to face homelessness and the pandemic, simultaneously. Republicans wary of the threat this poses to Trump’s reelection chances, and their hopes of keeping the Senate, have already begun to clamor for another round of stimulus. Yet, just like the last round these measures will be focused on bailing out capital, and additional local funds made available do not provide any hint that rent cancellation will be in the cards.
Josh, an organizer leading the demonstration, briefly spoke with the Washington Socialist. “I would say three things [to our readers],” he began in between chants. “First, get back in the street. Second, keep your anticapitalist principles. Finally, the fight is long.” His words reflected a steely passion for organizing tenants that could be found in the eyes of every attendee, even as they recognized the grim reality tenants filing into the courthouse faced. On Wednesday the court heard about 30 cases, and the legal counsel organizers brought in was able to secure 60 day extensions for all those who attended. But many more did not attend their court dates for fear of retaliation or catching coronavirus, and the prospect of cancelling the accrued rent, rather than merely pushing it to a later date, will require more than on-the-spot legal counsel can manage.
This has been a key refrain of the movement. The challenge is organizational, not legal. Without the prospect of withholding rent in a concerted fashion, landlords will continue to try to pry the movement apart and pick tenants off one by one, where they are much more vulnerable. Rob, another organizer with Stomp out Slumlords, noted laconically that “we are finding that for everyone one tenant that has gotten a formal written notice to go to court, we have five that have gotten threatening letters telling them to pay up or leave”, a bid to divide and conquer workers. Organizers are correspondingly expecting the housing situation to deteriorate rapidly in Alexandria County within the next month absent a substantial intervention on the part of the authorities or the mass-action of renters.
But the authorities have already demonstrated they have no interest in interfering with the “sacred” right of landlords to bleed workers. By consequence, the only hope remains in mass action. In the industrial-era, Friedrich Engels’ “The Housing Question” touched on the sad spectacle of posturing politicians and social reformers preaching false solutions to the very true problems that private housing causes. “Whoever declares that the capitalist mode of production, the ‘iron laws’ of present-day bourgeois society, are inviolable”— as those who today refuse to cancel rent in the face of the worst pandemic in modern American history do— “and yet at the same time would like to abolish their unpleasant but necessary consequences, has no other resource but to deliver moral sermons to the capitalists”. We have already seen this in the form of the letter to landlords issued from the desk of Mayor Justin Wilson, and the unanimous call to freeze rent by the Alexandria City Council which has now expired.
The fight, as always, is ultimately for cancellation. It is merely forestalling the inevitable if a minimum-wage worker, or one making even less than that, is allowed to stay in their residence for the duration of the pandemic only for the great reckoning for their little room to come due at the end. The result will be mass homelessness, social dislocation, and hardship, merely to honor the “rights” of landlords to the income of those workers who couldn’t even be given the right to work. Yet this right of eviction, more sacred than the right to a place to live, will be honored all the more solemnly as the moral exhortations of politicians soar past the uncaring ears of landlords like Southern Towers. These “moral sermons,” as Engels called them, if unmatched by mass action, will have “emotional effects” that “immediately evaporate under the influence of private interests”.
There is a sad sense of deja vu in reading Engels’ work today. Though we are constantly reassured that these radical thinkers wrote in a different time far darker than our own, their topicality cannot be ignored. After all, the other major issue Engels confronted in his work on homelessness, other than its causes, was disease. The cramped housing of Victorian England and mainland Europe was a vector for disease just as it is today. The same is the case for America’s shamefully large homeless population, which lacks the dignity of a place to lay their head, let alone such other “luxuries” as “food”, “healthcare”, and “human dignity”. The principles of public health, on top of basic humanity, demand they be cared for as a matter of principle, and yet here we have all the necessary ingredients for another outbreak being consciously fought for by America’s landlord class.
“Capitalist rule cannot allow itself the pleasure of creating epidemic diseases among the working class with impunity”, Engels observed stonily in the opening passages of his critique of the bourgeois approach to housing, “the consequences fall back on it and the angel of death rages in its ranks as ruthlessly as in the ranks of the workers.” It has then, it is now, and so long as housing is not treated as the human right is, it will continue to. This is the abomination we as socialists must oppose.
The next action is planned for 5 pm on Saturday at the Columbia Heights civic plaza. A major concern of organizers is to ensure that tenants Bell Partners, and others, are trying to evict, attend their court dates or find someone who can for them, as otherwise the eviction process will be accelerated. Organizers are also looking for volunteers who can go to the courthouse to acquire records and inform tenants of their rights as part of the Stomp out Slumlords campaign. Please contact Andrew Cuan for more information. Andrew can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.