What is Eviction Defense, and How Can It Help Renters During The Pandemic?

Now that the US Supreme Court has blocked the CDC’s eviction moratorium, millions of renters across the United States are facing potential homelessness and financial ruin amidst the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic.

Combined with the recent termination of federal unemployment benefits, the ending of the moratorium marks a new period of vulnerability for many Americans who have struggled to pay rent and afford basic necessities during the pandemic.

“It’s not going to be explosive. It’s going to be death by a thousand cuts,” said Leonardo Vilchis, a volunteer with the Los Angeles Tenants Union.

Financial analysts estimate that anywhere from several million to 40 million people may soon be forced out of their homes. With most state eviction moratoriums also expiring, advocates and health experts now fear an unprecedented wave of evictions that will drive up unhoused populations while creating conditions that increase the spread of COVID-19.

“Evictions are happening in Rhode Island already, and we will only see them rise in the coming months now that the CDC eviction moratorium has ended,” Olivia Blush, a member of Tenant Network Rhode Island (TNRI), told Motherboard. Like in many other places, in-person eviction hearings have resumed in the state, she said, putting hundreds of low-income BIPOC Rhode Islanders disproprotionately at risk of losing shelter and contracting or spreading COVID-19.

The CDC’s moratorium staved off an estimated 1.55 million eviction filings nationally, but many advocates like Blush saw it as inadequate. “We’re a year and a half into a global pandemic, and there has been no true, comprehensive eviction moratorium, neither here in RI nor on a national level,” said Blush. “Advocates, activists, and community members have been calling on our state government to institute a moratorium since March 2020, and have consistently received an inadequate response.” According to one study, one million people nationwide—disproportionately Black women—were still served eviction notices from March 15, 2020 to the end of the year.

Out of necessity, many communities have been taking matters into their own hands by organizing eviction defenses. The work involves everything from physically blocking police and eviction marshals from entering a home to helping a family file rental relief paperwork, depending on a particular tenant’s requests and circumstances. Their inability to act has shown us that we can’t just wait for them to do the right thing,” said Blush. “We need to create a situation where they are forced to act; unfortunately, they currently see no reason to listen to us.”

Eviction defense isn’t a new concept—in fact, it grew as a strategy during a time when evictions weren’t as normalized. At the beginning of the Great Depression, a single eviction was considered so scandalous that it would draw a crowd of hundreds or thousands of resistors. Crowds fought police, took over empty buildings, returned furniture to evicted homes, raised relief payments and packed courts to pressure judges to stop evictions.

The work was buoyed by Unemployed Councils, communist-led formations that mobilized around neighborhood grievances in most major cities.  In March 1931 one reporter wrote that the Councils had “practically stopped evictions” in Detroit. Still, millions were evicted throughout the 1930s.

By building collective power, today’s organizers and tenants similarly hope to minimize what the media has called a looming “tsunami” of evictions, both through direct action and by providing aid directly to those who are in danger of losing shelter. Despite New York’s statewide eviction moratorium extension, Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED)—a leaderless, volunteer coalition helping tenants facing eviction, harassment, and housing insecurity—has been busy fielding calls from at-risk tenants. Motherboard asked Oliver Hinds of the BED, for insight into how people can prepare— and are already preparing—for the coming flood of eviction notices.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Tenants in most major cities have already started tenant unions, associations and coalitions, which aim to organize within buildings and neighborhoods. Some groups are growing rapidly: The Los Angeles Tenants Union’s membership doubled—from 4,000 to 8,000—during the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Connect with the people locally who might already be doing housing related work, such as tenant unions, tenant associations and tenant coalitions,” Hinds told Motherboard. Existing groups may have eviction defense infrastructure in place, or advice, knowledge and connections to share. And support work should always be driven by the needs and goals of directly impacted tenants.

If there aren’t existing groups in your local area, members of BED recommended reviewing tenant organizing resources compiled by the Autonomous Tenants Union Network, a collaborative of about 25 tenant unions across North America. The network also offers to mentor people who want to start their own tenant union.

Set Up a Hotline

Eviction defense groups try to make their support as accessible and user-friendly as possible. Setting up a multilingual intake form, email address and hotline can serve as lifelines between an eviction defense group and at-risk tenants. “People can call in with any housing related problems they have,” Hinds said of BED’s hotline. “[Tenants report] anything from harassment by landlords to early notices about eviction proceedings, to a more immediate danger of losing their house.”

Hotline volunteers listen to a tenant’s concerns and either recommend other established services, or directly provide support. In New York, for example, BED has helped tenants fill out Emergency Rental Assistance Program applications, which are supposed to automatically halt eviction proceedings until at least January 15, 2022.

As a group of tenant volunteers themselves, BED also asks tenants if they have the capacity to help take hotline shifts, or help with any other organizing work.

Meet Your Neighbors

Relationship building is a foundational component of tenant organizing. “[I]t’s important to build community power by connecting with your neighbors,” writes BED in its “We Keep Us Safe” zine series. “Solidarity with other tenants can be a vital source of support, especially for the most vulnerable renters. This solidarity can take many forms–keeping track of who is unable to pay rent, sharing information and pooling resources if someone has immediate needs, and educating each other about tenants rights and tenant power in NYC.”

To this end, eviction defense groups can send out teams of door knockers to meet their neighbors, establish rapport and offer support. Rather than knock on every door in Brooklyn or Rhode Island, BED, TNRI and other groups often identify people most at-risk of being thrown out of their homes based on court proceedings. Because of modified court procedures due to pandemic, people don’t often know they are about to be evicted. BED gets around this by sending letters in the mail to at-risk tenants, and assembling teams of doo-knockers to alert tenants on the weekend prior to a scheduled eviction.

Become a Stoop Watcher

Even with eviction moratoriums and other tenant protections, landlord harassment and illegal lockouts are always a risk. If a landlord wants to sell a building, sometimes they will lock tenants out of their homes, cut their electricity or water, or lock shared bathroom access. To prevent illegal harassment, eviction defense group members often sign up to take shifts as “stoop watchers,” who physically show up to an at-risk tenant’s home, at their request).  Stoop watchers put landlords on notice and monitor for signs of harassment, and can even call for larger mobilizations, if needed.

When All Else Fails…

For activists who view housing as a human right, blockades against evictions are often considered acts of community self-defense. Last year, hundreds of people in Portland, Oregon erected barricades, camped out, and drove off police during an attempted eviction of the Red House, which has long been home to an Afro-indigenous family in a gentrifying neighborhood. The family raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and the city eventually agreed not to raid the home.

In July 2020, hundreds of demonstrators responded to an urgent call for support from the anti-gentrification group Equality for Flatbush to resist an illegal lock out and forcible removal in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The landlords responsible eventually left the premises after a four hour stand-off.

To facilitate this type of work, BED has organized hundreds of people into “rapid response” loops on Signal, the encrypted chat platform often used by activists to organize. Some threads are neighborhood based, while others cover the city more broadly. By hosting trainings in the coming months, they hope to build the organizational capacity to respond quickly and effectively wherever tenants are being threatened.

“Politicians will do nothing, landlords will be violent and increase the levels of harassment like never before, and judges will enable the execution of evictions and displacement,” said Vilchis.  “Only tenants organized in struggle together will be able to fight back and not just stop the bleeding but win.”

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