Yesterday morning, two masked protestors dropped a banner from the roof of the New Orleans First City Court. It read: “Evictions = Death”
Locking arms and banging on pots and pans, protestors blocked people, some of them landlords, from entering City Hall which also houses the 1st City and Orleans Parish Civil District courts. Since the end of the eviction moratorium on June 15th, there have been 343 evictions filed in the 1st City Court. The “Evict the Court” rally and protest was organized by The New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly.
On the same day, in Kansas City, Missouri, tenants organized a protest to shut down the Jackson County Courthouse. The courthouse has been handling landlord-tenant cases both online and in-person since the moratorium ended. Protestors took turns entering downtown courtrooms to disrupt proceedings and two people were arrested.
These are just two small, yet significant, bold and courageous examples of collective action to stop eviction hearings. Since the passage of federal legislation, federal and local moratoriums on evictions have prevented housing court judges from processing cases in their typically swift and callous fashion. But that can all change because starting today (July 31st), the CARES Act, the federal legislation that provided extra unemployment relief and prevented evictions from any building with even one federally subsidized rental unit is expiring. On its heels, a slew of local state moratoriums is also coming to an end. Many tenants and homeowners in the United States are already struggling to pay their rent and mortgages. The US Census reported that between June 11 and July 21st, during a time when households had access to extra pandemic relief money, an estimated 18.2% of renters and 12.4% of homeowners did not pay their rent or mortgages. Without extra money and as unemployment rates remain in the double digits, the housing crisis will grow even more acute.
While providing important temporary relief, the moratoriums on evictions will not cancel the back rent that tenants owe and they have not prevented landlords from filing evictions. In New York, Cuomo signed the Tenant Safe Harbor Act which prevents landlords from evicting tenants who have suffered financial hardship or are unemployed during the pandemic for nonpayment of rent. Despite the moratorium, 719 eviction proceedings have taken place in NYC. Millions more eviction filings could flood housing courts once the moratorium runs out. The anti-eviction protests in New Orleans and Kansas City might be indicative of the kinds of actions we can foresee happening.
Thus far, the militant energy of the BLM protests has been focused on the most egregious forms of violence. In response to the killing of George Floyd, protestors have attacked symbols of enduring racism such as police stations, criminal courthouses and confederate monuments and statues. Yet the protests have not connected the racism of police violence to other aspects of daily life in America, including work or housing. But the protest movement is far from over. While the mass energy of the protests may have dissipated from its height at the end of May, in some cities the embers are still glowing. Who would have thought for instance that Portland, Oregon would become the new epicenter of the Black Lives Matter protests? In the city, militant protests took the city streets and circled around the Justice Center and the Federal Building. The Hatfield Federal Courthouse has been a nightly target of vandalism during evening protests and riots, sustaining extensive damage. U.S. Marshals Service deputies and officers from the Federal Protective Service, Homeland Security Investigations, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been sent to guard the courthouse which has only reinvigorated the militant core of the protests. But police violence is just the tip of the iceberg.
As Pete Little recently wrote reflecting on the political situation in Portland “as the police continue to murder, the city becomes increasingly unaffordable to working class people.” Like many other cities around the country in the 1970s, Portland underwent processes of “urban renewal” which displaced its black residents. Today this history is forgotten, and Portland is seen as a very white city, a hipster haven memorialized by shows like Portlandia—in short a “a city where young people go to retire.” The gentrification of the city in the first decade of the 21st century led to another wave of black residents being displaced and since then the city has become increasingly expensive for all working-class residents. In Oregon, two-thirds of the renters spend 50% of their income on housing. All of this begs the question: could housing court be the next target of the Black Lives Matter protests?
Of course the most egregious and clear cut connection between police violence and gentrification was the police murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY. Initial news of her murder by Louisville police revealed that Breonna was gunned down by cops executing a “no knock warrant” during a drug raid in her own home. But months after her death, her lawyers claim that her murder was part of Louisville police operations to clear the path for gentrification of the west side of city. In the wake of Breonna’s murder, activists have challenged the legality of “no-knock warrants” and pressured Louisville city officials to ban them. Yet the protests have not been able to organically connect racist police violence to the gentrification of the west side. But the protests are still ongoing, and it is still possible for such connections to be forged especially amid rising COVID rates, deepening unemployment and decreasing state and federal aid to tenants.
According to the US Census, one third of American renters have little confidence that they can pay next month’s rent. Some estimate that 40 million Americans could be evicted during the pandemic. Princeton University’s Eviction Lab is keeping track of evictions and they note that the top states with the highest rent gaps are California, New York, Florida, Georgia and Texas. Already housing courts in cities like Columbus, Ohio and Milwakee, MI and Richmond, VA have seen hundreds of eviction filings.
Black and Latino renters will be particularly hard hit by the eviction crisis. Take Houston as an example. This Texas city is leading the spike in evictions with close to 2,000 filings during April and May. Across greater Houston, over 5,400 eviction notices have been filed since the moratorium ended on May 18th. Black renters in Houston are more likely to receive an eviction notice and since the pandemic began more than one third of all eviction cases have been black tenants.
The ban on evictions has thus far only delayed the inevitable. The extra pandemic relief allowed people to buy food and maybe save a little bit of money. But will it be enough to cover back rent? As Republicans and Democrats debate the relief bill, American renters are estimated to owe $21.5 billion worth of back rent. Such debt will bring many to the brink of an eviction. This begs the question: will people suffer the indignity of an eviction notice alone or will they come together to fight back? Will people storm housing courts and stop judges from issuing eviction orders? Will people come together to make more radical demands like canceling rent altogether? Will neighbors show up for each other to prevent evictions from happening? An important point to note is that evictions, while physical, are also lengthy legal ordeals. Therefore, fighting evictions requires diverse strategies and tactics. They also require a level of trust that can only be built by tenants organizing together. There is some hope that in the past few years in cities like New York, Houston, Detroit and LA, tenant groups have gained some on the ground experience building collective power by fighting evictions and securing much needed repairs and tenant rights. We can imagine that in these cities, the housing crisis can further radicalize these formations while in other cities new groupings of tenant and neighborhood defense groups can be created by the necessity of the moment. If the two protests in New Orleans and Kansas City are any indication, a lot can happen in the next few months.