Activism

Tenants Nationwide Tell Landlords They're Fed Up: Renter Week of Action

A week's worth of rallies, protests and demonstrations aims to unite renters and draw attention to their struggles.

City Life/ Vida Urbana March to the home of John McGrail, Boston real estate tycoon.
Photo Credit: ©2017 Helen Matthews

Jade White didn’t have heat for the entire winter of 2016. “I have a nine-year-old daughter who is in the house with me and we went through a whole winter without heat,” the Newark, New Jersey public housing resident and tenant organizer for Terrell Homes explained in a phone interview. “I called everyone and no one [did] anything. HUD wants us to pay, pay, pay and they don’t want to fix anything.”

White is just one of 21.3 million Americans spending 30 percent or more of their income to afford rent, according to 2016’s State of the Nation's Housing Report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. She also belongs to Ironbound Community Corporation, one of the housing advocacy groups fighting back with Renter Week of Action and Assemblies (September 18-24). The 45-city-strong series of rallies, protests and other demonstrations is designed to increase awareness of the housing affordability crisis, spotlight on the corrupt practices of some private landlords and management companies and demand full funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as stronger protections for tenants across the country.

Renter Week of Action is organized by Homes for All, the housing division of national advocacy group Right to the City, in conjunction with local partners. The week kicked off September 18 with hundreds of Boston residents marching on notorious landlord John McGrail’s home. According to Lisa Owens, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, McGrail, “exemplifies the displacement crisis in the city, using dramatic rent increases and mass evictions to clear out low-income communities of color.”

The problem is compounded by a massive wealth gap. Boston, according to Owens, has the "third-highest share of millionaires and also one of the widest gaps between rich and poor. About half of Boston residents make 30 percent or below."

McGrail and his firm, MG2 Group, take advantage of this income gap and the growing influx of wealthier residents to push out poor tenants and attract richer ones. The company has been known to fail to make necessary repairs to buildings, using their eventual distress as a cover for evictions. In 2011, McGrail was convicted by the Massachusetts Environmental Crimes Strike Force of illegal removal and disposal of asbestos.

Owens explained that the September 18 action, which drew hundreds of marchers, aimed to draw attention to “corporate actors who prefer to work in the shadows,” and more broadly, to illustrate “the dramatic impact on our communities if HUD loses funding—working together to coordinate a message, and show power, particularly as we see more direct threats.”

“This is our community. We’ve been living there 37 years. We have nowhere else to go,” said Eddy Nicaisse, a resident of one of McGrail's buildings, in a statement about his participation in the march. 

Juana (on megaphone at left) is fighting to keep her home after MG2 issued eviction notices to all 14 units in her East Boston apartment building. ©2017 Helen Matthews

Nashville residents are in the middle of a three-day march, a caravan along the route of nMotion, a proposed $6 billion light rail service, which is the biggest infrastructure project in Nashville's history. Organizers agree that while Nashville's transportation system is in need of a massive upgrade, "the experience of other cities shows us that the cost of living skyrockets along the corridors where new rail lines are built. We want to make sure ALL of our communities will benefit from new rail lines and people won’t be displaced by them," according to the event's Facebook page. 

Supporters of the People's Alliance for Transit, Housing, and Employment (PATHE) march to demand community benefits, including affordable housing, be included in a $6 billion transit plan proposed by Nashville Mayor. Video Courtesy of PATHE

Many organizers added their own creative spin on the traditional series of marches, workshops, and rallies. In Long Beach, California, activists dressed in identity-obscuring black staged what they dubbed a "DayLight Robbery Protest" of Belmont Brokerage, a property management company that manages 1,600 apartments. According to Josh Butler, executive director of Long Beach Homes, "Long Beach renters are being robbed in broad daylight... the lack of action from our leadership is akin to aiding and abetting this crime against our neighbors.”

Long Beach renters stage a daring "daylight robbery" at the office of Belmont Brokerage to protest unfair rent hikes and fees. Video courtesy of Housing Long Beach

Across the country in New York City (the second-most expensive rental market in the country), Shatia Strother, program coordinator at Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, is preparing for two major events. First, activists will turn their attention to public housing with a rally in front of the headquarters of the New York City Housing Authority on September 21. Many of the residents FUREE serves live in New York City public housing, and like Jade White in Newark, they often have to wait weeks or even months for critical home repairs, sometimes during the most extreme weather of the year.

"What we want to do," Strother elaborated, "is highlight both the threat that's coming down from the current administration on the federal level through the HUD cuts and how those proposed cuts and that continued threat could potentially affect the preservation of public housing [in New York City]."

Where the first event aims to raise awareness, a second, a citywide Renters Assembly on September 23, aims to turn that awareness into action, to bring residents of public housing, residents of private landlords and advocacy groups together to brainstorm an action plan for ensuring fairer rent laws locally, and better funding nationally: "We want to talk about the HUD cuts from the federal level and use that as pressure to push the state and city to increase the budget allocations for public housing on a continued basis and not just in one or two budgets here and there like some crumbs that they're throwing our way."

Strother also emphasized that while having a HUD leader like Ben Carson, who believes "public housing and Section 8 are just another way to promote laziness and people not being able to survive on their own," is not exactly a blessing for low-income Americans, it's also not a "dramatic shift" for an agency long plagued by corruption scandals

That's the importance of being part of a nationwide coalition, she said. It's about “building power nationwide to change housing oppression permanently, and without having that national power, we'll just keep continuing to fight the same local fights without much progress or without the ability to stop recurring setbacks after we make successes.”

To find an event in your city, visit Homes for All/Right to the City's interactive map. Events run through September 24

Ilana Novick is an AlterNet contributing writer and production editor.