How Organizers Are Defending Against Evictions Amid a Pandemic
Tenants rights groups in Brooklyn, Kansas City, New Orleans, and elsewhere are using physical blockades and direct action to keep people in their homes.
Ginger Ging-Dwan Boyd was napping in her apartment in Brooklyn to recover from a migraine on June 12 when she woke up to the sound of a power drill being used on the lock on her door to force it open. It was a representative from her building’s property manager, Parkway Realty Associates LLC.
The incident was the culmination of what Boyd said has been an ongoing onslaught of “manipulation, gaslighting, and harassment” since May aimed at getting her and her roommate—who has since left—to leave the apartment so that it can be turned into a luxury unit, despite COVID-19 raging throughout the city.
After the power drill incident, Boyd’s resolve stiffened. “I was like, ‘You know what, I’m staying. This is my home,’” she said. And in the middle of a pandemic, she worried about infecting the friends and family whose couches she would have to stay on as she searched for a new place to live.
So in July she reached out for help from the Crown Heights Tenant Union, which organizes tenants in Brooklyn. She and two organizers mapped out how to respond as she got closer to the eviction date she’d been given, Aug. 3. That day she and organizers from various housing justice groups staged a 12-hour rotating vigil. Supporters brought by necessities such as food, water, hand sanitizer, and masks.
Boyd’s landlord never showed up, which she credits to the number of people at the vigil. She hasn’t received another notice about getting evicted. Parkway Realty Associates didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“I think that he knows that everybody’s eyes are on this,” she said of her landlord.
The organizers who helped Boyd, as well as other neighbors and activists, had gathered in early July to physically stop the owners of 1214 Dean St. in Brooklyn from illegally and forcibly evicting their tenants. They and a number of housing justice organizations formed The Brooklyn Eviction Defense Network, which helps people physically ward off being removed from their homes.
Their tactic is borrowed from Depression-era organizing, when tenants not only staged rent strikes but physically resisted eviction. As local and state eviction moratoriums issued in response to the pandemic lapse, and organizers worry a federal ban issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention won’t do enough to keep people housed, the tactic is catching on across the country.
Eviction defense serves a number of purposes. At the most basic level, it’s meant to keep people in their homes. But it also spotlights an event that typically happens behind closed doors and can be shrouded in shame. It attracts not just attention from the public and the media, but hopefully from lawmakers and other officials. And that can lead to the larger goal, which is to galvanize support for policy goals like a broad eviction moratorium and the cancellation of rent.
“It’s a direct action related to keeping someone in their home,” explained Tara Raghuveer, the founding director of the Kansas City, Missouri, housing advocacy group KC Tenants, but it also “helps to bring us closer to a world in which we could maybe win some of our demands.”
Before the pandemic, KC Tenants had focused on making housing a key issue in last year’s mayoral and City Council elections. Next it campaigned for and won a tenants’ bill of rights. “We had a nice, neat plan for 2020, and then [COVID-19] hit,” Raghuveer said.
Within a week of the pandemic lockdown, she started hearing from people who had lost their jobs but were being threatened by their landlords if they couldn’t pay rent. “We’ve been kind of sprinting and adjusting ever since.”
At first KC Tenants was focused on demanding that state officials impose an eviction moratorium. In nearby Kansas, Governor Laura Kelly imposed one that was set to expire on May 1 until she extended it into next year. But in Jackson County, where Kansas City is located, an eviction moratorium expired on June 1. The group then focused on trying to get moratoriums extended, but quickly realized that lawmakers and judges weren’t going to grant its requests. Meanwhile, as landlords were given the ability to evict again, the eviction numbers started to “rise and rise and rise,” she said.
“We had asked nicely, we had demanded,” Raghuveer noted. “We didn’t get it, so we had to shut it down.”
Our politicians who are supposed to protect us, they’re not listening. So we have to do radical actions.Shanice Taylor, a leader with KC Tenants
So at the end of July, KC Tenants organized actions to disrupt and, it hoped, halt evictions proceedings in court. On one occasion, a handful of KC Tenants activists stormed into the courtroom where an eviction proceeding was taking place and began shouting that evictions spread COVID-19 and kill people. When they were escorted out, another group went right back in and continued the disruption. The judge decided to stop the proceeding altogether. It was a big risk: Activists could have been held in contempt of court and spent months in jail. Two of the activists were arrested, although they were released some hours later.
Meanwhile, three to six activists called into each of the two eviction dockets for the day and took turns reciting a script about the danger of evictions. Those, too, were halted because of the disruptions.
Given that the court typically processes about 100 to 200 evictions every Thursday, Raghuveer estimates that they effectively kept that many cases from proceeding that day. Her organization has been in contact with some of the tenants whose cases were postponed, who have said it bought them useful time. “Frankly I think it’s the best direct action we’ve ever pulled off,” Raghuveer said. The group again staged a courthouse shutdown on Oct. 15, which it said shut down all of the morning dockets, although the court later said that all dockets proceeded.
“Our politicians who are supposed to protect us, they’re not listening,” said Shanice Taylor, a leader with KC Tenants. “They don’t understand the urgency of the issue. So we have to do radical actions.”
Organizers are prepared to stage more courthouse shutdowns, but they’re also focusing on building the capacity to perform eviction defense blockades, similar to what’s happening in Brooklyn, Raghuveer said.
“We know if landlords want their tenants out they will find ways to get them out, to get around the moratorium. So we’re not slowing down,” she said.
As in Kansas City, activists in New Orleans have felt the need to “create a series of escalations” to send a message to those in power, said Y. Frank Southall, lead organizer with the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative. The group started with a petition to demand an eviction moratorium, and when that went unheeded, staged a letter-writing campaign.
Eviction courts closed for three months in response to the pandemic, but courts began processing evictions in early July. “Our government just don’t give a fuck,” Southall said. “So consequently we just have to shut it down.”
On July 30, the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly, a semi-autonomous project incubated by Jane Place, gathered activists to block and defend the two courthouse entrances, as well as City Hall, which is connected to the courthouse. Not only did the activists keep all but two landlords from making it into court, but Southall thinks it inspired similar actions in Houston, New York, and Los Angeles.
Indeed, in California, just before the state’s moratorium on evictions was set to expire on Sept. 1 and Governor Gavin Newsom signed an extension, activists with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) shut down courts in Los Angeles for several hours, blocking every entrance and refusing to allow landlords in. They staged a similar action once courts were open and plan to keep disrupting court hearings whenever they happen.
Members of ACCE say sheriffs have yet to show up at their doors to evict them, but the organization is gearing up for that possibility and the need to stage defense blockades to keep them housed. Ultimately, they’re demanding that state lawmakers pass a bill halting all evictions, whether related to the pandemic or not. “No one should be evicted right now,” said Anya Svanoe, communications director at ACCE.
Activists in New York are also crowding together at courthouses to stop evictions. Those actions have been “incredibly successful,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All. Although the group hasn’t yet halted evictions from being processed, it has “kept this issue in the public eye.”
“The crisis can’t happen silently,” Weaver said. The actions don’t just aim to keep people in their homes, but to make the damage of eviction “tangible and visible” outside of a home’s walls.
The Center for Popular Democracy has been staging national actions on the first of each month to call attention to the people who can’t make rent, but the largest was on Sept. 1, when 18 groups across the country participated in protests, seven of them staging eviction blockades—not just in Los Angeles but in smaller towns like Reading, Pennsylvania.
“Sometimes disruption is the only thing the opposition will listen to,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy. “Mass direct action will be the only thing that will get us to where we need to go.”
“We’re not going to be putting Band-Aids on anything anymore,” Boyd said. “That’s why we’re taking such big, bold risks, creating an entire eviction defense network. We can’t afford not to, and nobody else is going to do it for us.”