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The New Tenant Movement for Housing Justice

SF East 12th Street Parcel
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From the displacement of Native peoples to the enforcement of Jim Crow, the history of U.S. land policy and practice is a history of inequi¬ties. Gold rush-era Chinese workers and Blacks fleeing Southern racism were barred from California’s housing market and segregated to particular communities. After the Great Depression, the federal government backed mortgage lending as a route to homeownership and wealth accumulation, but redlined minority communities. White flight to suburbia left the urban core starved for investment and government services. Predatory lending and the 2010 foreclosure crisis further depressed rates of homeownership in the inner cities. Today, housing deeds still bear restrictive language such as “no lot in said tract shall at any time be lived upon by a person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race.” The restrictions have lost their legal standing but their spirit lingers in more nuanced ways.
Ch. 1: Legacy

City Rising is a multimedia documentary program that traces gentrification and displacement through a lens of historical discriminatory laws and practices. Fearing the loss of their community’s soul, residents are gathering into a movement, not just in California, but across the nation as the rights to property, home, community and the city are taking center stage in a local and global debate. Learn more.

In 2016, residents in five Bay Area cities went to the ballot to pass new rent control and eviction protection laws, including a successful effort in Mountain View, the home of Google. Earlier in the year, the City Council in Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco, passed the first of these ordinances that California has seen in three decades, thanks to a sustained community organizing effort.

These advances for renters in California have been relentlessly attacked by the real estate lobby, which has spent millions already to undermine local resident-led campaigns and retain its grip on cities across the state. Wins for tenants at the ballot have been met by lawsuits that can delay the implementation of protections for renters, meaning ongoing displacement while the suits wind through the courts. Similarly, when city councils do pass policies that benefit renters, lobbyists spend liberally to place them on the ballot where their campaign war chest gives them a significant advantage.

Despite this opposition, the tenant movement continues to advance. This year alone in the Bay Area, in addition to the victories mentioned above, a number of cities have been able to pass basic eviction protections, without rent control. These wins are just the tip of a growing movement for tenants’ rights across the entire state as California grapples with a devastating housing crisis.

Measure JJ Oakland
Committee to Protect Oakland Renters' Yes on Measure JJ poster in 2016.

Rent control and eviction protections may not leap off the page as cutting-edge policies, especially now in the era of Trump, but these grassroots movements are at the heart of a progressive front in the fight for racial, economic and gender justice. The eviction and displacement crisis that has been ravaging the Bay Area is breaking up many low-income working class neighborhoods, with communities of color being hit particularly hard. These communities are organizing for rent control and eviction protections because they know these policies are the only ones that can have an immediate impact, and that can create the kind of stability that will allow them to mobilize for longer-term change. The people involved in the movements for these policies understand that true housing security will only come when housing is treated as a basic human right rather than a commodity that is traded for profit.

The damage being done to individual households and entire communities by gentrification and displacement is difficult to overstate. The stress of losing or being at risk of losing one’s home has short- and long-term health consequences, as high rents force low-income families to make difficult choices between which needs to meet. School age children suffer when evictions occur during the school year. When tensions arise at home over the looming threat of eviction, children’s school performance is impacted with long-term consequences.

Development Without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area by Causa Justa :: Just Cause
From the Development Without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area report in 2014. | Causa Justa :: Just Cause
Renter's Nation Housing-cost burden
From the Rise of the Renter Nation: Solutions to the Housing Affordability Crisis report in 2014.  | The Homes for All Campaign of Right to the City Alliance

The short- and long-term damage that gentrification and displacement have done to many low-income and working class communities rivals that of the urban renewal period of the 1950s and 60s, which saw countless communities of color across the nation torn up for redevelopment or highway construction. Then as now, the housing crisis lies at the heart of the movement for economic and civil rights in communities all across the country.

A few aspects of the movement emerging across California are worth noting in this regard. First, they are locally focused; reflecting a clear-eyed analysis of where average people can build and sustain real power around an issue that has a direct impact on their lives. Though often as corrupt as state and national level politics, local politics is an arena where people can get organized and win. And these wins can, in the case of rent control, provide real relief and protection to many households while providing practical experience in building and exercising political power. Since November, the number of Americans who recognize the importance of local organizing has grown dramatically, and the tenant movement has been ahead of the curve in mobilizing for change from the ground up.

Second, the campaigns are communicating with each other, across regions, the state and the country. In doing so, they are laying the groundwork for bigger, collective fights against the powerful real estate industry, which has thrown its weight around the state capitol, Sacramento, for decades to block real reform on tenant issues statewide, and fuel the current housing crisis. Tenant groups in the Bay Area have formed an organizing network that has already proven effective in strengthening local campaigns and building the political momentum of the tenant movement across the region. In February of this year, tenant organizations from across California held the first statewide tenant assembly in decades, with another planned for this fall.

The campaigns also consciously link their campaigns for rent control and eviction protections to other fights against economic inequality and racism. Many Bay Area communities with active tenant movements, for example, are using their experience and networks to respond to the racist immigration policies of the new administration, which often target the very same communities that predatory landlords and speculative property investors target.

Save us from the freeway 1966 SF City Hall
"Save Us From the Freeway" protesters at San Francisco's City Hall in 1966. | San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Finally, in the Bay Area, this movement is being led by women, people of color, working class immigrants, low-income communities and LGBTQ communities. This is neither accidental nor incidental. These communities exist directly in the path of the rampant property speculation and gentrification that are driving the housing crisis. In many cases, they were hit first and hardest, and, in turn, their resistance is the most developed and their leaders the most seasoned. These are also communities for which housing insecurity and community instability have been defining features throughout American history, and their leadership is part of a long tradition of community organizing for racial, economic and gender justice.  

It’s not difficult to understand why the tenant movement in California is surging. The displacement crisis constitutes a genuine human and civil rights crisis that is systemically eroding economic security, public safety, personal and public health, and community stability. Rising rents across the state have been covered in the national and even the international press for years. It was only a matter of time before the pressure became so great that mass mobilizations began.

Hundreds of protesters linking arms in front of the International Hotel in San Francisco
Hundreds of protesters linking arms in front of the International Hotel at 848 Kearny Street near Jackson Street in San Francisco, California try to prevent the San Francisco Sheriffs' deputies from evicting elderly tenants on August 4, 1977. |  Nancy Wong/Creative Commons

Behind the news headlines and eye-popping numbers lies a brutal process of evictions and displacement that has driven countless people out of their homes, with a clear and disproportionate impact on Black and Latino neighborhoods. Over the past decade, the displacement epidemic has spread out from urban centers into smaller cities and suburbs, creating a region-wide crisis that touches virtually every community in some way. This presents a challenge because there is less of a tradition of community organizing in many of these suburban areas, particularly around issues of race and class. But as the growing tenant movement attests to, the spread of the housing crisis also sets the stage for unprecedented levels of community mobilization across the region and the state.

The emerging tenant movement has the potential to radically alter the national political landscape more broadly. Since the middle of the last century, homeowners and homeownership have monopolized the national, state and local policy landscape when it comes to housing, reflecting the deep race and class divisions that defined the 20th century. Renters, when they were considered at all, were an afterthought. Even today in many communities, renters are treated like second class citizens by elected officials, local press and more, the powerful homeowner associations.

This reality is reflected in the virtual absence of policies that provides renter households with the benefits and protections given to homeowners, even though renters have historically been the ones most in need. Instead, many states have banned rent control entirely, and even the 1996 Costa-Hawkins Act in California, sought and paid for by the real estate industry, places severe constraints on what local government and residents can do to stabilize the rental market and provide some security and predictability for renter households. In a sign of both how bad the housing crisis has become and how powerfully the tenant movement has placed tenant issues front and center, the future of Costa-Hawkins is now uncertain. This is groundbreaking in a state where the balance of power has for so long tilted in favor of the real estate industry.

The new tenant movement seeks to alter this historical balance of power and, in doing so, to transform renters into a political class that advocates for its own interests, passes policies with real benefits, influences local elections and eventually take seats of local power. But no one is under any illusion that fights at greater scales can be avoided. These movements recognize that they have to exert influence beyond the local and are building active networks with other campaigns in other places as part of a coordinated effort to change politics at the state and national levels as well.

Rise of the Renter Nation: Solutions to the Housing Affodability Crisis by The Homes for All Campaign of Right to the City Alliance
From the Rise of the Renter Nation: Solutions to the Housing Affordability Crisis report in 2014.  | The Homes for All Campaign of Right to the City Alliance
Rise of the Renter Nation: Solutions to the Housing Affodability Crisis by The Homes for All Campaign of Right to the City Alliance
From the Rise of the Renter Nation: Solutions to the Housing Affordability Crisis report in 2014.  | The Homes for All Campaign of Right to the City Alliance

Top Image: E. 12th Street Parcel activists' demonstration in July 2015 during an Oakland City Council meeting, which sparked a leaked memo revealing that the sale of public land next to Lake Merritt violated California's Surplus Land Act, where any surplus public land sold must be offered to affordable housing developers first.

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