Standing Together: Reporting from the Portland Renter Assemblies

Socialist Alternative Presenting at Portland's Renter's Assembly

The Renter's Assemblies are just beginning in Portland, but already they are showing to have the potential to revive a real tenants movement.

Submitted by Eviction Free Zone on May 16, 2015

The Renter’s Assemblies have been something that people in housing justice circles have been hearing rumbles about for a while. Rumored to be coming out of the Right to the City Coalition, which deals with progressive solutions to economic and housing problems, the assemblies were meant to have an open air of possibility for tenants from around the country to come together locally and talk about both problems and solutions. In Portland, Tori Abernathy and Nick Caleb began promoting the first Renter’s Assembly in Portland, Oregon, looking to discuss the rising difficulty of being a working-class tenant in a city that is being driven by “creative class” gentrification. There was a sequence of three renter’s assemblies in February, where tenants could share their experiences and local organizations that deal with housing issues would discuss their projects and ideas for the future of local housing justice. A discussion would then form where people could reflect both on the experiences that were shared and the organizing proposals that they heard, with the hope that we could eventually head in the direction of something tangible.

From the beginning, the assemblies were driven by an almost base level of emotion as people shared stories of almost universal exploitation. People reported about being forced out of their homes of more than a decade by developers gentrifying the area. Renter’s almost forced on the streets after having their requests for repairs answered with an eviction notice. Discussion went towards how the older working-class communities of the city were being forced out of the city center and into the fringes, being pushed further and further away from the city that had held their heart for years.

After the success of the first sessions, the Renter’s Assemblies were organized again for April 21st and 26th, with an organizing committee forming of people both coming in as individuals as well as those who are already involved in housing groups. On April 21st, the Socialist Alternative began by presenting their vision for working towards rent control in Portland. Following the model established by victories in Seattle, they want to follow up Portland’s $15Now campaign, which is fighting for a $15/hr minimum wage, by pushing into rent control, just like was done in Seattle after their minimum wage battle was won. They discussed the centrality of affordable housing to class struggle more broadly, saying openly “a renter is crisis is a worker in compliance.” This draws on the fact that when housing is unstable, it can often force workers to be less willing to challenge orthodoxy and organize.

Next, Living Cully, a community non-profit made up of four organizations dealing with low-income communities of color in the Cully Neighborhood, discussed their multi-faceted campaign. While working on infrastructure development in the area, they are operating with the knowledge that this can often allow for displacement of the communities they are working with. This draws on the clear contradiction between the idea that housing is a human right with the fact that housing is currently a commodity. Their goal is then to work towards two distinct endgames: decommodification and regulation. They cited that in many other countries around 30% of housing is considered “social housing,” which would be the equivalent of public housing. In the U.S., our numbers are closer to 1-2%. One of the tools they want to use to take housing out of the market is the community land trust model, where people own their home but the land can’t go on the open market and affordability restrictions can be put in place. Another option for them is the limited equity co-op, where ownership of the property goes directly to the tenants in a co-operative fashion. They are engaging in a coalition to influence the Portland Comprehensive Plan, which is a long-term plan for the city to develop its physical geography. This can often lead to the kind of “urban renewal” programs that are pilots for developers to decimate local communities. They are additionally working towards renter protections, including rent control, renter intimidation restrictions, and ending no-cause eviction.

At the April 26th assembly, presentations began with the Portland Solidarity Network talking about its structure for tenant campaigns. These use a “direct action” format, where a renter who has been exploited by a landlord determines exactly what material damages and results they would like to see and then they collectively develop an “escalation plan” to fight towards that goal. In the long-term, PDXSol discussed the need to develop tenant organizations in neighborhoods and rental buildings, with unionization and assemblies being a way of maintaining tenant control no matter what legislation or politicians come through City Hall. Here, things like rent strikes and tenant action can be the pressure point that will get results, and can have the same effect in housing that the labor movement had in workplaces. One of the primary barriers to long-term tenant organizing is no-cause eviction, and it is possible to target this specific issue with mass tenant mobilizations and anti-eviction actions. While it is illegal to evict someone for organizing in Oregon, the burden of proof is on the tenant rather than the landlord. This means that any long-term organizing can be subject to no-cause eviction, which means that landlords can just evict everyone organizing without much effort to conceal the intentions. In general, no-cause eviction keeps tenants in an incredibly vulnerable place, and organizations like the Community Alliance of Tenants have noted that no-cause eviction can actually be the target that the elimination of which can lead to rent control.

Nick Caleb, former City Council candidate, followed up PDXSol and reiterated much of the discussion about rising rents and displacement, again echoing the need for tenant mobilization and direct action.

For all of the assemblies, the bulk of the time was spent sharing stories and ideas. Tenants stood before the room and spoke of their own personal experiences, where property management companies that treated them like small numbers on a large spreadsheet stripped their safety and dignity. The conversations very quickly moved into the organizing sphere, as the dozens of people at each assembly were clearly there to turn experience into action. Two primary ideas began floating around, which were, in some ways, also reflected in the organizations that presented. Rent control and no-cause eviction seemed to stand out as the two primary ideas that people were identifying, with groups like Socialist Alternative and several of the non-profits primarily looking towards rent control and PDXSol and others advocating tenant organizations looking at no-cause eviction. This was all discussed in very complimentary way, especially how to integrate the two demands, with possibly having one being a stepping-stone to the other. The idea of mass tenant mobilization was brought up with a great deal of energy, starting possibly with open events that brought broad ideas like “housing is a human right” or “tenant power.” This could then be the starting point of shifting the Renter’s Assemblies to larger goals and long-term organizing efforts.

The assemblies themselves are still in the early stages, but that is what makes them so exciting. At every point the discussion had a clear anti-capitalist dimension, and the ideas all had a tinge of political radicalism. This was not just a room made up of long-time activists and organizers, but a representational make-up of the city’s tenants. There was a readiness towards action that was palpable, and it came directly from the fact that the conditions in the city were changing in a way that was going to force people into organizing. The material conditions were driving theoretical perspectives, and constructive anger seemed to be what were fueling people to go further with their ideas.

This is a project that many are committed to sticking with, both locally and nationally. With the possibilities that something like this has, it can act as a “seed organization” both to draw people into existing housing organizations and to form something wholly new. But more importantly, what it has the potential to do is to kick start a tenant-focused housing movement, one that was sorely missed with the foreclosure-centered housing actions that came out of the financial crisis. Today, many of our major cities are becoming unlivable for those on limited incomes, and the time has come to take our neighborhoods back. Today, we started by simply talking to each other. Now we have the relationships we need to move things from the conference rooms into the streets.