The number of friends who’ve reached out to me this week asking me what to do if they can’t pay their rent is devastating.
I’m devastated, because I don’t have a good answer for them.
The eviction moratorium in San Francisco will prevent my friends from being displaced if they miss rent during the COVID-19 state of emergency, but afterwards tenants are legally responsible for paying rent back. And when you’ve been out of work for months, how can you do that?
Our government has failed us. The only choice left is for tenants to join together and fight back.
No one knows this story better than the tenants of San Francisco’s biggest landlord, Veritas Investments.
For years, Veritas tenants have alleged they’ve been subject to harassment at the hands of their corporate landlord. Starting in 2016, the tenants worked with the Housing Rights Committee (HRC) to form their own union.
Lenea Maibum is one of the founding members of the Veritas Tenants Association.
“When HRC first door-knocked my building I didn’t know I had rights as a tenant,” Maibum said.
Paul Rose, a spokesperson for Veritas Investments, told me that unionized or not, Veritas takes the concerns of their tenants very seriously.
“We work directly with our residents and through our ombudsperson to quickly resolve resident issues when they arise and have also worked with HRC in the past to address resident concerns,” Rose said.
Regardless, the first tenants association meeting Maibum attended had 12 attendees. Today there are over 600 tenants on the association mailing list living in 115 different Veritas-owned buildings.
The same way that employees have more power to challenge their boss in numbers, tenants can team up to exert more influence over their landlord. This is demonstrated by the wins the Veritas Tenants Association has recorded thus far. To date, the tenants association has won 7% rent rollbacks in 34 buildings citywide. Individual tenants have successfully fought pass-through rent increases and eviction notices with the help of the union.
Since the advent of the pandemic, the group has been calling for their landlord to forgive rent payments entirely while the state remains in a state of emergency.
“If you can’t pay your rent in April, you can’t pay your rent in May,” said Veritas Tenants Association member Madelyn McMillian. “Who’s to say that you’re going to be employed or be able to come up with three months worth of rent at one time?”
Nathan Eisenberg, a member of Oakland-based tenants union Tenants and Neighborhood Councils (TANC), says collective action is necessary to respond to the crisis at hand.
“Say there’s a group of tenants, two out of ten of them are definitely not going to make rent, but the other eight can,” Eisenberg said. “It makes sense for those eight to use their rent money to make a demand that the landlord not evict or endebt those two tenants who can’t make rent.”
Fellow TANC member Rosa Pergams agrees.
“We know that our landlords, politicians, bosses—they have their own organizations they use to get what they want,” said Pergams. “So we need to organize ourselves.”
Eisenberg and Pergams told me they’ve seen more tenants resorting to radical tactics like rent strikes this month out of necessity. In response, TANC released an organizing guide online and posted a form on their website where people can reach out to them for help.
Eisenberg sees labor organizing and tenants organizing as intimately connected.
“Workers are exploited at work and then they go home, and they don’t own their home either,” Eisenberg said. “I see them as the two most significant terrains of conflict in capitalism.”
Though there are strong parallels between labor unions and tenants unions, tenants unions are substantially less resourced. Today, labor unions are an institutionalized part of American politics. Politicians, at least in the Democratic Party, seek out endorsements from union leadership and consult them when writing policy.
But tenants don’t have a voice in either the Democratic or Republican Party. Over 25% of representatives in the California legislature are themselves landlords, according to a 2019 investigation by CALMatters. While early half of Californians rent their homes, only one California legislator is a renter.
In California, tenants are not even guaranteed the right to organize without retaliation. Senate Bill 529, which would have guaranteed tenants the right to organize and engage in rent strikes failed to pass the legislature last year. The author of the bill, state Sen. Maria Durazo, is trying again this year with Senate Bill 1404.
The scanty relief politicians have offered tenants amidst this crisis is proof that we can’t rely on the legislature alone to solve our problems.
Tenants need to get organized, and we need to stay organized. Only through both labor and tenant power can we build an equitable future for the working class.
Sasha Perigo is a data scientist and fair housing advocate writing about the San Francisco housing crisis. You can follow her on Twitter at @sashaperigo. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.