Tenant Organization in a Pandemic: Housing insecurity highlights the importance of tenants organizations.

The Covid-19 pandemic has undeniably changed the way of life for all, and put millions of American’s in a struggling position. It has taken away opportunities, jobs and in the case of many, homes. In the past two months of March and April, over 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment, according to The New York Times.

The struggles of job loss coupled with a pandemic have put many in a less than ideal financial situation, and the choice between paying for rent or groceries has even become a new reality for some. As shelter-in-place orders continue in many counties, having a place to call home is more important now than ever before. 

With these struggles, however, comes hope in the form of organizations whose focus is to support and empower. Tenants Together is a coalition of tenants rights groups across California state. This non-profit organization was founded in 2008 and is dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of California tenants. In this troubling time, the organization has been using its platform to help and support tenants impacted by the pandemic.

Help from the government is present, but not exactly plentiful. California Governor Gavin Newsom has taken some steps to support tenants who cannot afford rent—most significantly by calling an eviction freeze for the months of April and May. While this is a step in the right direction, Eduardo Torres, Northern California Regional Coordinator of Tenants Together, argues it is not enough. 

“What they need to do now is have a complete freeze on rents and a complete freeze on mortgages,” Torres says. “We don’t want folks having debt after this pandemic is over.”

As the eviction freeze only covers the months of April and May, people who haven’t been able to keep up with rent in these months would be in debt and at risk of eviction. 

“You’re putting the families in the position to owe back rent in a couple of months and go through the eviction process once the court’s open again.”

Eduardo Torres, Northern California Regional Coordinator of Tenants Together

“We need a real strong moratorium, eviction moratorium, which Gavin Newsom hasn’t done,” Torres says. “That just really just doesn’t really do a lot for folks because you’re putting the families in the position to owe back rent in a couple of months and go through the eviction process once the court’s open again.”

Tenants Together has been taking steps to educate renters, having created a Coronavirus Resource Guide for California tenants. This guide includes information about tenants rights, unemployment information, financial assistance information and more. However, despite online resources, organizing during the pandemic has proven difficult due to social distancing guidelines and shelter in place orders. 

“We do a lot of our base-building face to face with people,” Torres says. “Not being able to have those meetings in person has been a strain because we can’t do traditional organizing at this point.”

In addition to providing support and information to tenants, the organization is also calling for a rent cancellation due to the global health crisis. The demands include that “any mortgage relief/deferment must include corresponding rent suspension for tenants.”

The goal of cancelling rent would not just be to benefit the renters, but bring attention to a decades-long housing crisis, of income inequality and class struggle, which has only been amplified by the pandemic. 

“We’re looking at a perfect example of how a housing system built around capitalism… and commodified housing doesn’t work.”

Eduardo Torres, Northern California Regional Coordinator of Tenants Together

“The housing crisis is much bigger than people want to admit,” Torres says. “We’re looking at a perfect example of how a housing system built around capitalism… and commodified housing doesn’t work.”

A huge part of what Tenants Together does is train people in how to build a tenants union. Building a union in your community provides people with support and a platform to solve issues.

Torres urges tenants to build a tenants coalition in their community, and use their platform in their favor. Knowing their rights, tenants have the ability to stand against their landlord. 

“It’s a best practice… if you live in a building, to form a tenants union, even if it’s just to build community.”

Eduardo Torres, Northern California Regional Coordinator of Tenants Together

“It’s important for renters, now more than ever, to know their rights, to exert their rights to really agitate and if they have to litigate against their landlords,” Torres says. “It’s always important to even have that type of protection, even though you might not be faced with a certain dilemma at the moment. It’s a best practice… if you live in a building, to form a tenants union, even if it’s just to build community.”