Liza Featherstone

Rent Strikes with Liza Featherstone and Tenants United Corvallis

Two part episode on Laborwave. Our first segment features tenant organizers Kali Doten & Travis Whitehead from Tenants United Corvallis, a committee within the Mid-Valley IWW. They speak about localized efforts to scale up a rent strike and the ensuing challenges in organizing amid the existing pandemic and social distancing. 

 

We follow that segment with a conversation with Liza Featherstone, a journalist and journalism professor whose work focuses on labor struggles and student activism and has been featured in The Nation and Jacobin. Her recent piece for Jacobin, On Strike- No Rent, serves as the baseline for our discussion. 

 

Contact Tenants United Corvallis at midvalleyiww.org

Read the piece from Liza Featherstone at On Strike- No Rent

Full Transcript

Laborwave:

As a way of beginning, I'm hoping that the two of you can introduce yourselves and talk a little bit about the Tenants United Corvallis (TUC). What is TUC and what you are trying to accomplish right now?

 

Kali Doten:

My name's Kali and I'm a tenant here in Corvallis, Oregon and a member of Tenants United Corvallis. And I'll let Travis explain what that is.

 

Travis Whitehead:

Hi, my name is Travis. I live here in Corvallis, Oregon. I am also a tenant. I've been living here for a couple of years and renting the whole time, because who can afford a house here? Tenants United Corvallis is a tenants union. I believe we formed maybe around two years ago. A tenants union is basically a group of tenants or renters, it's comparable to the idea of a labor union, but what we have in common is that we're all renting. So the idea is that by working together as a union, we can build power for tenants and solve some of the housing issues here in Corvallis.

 

Laborwave:

I want to hear more about those housing issues, because as you just said in passing, who could afford to buy a house here? What is the situation in terms of housing in the Corvallis and Oregon area?

 

Travis Whitehead:

I mean I think the biggest issue that people have is just that it's so expensive. Corvallis is a college town where Oregon State University is, and people would say that there's a shortage of housing. I don't know if I particularly believe that the issue is a shortage as much as the market and the landlords will decide how much people have to pay. It's all about profits. So the biggest issue is that it's just so fucking expensive to live here. But there's also a lot of issues around people not having agency over their homes, dealing with shady landlords that take advantage of them or don't want to actually do repairs. I don't know, Kali, do you think there's anything that I'm missing as far as general overview?

 

Kali Doten:

Yeah, I think that a lot of management companies and property owners take advantage of the fact that so many renters in Corvallis are students and probably assume that they don't know what their rights are as renters. Just basic repairs and things that need to be done and kept up in rentals. There's the whole range from the management companies that are definitely like slumlords here and then you have people who own maybe one or two properties and consider themselves to be the good landlords that take care of their tenants. But of course when you ask the tenants, that's usually not the case.

 

Travis Whitehead:

Absolutely, what you said about taking advantage of folks who don't know about renting. Like when I moved to Corvallis, it was my first time renting. I had lived with my family up until then. I didn't know how any of that shit works. Like how do you decide where to move in? How do you go through all that paperwork? How do you make sure you get your deposit back? I remember one experience--I moved into an apartment, and it was bought out by another property management company [during my lease], and thankfully my roommate was more on top of this than I was, but we documented all the shit that was fucked up about this apartment when we moved in, and we weren't sure that those documents were going to make it over to the new property management company. And so she actually asked like, Hey, do we have to do anything to make sure that y'all know that all the shit was broken before we moved in or are you going to steal our deposits?

They actually wanted us to resubmit the paperwork and re-document everything all over again because they didn't get that paperwork handed off. I can only think that some of our neighbors didn't know they had to do that, which regrettably, I wish I was having more conversations with them at that time. But it's all those traps that you can fall into where they'll try to steal all your fucking deposit money. So many people coming out of high school or renting for the first time--you just kind of jump right in and you get taken advantage of.

 

Laborwave:

So for Tenants United Corvallis the organization has been really fully participating and trying to organize a rent strike locally. I want to hear a little bit more about that. But in particular, I'm hoping that you all can highlight the differences in organizing a rent strike, or at least the immediate challenges that you experienced, in a town the size of Corvallis versus a place like New York City where a lot of attention has been spent on rent strikes, focus on that kind of urban environment. So what is it like organizing a rent strike in this local environment?

 

Kali Doten:

When we were first talking about it, we were worried that we may not be able to gain much momentum in the area. It was unclear how to sort of target specific areas, especially because a lot of the people who are currently active in Tenants United Corvallis don't necessarily rent in the large apartment complexes around here. So there were definitely in the beginning, we were trying to think how can we strategize to fit the needs of this town, and it started out really quick. We were just like, okay, we're going to do this and let's write up some materials, put some language up and make sure we have a nice website and everything that people can go to. And let's just start like going out and canvassing. So we were putting flyers up all over. We focused on apartment complexes so that we could try and make sure that we were actually reaching people who rent rather than own their own home.

And then we were just sort of waiting to see if we would get responses because we made sure we had our contact information on there, and using our own personal connections to ask our comrades to also strike with us. So there were big pushes at the beginning of each month, beginning of April and May, to just try and get as many flyers out as we could. And we tried to keep social distancing measures because of the pandemic, so we essentially were just putting things on people's front doorsteps, trying not to compromise anybody's health in that way. So that's one of the strategies that we've had.

 

Travis Whitehead:

Yeah, it was kind of an interesting circumstance to have to adapt to, because over the past two years we've been doing more door knocking, just knocking on people's doors and having conversations with tenants trying to figure out what kind of issues they were facing, and that kind of way of operating is totally not possible right now, because you don't want to be knocking on people's doors. They probably don't want to open the door and have a conversation with you. Maybe with a healthy distance in the parking lot or something. But yeah, it's different because we have to leave letters and put other ways for people to find us and contact us. We can't just start a conversation. They need to at least take some steps to reach out for that conversation to happen.

 

Laborwave:

Since Corvallis is not an area that has a lot of these large apartment complexes--there's just not a real lot of density in the area in a place like you would have in New York City--who would become the targets of a rent strike? As it sounds like you might have to kind of adapt and adjust on those terms too?

 

Travis Whitehead:

It's definitely easier if you have a massive apartment complex and you can just go from floor to floor and door to door. You can cover more ground a lot faster. Corvallis is a little bit more spread out, so there are some big apartment complexes, but there's also, we're going on foot so there's just more walking and we cover less ground. I think Kali you mentioned that we were often focusing on apartment complexes because we knew that those people were all renters. It's also totally fine that we've just been leaving stuff on people's houses too, because if someone happens to own a house and they get a letter about a rent strike, maybe they're not renting, but they might still be excited to hear about that, reach out to the union and help build the strike. And we've also been encouraging homeowners to join in solidarity in the form of a mortgage strike or you just don't pay your mortgage.

 

Kali Doten:

To add to that, we were thinking that potentially it would be best to focus on specific property management companies. There's this company called Duerksen, which has I'd say the majority of the rental properties in town. So we were also considering, okay, how can we focus on their properties specifically and try and get as many renters under Duerksen to strike so that it actually puts pressure on that management company itself. As we went along we sort of adapted our strategies and what we were demanding. It became clear that we needed to bring the mortgage holders along as well, like Travis was saying. So it started out being more geared towards renters and saying strike, and here's our demands. But then we realized, okay, well the demands aren't necessarily clear that we are trying to pressure these companies, these management companies and property owners to then pressure governments to have a rent cancellation and mortgage cancellation during the pandemic.

 

Laborwave:

Can you speak a little bit more about the demands? So what exactly are the demands that you all are trying to issue? And Kali, as you were saying, you are trying to leverage them at the local level and then scale them up at the state and national level. Can you talk a little bit more about those demands and the strategy to accomplish them?

 

Kali Doten:

One of our demands is that we want rent to be canceled. We're part of a national movement. So ideally that would be a national rent cancellation during the pandemic, and there is differing language across multiple campaigns for rent strike across the nation. We are demanding that we have two months leeway after the pandemic ends, whatever that looks like for people to be able to return to work and save money to be able to afford rent.

 

Travis Whitehead:

Maybe this goes without saying, it might seem obvious but the reason that we're demanding this is because people are losing their jobs and losing their income during this pandemic. And what that means is that their landlords have the ability to evict them for non-payments. And so we want to ensure that people don't have to pay rent in the coming months until they can return to that stability and security, and we're also demanding that there's no backpay. They shouldn't accumulate thousands and thousands of dollars in debt and be expected to set up a payment plan or take out a loan to pay that back. There should be no rent owed and no backpay owed.

 

Kali Doten:

Yeah, we're recognizing that at this time there are more pressing needs. You need to be able to feed yourself, medical care, taking care of your family and your communities. People shouldn't have to choose, ever, but especially during a time when millions of lives are at stake, shouldn't have to choose between feeding themselves or housing themselves.

 

Laborwave:

What has been some of the response and feedback with local tenants in the area when you've been able to have some conversations about the rent strike? Like as you were saying before, some of this stuff seems obvious like you have to state the facts of like, this is a pandemic, people shouldn't have to be these choices imposed upon them, but obviously that's not the ideological pool that we swim in. So what has been the response when you start talking about rent strikes and how have tenants been responding to these calls?

 

Travis Whitehead:

I would say that some of the responses from tenants have been really positive. I remember back in March before we had decided--our rent strike started on April 1st, and in late March was when we decided to start organizing this--and I remember just seeing a post on a local subreddit located about Corvallis or Oregon State University, I forget, which in someone was asking, is there a rent strike here in Corvallis and if so how can I help? And just seeing people who were not organizing around housing, not involved in our tenants union asking about a rent strike made me feel like there was, people in the community were saying that there was a need for this. And I recall other members of our union mentioned that when they were distributing those letters to our neighbors calling for people to join the strike, they would actually bump into people and have a conversation across the parking lot and some tenants were like--they saw the letter and they were really happy that we were out there doing that. But of course there's also all of the stuff where people are like, what about the small landlords? Aren't we hurting our landlords? And narratives like that we kind of have to engage in conversation and talk about what this actually means for landlords. And it's really not as bad as people want to make it out to be.

 

Kali Doten:

Watching social media, people's reaction on that because there was actually after the first phase of the flyering that we did, somebody actually posted on the Corvallis People page, so it's like a big Facebook page where a lot of residents of this town follow it, right, it's a big group? And so somebody actually posted a photo of the flyer and this person was chastising it, right, like 'you should not strike, if you can pay rent.' Like, 'this is so irresponsible.' But it ended up getting, probably I would say the most interaction that a post ever had on that website. I don't know for sure, or on that page, but there are close to 800 comments. And there was a mixture. It was a mixture of people being pro rent strike, people saying what Travis said that like, 'Oh, these poor small landlords, you're only hurting them as well.'

But you know, in that time we were also learning, well actually even the smaller landlords, they have a lot more protections they always have lot more power than renters do. So financially they had more protection. They have more protections during this time to defer their mortgage payments and write off missed rent at the end of the year and get a tax refund for that. As renters we just have like zero resources. It was hard to not engage on that post and it was difficult to see other people engaging, but I just kept trying to focus it on, 'Hey, if you want to participate, if you need to participate, this is how you get a hold of us.' And just tried to stay out of the whole argument. But that's also something that we're trying to continue to provide resources on is here are the ways that people who actually own the property can keep themselves afloat during this time more so than renters can.

 

Laborwave:

Earlier in the conversation we were talking about how a tenants union operates in a similar way as a labor union. I want to focus a little bit more on that. What are the similarities and differences, because it's hard for me as a labor organizer to kind of wrap my head around the tactics and the weapons that are available for tenants in leveraging concessions from landlords and the landlord class as it's maybe easier to identify those targets when you're talking about a workplace. So where do you see some of the approaches to organizing as similar and where do you see the challenge as really different and maybe even more challenging or more complex?

 

Travis Whitehead:

I would say that there are some parallels between labor organizing and tenants organizing. You know, like if you form a labor union for your workplace, generally you, you have a, you have your power, which is that you can choose not to work, you can go on strike and you use that power to bargain and negotiate with your boss to get better wins for workers. And tenants organizing can be similar. You can organize everyone in a building or you can organize people under a specific property manager like Duerksen. And the power that tenants wield is that we are paying for their investments. We're paying for them to buy these homes. We're basically lining their pockets. But if we disrupt that flow of capital, we say we're not going to pay rent until you solve our problems, then we can get them to actually listen to us.

And I would say that some of the differences is that it can be a little bit different in how you actually get in touch with people and organize. Like if you, you know, if we all work in the same place, you already have some relationships and networks with the people in your workplace, you show up and you see them every day. But when you're organizing tenants under, let's say Duerksen Property Managements, those could be people spread out all over different properties all across town. And although it's pretty doable to start with your neighbors and start with the people in your building, there's also people that you probably have had no contact with but you're going to want to reach. And there are some strategies to work around that. It's like a lot of public information about the ownership of properties for like tax assessment databases and if you know your property or if you know your landlord's name or you look it up by plugging in your address, you can actually discover what other buildings are owned by the same people. And that's, that's like one place to start.

 

Kali Doten:

Yeah. And I actually definitely see more similarities than differences with labor and tenant organizing. I have experience as a labor organizer and as a member of labor unions. And then also, you know, as a tenant my entire life as well. And there are some differences in that like it isn't, you know, a specific employer that's being targeted. It is multiple management companies, multiple property owners like Travis mentioned. But as far as like the actual conditions and how the organizing happens I think is very similar to labor organizing because you need to be able to find the people that you want to talk to. So find renters in town and that's similar to a workplace, right? You need to be able to identify who those people are, who the workers are. So identify who the renters are and the differences in like working conditions for different people in say you know, university, right?

So you have a broad range of people, that are like faculty and they all have different working conditions, particularly segued into their own departments and things like that. And then also the whole hierarchical structure of universities. You have research faculty and then you have tenured professors. So that is also similar to renters where you have people who maybe are facing issues with their landlords that are like really egregious. They're just like living under really poor conditions and dealing with like real jerks. Right? And then you have people who may have better relationships with their landlords and better housing and all that kind of stuff. And so I don't know, again, I think it's like similar in the ways that you can kind of frame how you need to speak to people, how you need to identify the issues that people have and then having that organizing conversation where you're still trying to allow people to realize their power and harness it and figure out how to work together to make things happen.

 

Laborwave:

It sounds like you're both saying in some ways the terrain is maybe different, but the methods and the methodology for victory is very much the same. Considering the pandemic that we're in, considering the certain unknowns that are in front of us, but obviously a lot of valid predictions that we're going to have multiple waves of this pandemic. How confident are you currently in succeeding in your demands and having some victories on the level of rent strikes?

 

Kali Doten:

For me, it depends on the scale that we're looking at. It has been difficult to organize at a large scale in Corvallis, particularly because of the reasons we stated before. It's a college town, a lot of the students actually left once university stopped having in person classes and you know, just sort of less high density housing makes it harder to organize, you know, successfully for targets of like specific management companies, things like that.

I'm always trying to remember that this is tied to a national call of rent strike. So for me it's less about, okay, how, how successful are we in Corvallis particularly and more about, okay, how can we continue to be tied to what's going on in Portland at this time because it seems to be more successes happening there. How are we tied to New York, right? It's always trying to remember that this is not like a myopic thing and that solidarity actions matter and that, you know, the people that are striking here in Corvallis are realizing their power. We're gaining a membership into Tenants United Corvallis because of this. People are realizing, Oh, there is a tenants union in this town. And I think a lot of people are realizing that because of the pandemic and government's responses to it, that we really have to put things in our own hands. And like take control of our lives, you know, those are the kinds of successes that I see locally. Nationally.

 

Travis Whitehead:

Yeah. I think if we look at it so narrowly, that if victory means our specific demands are met, then we're not looking at it the right way. I think there's a lot of different forms of victories and like, sure, maybe that bill that Omar proposed to cancel rent, maybe that'll get passed and that would be awesome. But there's different paths towards canceling rents. You know, like us striking in Corvallis and all these other cities across the US, if that creates enough upward pressure on the state and on the banks to actually take some kind of widespread action, that would be one form of victory. Another form of victory could be organizing a specific building and having that building work with their landlord or property manager and get the people with direct power over them to say, okay, you don't have to pay rent.

You don't owe any more rents. The possible victories that I see I think are most important is keeping people in their homes. You know, like regardless of the whole rent, whether it's canceled technically or not. If we can fight with people who are being threatened with evictions for not being able to pay and we can stir up enough trouble that the landlords will back down and say, okay, I'm not going to evict you because you can't pay, that's a very real victory, because we're actually defending the people in our communities and ourselves. And even just like the little victories, like just having conversations with someone who then messages our Facebook page and just letting them tell us about what they're facing and talking about how we can support them and them just saying that they feel they feel supported and they feel less alone.

That's a victory to me. So there's thousands of possible victories and I think we are achieving little ones all the time. And I think maybe we could achieve some bigger ones, but the demands are just, you know, that's the ideal that we're striving for. And like, like Kali said, we're, we're building power as we go through this, regardless of whether we've met our demands or not. Our union is becoming bigger, more people are getting plugged in and actually pitching in time and energy to build power for tenants. And so this is going to be a lasting institution, this tenants union that is going to continue to fight for tenants hopefully into the far future.

 

Laborwave:

Well, until there is no more rent, right? And we abolish the landlord class.

Travis Whitehead:

Hell yeah.

Kali Doten:

You know, you mentioned multiple waves of the coronavirus, reinfection and things like that, especially with states now trying to reopen the economy, whatever that means. And you know, that's happening here in Oregon. And so we will most likely see a resurgence of this outbreak. And then, you know, people will be out of work again, right? People that are now trying to go back to work, going to put people out of work again. And so it's hard to tell like how long this will be going on. But like Travis said, you know, we're going to start focusing on making sure that people aren't actually removed from their homes, that they aren't evicted. And that I think is important.

 

Laborwave:

How can our listeners in the local area plug into Tenants United Corvallis? Are there ways to contact and get engaged in the rent strike? And how can listeners outside of the area plug into the national rent strike going on?

 

Travis Whitehead:

To plug into Tenants United Corvallis, there's a couple of ways that you can do that. You can shoot us an email at tenantsunited@riseup.nets, or you can go to our website tenantsunitedcorvallis.org. On our website there's a pledge form which is pledging to join the rent strike. Regardless of whether you're using that to say you're joining the rent strike, it'll also shoot a message to us. So if you just want to get in touch with us, that's one way to do it. I believe our email address is also on our website. We also have a Facebook page, Tenants United Corvallis, who you can shoot a message to. There's a number of ways. I think we have a Twitter too. And in terms of broader rent strike movements, I'd say just start by searching online to see if there is a tendency union or a rent strike or some kind of housing advocacy and support group in your town and get in touch, see what's happening, see what kind of help they need to further their organizing and further the power that they have in whatever place they are.

And you could even start a tenants union in your town if one doesn't already exist.

 

Laborwave:

Well, with that, I really appreciate both your time, Kali and Travis from Tenants United Corvallis and good luck scaling up the rent strike. Hope we have you again soon.

Kali Doten:

Thank you so much, Alex.

Travis Whitehead:

Yeah, thanks for having us.

Laborwave:

Our second segment is a conversation with Eliza Featherstone, a journalist and journalism professor who writes frequently on labor and student activism for the Nation and Jacobin. She recently penned the piece for Jacobin Magazine on strike, "No Rent," which serves as the basis for our discussion.

Laborwave:

Okay. So you wrote an article that was launched on May Day for Jacobin about rent strikes being organized in New York City. I'm curious if you have any kind of information or updates about how successful has that strike been, or do we even know how many people meaningfully participated in it versus those that were just beholden to not being able to pay rent?

 

Liza Featherstone:

I mean, it's fascinating. I don't think that people really do have any idea how many people participated in the rent strike in New York City, and I suspect that's similar for rent strikes going on elsewhere. As you suggest so many people just can't pay rent and by calling a rent strike in this moment what the organizers are trying to do is invite all of those people who can't pay rent into a political act, and by calling attention to it in that way, it shows a strength in numbers and a hope for political pressure. Particularly political pressure on governor Andrew Cuomo, who is the only person who has the power in the city to actually change the situation. Some people are striking against their individual landlords hoping to get some leniency, and that's great. And I think people will have some success in that.

 

But to change the situation as a whole, only Cuomo can cancel rent as the hashtag is for everybody, which would help them to not put this pressure on the tenants. So he really is the person at the top controls this situation. As far as impact, Governor Cuomo did extend the eviction moratorium. There was already in place a moratorium on on evictions. He extended that. That's disappointing for the striking tenants because it's not the same as canceling rent. Like it just kind of kicks the can down the road and means that you will still have to pay rent later which could really create a crisis of indebtedness for a lot of people. However, him doing that does suggest he fell a little tiny bit of pressure. And so the idea, I assume from the movement would be to escalate that pressure and get more concessions.

 

Laborwave:

So I was curious about, because in your article for Jacobin you mentioned that Cuomo is really the prime target, like the main person that people are targeting. What are the specific demands that they are pushing? Because like you said, moratorium is not sufficient and probably the existing protections that currently exist are also not sufficient. So what are they actually pushing for?

 

Liza Featherstone:

Their real demand is to cancel rent, to say that rent doesn't have to be paid during this period. Not to say you don't have to pay rent now--just to say no for this period. There is no rent. And interestingly--I mean the real estate industry, they're pressuring Cuomo too, because they're seeing that people can't pay rent and they want a bail-out from him of some kind because of the growing strength of the left of the affordable housing movement in New York, which is stronger than it has been in many years.

You know, if this were happening a few years ago, before we had a socialist in the state Senate, before we had a thriving DSA chapter, before we had so many tenants organizations--if this were happening a few years ago, he just would have bailed out the real estate industry and let the tenants starve in the street. But I think the political climate has changed enough that it would be very awkward for him to do that at this point. And not to mention we're really in a very exceptional situation with the Coronavirus, and with unemployment worse than the Great Depression, and real estate being such a powerful piece of political capital in New York state, but suddenly an unsustainable one, as so many people, just lack income. I mean, it's really a combination of, good for the left for having built a little bit of power to be prepared for this moment. But wow. What a moment. I'm trying to think of some metaphor that those TV pundits use. It's a tinderbox.

 

Laborwave:

Well, I want to hear more about your thoughts on this, because in your article you mentioned some of the political leverage that's potentially available to us right now. One of the things is that the real estate industry in general has become pretty easy to villainize, which is good. And I think about that. Like Donald Trump is a big slum lord, right? So probably the most unpopular person in the country is a big slumlord. This is a good opportunity. But what leverage do we really have right now against the landlord class?

 

Liza Featherstone:

Right now specifically I think that the more enlightened parts of the capitalist class--and we'll see to which group of these Governor Cuomo belongs--are realizing that homelessness is a major vector for disease right now. I mean, if all of a sudden you know, people who a couple months ago had nice jobs working in the advertising industry and now are homeless and more vulnerable to Coronavirus are making it more difficult for us to move past this public health crisis, I think that that has to have occurred to them, and if not, we need to be reminding them every second that, you know, more homelessness is going to add to the public health crisis. And I also think in terms of leverage, the real estate industry can't make profits if people can't pay rent. It's a crisis for the banking industry if people can't pay their mortgages. I think that in New York state right now it would probably be political suicide to bail out those industries without providing some relief to tenants and small homeowners. I mean, I think Governor Cuomo is terrible, so let me not imply that I have faith in him that he's going to do the right thing. This is somebody who, as the bodies piled up throughout New York City, cut the hospital budget. You know, as tents were erected in Central Park because of a lack of hospital capacity, he cut the hospital budget.

So it's not that I think that we can count on him to do the right thing. But I do think that the pressure's on the capitalists. I think we'll create pressures on him and there's really no other solution to the capitalist problem other than to get relief from Cuomo. And at some level I think it's politically unsustainable for him to do that without some relief to tenants. It's very interesting because I'm kind of an old socialist, I've been a socialist for many decades, and we always used to say around New York City, you know, all of us old socialists would always say, "It's very nice you have these liberal politicians. As long as they're taking money from the real estate industry, nothing will change."

Which back then sounded like this sort of cranky thing that old socialists would say. But it was true, like many cranky things that old socialists say. People could have figured this out in the last few years, that you have to completely mistrust and treat as antagonists any politicians that are taking money from the real estate industry because it is the root of basically bourgeois politics in New York City. And once you stop doing that, stop treating any of those people as if they're on your side and start developing your own political capacities independent of that industry, we have seen that some things can happen. A few years ago--no, not even a few years ago, last year--everything seems like so long ago because we were in our houses all the time--last year, New York state was able to to get the most comprehensive and far-reaching tenant protections that we've gotten for years.

It was the first time in many decades that any progress had been made on that issue. I mean, just year after year, tenants were asked to suck up the high cost of living in New York City. And it was just seen as, "If you don't like it, move," basically. And while I'm looking at my window right now, we've got all this useless luxury housing, you know, they're just going up all over the city and it's so parasitical. It just doesn't address the housing needs of the vast majority, so we've got to keep fighting him.

Laborwave:

I recall this consistently quoted line that David Harvey likes to use from Engels about how the capitalist class doesn't have the ability to solve its crisis, it only has the ability to move it around, which I think is a pretty powerful summary of what housing looks like here.

Liza Featherstone:

And so many things. It's a really great piece of analysis right there. You could say the same thing about the environmental crisis, although I sincerely hope not 'cause we do need them to solve that now. But you know, I mean you do say the same thing about social reproduction. The care of children, you know, whatever. All of those things--capitalism can barely even move that around.

Laborwave:

I wonder about not just New York City, but places like San Francisco and Oregon, where there's a statewide housing crisis. That's all the time. Like everybody's getting priced out everywhere. And I've had those moments of wondering, how can capitalists even think this works? Don't they need a workforce to live in some place to produce their profits? And then I realize, like you mention in your article, this isn't a crisis for them, right? The indebtedness that they can impose upon people, capturing people in debt for the rest of their lives totally works for them.

Liza Featherstone:

It does, but David Harvey is correct too because it will work for them in a way, but it isn't really good for this system. I mean, if people are indebted, that will be a real drag on the economy. People can't consume and invest in, and buy their own homes. And all of these things sort of drive a capitalist economy and indebtedness is actually kind of a drag on capitalism. But it is one of many ways that capitalism doesn't provide for its own future. I read this recently; there was some Marxist political economist named James O'Connor who wrote about it. This is sort of similar to the David Harvey quote you just cited. He wrote about how capitalism tends to work against its own future and even its own present. It tends to work against itself. It ravages the very things that it needs to keep going, like land, clean air, clean water. It makes a process of life-giving and parenthood, the raising of future workers--it vastly complicates and interferes with all of these things. So yeah, it is kind of amazing that capitalism manages to keep going [laughter] because it's got so much going against it just on its own terms, not even all the cruelties and miseries it inflicts on all of us as workers. It is always sort of in tension with what it needs. Landlords now don't care what happens to tenants, they don't care that these people will become indebted and be a drag toward future landlords and capitalists making profits. They're only concerned about the short term. However, if tenants can't pay rent, they've got a short term problem too. So that's where tenants and landlords both have a problem. It does offer some potential to reach some kind of political confrontation and possible progress.

Laborwave:

So what are the weapons that the landlord class? Because we were talking a little bit about the leverage that might be available to the left right now. What weapons do our enemies have? I'm sorry, I don't mean to be so hyperbolic. Actually, wait, no--they are our enemies.

Liza Featherstone:

Some of them are very nice people I'm sure. But they are the class enemies in a structural sense.

Laborwave:

Yeah. Okay. So what weapons do our enemies have, specifically the landlord class, against us right now?

Liza Featherstone:

Interestingly, some of those weapons are a little complicated for them. Normally they would have eviction, but there is an eviction moratorium in New York and once the moratorium is lifted, they will presumably have eviction again as a weapon and they will have housing court as a weapon. However, the mechanisms of that will be vastly complicated because there will be so many cases overloading the housing court. You could imagine a situation where it could just be so overloaded that the system might just have to declare, "This isn't going to work, we can't get through all these cases." That's one way in which the usual weapons that they have might be disabled. Normally they also can call upon the cops to turn you out of your home. But that's going to be very difficult at scale if this is really happening to nearly everybody. That's going to be that's going to be difficult, especially with the police force having to deal with the normal things that they have to deal with. But I think the housing court is going to be very overcrowded and in terms of weapons, I think they are going to be a bit weakened, so that too adds some potential to the situation.

Laborwave:

I'm curious if you know how the landlord class is embedded in the state. I imagine in New York there's probably a whole host of subsidies that the landmark class profits from. Maybe even historical bailouts that I'm not aware of. But are there any of these ways that they're enmeshed in state powers that also give them more weapons?

Liza Featherstone:

Deeply. One of the most significant things is the big landlord class. The big landlords and developers give huge amounts of political donations to democratic politicians in New York. So that's why those of us old socialists always said, "Bill DeBlasio is not really going to be able to be that progressive." Because he may talk about the two New Yorks and say all these nice things about the 99%, but he is such a thorough creation, in campaign finance terms, of the real estate industry. He won't really be able to do much that is progressive. We were kind of right and kind of wrong about that. He has done some good things, but we were completely right in terms of housing and those sorts of material issues.

Liza Featherstone:

That's kind of the main way, is they embed themselves in the state through campaign donations and thus make any kind of legislation that's not in their interests really difficult. But that's something that has started to change. I feel a little embarrassed because there's a lot of people that know a lot more about this than I do. But there is a rent guidelines board that is very powerful and sort of sets the terms of like how often rent can be raised on whom, and that's something that has historically been very controlled by the landlord class and is really important. It has a lot of power. So that's another way that their interests are embedded in the state.

Laborwave:

I've been wondering about organizing rent strikes and organizing as a tenant class as opposed to organizing workplaces. Because from my own local experience, I've attempted to participate in some tenant organizing and it seemed really hard to translate the practices and the kind of weapons that you have in the workplace to the scale of rent against landlords because it is so embedded and enmeshed in the state. So I'm wondering, what thoughts do you have about the separateness between that style of organizing versus more classical labor organizing.

Liza Featherstone:

You're right, your leverage is a bit different. Your leverage as a tenant over a landlord is different than your leverage as a worker over a capitalist. If you as a worker organize your follow workers and go out on strike, your capitalist--your bosses--can't make profits. If you're very replaceable they can maybe bring in scabs, but you've created a huge problem for them by walking out on strike. You've created a momentary crisis of profitability that can often be resolved in your favor. That's the beauty of the strike. And with individual buildings and landlords it can typically work in a similar way. Very often the rent strike is used to say we have no heat in the winter, or there are rats and the landlord hasn't addressed the rat. Something has made your living conditions really untenable. And by withdrawing your rent, you create a crisis of profitability for your landlord that can be resolved in your favor. They can turn the heat back on, they can get rid of the rat.

Liza Featherstone:

But this is a bit different. This is not a situation where your landlord can provide something to you and then begin to make profits again, cheerfully. This is actually a situation in which the demand is to not pay rent. You're right to have identified that as being pretty different than a labor strike because you're asking the landlord class to be flexible with the tenant class and not require rent. But that is a demand that leaves them with no profits in sight. That's a lot bigger of an ask than, can you get the rats out of the building, and it lacks that kind of resolution, the appeal of resolution for them. There's no reason why the landlord class would accommodate that, except en masse. So many people are experiencing this problem that it is a political problem. You know, they're organizing as a class too. They have demands on the governor as well, so it's not analogous to a typical labor strike. It's more like what happens when people organize to create a broader political crisis and make a big demand on the state.

Laborwave:

That's what I think about too. Really what it's poised to do is create structural changes. The resolution would be a fundamental shift of how the system works. For me, it becomes a little overwhelming when you think about the prospects there. I keep going back to the--and I'm sure people keep feeding it to me as well--the Rosa Luxemburg line of "it's socialism or barbarism."

Liza Featherstone:

Yeah, I think it is. Certainly I'm rooting really hard for socialism because I think we're seeing a lot more clearly what barbarism looks like these days.

Laborwave:

Okay, so maybe this won't be super fun, but like what would you imagine the immediate barbarist future looks like, should the landlord class succeed in this moment as well as some of the other forces?

Liza Featherstone:

Oh, unfortunately, it's really easy to imagine that on top of a crisis of unemployment, which we are definitely going to have in New York and around the country, we would then have a crisis of indebtedness in New York and around the country, and even worse, we would have a really serious crisis of homelessness. And remember, things were really bad for many, many Americans before this happened. We're going to have an escalation of--this is not original to Bernie Sanders, but he used this phrase a lot--deaths of despair. We're going to see even more of that. People dying from drug use and suicide. If the state cannot be successfully pressured to give relief to tenants and small homeowners and seriously address the crisis on on housing payments, I think we're going to see massive amount of human misery.

Liza Featherstone:

I think Ilhan Omar, I meant to have the details of this more firmly in my head before we met, but she has a piece of legislation to address this on the national level. The federal government is so hopeless right now, but I think we've also seen that even the Democrats who are normally so neoliberal and so limited therefore, in their imaginations are considering much broader forms of relief than they usually do. I don't consider Ilhan Omar a neoliberal at all, but I just meant even people like Schumer and Pelosi might be more willing to consider some reforms on that scale if they're pressured to. They won't just do it because they suddenly realized that capitalism is becoming unsustainable to itself. They are hopefully going to feel more political pressure to at least somewhat expand the social safety net and deal with the housing crisis.

Laborwave:

So what about imagining what it might look like to go more in the socialist direction in the future? What do you think that would look like?

Liza Featherstone:

It's interesting because we could solve a lot of these problems by actually having real public housing and by having public housing that was not just for the very poor. Singapore is not even a socialist place, but 80% of the residents live in public housing. It works really well. They don't have any of these kinds of problems. It's kind of means tested. You pay a little bit more at a higher income, but it's basically available to everybody and a socialist future would look sort of like that, except it wouldn't be means tested and hopefully people we would have people at more or less the same income levels. I think in Singapore, people who have really high incomes who live in public housing, try to get add ons like a pool. In the socialist future, we wouldn't have those people who were more advantaged than others. Maybe everybody could have a pool. Something like that. I think that it can only be solved by a massive investment in housing by the state. I don't think there's really any other way. I think that somewhat gets a bad rep, public housing has to be depressing and dangerous and that's just not the case. We've seen in many different societies that they've been able to create public housing that is comfortable and beautiful and works well for everybody. And the reason that we make it so horrible and so crime ridden and dirty here is that we as a society have decided that people should be punished for being poor and that the public sector is only there to deal with an extreme crisis. That it isn't something that exists to serve everybody. That's the mindset we need to change.

Laborwave:

Absolutely. It reminds me of an essay I read a while back by David Graeber where he mentioned in passing how elaborate the New York Public Library is. Like when the state wants to invest in things it absolutely can invest in things and produce something that is almost a luxury, right?

 

Liza Featherstone:

Yeah, exactly. I don't know if you are familiar with this, but there's a wonderful project by a couple University of California professors called the Living New Deal. They have mapped all of the New Deal murals and monuments and buildings all over the country, so you can really see how the government has at times invested in its citizens., in the workers and artists that made those things, but also on the premise that the public deserve beautiful things. And I'm of the mindset that we need to get. There were lots of things that the Roosevelt administration did that were not great, but we need to get back to that way of thinking and carry it into the future.

Laborwave:

Well, as a way of closing, I was wondering if you could give us a quick update about what to expect for June 1st, because as you mentioned the moratorium on evictions was extended, but I'm also assuming that means the rent strike has been extended as well. And what's the news about that?

Liza Featherstone:

We're going to see even more people who can't pay their rent because it's one thing for people to cobble it together after a month or two. But if you're not an essential worker, if you've been laid off during this time, most people have very little personal wealth to fall back on. I think you're going to see a lot more people that can't pay their rent. I forgot to mention the other day I interviewed Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor who just wrote a great book about race and home ownership in the United States, which was a Pulitzer prize finalist. And also she's just a great socialist and someone we all look up to. She noted that for everything else, if you can't buy groceries, if you can't afford your health care, even the very feeble United States' safety net offers you something. You can get food stamps or you can get Medicaid.

 

Liza Featherstone:

But if you can't pay your rent, if you can't pay for your housing, we really offer basically nothing. You can go to the homeless shelter or sleep on the street, which is just an untenable way of living. That's really pretty profound too, that as much as we tend to as socialists focus on Medicare for all as this big important demand, which it is. But if you think about it, the healthcare system isn't the primary way that the system punishes people for being poor. It actually really is through housing and the terror of losing your home and being homeless, because we actually provide no relief for that at all and no existing remedy. That was a really important insight on her part and I've been thinking about it all week and so I think we're going to see on June 1st a lot more people in that precarious situation moving toward a real political crisis.

Laborwave:

With that, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us on Laborwave.

Liza Featherstone:

Thank you. My pleasure.

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