This essay was authored by members of the LA Tenants Union Media Committee. All photos courtesy of LA Tenants Union.
In 2017, tenants living around the corner from the famous Mariachi Plaza in Los Angeles received a sudden, massive and legally-permitted rent increase. The landlord was attempting to rebrand their building as a hot destination for newcomers, displacing long-term community members — some of the very musicians for whom the plaza is named. With the help of organizers from the Los Angeles Tenants Union / El Sindicato de Inquilinxs de Los Ángeles (LATU), these residents formed the Mariachi Tenants Association and decided to withhold their rent.
The Mariachi TA mounted a city-wide media campaign around their rent strike, protested in the landlord’s wealthy neighborhood and remained steadfast in their refusal to pay until, after nine months, the landlord agreed to negotiate. Finally, they won a collective bargaining agreement: all of the rent debt accumulated during the strike was canceled, the sky-high rent increases were rolled back and the tenants secured the right to renegotiate. These tenants could not and did not accept waiting for the intervention of government; they managed to secure protections equal to rent stabilization in a state that has made its expansion illegal. By consolidating their power, they won their demands themselves.
This is the promise of tenant power: by organizing ourselves and our neighbors to step into our collective power as tenants, we can intervene in and transform the exploitative conditions under which we live. Tenant power is the only tool available to counter the alliance between real estate and the state, which ensnares us in the capitalist housing system.
Politicians across the political spectrum have proved perfectly content with permanent crisis, underwriting the frenzy of real estate speculation which tenants experience in deteriorating living conditions, eviction and sky-rocketing rents. Tenant power is a necessary alternative to clamoring for a seat at the table in a rigged political process or exercising an ignorable “voice.” Exhausting prescribed forms of participation, such as elections, planning hearings and public comment, tenants must recognize that expending our energy asking politicians for breadcrumbs and band-aids only surrenders our power to them.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the state has dug in its heels, maintaining landlords’ right to passive income at the cost of tenants’ physical and mental health, financial security and, in many cases, their lives. Meanwhile, LATU has been a vital space of empowerment, mutual aid and political transformation. United in struggle against capitalist displacement, members of LATU produce new forms of social and civic life, building dual power through infrastructures of mutual aid and community defense. While we fight, we create community — multilingual, multiracial and multigenerational — and build the world that we need.
Who is LATU?
LATU was founded in 2015 to combat gentrification — a state-sanctioned project which displaces and replaces the poor for profit, continuing racist legacies of colonialism and enslavement. LATU is a tenants’ movement, not a housing movement, because capitalist development subjugates people, not buildings. Our work centers the needs and dreams of tenants: anyone who does not own or control their housing, including people who pay rent, those who live with family, tenants in subsidized, public or senior housing, students in dorms, incarcerated people and the unhoused.
LATU distinguishes itself from most so-called housing justice organizations, which operate through service or advocacy models. Such entities receive funding from foundations and government agencies, often with strings attached. For example, in order to secure donations from the wealthy University of Southern California, certain area nonprofits agreed to a gag order on protests against the school.
Service organizations rely on paid professionals to advise tenants on how to solve their problems as individuals and within prescribed channels, especially the legal system and the courts. Here, tenants become consumers of help, not political subjects. Similarly, advocacy organizations address policymakers — not tenants — as agents of social change. Encouraging tenants to sign petitions and attend symbolic rallies, advocacy groups mobilize rather than organize. Advocacy flattens the essential class conflict between landlords and tenants into an ostensible “debate” between equal parties whose interests require legislative compromise.
In contrast to both service-work and advocacy, LATU promotes tenant power through no-shortcuts organizing, wielding tactics of collective action, including rent strikes, mutual aid and eviction defense. By building long-term, alternative institutions like tenant associations, local chapters and the union itself, we aim to overturn the current system of housing governance in the service of community control.
Our work is both prefigurative and practical. During the pandemic, our members set up centers of regular food distributions — one of which feeds approximately 160 families a week. Dozens of LATU eviction blockades have kept tenants housed over the past year, prefiguring a world without displacement. By organizing rent strikes and supporting each other as we push for the cancellation of our COVID-19 rent debt through negotiations with our landlords, we bring into existence a world without rent.
When a tenant arrives at a local LATU chapter meeting for the first time, they often come to the union with fear — fear of eviction, harassment, deportation and of violence from master tenants, landlords and cops. Tenants new to the union experience persistent shame around the poor conditions of their housing and their inability to pay rent.
Tenants already active in the union support new members with personal casework, help them understand what strategies are available for their fight, assist them in organizing their neighbors and build bridges from each personal struggle to a broader movement, linking their unique struggle to the struggle of all.
The union is a pedagogical space, where tenants educate each other on their rights, discuss the possibilities and risks of collective action, trade organizing and escalation strategies, and co-learn about the broader tenant struggle. How do I protect myself against a violent landlord? How should I respond to this legal notice? What is the best way to talk to my neighbors about joining a strike? How do we shape our union to better meet the needs of unhoused tenants? What the hell is rent, anyway?
The union is also a democratic space. Tenants exercise decision-making power over tactics within their building associations, such as what to include in a demand letter or when to withhold rent. They collectively determine the work of their local chapter, including what to prioritize as a group or how to best design an event. What steps should our building take to prepare for retaliation for organizing? Who will pick up the food this week for our chapter’s distribution? Can we reach consensus on the theme of our next protest? What should we discuss together next week?
LATU’s place-based organizing builds power from the bottom up. Neighbors within individual buildings who are committed to working together are organized into tenants associations which take part in their local neighborhood chapter. Our sixteen local chapters confederate into a city-wide union that provides an infrastructure for establishing new chapters and sustains cross-union initiatives such as media campaigns, new member orientations and solidarity events.
As our membership grows, we organize more local chapters, rooting our work in the neighborhoods which tenants have built shaped, and given life to. We are committed to building 100 local chapters across the city, rebuilding the social bonds threatened and broken by capitalist development.
Crisis on crisis: COVID-19
In April 2020, tenant households were confronted with the reality of shelter-in-place orders, lost work and an uncertain future. By May, UCLA reported that as many as 500,000 tenant households in Los Angeles were at risk of eviction. As the scale of the emergency became clear, LATU committed to a principle of “Food Not Rent,” holding onto our rent to prioritize our basic needs over landlords’ profits.
Federal assistance for tenants throughout the COVID-19 crisis has been minimal. Unemployment insurance discriminates against undocumented people as well as those working in the informal economy. Underfunded, means-tested lotteries for partial rent payments provides subsidy to landlords, not to tenants in need.
California’s Democratic politicians and nonprofit groups followed suit with the US federal government’s watered-down measures. In August, California passed a law that provides a legal defense for tenants in eviction court but does nothing to stop eviction filing or enforcement. In January, the state delivered another victory for landlords by passing a law which prevents local governments from passing stricter rules.
The current California law burdens tenants with applying for subsidies to finance up to 80 percent of their rent debt, while granting landlords unilateral power to refuse those funds. The government’s willingness to cancel 20 percent of rent debt for subsidy applicants proves that it does indeed have the power to eliminate back rent, but will not. Rent debt cancellation is not a question of legality, but of political will.
These new laws have not stopped eviction. They do nothing to protect tenants from illegal lock-outs, intimidation campaigns, self-eviction or the lengthy, frightening process of going to court to keep your housing. If a tenant fails to respond to a notice, they will be evicted by summary judgement whether or not they have a legal defense. Most of those who make it to court lack legal representation and have to prove their own cases, making them likely to fail. More, these laws do not cancel rent or erase rent debt. Rather, they direct public resources to private landlords or convert owed rent into consumer debt for which landlords can sue us, bankrupt us and wreck our credit.
During the pandemic, LATU more than doubled in size. We now boast thousands of members. Many of them went on rent strike during the past year, some now continuing into their fourteenth month. LATU’s central demands remain consistent: cancel rent, eliminate all rent debt and stop both formal and informal evictions.
LATU has helped thousands of tenants out of individual suffering and into a movement. Within our tenant associations, we have solidified the rent strike as a road to cancel rents through collective bargaining and to pressure landlords to accept the aid that tenants receive. Meanwhile, our consistent eviction blockades intervene in the formal court process that terminates a tenancy as well as in informal lock-outs — both of which are aided and enforced by police.
We have built the capacity to mobilize at a moment’s notice to keep people in their homes, even providing emergency plumbing and carpentry to ensure tenants return to safe and habitable housing. Our local meetings and outreach help prevent self-evictions by those who would otherwise move out of fear. Our Food Not Rent campaign has conducted food distribution and collectively raised $100,000 in funds for basic needs.
Safe and stable housing has been the only effective prescription throughout the COVID-19 crisis. As politicians and the capitalist housing system fail to meet this need, self-organization continues to be the only rational path.
A dual power framework?
Over 60 percent of Los Angeles residents are tenants, yet in the history of the city, there has never been a mayor or City Council representative who was not a homeowner. Many city representatives are landlords themselves, a fact which directly pits their self-interests against the majority whom they represent. Every year there is a new scandal of representatives caught accepting real estate bribes. Los Angeles has 99 Neighborhood Councils on which tenants sometimes do serve, but these groups cannot veto or propose new legislation or intervene in any planning decisions. Effectively, these councils are hamster wheels of participation without power.
In contrast, LATU’s dues-based funding structure allows us to maintain autonomy from the interests of donors and the government. A rank-and-file union creates an infrastructure outside of charities and nonprofits. We are not paid professionals offering services, we are comrades empowering each other to organize and become experts in our own right at imagining, demanding and implementing the solutions we need.
Although the union is only five years old, LATU is beginning to transform Los Angeles tenants’ political consciousness, as we show each other that our collective power promises to displace the power of those who oppress us. One framework through which we can understand our work is dual power, a political project which links the creation of institutions for working-class self-determination with the destruction of the capitalist order.
First theorized by Proudhon in 1851 and later observed by Lenin during the formation of the soviet workers councils of 1917, dual power creates a tension in which working-class institutions exist alongside and compete for legitimacy with capitalist ones. In the words of Black Socialists in America, dual power means “building a new world that can make the old world obsolete.”
Today, dual power offers a strategic horizon for what an anti-capitalist organization can accomplish over time while making consistent gains in the present. In this way, our tenants associations, local chapters and the union as a whole plant seeds for a future of rent-free housing, self-organized community safety and community control of public resources and space.
Dual power requires that we build autonomously from structures that oppress us — including from the representative democracy which fails to represent our needs. Thus, there are no positions of leadership in LATU, no internal elections. Our meetings are structured via adaptable community agreements rather than parliamentary-style Roberts Rules. The organization as a whole can be transformed by its members and in fact has already undergone several upheavals as local chapters invent and disband committees and make new commitments.
Dual power requires that we take no shortcuts to base-building. We have to translate tenants-in-crisis into tenant organizers, sharing organizing skills and building up leaders who will go on to do the same. Finally, dual power requires scale. Locally-situated projects alone cannot challenge global power structures. For this reason, each of LATU’s local chapters participates in the city-wide union just as our union participates in the Autonomous Tenants Union Network (ATUN), a federation of tenants unions across the US and Canada. Through ATUN town halls, we have learned from organizers in New Orleans who successfully shut down their city’s eviction court while our members have trained others how to organize eviction blockades.
Of course, a dual power model poses many challenges. Democratic and pedagogical processes require time for reflection, conversation and debate. Meanwhile, the crisis of tenancy only gets worse. If LATU seeks to be an engine for social transformation, it must sustain relationships that last long after a group of tenants win their demands, and it must maintain solidarity across divisions of geography, language and race. Our decentralized, horizontal structure makes union-wide decisions about internal policy and strategy difficult to produce and uphold.
And even though we face a wide range repressive tactics by the state — from the FBI labeling our work “anti-development anarchist extremism” to the retaliatory arrest of our members or the destruction of our food distribution hubs and civic spaces — we cannot yet operate autonomously from the state. We must recognize the need to strategically leverage — without bowing to — state power and the law, pushing for the redistribution of state resources, dismantling its repressive institutions and exercising our right to demand more rights.
Just as tenant power is both the means and the ends of our work, dual power is both a long-term strategy and a daily practice. Our short-term goals to win repairs, reject rent hikes and resist eviction represent what tenant power can win today. At the same time, these wins pave the way for a future where the exploitation of tenants no longer exists. With each tenant victory, we increase our capacity, refine our strategies and expand the horizon of what is possible.
“Seeds of a Tenant Revolution”
In February, 2021, members of LATU from across the city gathered virtually for our fifth annual general assembly, “Seeds of a Tenant Revolution.” During the weekend, we shared lessons from the last year and deepened our collective understanding of our movement’s history. Together, we heard and discussed recorded interviews that our members had conducted with each other, chapters presented their most fruitful projects and the union as a whole reflected on the year’s challenges.
We heard from members who successfully took over two of the city government’s neighborhood councils only to be met with repression — a reminder that the ruling system is set up to prevent social change. The violence that many of our members have experienced at the hands of landlords and master tenants taught us that simply asserting the rights granted within an exploitative system will never be enough to keep us safe.
We reviewed our first year of militant eviction defense and celebrated our first multi-building tenant council comprised of tenants from eight buildings organized against a shared landlord. Finally, we reconsidered how to define victory as a movement that politicizes everyday life, whether that means forcing a landlord to do a repair, building community or transforming consciousness.
Through every conversation, one thing was clear: the tenant revolution is not something that will appear on a ballot. Neither is it something we are waiting for — our union brings the tenant revolution about every time we build solidarity between tenants, create tenant-led institutions as we start more local chapters and delegitimize the ritual of paying rent each month.
Over this last pandemic year, Democratic Party politicians and nonprofit coalitions have been eager to claim victory over a crisis they have not solved. Meanwhile, LATU has affirmed our strategies for building tenant power: eviction defense, the rent strike, mutual aid and the proliferation of democratic and pedagogical spaces. We urge tenants in our city and everywhere to join with their neighbors, step into their power and organize for a future without exploitation and eviction, a future governed by tenant dignity, self-determination and power.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/los-angeles-tenants-union/