Nathan Eisenberg is a member of Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) in the Bay Area. They have co-written invaluable essays on housing struggles, our current economic crisis, and the state of proletarian politics. We talked to them about organizing strategies, the power of landlords, the role of racist policing in the process of gentrification, and the future of the tenant movement.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gracie Harris: How did you get involved in tenant organizing?
Nathan Eisenberg: I should say off the bat, I’m speaking as an individual, and nothing I say should be taken to represent Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC). That being said, a hundred percent of my experience in tenant organizing has been through TANC.
TANC first formed out of an inquiry conducted by a caucus within DSA, where they essentially found that lo and behold, the problem most members were facing was issues with their landlords. That was prior to my joining. I was not there when it was formed; I was connected to it through friends of friends, essentially. I was invited to a meeting around April 2019, roughly a year before everything exploded with coronavirus. So for that year I was joining meetings, and it was extremely informal. It was not entirely composed of people who knew each other personally, and there were outreach attempts and new people joined that way. But it relied on a lot of people’s self-initiative, and there wasn't much coherence to all of it. There was a lot of conversation happening about how to make it more coherent, but in retrospect it was very much like a prehistoric phase. And as for myself, I think TANC had some issues early on properly integrating people. So it was a little hard for me to get connected to stuff.
But after a few months, around August 2019, there were more efforts to onboard people, to find out more about them and then identify areas they can plug in. So, moving forward, I helped form the Berkeley local. That led to some other projects. All around, TANC was sort of small, forward- thinking, branching out, and doing more direct outreach over time. So there was momentum, let's say.
And then around January or February of 2020, some people had been working on our constitution; it's an interesting document in that it very much advances a political platform as well as laying out how we want to organize. So we hadn’t necessarily done that much organizing yet, but there had been a good deal of internal work. Which is lucky, I think, because without that, if the stage when I entered, April 2019, was the stage we were at when the pandemic hit, we would have been very disorganized and it would've been very challenging to respond to things. But I think just enough people had come around — we're talking a few dozen at this point — that there was a lot of thought put into questions like, how do you grow a mass organization? Two months prior to the first lockdowns, we had hammered this constitution out and voted on it.
So I initially joined because I was personally connected and interested in what people were doing, but it was mostly just potential at that point, and we were still trying out different things and figuring out how to be an organization more than we were actually engaging in fights. That being said, there were already a few tenant councils that had been formed, engaged in struggles, but they were very low level, like a kind of smoldering type. We did already have some successes and failures, but they were very small scale. Then in March 2020 there was extremely rapid expansion.
Josh Messite: How has TANC been responding to the pandemic?
NE: The first course of action that I recall was holding many big meetings at the beginning of the Zoom era; I remember in the span of a few days I was on multiple calls. Everyone was trying to figure out what the response should be. We worked out an organizational line on the whole situation, which was "Cancel Rent". That kind of became the watchword. We also created a “how to organize during a pandemic” guide that a lot of people contributed to. It started as just a Google Doc that we then began to circulate. There was a good deal of circulation of that organizing guide, autonomous from us; it was kind of released into the wild, because there was a great need for it. I remember personally sending it to people; I might've sent it to you, Gracie. We tried to make it as useful as possible; it was obviously somewhat specific locally, but there's certain things, like how to safely knock on doors, that anyone can do.
We also did a ton of flyering. We're very blessed with some excellent graphic designers and a print shop; I think all good parties and proto-party formations need the visual and propaganda wing to give an appearance of reality that maybe is somewhat aspirational. It was clear to us, mostly from the people we intake — this is who TANC is, service workers and such — but also just from following the news, that non-essential service workers were going to be the most impacted, because those are among the most dangerous jobs during the pandemic and also the least “essential”. So we had some excellent poster designs, and we put out flyers with targeted messaging along the lines of: "Laid off from your service job? Talk to us. Worried about rent? Talk to us." Which is a pretty simple opening, because it's non-committal, but it addresses a very immediate need. So there was a flood of people from that campaign. I guess the short answer to your question is that we did good outreach and it just hooked people.
That led to a wave of people calling and emailing TANC. We have this thing called Airtable, which is a clientele management software that companies use, which was very helpful because we could use it to track people. We also attached an intake form at the end of the tenant organizing guide we released, and that form asked people for their addresses. Probably the biggest key or catalyst is that we all had access to PropertyRadar, a database where you can search people's addresses and find out who their landlord is, and then from there find out every other property that landlord owns. After a few weeks, we figured out a process where this intake and general outreach funnelled people into this centralized place, and we could start to identify people who shared landlords. As soon as we had even two separate people with the same landlord, we tried to connect them with each other and get a gameplan going. Of course, there’s a lot of people and a lot of landlords in the Bay Area, so plenty of new people are the only ones in their landlord group, but even then, we could look up that landlord’s other properties and figure out canvassing.
Some “self-crits” now: given that we were still very small and not super organized, we were organized enough to get more organized than we were, all things considered, but there were still a lot of holes and kinks. It still depended too much on individuals stepping up. There were no real formal structures. I mentioned we had developed this constitution, which included formal groups — “committees,” we call them, because we love being bureaucrats, I guess [laughing]. That includes an organizing committee, as well as one for onboarding, which helps new members get a panoply of political education, as well as a rundown of how TANC works — specifically how they can use the organization and how they can contribute. We had formalized those structures and processes on paper, but we hadn't even elected people to the coordinator positions; those groups hadn't really formed beyond an ad hoc level. So early on, in my spare time, I was just in the group chat and we would delegate tasks ad hoc, in terms of responding to things like the intakes.
I can't be certain that we adequately responded to everyone. We definitely called everyone back, but in terms of following up and cultivating a deeper relationship... it kind of reverted to the most promising areas or the ones with the most responsiveness. There's a spectrum from people who really have no idea even what TANC is — we had a lot of that, where they didn't even understand the concept of a tenant union, they just were worried and saw the flyers — to people who already get it, or get it without knowing that they get it; maybe they had never heard of a tenant union, but they pretty much fully get the function and purpose. And then those people might become members and be brought into the fold.
So out of that initial wave there was, we could say, sort of a preexisting group of individuals who could collectively put in some amount of effort and energy, or have some amount of capacity. We did grow that capacity in terms of this new wave of intake; a number of those people were properly onboarded and able to commit their time and take on responsibilities. But at different points throughout the last year, the rate of work varied. The opportunities, tenants, people in need, would contribute to our capacity, in that those tenants would become part of the capacity, but not always, or not always in the same way. So there's this back and forth, where there are periods when it felt like all hands were on deck and everyone was moving in all these different directions and didn’t even have the capacity to talk to each other. So there's many parallel things going on — which is good, we managed like that, but it was a bit of a strain. Versus other periods, when it felt less fast-paced, and it seemed like there were suddenly a lot more people around able to take work on.
GH: How do you keep momentum going? How do you capitalize on it? And how do you keep things from fizzling out even when people are unresponsive?
NE: Oh, million dollar question! I think it's pretty contextual. Let me draw from an organizational problem that we've been attempting to solve, and then answer your question.
So I mentioned we were confronting a great need that both tapped our capacity and then also sometimes contributed to it in that those new people became part of TANC. And there was a kind of back and forth. Over time, this dynamic became a divide. I think that is just a part of any attempt to do organization-building; that is, there are different reasons that people are there, and sometimes those reasons are very urgent material needs that are in some kind of pre-political understanding. Like they maybe get that it's a political issue, but the true scope of that political nature and the way that organizing approaches that political issue is a little more obscure. The flip side of that is I think almost everyone in TANC is themselves a tenant. We don't disbar people who are homeowners, but I'm pretty sure I can't think of a single person who owns a house. So everyone who's involved is materially grouped together in that way, although obviously there's differences within tenancy.
But in addition to tenants whose understanding is kind of “pre-political,” there are also people like myself — I'm a communist, and I've been involved in labor organizing prior to this. At different points in life I’ve attempted to get involved in different political projects. So for me it's already an explicitly political issue; I am already politicized. This rough distinction has organizational consequences, because what ended up happening was, there's all these new people coming around, and over time, the split somewhat grew: there was TANC activity, and then there was the tenant council activity. The councils were people who are like, "I lost my job, so I can't pay rent," and then we connected them with other people in the same boat and tried to grow that council. All of the time that those people were devoting to the tenant movement was in building their own council, which is a very time-consuming activity.
Well, what we didn't do... so I mentioned this intake form, which is on our website, but that was separate from our membership form. TANC is a dues-paying, membership-based mass organization, but we weren't actively trying to recruit members, we weren't trying to get people to pay us. I mean, there's a zero-dues membership option, but regardless, because we made that choice early on, it just kind of produced this divergence where we became a de facto service organization in a lot of contexts for specific councils and specific tenants. There was not enough framing early on that this is a collective effort — a class project — and that we're all in this class and we're all contributing to class organization. But much more immediate, less politicized concerns and more pragmatic conversations were taking place instead.
That was out of necessity. The cumulative effect of this, though, was that — going back to this binary I set up — the politicized TANC members who were interested in building the organization and building tenant-class power were discussing things more internally than outwardly. And then the point of contact that existed between this politicized group and this somewhat pre-political group mostly occurred when you would go to a meeting with the council and you just talk about council business. To be clear, this supposed difference between politicized members and pre-political tenants is a somewhat false dichotomy as well; everyone I've talked to throughout this whole time has been heavily politicized about lots of things. None of these people are “apolitical”. But it's more about the substance of the conversation; strategizing about this one landlord and then everything else is somewhat abstract, versus more concretely trying to think beyond the scale of a single landlord, like how you build that tenant-working class union.
That is an organizational problem, because the points of contact between the councils and TANC itself relied largely on individual TANC members who kind of happened to be the point of contact for a given council because they were the one who did the outreach, or for whatever other reason. What I'm trying to illustrate is that there are several layers:
- TANC, which had monthly assemblies that were organization wide. We have a Slack and use it to discuss different things across the organizing work. We eventually held those committee coordinator elections, so those committees were meeting to think through these kinds of organization-wide and strategy problems.
- Locals, which are mostly grouped by neighborhood or city. These locals are having meetings where they're kind of discussing how, as a local, they can support “on-the-ground” organizing projects and the different councils that exist in their area.
- Individual tenant councils, which had variable relations with the rest of TANC and often little-to-no relations with other councils. Practically integrating these artificially “external” groups has been an ongoing project for the past few months.
But we just kind of created this de facto inside-outside structure. And so people in a council maybe were not aware TANC even existed, and if they were aware, they weren't attending TANC meetings and weren't attending assemblies. That makes sense, there's a lot of meetings... but it was just this persistent divide that was reproduced in all these different directions.
So to your question about momentum and how to sustain it, I think unfortunately, because of this structural problem, which we identified in conversations last summer just a few months after the lockdowns, it took a long time to really think through. Basically we decided that we needed to restructure, and it took a while to think about how to do that. And we're still trying to do it. The divide largely still exists. One thing that we changed was the response protocol when people do initially contact us and are interested in organizing and forming a council. We used to just volunteer someone who was around and had time, and that individual then became the conduit for TANC resources and funds. So again, that generated this service-client model which is problematic for a number of reasons. We're trying to move away from that. Now, as tenants come and want to form councils, we just route them to the TANC locals. I think since we've made that shift, the newer councils have become much more integrated to TANC. Membership in the tenant union is still secondary to the effectiveness of the organizing work, but I think there's been a marked increase in organizational effectiveness in terms of using the resources that exist, which includes tapping into the practical experience of a variety of people within the local.
I think that kind of change has helped us sustain things, because there is this effect of individuals being at full capacity and then burning out or missing things, information not flowing that well within the organization. A lot of missed opportunities. I think that dynamic created a sense of being alone in this. There was an initial wave of excitement, with lots of people reaching out or contact being made through our outreach. In a council there might be a contact list with a fair number of people, but then over time, you’re reaching out less and less to that contact list, suddenly these contacts are not really part of the council anymore, because they haven't heard from the council in three months, they don't know what's going on and are practically severed from the work. And then re-establishing those connections requires a lot of work. That work might have initially been performed by people volunteering to canvas over a few weekends. And so, while it was never one person's workload, it kind of falls onto one person. So the maintenance of these kinds of relationships was just very hard to sustain.
Where we've been successful, besides better integrating councils as TANC members, has been maintaining activity in the face of pressures. Sometimes people have complaints, but the demands don't go anywhere for a variety of reasons. It might just be that they have a small landlord, so they have relatively little leverage. It could be that, frankly, we live in the Bay Area, which has a highly-bifurcated rental market where some percentage is people barely making ends meet and another, fairly large percentage is yuppies. So you'll have people who are in one situation and then they go and talk to the other tenants who would be a part of their council, and they're really disinterested, possibly because the class composition of the council is not that conducive to recruiting them. Another issue has been that over time, people have moved out. I think California's net population has dropped by 150,000 since last March, which is the first time that it's ever gone negative in 50 years. The Bay Area has probably contributed a lot of those, because a lot of the people holding up the rental market here are people who could work from home, and so I think they opted to move back to whatever suburb they're from. Or people just couldn't afford it here and then move back with family. So a lot of active people kind of dropped out or left the council.
Against those pressures, there's been this impetus to keep activity going, meaning, ideally, having relatively regular things for people to do that involves a little bit of their time and feels effective, in a way such that as you grow your numbers, those numbers enter into this work and your activity grows. The ideal form of a campaign, with regular escalations, has not happened perfectly in anything I've witnessed, but we've attempted to attain it, and there have been a number of really successful cases. I think the councils that have been the most resilient have been the ones able to maintain regular activity. The context of each council varies. Sometimes they're up against massive landlords that can afford to wait them out, so if they don't have overwhelming leverage, it's a brick wall. And those councils have either tended to stagnate or fall into a sort of pattern where they're not stagnating, people are still involved, but it feels like there's very little traction. But there are other situations where the landlord is smaller or just more affected by tenant organizing. So there has been some traction and recognition of the need to keep activity up.
Councils have organized car rallies and phone zaps where a bunch of people call or email with the same messaging, telling the landlord to meet the demands. They've gone to landlords' houses and laid the demands at their doorstep, so to speak. There've been a lot of canvassing type events, not necessarily an “action,” but an “activity” that orients people towards something that affects the council. I guess the most successful cases are the ones that have been able to get into a rhythm where they're doing these little structure tests and then actually fitting what they're doing into a kind of escalation pattern against their landlords. Where it's been the least successful is when that pattern of escalation — where there's an actual back and forth with the landlord, even indirectly — hasn't come about. Either because the landlord is a corporate entity and they have a certain policy of how they deal with these things and has successfully just been able to resist or be totally unresponsive, or because the numbers are really off. Sometimes they're just a huge landlord and this council is really active, but the council is just too small still, so they're just unable to extract concessions. But this presents a problem, because there's a lot of labor to grow a council with outreach, and so people need to be willing to volunteer for that. And to be willing, they need to be enthusiastic; to be enthusiastic, they need to feel like it's worth it. To feel like it's worth it they have to have a sense that it's possible or that there's already been success. And so with overwhelming odds, the whole calculus is a bit challenging.
The main reason for success, though, is just sheer perseverance. Some of the people I've been in contact with throughout TANC and throughout the councils just have an amazing capacity for continually being creative and thinking of new approaches, continually being able to devote time in spite of whatever their schedule is. In March 2020, all sorts of people were suddenly looking to get involved even if it was far outside of their comfort zone. Of course, over time, in the more quiet period, that kind of scales back to the most devoted of those people. Thankfully, so far, even in those quiet periods, that set of people has been strong enough to carry it forward.
There's been a few councils that have kind of grown defunct, but on the whole, I think the majority of them have endured and a lot have grown. There's one council associated with TANC who has successfully gotten a collective bargaining agreement from their landlord, which is pretty significant. That's further than any of the other councils. I think every other council has gotten either nothing or concessions that are not acknowledged as such; landlords might still not really acknowledge the council, but then something that is demanded has been granted kind of without that acknowledgement. For example, with one landlord there might be harassment, and under demands they might pull back a bit without saying why or acknowledging that it was harassment in the first place, but that's a clear victory the council or TANC was able to get. Whereas in this one case, the council were openly negotiating as a council with the landlord, and they secured 30% rent forgiveness with a rent reduction which is far short of what it needs to be, but still very good, all things considered. It’s a precedent we’re hoping to extend.
Andrew McWhinney: I’d like to step back and think about some of the fundamental theoretical organizing questions. You talked about how you initially had that service-client divide between TANC and the councils, and how that divide sometimes obfuscated questions of collective class organizing. To think through those questions, I wanted to ask you about the link between tenant organizing and labor organizing. For example, in terms of labor organizing, workers have leverage over capitalists because production cannot occur without them; that's where that power comes from. What leverage do tenants have in this case? How is it similar or different from the leverage of workers? You mentioned that tenant leverage can depend on the size of the landlord and the size of the council, and I was hoping you could elaborate on that.
NE: The relationship between tenant organizing and labor organizing is complex. In terms of practice, it’s the relationship between tenant organizations and labor organizations. I should add that TANC is part of an international North American network of similarly structured tenant councils called Autonomous Tenants Union Network (ATUN) that has 41 affiliated organizations in 34 cities. So it's still small, but there is a tenant organizing institution. There's not much practical connection between these councils and any kind of labor organizations outside of incidental stuff, like individuals who happen to be involved in both forms of organizing, but no formal connections to my knowledge. There's a lot of reasons for that, which I could speculate on.
More theoretically, though, TANC’s analysis is a class-based analysis, and we define “tenant” as “anyone who is not in control of their housing”. This isn’t just TANC’s analysis; our definition is lifted from the Los Angeles Tenants Union, which has served as a very important precursor for a lot of the recent tenant activity. Our definition of “tenant” includes all homeless people, of course, and anyone who’s a renter, of course, but also people who are in public housing, and also, hypothetically, people who are in dependent domestic situations who are not quite “renting” but are not in control of their housing. That is a similar definition to “proletariat,” right? People who are not in possession of the means of living. And that's obviously purposeful.
In terms of leverage, insofar as landlordism is an industry, it derives its revenue from rent, and that revenue comes from tenants and is therefore a (predatory) division of wages. If you want to think of it in terms of a total wage bill which is the social reproduction of the working class, rent is inextricable from labor struggles, which are often about this wage bill. Rent and wages are formally separate, because in capitalism you have this formal separation between work and home, and we pretend that both rent and wages are matters of free choice. You choose where to work and you choose where to live. You live in a high rent area? “What’s wrong with you, you can’t afford it, that’s bad finance, you’re an idiot, you should just move somewhere that has lower rents.” Of course, people who say that are never acting in good faith, but if they were, that response fails to think through that there's typically no real job opportunities in depressed areas with low rent.
As far as labor, working class organizations are so weakened that we are essentially just objects of Capital. Whatever Capital needs from us, people tend to just be shaped by that. Wage stagnation is a very real phenomenon, and it creates a spatial organization where people live where they're able to work and able to afford rent. Any regulations that had existed on rental markets — which only existed due to tenant activity throughout the 20th century, depending on your municipality or state — have been progressively deregulated over time, especially since the ‘90s. Because of the stagnancy of wages and the relative underemploying structure of the economy, people just move to areas where there are jobs. There's a spectrum between the urban core and the various increasingly-layered ex-urban periphery to the city.
The Bay Area is an interesting case because you have clusters of extremely high-paying jobs and associated clusters of places where those people want to live. Then you have pretty much completely unchecked speculative activity, rentiers capturing that share of income with no real ceiling in place. Yet in between these clusters, there are huge suburbs that are fairly depressed and are gentrifying. Gentrification is a process. We tend to think of gentrification as the end result: a hundred percent of the residents are cleared out in favor of new residents. But that takes decades. And so in these in-between places and periods, you have people spending excess to 50% of their income on rent and otherwise living paycheck to paycheck and trying to keep it together. Then with the explosion of personal debt, this very tight situation has both generalized and been able to be sustained in an artificial stasis. The end result is that there's a great deal of fragility in the infrastructure of people's lives, where maybe they have a job, they can keep paying the rent in the area, hold it together, but they're not building up savings, they're going into debt, and any lapse is going to set them back. But the real fallout of COVID-19 hasn't happened yet. There's still this state of suspension.
Theoretically, tenants and workers are the same population. If you have to rent for a living, then you have to work or depend on someone who has to work in order to pay rent. Again, there’s a bifurcation where there's high-end renters who I guess are lifestyle renters, who rent not out of necessity but by choice. But that’s a miniscule component.
In terms of leverage, I would say you have more leverage in the workplace than you do renting, for two reasons. One, workers can disrupt the operations in a way that tenants can’t. The business that is exploiting you depends on you being in the workplace, operating it. So there's a lot more practical leverage that way. Tenants are a bit more limited in their toolkit. A rent strike can be very effective, but building up to that, there's sort of this ladder of escalations. It can be hard to figure out things that are effective that are not yet fully “nuclear-option” rent strike. In a workplace, before you go on full strike, you have work slowdowns and a variety of actions, because it's inherently about concentrating people in space and doing something there and there are many options for disrupting that. So that's a bit different. The second reason why workers generally have more leverage than tenants is that all the value is created by labor. Landlords don’t create value and tenants don’t create value — rent is just a redistribution of value. But there can still be quite a bit of leverage in tenant struggles. A council can be extremely effective and have a lot of leverage over a landlord, and tenant councils in a city can have a lot of leverage there, especially in a place like the Bay Area where landlordism is a huge industry. In terms of strategy, a tenant council can go really far in advancing working class interests and shifting the balance of power. But in an ultimate sense, tenant struggles are subordinate to labor struggles.
However, I said “labor creates value,” and that's not exactly true. Probably most of the jobs in the US are not really “value-creating.” In the imperial core, the leverage of labor doesn't perfectly map onto its utility for Capital. It's frequently about redistributing value that’s been produced internationally. There's obviously necessary functions of the maintenance of the social structures, like education workers, healthcare workers, etc. And there can be pretty acute bottlenecks within this that workers can exploit. It’s not so simplistic; value is not the only factor here. But in a certain sense, the position of a lot of service workers whose jobs are kind of structurally superfluous or less entrenched than an industrial workforce is not necessarily that different from tenants. There's a variety of economic apparatuses that distribute the value produced by the global proletariat. A major portion of that value distribution is to landlords via tenants and rent. Of course, those landlords are political actors. They have their own organized networks, lobbyists, etc. within the State.
So workers can majorly disrupt and have a lot of leverage over the capitalist system as such, whether these workers are directly value-producing or “unproductive” of value, and the same goes for non-value-producing tenants. This is true even if these workers and tenants are somewhat displaced from global capital accumulation — their struggles are nonetheless an essential avenue of working-class organizing.
JM: I feel like the concept of “gentrification” is often mystified and used in an incoherent, cynical, or even an intentionally-misleading way. What is gentrification?
NE: Ok. Big question. To me, a decent definition of gentrification is founded on the nature of landlordism. Gentrification is what happens when housing is commodified. This extraction-distribution regime called “landlordism” can only grow by virtue of raising rents. There's no production process involved. It only grows by virtue of capturing a larger share of the social product that's produced autonomously from it.
Historically, there are political-economic networks, and what I mean by that is that gentrification is very much a process guided by policy/governance that is spurred on by more-formally economic agents like developers and landlords. The ideological justification for gentrification is housing values, or “livability.” It gets kind of squishy, but essentially the idea that there's something about living in a city that you can bottle up and sell, and therefore even people who don't really stand to gain very much from gentrification are ideologically convinced of it because the benefits are these abstractions like “better community” or a more beautiful city, etc. The politics of gentrification get very confused because of that ideological edifice where people think any attempt at “beautification” — and that’s a loaded term — or any physical improvement of any kind is considered gentrification. Which it’s not. Infrastructural improvements are often criticized on the grounds that they facilitate gentrification. Oftentimes they do, but they’re not inherently gentrifying. Demographic changes are also not inherent in gentrification. You can have gentrification with just rising rents. People might stay and maintain the existing neighborhood culture, but as long as their rents are rising, it’s a gentrifying neighborhood.
Obviously, there's great reason for these kinds of mystifications about the nature of gentrification. The American working class is composed of racial formations. It’s divided by race, and it’s united, in other ways, by race. Spatial segregation is a fact of urban life — or I shouldn't say urban, racial disparity is a fact of the spatial organization of our living places generally. And so the most depressed areas, the areas that have the most potential to gentrify — because again, gentrification means rising rent — are the places where rents have been lower historically. That’s why gentrification is both a political and an economic process.
Gentrification is also a policing process, one of manufacturing an ideological construct through brute force: a “livable” place with low crime, safe, good business opportunities, vibrant, whatever, all these things. The primary driving force behind all of these processes is just the desire to extract more rent out of the area.
I think with the most recent wave of gentrification, there are a lot of reasons why it's in the zeitgeist, but the most immediate reason is the 2008 housing crisis, where suddenly a very large portion of the housing stock was concentrated, transferred from individual homeowners to real estate investment trusts, hedge funds, and then various developers. Either the land was transferred and they tore it down and built up new buildings, or they just started renting out the existing houses. A very large number of these displaced homeowners, the vast majority of which were Black and Latino, became renters because they lost their houses. The population of renters grew and the ability to extract rents via the mechanism of housing grew as well. You can say there's a bit of a boom in it. It wasn’t the only determinant, but I think that the housing crisis really accelerated the process of gentrification.
In terms of the mystified form of gentrification, where we're looking at coffeeshops and hipsters or whatever as somehow the driving force, it's true that the main cultural-aesthetic forms that got wrapped up into this gentrification process during that era of the early 2010s really do look like that in a lot of cities — you can look at Brooklyn, for example, or Oakland. But the fact of the matter is that in every city of any size, rents are rising. The country's urbanizing, for a variety of reasons. Rural livelihoods are collapsing. The farming crisis of the ‘80s was resolved with massive land concentration, the rise of agribusiness, and the decimation of the rural workforce. Between that, and then also migration, cities have been growing quite a bit, and they've been restructuring. The old underdeveloped internal peripheries of the inner-city have been treated as a place to dump capital seeking a return in the form of rent, and this would be capital of any kind. So overaccumulated capital from all over the world has been pouring into cities throughout America, other “core” countries, and also cities even in more “peripheral” countries, because of this mechanism of extracting surplus-value via rent.
This is where you get the phenomenon of displacement, which is both fundamental and epiphenomenal to gentrification. It’s not like this is a masterplan to displace specific populations; the goal is for rents to go up. But in conditions of wage stagnation, rent spikes mean displacement. That's just the fact of the matter. That's not something that landlords orchestrated or engineered. In fact, the argument can be made that industrial capitalists and land-speculating rentier capitalists have somewhat divergent interests, in that the rentier capitalists actually enjoy higher wages because they can charge higher rents. So that being said, when you have these kinds of opposite pressures, it's going to result in displacement. That leads to spillover effects into suburbs and ex-urban areas. The largest growing urban areas are not necessarily in the inner cities, in a lot of cases, but kind of expanding outwards to these ex-urban hinterlands.
With this urban expansion comes rising rents on the outskirts of cities. It’s not like the new tenants are bringing this curse of higher rent — it's just a result of the movement of people. The differentials between the rent of an area prior to it serving as a destination site and the rent in the places that these people are moving from are sufficient for landlords in these destination areas to raise rents. So gentrification is not just something that happens in the inner urban core, and it isn't just big developers, condos, yuppies, etc. Gentrification is the landlord class extracting larger and larger shares of surplus-value via rent.
This is also not just a preexisting rentier class that's parasitizing the value that is being produced in other sectors of the economy. Due to the crisis of profitability across industrial production, investment patterns have shifted. This is what we call financialization, the growth of financial services, and speculation, whether it's in stocks or derivatives. These are things that don't produce value; they shift value around. There's been an intensification of activity in those areas, because, from the perspective of individual capital, that's an easier way to make money, to expand the money they’ve invested. From the perspective of the total social capital, these activities don’t actually expand the pot of value that is being subdivided, but they do enrich segments of the economy: fractions of the capitalist class. Rent has become a major mechanism for this kind of competitive redistribution of surplus-value. There are new landlord-capitalists coming in, including new types: I mentioned real estate investment trusts and hedge funds. Prior to 2008, these entities were marginal in rental markets, but now a lot of people have a financial entity as their landlord. That’s a reflection of the crisis tendencies of capitalism, as Capital is shifting and seeking different sources of profit. Yet at the same time, Capital fetishistically misrecognizes the source of profit, and so it doubles down on these kinds of extractive mechanisms.
GH: What do you think are the most effective short- and medium-term responses to gentrification?
NE: I think gentrification is associated with a lot of downstream effects, and it's important to be clear about the source of the phenomenon. The source of gentrification is rising rents. There's this kind of interesting subject-object split within economic activity, where on the one hand you can emphasize that there are landlords who are choosing to raise the rent. They could choose not to. On the other hand, why are they choosing to do so? There are larger structures of compulsion, and within the landlord class there are compositional differences. And so the way that gentrification gets politicized in a lot of places is there are homeowners, there's renters, there's small landlords, and that is what makes the city. Then there are these evil, newer, corporate landlords, and they're big and they're indifferent. They don't care about the character of the city. And that's why gentrification takes this more immediately-visible violent form of cultural erasure, because it's Global Capital flowing in and disrupting the previously harmonious state. And that is a false appearance. In the United States, the majority of landlords still are landlords who own less than 10 properties. That is changing, it’s concentrating for sure, there are definite tendencies towards concentration. That's something that is also true of regular businesses. It's a general tendency in capitalism.
This false appearance is part of a bad response to gentrification. A lot of anti-gentrification activism, including the non-profit industrial complex, focuses on creating coalitions with small landlords to craft landlord-friendly legislation, whether it's subsidies or different zoning laws that make it easier to run a landlord business at a small scale. And, you know, it’s the United States, so our favorite ideological figure is the small business owner, and the messaging plays right into that. In Oakland, for example, there is this idea of gentrification as outside invasion. You have your homegrown, ethnically-diverse Bay Area, and then you have people coming from the rest of the world, and they're getting the good jobs and they're paying the high rents and they're driving everyone out. And there's a corollary of big corporate landlords driving out the small landlords.
So there's this local discourse around landlords who are people of color, landlords who are Oakland natives, immigrant families that narrativize their own landlording business as an outgrowth of their immigrant experience. There's a lot of very cynical, reactionary anti-gentrification sentiments that are pro-landlord, pro-capitalist, and therefore pro-gentrification. But they're opposed to a certain image of gentrification. And there are non-profits that assist in creating these coalitions and essentially keeping the narrative about Big Capital.
I think that cutting at the root is ultimately just the most effective approach. The most effective medium-term strategy for combating gentrification is building tenant councils, simply because a tenant council is leverage that is organized around the actual relation of exploitation. Even if you join a tenant council as a tenant where you're in a big group that coordinates together but all of you rent from different landlords, that position is way weaker than just you and six other tenants who rent from your shared landlord. You can get way more done with that tiny group to impact just your immediate situation in a tenant council organized around your landlord. Any other form of coalition can add to that or augment it, but is just not going to match the kind of pooling of direct leverage.
The actual compositional makeup of any given city, even with large corporate landlords, is still something you can map and strategize around. Every city is gentrifying, and the only way to stop rents from going up is to impose pressure on landlords and defend those organizing structures that you build. I don't think this has ever happened, so I can't say with certainty that this is the way we need to do it. But starting in a hyperfocused and targeted manner can only go so far. The individual landlords, whether they're totally evil or totally reasonable people who are willing to work with you, there's only so much that they can do on their own. Even large landlords are compelled by the market. But the more people who are involved in this struggle… and again, if you're renting, you can get involved; this is a relation you're embedded in. If the scale at which councils can impose “stops” on landlords increases to such a degree that a lot of landlords are having trouble imposing rent hikes, then that is going to be a major blow to the forces of gentrification.
There's more to it than that. Like I said, gentrification is a political and economic process. There's municipal governments, developers, there's ultimately the investment capital that’s always looking for outlets. Even if you have a whole neighborhood where every tenant is in a council and they have successfully bullied their landlords, that'd be a major victory, but it won't necessarily stop someone from selling a property and then developing it into a bunch of condos. It won't necessarily stop any of these landlords from selling their houses and essentially breaking up the composition of these tenant councils. Now that wouldn’t be easy, and it would be costly, but this is just the back and forth that will never end. It’s a struggle.
The fact that housing is commodified is the ultimate weapon that the landlord class has against tenants. That’s why I think it’s very important to emphasize three things. The first consideration is the “targetedness,” so that you’re effectively getting at the actual nature of tenant-landlord relationship. So again, the form of the tenant council is the most direct strategy. The second consideration is the scale; qualitative shifts happen with quantitative shifts in scale. These shifts are in the balance of class forces — there are actual class forces extracting and exploiting in a given area, and if you can create more points of conflict for them, then that overall balance shifts, and that's helpful to new tenants that are newly organizing if that shift has already been established. So there’s a self-reinforcing effect to these struggles. The third consideration is that the problem is capitalism, and the tenant movement on its own is not going to overthrow capitalism, for all the reasons we already discussed. That has to happen in connection with a larger proletarian movement carrying out a diversity of activities. The historical force that delivers revolution is unpredictable, there's a lot of dynamism within tenancy, and gentrification is such a widespread and severe problem that I think it’s very immediately politicizing — I've witnessed that firsthand many times over the years. So I think a tenant movement can be a centerpiece of a working class upsurge, but it's just one part of the whole picture.
JM: There's a lot of discussion of police abolition in TANC’s materials. Could you explain the theoretical and practical links between tenant struggles and police abolition? With regard to policing, race, evictions, and tenant organizing, how are all of those separate threads intertwined?
NE: Eviction is the greatest weapon landlords have, and it’s often carried out by law enforcement. Landlords’ power comes from the backing of the State. Otherwise why would you send money to this random person?
On top of that, the cops are the shock troops of gentrification. That looks like a variety of things. There are neighborhood patterns of policing. There’s the sort-of opposite phenomenon to gentrification, what you might call “slummification,” where there's not necessarily a lot of money to be made, but there’s lumpen-bourgeois slumlording that occurs where it's pure extraction, reducing costs as much as possible. Slumlords don’t even have a veneer of maintaining livability or safe conditions for tenants. Gentrification and slummification often go hand in hand, in that previously-slummified neighborhoods are often targets for gentrification. But the double-edged sword of a lot of these slummified neighborhoods is that these patterns of disinvestment can lead to dangerous living conditions, which are carefully managed by the police. These neighborhoods are not “policed” in the sense that is normally advanced in the ideological justification of the existence of the police — they don’t even serve a superficial function of maintaining public safety, and yet they will, of course, police the boundaries of those slum areas, because it's all about policing the movement and the mixing of different populations. People who live in these depressed areas are expected to serve as a reserve army of labor, but that's it. Policing has always been crucial to the maintenance of the spatial composition of capital in cities.
With gentrification, what you have is the recomposition of capital, and therefore changing living patterns. This latest cycle of revolt against the police, the Black Lives Matter movement, the politicization of various killings, and the politicization of the rate of killing generally — I think all of that is inextricable from this recent period of gentrification. What I mean by that isn’t that gentrification causes it. It’s not like the police were suddenly given a mandate to go out and kill more people or something. But these changing living patterns produced friction. You can think of it in somewhat blunt terms: you had a certain distribution of people, and the police maintained the boundaries of that distribution, and then suddenly things were shifting, and they wanted to move people, keep them out of certain areas and move them into certain areas. That involves force at a certain level. That produces potential for different situations.
Again, it’s not a simple causal relation between gentrification and police violence. The police go out and they make super racialized, super racist decisions about the enforcement of the law. It’s just that the superstructure of Capital involves the concentration of force and the ability to kill at will. It’s in service of one spatial regime, and we are in a period of profound spatial transition because historic patterns of racial segregation are shifting. Certain depressed areas, like Black working class neighborhoods, created the conditions that were perfect for this cycle of gentrification and a new investment pattern. A lot of money was made on the backs of displacing people, and displacing people only occurs through force and the threat of force. The threat of force only exists through the application of force in certain periods. Basically, you don't have the recomposition of cities without racist police violence. On an absolute theoretical level, the landlord class has no power without the State. In a more historical sense, the mid-2010s were a flashpoint in class consciousness of the role of the cops, and the role of racialization in people's lives. I think it's not a coincidence at all that this also occurred during this major spatial recomposition.
As far as TANC’s line, again, TANC formed out of an inquiry into the material conditions of members of DSA and the extant socialist movement, in terms of what they're facing. A lot of it is extractive rents, terrible landlords, and so we formed as a tenant organization. But we're a politically partisan, anti-capitalist organization. We say “anti-capitalist” instead of any other particular tendency in order to be more umbrella, but by anti-capitalist we mean “revolutionary overthrow of capitalism through working class power.” So however you want to read that. But our goal is definitely more than just tenant “advocacy,” whatever that means. I think to build a proper class-conscious movement, it’s very important to actually be conscious of all the various facets of proletarian life, and we are a multiracial organization. We don't want to ever flatten the actuality of race and class into just a one-dimensional political issue. I think the immediate practical connection is more in the realm of recognizing that this is where mass attention is, and that there are reasons behind that, and we can examine all sorts of very concrete reasons why a tenant organization should support police abolition and should be aware of police violence. But even beyond that, I think it's just a reflection of the interests of the membership of TANC, whether they're people of color or allies, and it's a recognition of the reality of race, class, and the State. I guess, so to speak, that's where the masses are. So we were interested in advancing an analysis that connected these things. It was a little bit, “here's the real concrete connection,” and a little bit, “this is an important issue to have a line on so that we're not isolating these struggles.”
Going forward, I’d really like to see more points of contact with struggles beyond the tenant-landlord struggle. I'm thinking of prison struggles, organizing within prisons. Specifically the link that I see is as people are released from prison, them being able to plug into a tenant union, because housing discrimination is huge among formerly-incarcerated people and a major contributor to homelessness, recidivism, and reincarceration. This is potentially an area where tenant unions can intervene. If there's some kind of actual organizational and material way that tenant unions can advance solidarity in the form of helping formerly-incarcerated people find housing and stand up to discrimination, things like that. I think that proliferating these kinds of organic connections that are rooted in the actual relations that constitute these struggles, and not just displays of solidarity, are what I would love to see in the future. People are thinking about it, but there's not enough actualization.
GH: In a close-to-ideal scenario (with a truly-ideal scenario obviously being revolution), what would be the state of tenant organizing two or three years from now? What should the current tenant organizing scene try to turn itself into?
NE: That's an interesting question. Obviously everything is just totally speculative. There was one thing I did want to convey that is orthogonally related to your question, so I'll just tie it in. We're still facing the same crisis that kind of put tenant organizing on the map, no pun intended. Eviction and homelessness are the primary weapon of landlords, and that weapon was removed from them, by fiat, by the emergency pandemic-related moratoria against eviction. The moratoria are very imperfect, very patchwork — for a long time, there was no real federal level eviction protection. Even the CARES Act only applied to federally subsidized landlords. There was talk last summer about how all of these moratoria were expiring, and there's something like 20 million people — more or less one in five people — who are behind on rent. There’s billions of dollars in back-rent that’s just never going to be paid. So, facing an eviction crisis, in September 2020 the CDC issued guidelines that prohibited eviction, and then in many local areas, there were various extensions. Alameda County, which is where I live, where Oakland is, has fairly open-ended protections — they end 60 days after the end of the local state of emergency. So, essentially, for the indefinite future, there are no evictions happening. There have been all sorts of illegal evictions, but that takes a particularly bold landlord. The CDC guidelines are definitely also imperfect, not a full solution, but pretty much stayed this potential eviction wave that was expected to hit. It's been renewed three times, including in March 2021 by Biden. In early May 2021, a judge said that the guidelines were outside the scope of the CDC’s jurisdiction, but then agreed to stay her order to remove it to give the CDC time to appeal. So we'll see what's happening with that. But in any case, it expires sometime in June. The current political showdown that's precipitating in terms of this discourse around labor shortages, as well as the vaccine rollout and the fact that the US hoarded vaccines in order to carry out this rollout where we wasted like 20% of the vaccines, where I see that heading is a major political narrative by the summer that the pandemic is over, things need to go back to normal, the economy needs to be rebuilt, people need to go back to work, and they need to start paying rent again.
Long story short, this wave of evictions that was expected last August didn’t quite come. People have been evicted, but all around, I think there were fewer evictions last year than in previous years, despite the numbers of non-paying renters skyrocketing. The main stopgaps in place last year are still in place, but they are very uncertain, and will eventually give way. Personally, I think that if there's a move to evict several million people in a span of two weeks, the volatility from that… it wouldn’t necessarily translate to major victories for the working class, but it would definitely translate to bad times all around, including flashpoints of resistance. I could see there being attempts to avoid that, and to stagger this process. It's going to first be left up to the states. I foresee various rent/debt schemes, and different deferrals and different ways of avoiding eviction outright in order to forestall this wave. But what it does mean is that there's still very much intent to get all of the missing rent out of the millions of tenants who are kind of on a de facto rent strike. I think a very intelligent bourgeois State can probably do that in such a staggered manner that it diffuses any social conflict, and it remains to be seen whether the Biden Administration is that intelligent bourgeois State. Or even if the federal level is relevant, you know, as I think it'll vary by state.
So to get more to the meat of your question, I think the first test of this movement will be the next few months. That's the way it appeared to me last summer, too, but like I said, all this stuff was deferred, and I think it's just been exacerbated. It's just been more months of missed rent. What that means is eviction defense, but, in my opinion, more preemptively just ramping up tenant council organizing to pressure landlords to give up chasing missed rent. Let’s say there's a landlord who's in a position where they have no real hope of recovering that lost rent. Of course, the next step is eviction and getting new tenants as quickly as possible to recuperate that loss. But if the landlord in question would be risking all of the other rent from all of their other tenants who plan to go on strike in case of an eviction, because those tenants are organized into a strong council, that landlord would need to eat the loss.
Every day counts, and I think a sort of basic level of base-building to try to create these strong and combative councils is the ultimate solution. Alongside that, the tenant movement needs to work out strategies of eviction defense, which include disruption of the courts, harassing the landlord in terms of publicizing what they're doing and making it very challenging for them, showing up to defend tenants in their house, things like that.
I do wonder about the scale. Worst case scenario, they start carrying out evictions en masse. There would presumably be, in certain neighborhoods, many evictions on the same street. And so the spatial dynamics of that might actually be advantageous in certain situations, easier to defend. In other words, if it just becomes like, no one on this street is getting evicted because it's just too challenging for the Sheriff's Office or whoever. The conflicts will likely escalate, though that escalation might take the form of an apparent deescalation, where it's diffused out. We just need to be very intelligent about that, and recognize what's happening.
I don't necessarily have the highest hopes about the next few months. I think the landlords currently have a huge, overwhelming balance of power in their favor. But I think that the growth in these tenant organizations has been super promising. I've witnessed it firsthand in the Bay, and it looks like parallel things are happening in a lot of major cities. Plus, like I said, gentrification is not just a “major city” thing anymore, if it ever really was. So I would love to see a local tenant union for every city and suburb. In three years, I think the number of tenant councils can double or triple, although it certainly won't get to every city by then.
But I don't wish for there to be more nominal tenant unions that are just kind of there, and don’t really do anything. So if I had to trade off, I guess, more tenant unions in more cities versus stronger versions of the tenant unions that already exist, I would certainly choose the latter. I think there’s a long way to go in every tenant union in terms of how strong it is locally. I think a vast majority of people in Oakland have no idea what TANC is, and even amongst the people who do, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything to most of them. One measure of strength would be, just generally, is it widely understood that tenant unions are a thing? What I mean by that is, when I was younger, labor unions were so sparse that it was kind of an unfamiliar concept to many people, and it seems like in the last 10 years labor unions have become more familiar, more of a viable option to more people. I think if tenant unions reach that point, where people think: “Oh, I don't have to just roll over and take this, I have options that aren't just going to the local renter board or whatever, and basically entering into a bureaucracy. I have a real organization that has some bite, an organization that I can join.” I can see that happening within three years, especially with the coming confrontation that I think is likely to happen. I think the profile of resisting gentrification and resisting landlordism will definitely be raised, and in doing so the numerical membership of different tenant organizations will rise, and then it’ll be incumbent on organizations like TANC to navigate that. It’s the dynamic I mentioned earlier of actually growing capacity versus becoming immediately overcapacitated by the overwhelming need, which constitute two very different responses. I would also like to see more concessions extracted from landlords and the weakening of landlords’ political power.
Within three years I can definitely see all of that happening. I could see certain cities where there's already an advanced tenant movement undergoing some substantial shifts that could provide lessons for everyone else to follow. I feel very optimistic on the whole. Things are so dire that even being really optimistic only gets you so far, but it’s better than nothing.
No, that's a negative note to end on. Here’s what I'll end on: the tenant movement will definitely become more powerful over the next three years. It will definitely take a lot of work, and only come at the expense of entering into conflict. But I think the heat is there, I think people are more willing to enter into conflicts. I'm pretty encouraged by it.