by Suzy Subways
At first, when Laverne Connor’s building manager tried to have her evicted, she didn’t ask for help. “I took it on the chin,” she says. She was already a member of the Philadelphia Tenants’ Union, but she didn’t want to bother them with what she saw as her own troubles. A happy surprise met her once she got to court, though—Tenants’ Union members were already there. “They were in there with another tenant from another building the same day I went to court,” she says. “And they saw me in there, and from then on, they went to court with me. All three times.”
Women get locked out
Laverne Connor is not alone in having to fight to stay in her home. According to new research by The Reinvestment Fund, 15% of people living in some Philadelphia neighborhoods get evicted every year. Rents have gone up while wages have stayed the same, many public sector jobs have disappeared, and the right to public assistance has been attacked. But poverty doesn’t explain the problem completely. Racism in the housing market means that Black neighborhoods are hit hardest by eviction. And most of the tenants being evicted are women of color.
“The face of the eviction epidemic belongs to moms and kids,” Matthew Desmond, author of the book Evicted, said in an interview with Mother Jones magazine last year. Just as Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow showed that huge numbers of Black men being sent to prison is part of a continuing racist effort to remove them from American society, Evictedexplains how Black women have been targeted for eviction. “Poor black men were locked up,” Desmond wrote. “Poor black women were locked out.”
Why women? Part of it is because women are paid lower wages and have to spend more money on necessities than men do, which can cause them to fall behind on rent. But the main reason is that women are more likely to have children. Matthew Desmond found that people with children were three times more likely to get evicted than those without. Landlords see children as a potential threat to their profits, because kids are more vulnerable to health and safety issues in the building, so landlords have to spend more on upkeep. It’s hard for tenants to prove that a landlord is trying to evict them because they have children.
Building tenants’ power
If that sounds terribly wrong, that’s because it is. Landlords care more about their profits, the money they take from your rent, than they do about you and your children having a home.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Philadelphia Tenants’ Union was started by members of Philly Socialists who saw that landlords have all the power in the courts and City Hall. They started bringing tenants together, using the power of numbers to get each other’s backs and to strip landlords of some of their power.
Laverne Connor and her neighbors in the Tenants’ Union wrote a letter to Residential Life, their building’s owner, demanding that they install security cameras in the hallways for their safety. “They didn’t want to pay all that money to get cameras,” she says. “We took the letter down to 2929 Arch Street, and they wouldn’t even come downstairs to accept our letter.” The tenants had to put the letter in the mail. But Residential Life was forced to respond—the company installed security cameras on the first floor after the tenants protested together at its office.
In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, tenants’ unions were massive and powerful. They brought thousands of people to resist the police and landlords whenever they heard someone was being evicted. Of the families that made up the membership of the tenants unions, many were socialists. They fought to save their neighbors’ homes—and to change the world, so human needs would come before profit.
In present-day Venezuela, a country in South America where socialists in the government use profits from the oil company to pay for human needs, we can already glimpse visions of a better world. Instead of tearing down public housing, the way cities in the United States are doing, Venezuela is building millions of units of new affordable public housing, even in wealthier neighborhoods, as documented in the new book Building the Commune by Drexel professor George Ciccariello-Maher. Hundreds of families have even moved into empty downtown skyscrapers, whether or not the government approves, working together to keep the buildings maintained without landlords.
Back in Philly, the smaller things still matter. Mice might be tiny, but they were a big problem in Laverne Connor’s building. And safety issues, like the need for security cameras, make women tenants more vulnerable. “There was a time when our elevator was broken for almost a month and two weeks,” she says. “I leave here at 6:15 in the morning to go to work. And for the whole 30 days plus some, I had to walk down the stairwells. I didn’t know who was lingering in the stairwells.” Even worse, she says, “I had an issue with the maintenance man coming into my apartment while I was inappropriate lying in my bed.” She heard no knock at the door. “They’re supposed to give you 24-hour notice that they’re coming into your apartment.”
Laverne Connor may be moving out of her current apartment, but she plans to stay active in the Tenants’ Union. “Being a Tenants’ Union member has made me stronger,” she says. “I know more of my rights. I already knew a few of them, but being in the Tenants’ Union since last year, I learned a lot more of my rights. I’ll always be a member,” she says.