Coming Together in a Crisis

By: Matteo MacDermant

The COVID-19 crisis dropped like a bomb upon our fragile society, leaving vast sectors of the economy shuttered or overwhelmed. The federal government promises relief and they promise bailouts, but such promises leave much to be desired. This so-called relief comes laced with giveaways to the rich and too little too late for workers. The COVID-19 crisis is likely to be no different, which is why workers in Philly and elsewhere are not waiting for the government, business owners, and landlords to “do the right thing.” That time will never come. It is up to us to protect and support each other, organize, and put forward alternatives to the brutality of disaster capitalism that will leave millions poorer, sicker, and more vulnerable than ever. Bailouts for workers are only as good as workers’ ability to organize and act collectively. And yet, in these times of social distancing, such actions are difficult. New strategies are necessary to bring people together in action when we are forced to be physically apart. Organizers, luckily, are an adaptable and creative bunch. Even under Stay at Home orders and social distancing requirements, the struggle for housing as a human right continues. Our community continues to support one another. Our solidarity is not and will not be broken.

Before COVID-19

The Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU) was in the process of organizing tenants from Retrowave Realty into a tenant union local when the crisis struck. The campaign was designed around a strategy that sought to bring together all tenants who share the same landlord into a unified struggle. PTU was compiling a list of all the tenants from Retrowave who were inclined to organize, giving tools and training to further organize their neighbors. 

The long-term goal was to achieve a critical mass, ensure that the local was self-sustaining, move on to the city’s other large landlords and developers, organize those tenants into union locals, and then repeat this process. Each local would be semi-autonomous but supported by the PTU in struggles big and small. This would allow for effective eviction defense, provide organizational support, develop community amongst neighbors (especially those in the same building), and work toward collective bargaining strategies such as negotiating rental prices, ensuring proper maintenance, and protecting tenant rights. Eventually every tenant living under the rule of a large landlord could join a union local.

Philadelphia, however, unlike other cities in the northeast, has relatively few large buildings. Many Philly tenants rent from landlords who have only a few properties, spread across the city – an obstacle to forming union locals. Yet most landlords hire property managers. Tenants organized around a common property manager could build collective power and resist their landlords, even while living in a single family home, since it is usually the managers who handle day to day matters, similar to your supervisor at work. Such a strategy would be effective for almost any property in the city.

Then, on March 11th, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO. Within a week, the city of Philadelphia began restricting gatherings and “business as usual” quickly ground to a halt until all “non-essential” businesses and activities ceased with the culmination of a Stay at Home Order on March 23rd. Pennsylvania followed suit with a statewide Stay at Home Order on April 1st. The usual forms of organizing were suspended and yet, with rent still due and unemployment exploding, organizing had to go on. The PTU adapted and new strategies were born.

Organizing during a Pandemic

The Retrowave campaign continued, but instead of going door to door, PTU decided to create a simple quarter-page leaflet saying: “Are you a Retrowave tenant? Has your income been impacted by the pandemic and are you concerned about making rent?” along with contact information. The leafleting campaign began the same week that the pandemic was declared, even before the city began Stay at Home orders, to get ahead of the crisis and not put any tenants at risk.

Organizers divided into turfs (a few blocks each), posted the leaflets, and within a couple of days calls and emails poured in, with people saying things like: I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay my rent, I just got laid off, What if I get sick?, and most palpably, I’m scared. Many were just looking to PTU for direction and support or to make sense of things. Others were looking for ways to act, to do something, anything, in the face of potential ruin. 

Many who reached out, however, were not jobless or behind on rent. They were instead acting in solidarity with friends and neighbors. They were unable to sit idle while their community skipped meals and lost sleep.

The Coronavirus crisis acted as a catalyst, bringing countless people into the fold, some for the very first time. The surge, a sign of both tragedy and opportunity, was overwhelming, and yet it wasn’t nearly representative of the maximum potential of Philadelphia’s tenants. PTU was quickly brought to the limits of its capacity, as organizers scrambled to ease the anxieties of people around the city and channel their righteous anger into collective action.

Meeting the Surge

Tools4Tenants sprang into being just as the Coronavirus crisis reared its head. The organization started almost overnight from the ashes of a union organizing campaign at a now shuttered restaurant. Three roommates who had been working for months to build a service workers union found themselves suddenly unemployed when Philly’s Stay at Home order began on March 23rd. This cut them off not just from income, but from their ability to build worker’s power. It was a terrible blow to one of many efforts to give service workers in Philadelphia a voice, a platform, a semblance of security and dignity in an otherwise brutal, underpaid and overworked sector of the economy. They were now union organizers with nowhere to organize. And rent was still due.

These organizers did not simply give up when the job shut down. They did not accept that this defeat was terminal, a sign of hopelessness. They embodied the mantra of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) that a sustainable strategy is to “organize the worker, not the job.” If these three roommates had developed a campaign that was specific only to that one workplace, they would be finished, perhaps for good. Instead, they set their sights on a new target, the next area of struggle, where their organizing skills and drive toward collective action could be applied to, as Philly Socialists say, “serve the people, fight the power.” 

With rent due on April 1st, they pivoted from organizing the restaurant to organizing their  building, organizing their neighbors in their buildings, and building tenant power at a time when renters across the city are echoing, “If we can’t work, we can’t pay.” 

Tools4Tenants was born from the example set by Stomp Out Slumlords and incubated in the Facebook group Philly Area Abolish COVID. From there, they set up a website to provide Tools4Tenants (hence the name) to: 

  • help organizers easy find landlords and property managers;
  • create a database of all the tenants living under the same landlord: 
  • write letters to their landlords; 
  • connect neighbor with neighbor; 
  • provide basic tenant organizing resources,
  • and connect people to the PTU.

The goal was to support the campaign for developing distributed networks of tenant union locals who could semi-autonomously organize with their neighbors against each and every landlord, property developer, and property manager in Philadelphia, supported by PTU at the city level. Tools4Tenants was filling a major need, meeting the surge with increased capacity to organize and act. They are filling a gap in PTU’s ability to reach the people who need tools and support at this critical moment when everyone is worried about the days to come.

Tools4Tenants also began their own leafleting campaigns and the results were similarly astounding. An organizer with the campaign shed light on just how much things have grown: “Instead of the usual 1-2% response rate,” he said, “these fliers were pulling in 30% response rates.” One hundred and twenty tenants were contacted and directed to PTU as of April 4th. In just under three weeks, the organization went from zero to about half the size of the entire PTU, pre-crisis. The potential of this is astonishing. PTU and adjacent tenant organizations are set to potentially double their membership.

The best part about this is that this massive surge is not a competition. Tools4Tenants is not a PTU “rival.” They began in solidarity with PTU and are now an integral part of PTU, offering much needed support and capacity in an unprecedented time where capitalism’s ugly head is rearing in a manner not seen for decades in the United States. We are living in scary, uncertain, angst-inducing times. We are also living in a world of possibility, where the struggle for housing as a human right can be advanced as never before. 

Coming Together in a Crisis

Tenants responding to leaflets and the Tools4Tenants website were asked to get on a Zoom call, share stories and experiences, and connect with neighbors and friends about the crisis and ways to respond. 

PTU organizer Emily Black told me: “The most important thing right now is to connect tenants to each other. They don’t even have to join PTU. It’s just important, especially now, that people see that their neighbors and friends are all going through the same crisis and we need to support each other.” 

Solidarity has never been more important. The crisis is revealing what has been true all along. We are all in this together, as a class. There is no way out of this without collective action, without supporting and fighting for and with one another. If each one of us tries to fight landlords alone, we all lose. If we struggle together, we can win. 

We must come together to get through this. Simply letting your neighbor know that you see their struggle and that you’re there with them, together, is huge. It is life changing. It builds the trust and community that acts as the glue for collective struggle. When neighbors come together, the possibilities are enormous. Once that glue begins to set, the time to fight also begins.

Crisis Committees

PTU quickly set a response plan in motion, setting up a scaffolding structure that identified tenants who could replace existing PTU organizers so that tenants themselves would be empowered to organize their neighbors and friends, not as PTU “staff” but as the core of a tenant-led movement.

The original plan called for the creation of five committees:

  • Internal communications creates and runs meetings, manages emails and keeps everyone up to date within the org. 
  • Membership does outreach, “collects” tenant experiences, supports members, and crunches data. 
  • The emerging steering committee is looking to develop a long term plan and prepare for the fights two, three, five steps ahead.
  • The writing committee is following the lead of our comrades at Stomp Out Slumlords, where organizers had success writing demand letters to landlords, asking them to cancel or reduce rent, either for everyone, or at least for those who have lost their jobs. Organizers in DC had success with this campaign, with several landlords agreeing and forgiving part of all of April’s rent. 
  • The outreach committee is continuing the leafleting campaign and working to develop an expansion plan to target other landlords and property managers. 

The hope is that this campaign can be successfully replicated, bringing together a broad coalition of people ready to fight back and support each other in the months ahead.

Promises from Above

The city closed eviction courts on March 16th, staying evictions until at least April 30th. The Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) suspended their evictions for thirty days. Councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks introduced proposals to freeze utility shut-offs, tax-lien sales, evictions, and foreclosures. The Water Department agreed to freeze shut-offs for sixty days.

Elizabeth Fiedler, a state representative endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), introduced legislation calling on the state to freeze rent and mortgage payments for three months. PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro called upon the courts “not to institute any eviction proceedings against your tenants or mortgage-holders who have been impacted by this crisis … for some additional time period after our courts are reopened for eviction proceedings.” It isn’t clear exactly how much additional time.

Councilmembers Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks, Jamie Gauthier (3rd District), and Kenyatta Johnson called upon state and federal authorities to freeze rent and mortgage, evictions, and utility shut-offs for at least two months. “Recently, we’ve seen ample discussion around mortgage relief at the federal level, but little to no attention being paid to the immediate needs of renters,” Councilperson Brooks said. “A majority of Philadelphia residents, including myself, rent their homes. For many parents, paying rent means jeopardizing their ability to care for their families. This crisis is demonstrating what organizers have been saying for years—that housing is a human right.”

Kendra Brooks is definitely correct here. Housing is a human right. Rent, mortgage, foreclosures, tax liens, and utilities should be frozen. Progressives should be applauded for saying these much needed things. We must, however, not believe that these proposals will be a magic fix, that everyone will be spared by legislative action, that support will come in time, or that it will come at all without grassroots organizing. Calls for justice are not justice. Calls for reform, no matter how bold, are not reforms. Brooks and other progressives may be earnest in their desire to help Philadelphia’s renting class but earnestness is not enough to stave off disaster for workers and tenants across our city. We should continue to put pressure on lawmakers and work to hold legislative allies accountable. But above all else, we must continue to organize. There is no substitute for organizing, and there is no substitute for solidarity.

From Hopelessness to Solidarity

It is easy to feel hopeless in a crisis, especially when we can’t see each other in person and the whole world seems to be shut down. Yet it is in these times that coming together, by any possible means, is most critical. It is when we are against the wall that organizing, mutual aid, community, and solidarity are most crucial. We must support each other and act collectively, not just against this crisis, but for a better world beyond the grind of endless crises. Everything starts with coming together. Everything starts with taking the first step to do something, anything, to move forward, when everything seems to be moving backward.

Everyone is feeling the weight of the world collapsing in on them and people are clamoring to do something about that collapse. As organizer Emily Black said, “People just want to do something.” Everyone wants to take that step to overcome the powerlessness of overdue rent and bills, surging unemployment, isolation, and the intense fear of illness, joblessness, houselessness, and poverty. Organizations like PTU are working to catalyze that yearning to say no to those who are asking the most vulnerable amongst us to pay for yet another crisis created by the rich. We will not pay for yet another crisis while the elite get bailed out and collect tax breaks and giveaways. We will not stand by as landlords and investors are handed billions while tenants and workers lose everything. 

Now is not the time for wishful thinking. It’s not the time to wait for bailouts or saviors. Those things may or may not come, even from the best intentioned lawmakers. Solidarity, on the other hand, is for the long haul. Organizing is for the long haul. Community and mutual support is for the long haul. With these things, we can make it through the worst of times.

If you are interested in organizing the tenants in your building or neighborhood, check out the PTU organizer guide or head over to the Tools4Tenants website to access resources or connect with PTU.

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