“Success Isn’t Guaranteed, but Defeat is if we Don’t Do Anything.” Interview With Socialists Stopping Evictions in Detroit

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Detroit was hit hard by COVID-19. But mass displacement and racist austerity measures have been a scourge in the city for decades. Left Voice sat down with Detroit revolutionary socialist Tristan Taylor to discuss evictions, and how to fight them.

Who are you?  What are you involved in? And are you an essential worker?

My name is Tristan Taylor and I am currently an independent revolutionary socialist involved in housing justice organizing in Detroit, among other things. I am currently unemployed because the retail bakery I work at closed down due to COVID-19 and concerns of the staff about the safety of continuing to function.  

Detroit is seen as the poster child of the rust-belt city, having gone from the Motor City to bankruptcy, can you talk a little about organizing in Detroit before COVID-19?

Detroit has been hit extremely hard by racist austerity measures that have stripped resources from this majority-black city, which once led the nation in homeownership, and is now composed of 57% renters where 1 out of 5 renters face eviction every year. A lot of the foundations for community — be it family homes, schools, access to water and public sector jobs — have been in great part wiped out. This has led to mass displacement of black people and a sharp decline in population, though contrary to the public narrative about “shrinking” and in need of “right-sizing”, Detroit still has a population of roughly 700,000 people, making its population bigger than Portland, Oregan, Atlanta, and Seattle (which all have a similar geographical size as Detroit).  

One of the effects of the federal bankruptcy of 2013 was that traditional institutions of opposition were wiped out or severely weakened, making organizing in Detroit challenging. The federal bankruptcy deal hurt Detroit’s municipal pension holders and caused many city services to be outsourced and privatized. Long-term, black residents were hit hard by home foreclosures and school closures. Add to that tax foreclosures that were unconstitutional because of over-assessment of residential properties, and you have the makings for mass displacement. So as you can see Detroit was already experiencing a social crisis before COVID-19.

But the contradictions and heighted inequality created by the federal bankruptcy and racist autersity policies recently came to a head. In the Winter of 2019-2020 Detroit residents forced the City Council to reject a bond proposal for a blight removal program riddled in financial and social scandal. They then mobilized after learning that Detroit homeowners had been illegally overtaxed roughly 600 million dollars during the foreclosure crisis. So, effective and sustainable forms of opposition were producing new momentum for the housing justice movement in Detroit immediately before the pandemic broke out. 

And how has COVID-19, and the social and economic crisis created by it, affected Detroit? 

COVID-19 has hit Detroit particularly hard. We are currently leading the nation in new cases and death rates. Across the country, the virus has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color. This is because racism and segregation means communities of color are often poor and without adequate access to healthcare. They typically make up a bigger portion of the working poor who are essential workers lacking personal protective equipment and access to testing to keep them safe.   

The racist and segregating effects of policies means Detroiters are being told to survive a pandemic in harsh and inhumane conditions. This can be seen in the case of mass water shut-offs. Michigan implemented a moratorium on water shut-offs, and state aid to turn water services back on in Detroit, but the City doesn’t have the labor to turn the water back on quickly enough for the thousands of people without water. This means that the basic precaution necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, washing your hands, is inaccessible to thousands of Detroiters who live in homes.  

Can you tell us a little about detroitrentercity.com? 

Detroitrentercity.com is a project created by myself and other housing justice advocates and renters who saw the need for readily available resources that could allow for renters to better protect themselves against the unjust and illegal practices of landlords, and push for policies that spoke to the needs of renters, something that doesn’t happen often enough in Detroit. The project was something we were working on before COVID-19, so when the crisis hit and we were able to get our bearings we launched the website. It includes a petition calling for the suspension of rent, a moratorium on utility shutoffs, and an extension on a moratorium on evictions to last until the state of emergency ends and gives tenants 60 days after the state of emergency to get their bills in order, without late fees or penalties.  

We want the website to provide tools for tenants to organize themselves and protect themselves from illegal evictions and neglected and inferior housing conditions. We wanted to let renters know what they can do to fight back against landlord abuse by putting in clear terms some of the tools they have available to them. 

We are planning on adding a guide to detroitrentercity.com to help people organize tenants unions. Housing in Detroit is not as concentrated and dense as in New York. Here, a large number of renters live in single family homes, where landlords don’t necessarily own the properties next door. Here a tenants union might take the form of a kind of neighborhood association. One group of renters we know are seeking to form a tenants union in single family properties owned by the same company. Another group of renters is organizing people inside of an apartment building, where several tenants have already been withholding rent in response to lack of repairs. A group of renters living in an eight unit building with multiple roommates just contacted Detroit Renter City. So what we are seeing in Detroit is that tenant organizing comes in different forms, and the current crisis is providing some new opportunities to take action. We still have a lot to figure out.

What do you think of the federal, state, and local responses to the crises, such as Governor Whitmer’s Executive Order that temporarily stops evictions? 

Governor Whitmer is waiting until the very last minute to extend the stay at home orders and the moratorium on evictions because she doesn’t want to scare the landlords and capitalists who are absolutely terrified at the prospect of losing profits, pandemic and human lives be damned. They want the “market” to be back up and functioning as soon as possible, and that includes mechanisms for enforcement, like evictions, must be allowed to continue because they fear people will not pay if there is no penalty to do so.  Like all capitalist politicians, Whitmer holds the sanctity of capitalism and profits in such high regard that she is willing to compromise on protecting people’s lives. With no mass testing we are still playing a gamble with people’s lives unnecessarily when we fail to heed the advice of experts who say an extended quarantine (some say for at least 18 months) is needed by merely extending shelter in place orders to just a couple of more weeks.

Can you talk about the gendered component of these evictions?

Single mothers are those most at risk of illegal evictions and most likely to be low wage workers with few daycare alternatives, making for a more precarious living and working situation. Last week, we heard of a story of a young black woman with kids illegally being evicted by her landlord during the stay at home order. He kicked down her door and threatened to come back to make sure she was gone, not caring about what the law stipulated. When she called the police, who were supposed to enforce the eviction moratorium, they never came.  Community members attempted to help her, and she is living with neighbors now, but she is very frightened about going back to the house. Even though going home is her legal right. We are working with her to find ways to go after the landlord, making sure he pays for the damage and suffering he caused. The structural dynamics of gender in this example point to the need for tenants unions or associations to stand up for renters facing illegal evictions. 

So what are the next steps? What do renters do? 

The next step is to build as much organization as we can now in order to build up our capacity to challenge the mass evictions that are sure to follow the lifting of the moratorium on evictions and the stay at home orders. With a record number of people filing for unemployment, we know there are a lot of people not paying rent because they simply don’t have the money. And some will be unable to make up money that they have lost because they don’t qualify for the stimulus because of its restrictions, or they are essential workers but are working reduced hours without hazard pay.   

Renters should use every legal hearing that is required in the process, to make eviction more burdensome for the landlords and the court systems. Renters should feel compelled to call out the courts to dispense actual justice and not grant requests for evictions. Poor people should not be made homeless or responsible to pay the cost for a global pandemic that our government failed to take seriously and minimize the damage of.

No one should comply with an order for eviction if they receive one, and those facing eviction should put out a call to their neighbors, labor unions, grass roots organizations and progressive groups to mobilize to stand with them in non-compliance of the eviction order. If enough people do this, we can create an unmanageable situation that overwhelms the court systems and the eviction process.  

What experience or examples of effective physical resistance to evictions do you have?

I was an active member of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights, and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) and worked with an organization that later became Detroit Eviction Defense (DED). We were able to do a series of successful campaigns to stop foreclosures, including community defense vigils to halt three attempts to physically remove people from their homes. In Michigan it is a legal requirement for a dumpster to be present for an eviction to proceed. In two of the actions we stopped the dumpster from being placed, and in the third, a community defense vigil we filled up one of the dumpsters with garbage, forcing them to get another dumpster and buying time for a miraculous victory that hinged on a legal technicality (it was a scene straight out of a movie).  

In each situation, those resisting foreclosure had active support from their neighbors and the larger community, and were prepared to stay in their homes until they were forced to leave. Essentially they were failing to comply with the eviction order. Success isn’t guaranteed, but defeat certainly is if we don’t do anything. For those willing to struggle, they must be given legal resources and physical help from progressive organizations and labor unions, who fail to live up to their words if they can’t find ways to support those struggling for their right to housing. This is where we show in practice which organizations are serious about struggle, and which ones simply give lip service as a way of making Democratic Party politicians and donors seem relevant to poor and working-class voters.  

What is the role of revolutionaries in this situation? 

As far as the struggle for renters’ rights, revolutionaries are presented with an opportunity to help create organization for sections of the working-class and the specially oppressed, who at this stage of the class struggle are in desperate need of fighting organizations that mobilize their power. That means we have to get to work, doing this in a serious, well thought out, and creative manner that corresponds to the class struggle.  Before COVID-19 there was already a social crisis around housing. Now we can build organizations that add to the already existing struggles waged by these communities, with the chance of clarifying both the nature of the crisis and the need for a more militant approach to solving the social crisis of housing and gentrification.

While we are in the midst of a pandemic that for too many has had dire consequences, with so many losing their livelihoods along with the lives of loved ones, we are in a position to make an impact far greater than what was previously achievable. The eviction process is often a painful and lonely one, where people have to deal with personal shame over their often unsustainable and unlivable housing situation. However, this time is different. Because of the pandemic tens of thousands of working-class and poor people all across the country will be facing evictions as a result of a pandemic that is completely out of their control. This illustrates that the injustices faced by renters were not simply a reflection of their flaws, but of the inequality of a system that forces poor people to bail out their rich landlords during a global pandemic. This makes resisting evictions the right and just thing to do, and increases our chances of doing it collectively since so many of us are facing this awful situation at the same time.   

What do you think are good demands pertaining to housing that a socialist program would have to include?

Outside of fighting to make housing a universal right, we need a call for public housing based on tenants associations making decisions on how public housing is organized and run. We need to make sure that public housing is racially and economically integrated. By this I don’t mean to simply allow poor people to live next to rich people. The same standard of housing, be it apartment buildings or single housing units, should be accessible to poor and middle-class alike. The problem with public housing historically has been how hypersegregated it becomes, which allows for it to be more easily neglected and defunded. But to provide affordable housing would require it to be made public and out of the influence and control of the capitalist market. Since public housing doesn’t need to pay out dividends to investors, the money that is needed to maintain housing would be to do just that; in other words the rent people pay would actually go towards maintaining the housing they live in, as opposed to someone’s pocket.  

I think the socialist program around housing should make clear that the struggle for housing justice is one of the ways that a genuine revolutionary party can become the “tribune of the people” because it allows us to engage with different sections of the working-class and some of their interests, strengths, and misunderstands that must be hammered out if we are to build a powerful and effective revolutionary organization and movement.  

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Left Voice

Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.