Building a Fighting Force to Stop Evictions and Win Affordable Rents

ACORN Bristol

New Orleans    Tenancy is rising, and it’s expensive. People are being pressed up against the walls. The old rule of thumb that rent and housing costs should not be more than 30% of income, similar to the old Brooke Amendment named after the legendary African-American Senator from Connecticut, has long been in ruins.

This is a global issue.

ACORN affiliates in Scotland amassed to fight evictions in both Glasgow and Edinburgh in recent weeks. ACORN in Bristol is currently involved in a rent strike and has beaten back numerous evictions.

When we were recently in Detroit, we met with a very active and effective organization there called the Detroit Eviction Defense. The group meets weekly and was diversely populated with younger activists, retired union professionals, lawyers, former journalists, professors, and of course tenants. The actions and victories on their website is impressive.

Evictions are a growing issue.

Researchers, Joshua Akers and Eric Seymour in Detroit shared with us soon to be published data on evictions which were eyeopening to us. In a data set they had accumulated over the decade between 2005 and 2015, these University of Michigan whizzes had separated the nearly 7500 contract “purchases” from the total of 80,000 total acquisitions involving tax delinquency or foreclosure auctions. Although we had thought a primary part of the business model for contract pushers was evictions and indeed they generate more, but it was a matter of degree at 1 out 3 compared to 1 out of 4, between the two, with both at outrageous levels.

A paper by the researchers connected to the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, led by Flora Raymond (and shared with us by our wolverine comrades) notes that Atlanta is out of the box compared with other cities and no small part of this issue is driven by the increased corporate ownership of rental units and businesses that make evictions and the collection of late fees a fundamental part of their business model, similar to the recent news reports of the Kushner operation’s methods in the Baltimore area. The paper notes that,

In Fulton County, an average of 107 eviction notices are filed each day, for a yearly total equal to 22 percent of all rental households. In Milwaukee … 16 percent of all rental families are evicted. A similar rate occurs in Fulton County, where 15 percent of all rental households are evicted. Eviction rates are highest among multifamily rentals, but they are also prevalent in single-family rentals. We find that large corporate owners in the single-family rental business are more likely than small landlords to evict tenants, even after controlling for parcel level and neighborhood-level factors.

Our Home Savers Campaign is finding that our members are frequently entering the predatory land installment contracts not because they are wide-eyed about becoming home owners, but even more frequently because they are desperate for affordable housing regardless of condition, if they think they can manage the lower monthly payments, regardless of the predatory scam.   Something is happening here, Mr. Jones!

It’s been widely reported and at the grassroots level, painfully realized, but Raymond and her co-authors state it plainly,

The number of renters with high housing cost burdens has reached record levels in the United States. Over 21 million households spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent; 11 million of those spend more than 50 percent, which is considered severely cost burdened. Much of the increase in households reporting housing insecurity can be attributed to soaring rents as demand for rental housing climbs (Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 2016).

Add it up and the numbers are staggering. About 27,000 evictions in Atlanta’s Fulton County every year, and eviction rates in Milwaukee at 16%, Chicago 7%, Cleveland 11%, and the beat goes on and the family and community tragedy it represents increases. Take 21 million paying more than 30% of income on rent and another 6 million contract buyers, and millions of renters facing the street over and under these figures who are facing eviction, multiply them by all members of their households, and we have a huge constituency that would seem to be ripe for both organization and action.

Like the old buffalo hunters, I’ve got my ear to the ground to see if I can hear a movement coming.

Please enjoy Blackleg Miner by Offa Rex (The Decemberists & Olivia Chaney).

Thanks to KABF.

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Waking up the Sleeping Giant and Building a Renters’ Voting Block

us-hr-ageBuckhorn, Ontario  It is hard to escape the feeling, country to country, that low-and-moderate income families, and, just possibly, even families with more money, are rapidly consolidating into a permanent class of renters. Certainly in some cities around the world like New York City, Toronto, London, and elsewhere, this has long been the case. In the United States though it is a bumpier transition because the dominant narrative in the vast expanse of the land is that the American dream includes home ownership. Increasingly that dream comes with a disclosure now that you better be ready to move to smaller towns, cities, and rural areas if you want to live that dream.

In the US, the number of renters, and therefore potential renter’s votes, are rising. Renter votes increased 49% between 1996 and 2012, while owner votes only increased 23%, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data. According to data reported by the Wall Street Journal:

Nonetheless, just 22% of votes cast in the 2012 election were by renters, according to the analysis. But as the renter population grows, Apartment List [a rental leasing website] estimates that one-third of eligible voters in this election could be renters. Based on historical voting patterns, renters would likely cast about one-quarter of the votes—a small but meaningful increase from the last election.

This sleeping giant traditionally has not stirred much around Election Day. Renters are often seen as more transient, though some data interestingly finds that voting rates are as low for stable tenants as they are for frequent movers. They are also young, and poorer, none of which are huge vote movers. Furthermore, owners vote more consistently than renters. Another statistic in the Journal piece points to a potential game changer as anger over cost and affordability continues to rise.

The number of cost-burdened renters—those who spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent—has risen by 3.6 million since 2008, to a historic high of 21.3 million in 2014, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In the meantime, the number of cost-burdened owners has declined by 4.4 million since 2008 to 18.5 million.

The Presidential campaign is silent on the issue of renters and rising rents and housing prices are at the heart of the entire Trump business model, so we shouldn’t be surprised. Either way, if any of them have a plan, it’s a secret.

There’s a way to change this though and wake the sleeping giant: put issues directly on the ballot in cities and states wherever possible that allow the people to step in with solutions where politicians fear to tread on campaign contributions from developers. Just as ACORN did earlier in place after place on living wages, we need to start crafting initiatives from our renters’ bill of rights from rent control to dedicated spending for public and subsidized affordable housing. Organizationally, we need to craft proposals that meet the crisis and the interest of tenants and bring them out to polls in force to alter this landscape.

We need to make sure there are consequences as well. As campaign discussions wound down on the prospects of winning a comprehensive and enforceable landlord licensing ordinance or bylaw in Toronto, ACORN’s head organizer there, John Anderson, noted flatly that either the Council passed the measure this fall or they would likely see the issue as the largest issue in the next election. As the votes of renters are triggered in just that way everywhere the issue is rising, that’s not a threat or a promise, but virtually a take-it-to-the-bank prediction.

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Italian Tenants Withstand Landlord Pushback with Court Victory

ACORN Italy's David Tozzo with the Organizers/ Forum in Warsaw (in the middle in green shirt)

ACORN Italy’s David Tozzo with the Organizers/ Forum in Warsaw (in the middle in green shirt and glasses)

Grenoble    Ever since 2011 when ACORN Italy launched our campaign to take advantage of a unique handle passed by the national legislature allowing tenants to reduce their rent if their landlords were renting to them on the black market without paying taxes, we have been fighting back against the landlord counterattack. The victories for tenants exploiting the law were huge since by triggering registration of the landlord’s property their bounty was a reduction of their rent by 85 to 90% for the four-year term of a standard lease with a four-year option of renewal. The math is clear. If a tenant were paying 1000 euros in rent, they would then only be paying 150 euros saving more than 10000 euros a year, 40000 for four years, 80000 for eight years. Needless to say, the landlords had been happy to avoid paying taxes to the government, and were wild with rage about now having to both pay taxes and receive less revenue from their tenants.

Lawyers were a cheaper alternative for the landlords and they have yo-yoed back and forth to court with us since 2012. We took a hit from the Supreme Court in late 2013 ruling that there was a technical problem with the law. We managed to get legislation through the Senate that prevented the tenants who had seized the law’s opportunity with us from having to pay back the landlords for their lost revenues. We have introduced other legislation to correct the technical flaw and restore the original intent of the law.

Meanwhile another suit had ended up in the second high court of Italy which interprets laws and is called the La Corte Surprema di Cassazione or Supreme Court of Cassation. The decision of the Court which is final at the highest level has reopened provision – and the opportunity – for tens of thousands of tenants throughout Italy.

The Court ruled that if the landlord and the tenant had a verbal, oral contract rather than a written lease contract as required, then they had the ability to push the property to be registered and register the rent at the lower level as allowed by the original legislation. Part of the tenant’s claim and defense would be allowable based on the “moral” or “psychological” pain suffered by the tenant from not having a written lease and having been forced to find housing in the informal, black market so prevalent throughout Italy. The Court’s decision does not reopen the door for tenants with a written, but unregistered lease, but settles the matter for those who were forced to agree to an okey-dokey lease involving tax evasion.

The tide hasn’t completely turned for ACORN Italy’s work. We still have much to be done with our allies in the Senate to both nail down tenant protections and restore the comprehensive opportunity to all tenants, but in the meantime we’re gearing up to get the word out throughout Italy to tenants with wink-and-nod verbal leases that their opportunity is knocking and the door is wide open again. Needless to say, head organizer David Tozzo is drawing up major national recruitment plans to scale up ACORN Italy’s work to take advantage of the opportunity and the membership is soaring.

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For Tenancy to be an Alternative, Renting Has to Work

indexNew Orleans   One of the many unresolved issues from the Great Recession, still painfully winding down, is whether or not it is time to call the dream of home ownership for low-and-moderate income families a tragic mirage.  Having wiped out a generation of increased ownership among African-Americans and Hispanic families, and lacking a concerted funding stream, credit and lending standards, federal policy and national consensus on this goal, this is likely to end as a toothless debate.  So maybe it’s time to more seriously look at what it might take to make tenancy a stable, long term alternative that works to build citizen wealth.

            Looking at the “healthy homes” and landlord licensing campaigns being waged by ACORN Canada in Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa as well as ACORN’s EPTAG affiliate in Edinburgh, Scotland organizing among private tenants and ACORN Bristol in Easton, it is clear we still have a long way to go.  There are thousands of landlords obviously in the atomized real estate market and the rental business is overwhelmingly local, giving real estate interests an outsized voice in local politics, yet it is city councils that continue to be where real standards with solid, sharp teeth must be won. 

            It’s no wonder that this is becoming a bigger issue.  The Financial Times found in the United Kingdom that private renters had increased from 1980 to 2013 from 11.9% of English households to 18% in 2013, while social or public housing households had plummeted almost in half from 31.4% to 16.8%.   In the USA, these issues are becoming lightning rods in San Francisco where tenants are organizing against the gentrification being triggered by the growth of the high-tech industry.  In New York City, the new government is pushing for more affordable housing from new developments.

            Obviously for renting to work for tenants, it cannot be a good deal only for the landlords.  There have to be minimum standards, but more than that the standards have to be enforced, widely and firmly, which happens pretty much nowhere.  It is also hard to avoid the fact that rents have to be affordable while also guaranteeing landlords a fair return on private investment, which means that both tenants and landlords need to be subsided.  That is the theory behind the section 8 program, but the waiting list is huge and the program just isn’t adequate at the level required.  In England, where 4 million household are now in private tenancy, 25% of these households are subsidized through the country’s housing benefit, which far exceeds the USA.

            But, if the housing sucks, the divide just becomes an unbridgeable chasm and a trap without escape.

            At the same time under the current arrangements for lower income families, there is no way that renting builds citizen wealth or income security because without rent caps or more serious subsidies there is no incentive to savings.  Home ownership builds wealth and the wealth is generational.  If renting and tenancy are going to more and more be our future, there has to be a way citizen wealth is increased, and there’s no road there yet. 

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More Tenants? More Rights!

2739044670_102bbef9d9-1Toronto Given the housing and foreclosure crisis in the United States, it was not surprising to see that homeownership rates have fallen rapidly in recent years.  The Wall Street Journal published an estimate saying:

The nation’s home-ownership rate is also falling, to 67% of U.S. households in 2010, after topping 69% in 2004, according to the Census Bureau, with further declines expected. Each 1% decline represents one million households moving to rentals, housing experts say.

Conservatively that means 2 million fewer homeowners in the USA.  Where are they going?  Into rentals.  The same WSJ article estimates the following:

Renter households now top a record 37 million after increasing more than 3.5 million in the past five years, partly due to the foreclosure crisis. Green Street Advisors expects an additional 4.4 million rental households to be added by 2015.

Part of this increase is fueled by the transfer of owners to renters and part of it is undoubtedly fueled by the tightening credit markets that will produce longer term rents, particularly among the young in expanding markets.

It is hard not to think about tenants in Toronto.  At best only 50% of the city is composed of homeowners and estimates are only a little better than 60% in the greater Toronto area.  In the neighborhoods where ACORN Canada organizers virtually everyone is a tenant in one high rise complex after another.  The longest running organizing campaign not surprisingly has been the effort to win what we call, “landlord licensing,” which would be a process of licensing (and de-licensing) based on inspections (which would lead to repairs and improvements) and finally assure our tenants safe, decent, and even affordable housing.  In this long running battle the real estate interests cry like stuck pigs at our every proposal, but there has been sure and steady progress.  Last year winning a better auditing and inspections process, even though far short of licensing, according to the City of Toronto housing department led to $100 million in landlord upgrades and improvements.  Now ACORN Canada is trying to secure another small, but significant victory in this guerrilla campaign where a box would be required in the lobby of all major apartment complexes where the audit reports and improvements would be available to any tenant seeking to rent creating a transparency that would hopefully steer tenants towards better properties and shame landlords into making needed repairs.

There’s no way to imagine cities with burgeoning numbers of tenants who will no longer be seeing apartments as way stations to homeownership but increasingly as permanent addresses and not realize that the long imbalance where landlords have held the upper hand and tenants in most cities and states have been virtually stripped of any rights, as a time bomb ticking.  New construction of apartment blocks is being accompanied by rental inflation, so there are bound to once again be calls for controls if (when?) greed laps past demand, but perhaps even more urgently there will need to be tenant rights campaigns, like the ones in Toronto, to secure basic housing decency for the millions and millions who now understand that apartments are central to the urban future.

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