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During a pandemic housing is a matter of life and death

 |  Issue: June July 2021
Maria Rivera of Union de Vecinos
Maria Rivera is a member and leader of Union de Vecinos and longtime resident of Boyle Heights.
PHOTO: Unión de Vecinos Eastside Local of Los Angeles Tenants Union.

Maria Elena Martinez, co-editor of  El Tribuno de Pueblo, interviewed Kenia Torres-Alcocer, Co-Director of Unión de Vecinos and Co-Director TriChair of the National Steering Committee of the California Poor People’s Campaign.

MARIA ELENA MARTINEZ: Can you tell us about the situation renters are facing right now?

KENIA ALCOCER-TORRES: Tenants in rent-controlled units have been under attack long before COVID-19. Rents have tripled and quadrupled therefore the incentives to get low-income tenants out is very high. For this reason, tenants are harassed and subjected to various tactics.

Here are just a few examples: landlords become unresponsive so tenants will get frustrated and move out, they threaten and lie to tenants to get them out. The Ellis Act (in Los Angeles) allows landlords to displace rent controlled tenants by “removing” the unit from the rental market.

Landlords weaponized the pandemic against renters by showing up without masks to harass tenants, often insisting tenants allow “potential buyers” into units with little protections for the tenants.

During covid many renters lost their jobs and their ability to pay rent. Unión de Vecinos, the east side local of the L.A. tenants Union, was the first to organize a rent strike out of necessity with a Food not Rent campaign.

When the pandemic began, tenants were desperately trying to pay rent by not buying food for their families, taking out predatory cash loans and pawning personal belongings. All of this for one month’s rent, what about the next month, and the next?

For the entire year of the pandemic California officials chose businesses over people. The people and organizations like Unión de Vecinos had to protect each other when the government refused to put people first. Forcing people to go work as the pandemic spread. This was extremely deadly to areas like Boyle Heights and Pacoima where large families share very small apartments.

Tenants, often essential workers without adequate health care, got sick and died at much higher rates from COVID 19. Technology was another disparity we saw five kids on five devices in a one-bedroom apartment and inadequate Wi-Fi.

The struggle for housing was transformed into a struggle for survival and basic needs.

cancel the rent sign
PHOTO: Unión de Vecinos Eastside Local of Los Angeles Tenants Union.

MARIA ELENA MARTINEZ: What do you think will happen when the temporary COVID measures run out?

KENIA ALCOCER-TORRES: Effective August 31, 2020, the COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act of 2020 (“CTRA”) enacted temporary protections from eviction for residents unable to pay rent and other charges due between March 2020 and June 2021 due to circumstances directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also extends the “just cause” protections of the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, commonly known as AB 1482, to all properties through July 1, 2021.

On May 27, 2021, the city of Los Angeles’ Housing Committee unanimously passed a “tenant anti-harassment” ordinance Wednesday, although the California Apartment Association succeeded in removing key protections. The ordinance takes a variety of steps to allow tenants to bring civil action against owners engaging in harassment, such as threatening to report a tenant to immigration authorities, refusing to accept lawful rent payments from a tenant, or retaliating against a renter for participating in a tenant’s union.

Many of these provisions were demands made by tenant’s unions before the pandemic.

For decades tenants unions and organizations had been demanding rent caps, anti-harassment ordinances, and other tenant protections. When covid hit they had no choice but to implement some of these policies. If these protections had been in place before the pandemic countless lives would have been saved. How many people have died or ended up on streets because of government inaction before and during the pandemic?

MARIA ELENA MARTINEZ: What are the strategies and tactics for 2021?

KENIA ALCOCER-TORRES: Covid 19 and the struggle to survive it has changed everything. Our demands are rent and mortgage forgiveness.

COVID protections are not real victories, they are temporary relief ending June 2021. In July, tenants must pay 25 percent of rent debt to be able to stay in their homes. Once again, the government is setting up a massive housing crisis, much worse than the housing crisis of 2008. The housing crisis of 2008 primarily affected homeowners, often small homeowners, but not all homeowners. This looming crisis will affect tens of thousands of tenants, people with no safety nets, they will end up in the streets. Rental assistance funds are limited and will end up going to the landlords and corporations, not tenants, and will not be enough to keep many people from losing their homes. Unión de Vecinos helped organize a rent strike in a building where tenants collectively owe $250,000 in back rent! Twenty-five percent of accumulated rent debt is too much for many to pay. The only solution is rent and mortgage forgiveness.

The pandemic has changed how we fight. Our struggle to survive this pandemic allowed us to focus on what matters first. What matters first is surviving this pandemic. What matters first is putting food on the table and keeping our families sheltered. What matters is having our basic necessities met. Paying rent is not what matters first. Paying rent prevents us from accessing basic needs.

A movement for basic needs is growing out of the housing struggle. Tenants also fight for increasing minimum wages, they fight for labor rights, they fight for health care and for education. Tenants are now supporting the struggle of the unhoused, instead of being pitted against each other like before.

Political education during this time has been critical. We organize and operate in the local, state, and national spaces and networks. We understand that our liberation – in this case our liberation from debt to landlords – is connected to the liberation of every single tenant in this country. For example, in April 2020 one third of renters did not pay their rent, this is a forced national rent strike.

The main demand is housing for all. If everyone had homes and their basic needs met, the COVID casualties would not have been so high.

MARIA ELENA MARTINEZ: What will the fight for housing look like in 2021?

KENIA ALCOCER-TORRES: The pandemic allowed us to see that we need to fight collectively. We are not just fighting for housing; it starts with housing, but it goes way beyond that. We see ourselves as a whole human being. All of these injustices are interlocked. You can’t say you are against poverty if you are not against systemic racism, or ecological devastation, and militarism. That is one thing the Poor People’s Campaign brings to the table.

Here in California, we feel the duty to talk about immigration. We are a border state. We are connected to the fight around children and detention centers. They want to give us crumbs to survive but we don’t just want to survive. We want to thrive. We want dignity.

The struggle to survive this pandemic has allowed us to see the mechanism of capitalism at play. We’ve been able to come together to identify who our true enemy is. It is clear that capitalist interests run the city council, our state, and this country, because none of them came to the defense of the poor. They said we were essential workers; it was essential for us to die to ensure the survival of this system.

And now we are so essential that they are giving us the vaccine, but so that we can continue to work and exploit us without giving us the guarantees that we will survive.

All of the struggles are connected right now. We are organizing ourselves to push back as a unified struggle for basic needs for all. We are uniting across racial barriers especially in south central Los Angeles where black tenants organized and Señoras joined in support. We identify as tenants and workers and organize as a class. There is a consciousness growing in this country that is allowing us to connect and organize across borders because we recognize displacement, we live it, so we support struggles against displacement in Colombia, Palestine, etc. Eviction is violence and this is connecting us to fights around the world.

We are connected to Black Lives Matter because the police that attack black and brown youth are also the same police evicting people. We support the calls to abolish the police because it’s the sheriff who locks you out of your house. They don’t even let people collect their belongings.

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