Refusing to Die: COVID-19 and the Tenants Movement in Houston
The moratorium on evictions enacted by the CARES Act has expired. Even though it was only valid for federally-backed mortgages, it stood as a last line of defense for tenants in Houston. Amid the worst economic crisis of recent history, we are running out of ways to protect ourselves from eviction-filing landlords. The prospects appear bleak; up to 40% in Texas are expected to not be able to pay rent. The whole country faces a massive crisis of eviction and houselessness. Houston may very well be one of its epicenters. With so much attention on the evictions here, we want to summarize our experience so far, and what we think is needed next. Houstonians will never forget how we felt in March of 2020 as this global pandemic began to take hold of our daily lives. March saw the first positive cases of COVID-19 in Harris County, the forced closure of schools, clubs, and the Houston Rodeo, and the first death attributable to COVID-19 on March 30th. Thousands lost their jobs this first month, and we countless Houstonians that live paycheck to paycheck worried that livelihoods would be threatened, as we followed measures to prevent community transmission of the virus. The statewide moratorium on evictions signed by the Texas Supreme Court on March 19th gave us a moment to breathe, but only a moment. Some of us may have recognized that the future of this pandemic was uncertain and that the 1-month moratorium had an arbitrary deadline that was based on the will of those who govern, not on the reality of the pandemic or the measures that would be necessary to save human lives.
The statewide moratorium was extended until May, and on March 29th, Congress passed the CARES Act, which declared a nationwide moratorium for tenants living in properties that receive federal subsidies, set to expire on July 29th. Last week, the last definitive protection for renters has dissolved, while an unprecedented number of Texans lose their jobs and file for unemployment. Amidst arguments about face-masks and reopening the economy, and while elected officials conveniently cast blame on their political adversaries, both foreign and domestic, over 75,000 people in Harris County have tested positive for COVID-19 over 1,200 have died, and the numbers keep rising.
We arrived here through a series of temporary, ineffectual half-measures. During the first phase of COVID-19, HTU directed public pressure towards some elements of the state to demand an eviction moratorium. We targeted all levels during our seven days of tenant power, from Justices of the Peace, to the Mayor and City Council, all the way up to the Texas Supreme Court. After public pressure, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo responded by requesting (rather than enforcing) that individual JPs enact moratoriums. While some of the Harris County JPs issued short moratoria, this was far from enough. Demands from HTU for a full moratorium, one lasting long enough to give tenants peace, were never enacted. Surprisingly, the largest renter protection came in the form of an Emergency Order from the Republican Supreme Court of Texas which banned the processing (but not the filing) of evictions for a two-month period, likely because they were aware the courts could not adequately process them.
Another of the city’s half-measures to deal with the crisis was the rent relief fund, in truth nothing more than a bailout for landlords disguised as help for tenants. On May 7, the Houston City Council’s $15 million rent relief program went into effect--and yet its funds lasted only 90 minutes. We encouraged tenants to apply for this rent relief, while understanding that this in no way built collective tenant power. A great deal of political maneuvering lay behind the program, despite it being funded entirely with federal money (and this only a tiny fraction of the federal funds the city received). The rent relief fund became a band-aid for the 8000 tenants fortunate enough to access its support, while the vast majority of the city’s tenants were left neglected. Mayor Turner has apparently put his faith in the good graces of landlords, asking them meekly to work with tenants to prevent an eviction crisis. Landlords responded by making it clear there would be no mercy.
As the COVID-19 crisis deepens, the political establishment does nothing to prevent its exacerbation. Houston’s mayor Sylvester Turner has refused to enact any sort of moratorium, referring to conflicts between these moratoria and his political vision. His only contemplated policy is a new $15 million rent relief package to further bail out landlords; months into the crisis, it's hard to imagine its funds lasting even an hour. Due to the “strong mayoral system,” Mayor Turner can veto any item on the City’s agenda, preventing its discussion. And so even in the fantasy world in which the whole city council agrees on moratoria or expanded rent relief, Turner has the power to block the issue’s consideration. Relying on Justices of the Peace or the individual whims of any other elected official is barely an option, because in truth the issue is structural--the entire municipal system is in the pocket of an organized landlord lobby.
Are lawyers going to save us? Probably not. In Houston, we have the advantage of knowing how things played out in a previous crisis, Hurricane Harvey. In the first month immediately after the acute disaster, September 2017, we did see a very temporary 23% decline in evictions. This was substantial, but hardly because of anyone's sympathy. The court system, much like any other thing dependent on buildings, people and money to operate, was dysfunctional, it had taken a hit and needed to recover. The fact that decline was only 23% actually shows their determination to get back to work. However, in October 2017, as we moved from the emergency phase of disaster into a recovery phase, evictions came back in full force, and went over the average from the previous year 7%. Landlords usually favored above 95% of the time, however after Harvey, this did drop to 93%. There has never been any sort of serious investigation into how many of these evictions after Harvey were even legal, it seems pretty reasonable to speculate that a great deal of these were homes that were made uninhabitable after the catastrophic storm. The increase from the previous year isn’t proportionate either, it’s a 100% increase in some areas. In Greenspoint, a neighborhood where HTU organizes, we saw some of the highest numbers of evictions and flood damage converge. We are seeing a lot of the same patterns now. Houston's courts are especially designed for landlords, they are more eviction-happy and process them faster than most places. We cannot lawyer up en masse against the landlords either, those able to defend already disenfranchised tenants are scarce and way backed up. In a situation of crisis where a great deal of us cannot pay rent, we have to build power outside of courtrooms.
And yet amid the bleakness of the present, resistance is widespread. Social tensions flared with the George Floyd protests, which HTU members participated in. Locally the uprising ended with the pageantry of a large march headed by the establishment, and merely cosmetic measures put in place. Yet the promise of more meaningful political change lies on the horizon. Members of our PoC caucus responded to the uprising by hosting a panel on combating police brutality and building local power with organizers from Minneapolis, illuminating the intrinsic links between the tenants movement and the movement emerging from the protests. HTU sees it as vital to build alongside the abolitionist movement in Houston. Energy from the protests has carried over into the growing national tenants movement. Tenant unionists, such as those affiliated with LA Tenants Union, are rapidly responding to illegal self-help evictions, putting their bodies in between doors and landlords, police, and whatever goons show up to do the landlord’s bidding. Landlords perform self-help evictions with impunity; it is clear now, however, that they are being met with resistance. In Houston, we took the case of a tenant’s security deposit theft right to the doorstep of their landlord and won. This week, tenants in Kansas City and New Orleans blocked courthouses and successfully prevented hundreds of eviction hearings. This is only a small dose of what we need, but it’s clear that a militant tenants movement is here to stay. The task now is to scale up and generalize these tactics, and for tenants to become ungovernable. They cannot evict us all.
As tenants organizers, we know relying on the state to work for us is not enough. We welcome further moratoria, but they will only come about through tenants organizing together and forcing the state to act. Nothing short of a mass tenant insurgency, as we are seeing the first signs of with New Orleans’s eviction court blockades, will get us there. Meanwhile the most vulnerable of us exist outside the system. Undocumented migrants, a large chunk of Houston’s population, simply cannot rely on the courts. The housing justice we all deserve lies further out on the horizon: a world without landlords.
What are steps towards an ungovernable tenants movement in Houston? We have a few, based on our experiences here and the movement elsewhere:
1. Build a multi-local structure similar to LA Tenants Union, across Houston, overcoming the geographic barriers that make it difficult for tenants to unite across our sprawling city. Form tenant committees in every apartment complex, on every block.
2. Develop the ability of our neighborhood locals to rapidly respond to self-help evictions, writs of possession, and other moments where tenant self-defense and solidarity is most needed.
3. Create pressure outside of the courthouses that is fueled by tenant power.
4. Broaden the struggle against evictions to other tenant issues, such as deposit theft and rent hikes.
5. Over time, increase the capacity of tenants across Houston to strike. We need long-term solutions, and to do that we need to take our destiny into our own hands.
We have to organize, it's not a choice. Social distancing makes all of this more difficult, yet if we look to each other and our neighbors first, we can easily find ways to organize, which reduce unnecessary contact. The tenants movement has shown clearly that evictions are a public health issue, and therefore resistance against them is vital. Evictions are a life-or-death matter. We must refuse to die at the altar of the economy. If we're going to die, we will die fighting back.