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Tenants in the Storm: Organizing Against Disaster Capitalism

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

Harvey, for us, was a disaster of scale we had never experienced. We are used to destructive storms, not just flood damage, but wind and petrochemical as well. There was Ike in 2008, which caused catastrophic wind damage, and Allison in 2001, in which we experienced widespread flooding. Floods in Houston have been catastrophic outside of than during hurricane season, such as the Memorial Day 2015 floods. Storms like Hurricane Harvey are particularly disastrous on the lives of poor and working class people. This is especially so in our lives as tenants. As Tenant Unionists, we want to be ready to build the fighting capacity of these tenants and support each other. Some of us worked day and night through all stages of the disaster, the emergency and rescue phase, relief and rebuilding, and long term recovery, prevention and mitigation. Tenant organizing efforts were also deployed, and most of these did not end up going public, although some did. We also feel terribly under-prepared now, and coupled with trauma and fear as disaster can strike anytime, we think it is necessary to put some steps forward.

How and Why Houston Floods Houston is regularly hit by major destructive floods. Except for 2011, Harris County has reported a flood day every year since 1999. Houston has sprawled rapidly to accommodate population growth with very low density housing. Exacerbating the flood problem is the lack of zoning regulation. This means that the owner of the land can build what they please on their land without thinking of wider consequences. As the effects of climate change accelerate: rising sea levels and more intense storms, floods are expected to become worse in upcoming years. Houston is a petrochemical center and also a major polluter.

The flood maps provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were proven to be unreliable after Harvey. Asphalt, which prevents water from accessing the ground, can aggravate areas which seem safe. What counts now is what did, or didn’t flood during that storm. Houses which were proved safe because they came out intact out of Harvey have seen a substantial increase in value, which makes them good targets for speculation.

Houston's sprawling and ever expanding sea of concrete
Houston's sprawling and ever expanding sea of concrete

However, not only “safe” houses will see speculation. Most of the time, FEMA would be able to offer assistance, or even straight-out buyouts and relocation to affected owners. But information on FEMA programs is hard to come by. Instead, unsuspecting homeowners are bombarded with advertisements for speculators, which have only their own well-being in consideration. Just after a flood, “house flipping” advertisements might pop up in a neighborhood prone to flooding. Even worse, people might come knocking on your door the 24-hours after the flood happened. These people offer quick cash in hand to families in their moment of urgent need. Their entire intent is to “flip” the house, and sell it for double or triple the value to the next owner who might not be aware, or might not care about the flooding history of the neighborhood because he’s going to rent it away. Speculators, often residing in Nevada or California, profit twice from desperation, once from the seller, and again from the future tenant.

Tenants in the Storm

When residing in a flood-prone area, tenants might not be aware of the circumstances until it is too late. Flooding will cause havoc and devastation on unprepared houses. Most building material is cheap, especially when the whole goal of the property is to be rented away. It is not designed to sustain significant punishment. Repairs can take weeks, if not months, while the tenants struggle to find shelter. At the same time, tenants often immediately face landlords and property managers trying to collect rent on homes that are inhospitable and needed mucking, gutting and remodeling.

But it is illegal to rent a residence that is not hospitable including flood damage. Most tenants are not aware of their rights, or even if they are aware, they face a court system which is designed for landlords. So how do we fight back? The first option would be to politely refuse to talk to anyone who knocks on your door following a flood. For tenants, the best way out of this is collective action. Talk to your neighbors. Form action and mutual aid committees which will take care of collectively mucking and gutting. Neighborhood associations should remove any signs that promise easy cash, or quick home buyouts. To ensure that our houses are actually homes, we all need to bond together. United we win, divided we fall. We provide a list of the best steps forward based on our experiences at the end of the article.

Eviction courts in Houston could be rightly called eviction factories. They are pro-landlord in 93% of cases, for the years prior to Harvey, this was even higher at 97%. They operate on a very fast turn around time of 20 days, our experience is that this often includes the time it allotted for the tenant to vacate. In the September following Harvey which hit in Late August, despite widespread damage to the greater Harris County court system, eviction courts operated at 77% of their normal capacity, and kicked it into high gear the following month, processing a record number of evictions for October. Houston tenants under attack from their landlords had no refuge from the storm or time to rebuild their lives. Disaster Capitalism and Mutual-Aid During Harvey, there were a great deal of people from both within and outside of Houston, who sought to profit during the relief and recovery phase of the disaster. These are disaster capitalists, those with an economic stake in relations which underlie the social cost of disaster returning to normal as quickly as possible. The Red Cross during Harvey was aggressively monopolistic. We agree with the LA Tenants Union that everyone from houseless people to prisoners are tenants. Therefore, we should view those in disaster shelters as tenants, and support them organizing. The Red Cross demonstrated a policy of quickly shutting down smaller shelters in churches and schools immediately around the poorest neighborhoods on the periphery of the city, and moving the tenants to the mega-shelters they ran downtown. This moves people further from their neighbors and possessions in their homes and into a space where they can be treated like cattle.

A home some of us gutted after Harvey

Mutual-aid in the working class during Harvey was a marvelous thing to witness. This altruistic voluntarism emerged in many cases spontaneous, as those with fishing boats deployed en masse to rescue their neighbors, everyone around neighborhoods shared the tools and labor necessary for mucking and gutting, and after their homes were fixed, they deployed across the city for weeks helping others. All different kinds of organizations and people took this tremendous task up, there is a limited period where the structure of a house may be salvaged. People fed each other and ate together that otherwise never would. There was little assistance from the state or large organizations at the Red Cross. When the Red Cross first approached and finally made contact with those affected heavily by the flood in Northeast Houston where we were mucking and gutting, their help was not needed and everything they offered were things the residents already had. This is not to say that the Red Cross did not help others elsewhere, but rather that their dysfunctional and bureaucratic nature cannot meet the needs of a modern urban disaster. While the above is vitally needed, it is a matter of fact that the poor and working class does not have the unpaid free labor and surplus personal possession of goods to alleviate the misery of a world of wage labor and private property. Everyone is struggling just to find the spare time to eat and the money to pay for it. Landlords and the state are indifferent or even favorable to mutual-aid, because it subsidizes the cost of the storm for them. Therefore, we can see some limitations to mutual-aid on its own. Without the ability to hold the state and landlords accountable for the human cost of disaster, we are left with only the option of making our lives a little bit easier in the same world that produced the condition in the first place. We can and should start with mutual-aid and continue support throughout the recovery period, but we also have to build and deploy fighting organizations which challenge the political forces who stand to gain from disaster. Programmatic steps forward:

1. Have a prepared network in place to deploy tenant organizing in the most affected areas, landlords were trying to collect rent days after Harvey in houses and apartments that were still inhospitable, landlords are required to make the rented unit able to be inhabited. The landlord abuse in the city spikes in disaster periods and affects the most vulnerable and evictable tenants (black, undocumented, single mothers and those with little resources).

2. Direct forces to hold those in power accountable including city officials like the Mayor and people like Joel Osteen, rather than letting them get off scotch free. There was almost no one questioning the city's mismanagement and lack of rescues from them, the relegation of recovery efforts to the incompetent disaster capitalists like the Red Cross. The idea of having demands at City Hall and going into their offices, out to their homes, etc., is hard when people don't have power or running water, but it should be built toward.

3. Work closely with people doing ethical and mutual aid and justice guided relief efforts, and direct people trustworthy people doing good work towards other trustworthy people doing good work. Conduct service work with those who participate in organizing activity. We will need to form alliances quickly in a disaster situation, but we need to do so mindfully of those who descend upon the city for their own gain. We can think of a ton of radically veiled opportunists who ended up stealing money and resources, screwing people over, and wrecking havoc. Challenge disaster capitalism, big and small. 4. Continue to build and strategize around a long term recovery effort that can coalesce into long term mass organization capable of challenging the forces which create climate change and the oil hegemony in the city, as well as the unchallenged rule of landlords. Build towards a tenants movement that challenges climate change.

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