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The $2.2 trillion stimulus did nothing to help working people. Even before the new data was released, writer Brendan O’Connor said tenants were facing eviction and organizing rent strikes to help each other survive the economic crisis of COVID-19.

Story Transcript

This interview was recorded before the Department of Labor’s April 2 news release showing 6,648,000 initial claims for unemployment insurance.

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Trump: We’re also announcing that the department of housing and urban development is providing immediate relief to renters and homeowners by suspending all foreclosures and evictions until the end of April. So we’re working very closely with Dr. Ben Carson and everybody from HUD.

Marc Steiner: Welcome to Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with this. As you can see, Donald Trump made it seem like he was stopping all foreclosures and evictions. Well, he didn’t do that and can’t do that unless they are federally insured home loans or affect people in public housing, which has shrunk to almost nothing. White sheets are flying outside houses across the country as a symbol of resistance, people saying we won’t pay the rent. The problems of working people where half of us live paycheck to paycheck and spend too much of our money on rent is that rent and housing issues are local, and historically when you had a rent strike like the ones I led many years ago as a tenant organizer, you put your money into escrow, fought the landlord, changed the local laws.
Now what working people are facing is a much deeper dilemma. How do you build that movement? What should we tell the federal government that they must do? How do you fight that? Well, that’s what we’re going to wrestle with now with our guest, Brendan O’Connor, who wrote the article, Rent Is Due for the Jewish Currents just a few days ago. He’s also writing a book for Hey Market about immigration capitalism and the far right. And Brendan, welcome to Real News. Good to have you with us.

Brendan O’Connor: Thank you. Good to be here.

Marc Steiner: So you heard Trump, what he said. Let’s talk about the mythology that they’re creating about what they’re actually doing and what people are facing on the ground here in our country.

Brendan O’Connor: Sure. Yeah. My response is I’ll believe it when I see it. I think that what’s been interesting about a lot of Trump’s and some sectors of the Republican party’s response to the coronavirus crisis is that they are sending signals that they are sensitive to these kinds of social needs and demands, and even gesturing towards making an effort to address them. But as ever, there’s no reason to believe that that is ever actually going to happen. Trump is historically… By his trade he’s a landlord and a “slumlord” at that. And so I don’t think that there’s any reason to take his word that he’s going to to look after the interests of tenants in this moment.

Marc Steiner: And his son-in-law’s a “slumlord” right here where we were broadcast in Baltimore. It’s a family of “slumlords” trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes. I mean, there are only 8 million [inaudible 00:02:48] back mortgages in this country, and 43 million rental households. The vast majority of whom are not even covered by anything because, as you write about, state by state the laws are different. Right?

Brendan O’Connor: Exactly. Yeah. And even what protections do exist for tenants in places like New York are really very limited and very circumscribed because the real estate developer lobbies and landlord lobbies have spent years, decades doing everything that they can to roll those protections back.

Marc Steiner: So talk a bit about some of the people you’ve talked to across the country, from the Philadelphia Tenants Union to Stomp Out Slumlords. We talk about them for a bit. The Ridgewood Tenants Union. And the differences that these struggles face and why it’s so hard it seems to be able to build a national movement for rent strikes. I think they have to get to the underbelly of this and why it’s so hard to build this, why they’re having such a hard time.

Brendan O’Connor: Sure. I mean, I think that the tenant organizing and housing organizing is really difficult work under the most favorable of circumstances, which we are not in right now, or really even before the coronavirus hit. People’s housing and living situations are precarious and there is a lot of fear that doing anything to disrupt their relationships with their landlords is going to result in retaliation and eviction. Building support for a rent strike, building a campaign around housing issues, whether that’s targeting an individual landlord, targeting a bigger developer or targeting state legislatures is long, slow, difficult work. Where we are now, however, as you mentioned, is that all of a sudden there is an unprecedented number of people who this month and next month are simply not going to be able to pay rent. Not as a matter of political choice or as a matter of struggle, but just as a matter of their material circumstances.

Marc Steiner: There’s something really deeply missing in this conversation. There’s missing between most of the Democrats in Congress, and the reality of what Trump said. As you wrote, 3.3 million people applied for unemployment. Many more are going to be unemployed before this is over. Let’s take a couple of examples that you raised. Both in Queens and out in Washington state and in North Carolina, in Durham, North Carolina, they’re all very different in what they have to face. I mean, talk about how differently these struggles are and what’s being done to bring them together, if anything.

Brendan O’Connor: Well, what’s being done to bring them together is… I don’t know that there is really anything yet. But as you say… I mean all of them are really different, but also fundamentally the situation is the same is that people are living in unstable housing situations. The differences are the political terrain on which people have to organize. As I said, tenants in New York enjoy certain protections that don’t exist in other places. For example, the right to organize at all in New York. We can meet with our neighbors in public spaces and talk about shared grievances, and that is a protected activity. Whereas in a place, even as a sensibly progressive as California, you can be evicted for that.
The the obstacles to organizing are very different and require different tactics and different strategies in different places, which is one of the things that makes building a movement around a singular national demand, for example canceling rent all over the country, very difficult. Even though ultimately canceling rent is what everybody needs right now.

Marc Steiner: Two things I was shocked by. Even in California there are no laws to protect tenants when they organize. That was pretty shocking that they’re that far behind. People on the east coast where tenants have been fighting for their rights and have made New York and other places in Baltimore pass certain laws that actually help renters when they’re fighting collectively. That doesn’t take place in California or Washington state, right?

Brendan O’Connor: Correct.

Marc Steiner: So when you take those things and you fold those things in together, and this white sheet movement that seems to be taking place across the country that’s kind of catching on, and they can’t have rent strikes because they don’t have the money to put in escrow to fight the landlord with. Then what are people telling you about where they think there’s movement has to go? What are they describing to you as what has to happen?

Brendan O’Connor: Right. So I think that there are two different broad tendencies that have emerged among people who are involved in housing organizing in this moment. One is a really rapid… One advocates for a really rapid escalation and acceleration of the struggle, which is to say that because the crisis is already upon us and demands an immediate radical response, so basically everyone should go on rent strike. The way that one of the organizers in Durham, California put it to me I thought was a very distinct articulation of this, which is that, “If some of us can’t pay, all of us won’t pay.” And this is a really compelling articulation of solidarity, I think.
The difficulty is, and this is what let’s say the more cautious minded organizers that I’ve spoken to have pointed out and that you alluded to, is that when you go on strike, whether it’s a rent strike or a labor strike, what you are doing is withholding something that is of value to your landlord or your boss, in this case your rent or your labor. If you don’t have the money to pay rent it’s kind of harder to think through how the threat to withhold it translates into leverage. But that’s where the call for solidarity comes in for the people who right now are still unable to afford rent, to lend their leverage to protect the people who are not.

Marc Steiner: We’ll see how this rolls out with coronavirus and the pandemic because as you write of what other people who said, that one of the issues here is it’s very difficult to organize when you have to organize… Virtually when you organize tenants it’s sort of door knocking on doors, sitting in people’s living rooms, bringing your brothers and sisters with the same landlord with you sitting down to organize this rent strike to take on a landlord. But you can’t do that now. That makes it even more difficult for the tenants to organize for their rights. I mean that’s what many people were telling you, right?

Brendan O’Connor: Yeah, that’s right. And I think that is something that people who are involved in social movements on all different fronts are grappling with right now and trying to think creatively and imaginatively about. And a lot of people are. But one of the obstacles is that even if you are able to get everybody onto the same email thread or into the same chat room or onto a video call meeting regularly, again, how do you translate that into leverage and into pressure? Because you can’t necessarily march on your landlord or on your boss’s office if we’re all working from home or occupy a state house. Because the correct and good thing to do right now is to maintain distance from each other and that is ultimately what solidarity is calling for. This is a very tough, very difficult situation for organizers to be in.
I think folks are putting a good faith effort into, like I said, thinking creatively and trying to imagine ways around this. But ultimately I think a lot of the work that’s right now is also geared towards laying the groundwork and the foundation for what comes next so that these movements can come out swinging essentially when these restrictions are lifted.

Marc Steiner: And let me just say that this is the beginning of this story. Brendan O’Connor wrote an incredibly good story here for the Jewish Currents and really happy to have him come on. You should check this story out. There will be links to our conversation here today. You don’t want to miss that story.
But also over the course of the next weeks as the coronavirus envelops this nation and we deal with this pandemic, I and my colleague Kim Brown and Justin Moore will be bringing your stories of tenants across the country who are fighting their landlords and fighting the state and fighting the city to say we’re not paying our rent until this is over, until we get back to work where you guarantee our income. That’s a national movement growing that he wrote about in this article. And we’ll be talking to many people in that article and others over the coming days. Kim Brown will bring another story this week as well from some of those organizers and as I will as well. So you want to stay tuned for that and keep tabs on what we’re doing. We can help connect you all. So the towns across the country can organize together to stop these slumlords and landlords from taking away our right to live.
Brendan O’Connor, I want to thank you first of all for the article you wrote. I’m looking forward to reading much more that you write for Jewish Currents everywhere else. And thank you for being part of all this.

Brendan O’Connor: Thank you for having me on, Marc. I appreciate it.

Marc Steiner: It’s my pleasure. I’m Marc Steiner here for the Real News Network. Send us your stories about your rent struggles in your communities, what you’re facing, what you’re doing so we can talk about those as well. So I’m Marc Steiner here with the Real News Network. Take care.

Production: Genevieve Montinar, Bababtunde Ogunfolaju, Andrew Corkery
Studio: Bababtunde Ogunfolaju

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.