rent strike in action fighting the eviction crisis in houston

By | April 30, 2021

The CDC ban came too late in Houston, TX – between the $600 unemployment ending and the federal order halting COVID-related evictions until December, an unprecedented number of renters had sheriff’s deputies at their door to evict. This has included families, elderly people, and children thrown out of their homes the day before school started. The new nationwide ban may delay many of the 677 eviction cases on the Harris County docket this week, but it will only postpone what is already a life-or-death crisis for renters in Houston and in cities across the country.

In August, activists held a demonstration outside a county courthouse to protest the onslaught of evictions sentencing struggling renters to homelessness in the midst of a surging pandemic. Energized by the #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd movement and angered at the ways this housing crisis will impact communities of color, activists came together to demand SAFE – Stop All F*cking Evictions!

Spike from Houston reports below on the action, and draws out crucial lessons for continuing the struggle. Register for Friday’s Rent Strike Organizing Call to hear organizers from Houston and across the US talk more about building the movement!

Houston has no moratorium on evictions– nearly 600 evictions were filed in a single week in August. This was more than Austin, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Richmond, and St Louis combined. Mayor Sylvester Turner insists that he will not enact a rent moratorium locally, going against his own Housing Task Force and the Houston Apartments Association. Evictions in Houston and throughout Harris County are ongoing.

Tragically, 600 evictions per week is lower than many expected. We anticipated a massive spike in evictions for months going all the way back to April: a month after the economic shutdown had ended. There are many possible reasons for this, including courts limiting the number of eviction cases heard per day for social-distancing purposes, individual landlord-tenant back rent negotiating, and rent-cash infusion by the city government. Although, we can be certain that informal evictions are occurring: informal evictions – where landlords evict illegally through threats, shutoffs, and lockouts, or where tenants self-evict out of fear of retribution – constitute the majority of evictions in normal times, and especially during COVID-19.

Judges, who have the power to refuse to hear eviction cases during the pandemic, have declined to do so. There have been coordinated efforts to compel these judges to deny eviction hearings with mixed results. Judges have been phone zapped, pressured by non-governmental organizations, and the housing task force. All to no avail – eviction cases were being heard, often while the judges themselves hid their faces from Zoom call court sessions.

On Friday, August 21, we participated in a courthouse blockade and demonstration outside the 6000 Chimney Rock courthouse. Rent Strike 2020, Houston Tenants Union, Socialist Alternative, DSA, and several other groups tabled, held signs, and marched around the courthouse. The main demand of the protestors was referred to by the acronym SAFE – Stop All F*cking Evictions! We held signs, picketed, and chanted loudly to get our message out and disrupt evictions-as-usual at the courthouse. Some individuals attempted to put themselves between landlords and the building. Despite this, the court proceeded with several evictions – although 9 of the 12 cases were postponed. Mutual Aid Houston argues that our demonstration played a role in this.

It is clear that we need to keep building momentum. A similar protest in New Orleans shut down the court by drawing hundreds out to the demonstrations. To stop the wave of evictions – and crucially, to prepare for the CDC ban’s expiration in December – we will have to keep building militant, energetic actions. This will be inseparable from our organizing with tenants in buildings and under landlords.

This action was only possible because of cooperation and coalition building between socialists, housing groups, and tenant unions. Houston Socialist Alternative, Houston Tenants Union, and many others worked together to make this demonstration happen. We will need to continue joining forces for these actions as the crisis rages on. Especially when we are up against right wing anti-renter leaders, vicious landlords, and government “protections” that allow too many renters to fall through the cracks, we need to form united fronts in our cities to put up the strongest possible fight for renters!

We also must put forward concrete political goals. Here in Houston we want to Stop All F*cking Evictions! This is absolutely critical and our central task in this moment. But to stop all evictions, in a country that evicts nearly 3 million every year to fuel the profits of landlords and big business, it will take much more than stopping evictions in the courts. During COVID, and also with the climate crisis and the long-term economic recession, we need to tackle the housing crisis from all angles.

This would mean pushing for massive investment by the city in public housing, and taxing corporations like Exxon Mobil to pay for it. We need to build high-quality social housing to ensure housing as a human right to all! We know these types of measures are possible: earlier this year in Seattle, the Tax Amazon campaign won a tax on the most profitable corporations in the city in order to funding green jobs and affordable housing. If we take inspiration from this victory and equip ourselves with bold, popular polities, we can gain unstoppable momentum by drawing out working people of all backgrounds to get involved in this movement!

We hope this demonstration helps build this type of momentum for a larger movement to take shape in Houston. In many ways, Houston is the ‘guinea pig’ in a grand experiment by the capitalist class, to find out, ‘How many evictions are too many, how many lives can be ruined before we are faced with mass resistance?’ For us, the question is, “How do we show the landlords, big real estate, big business and the 1% that we, workers and renters, are the source of their profits, and we have the ultimate say?” A movement of workers and renters can reclaim our homes, cancel rental debt, stop evictions in their tracks, and force a total overhaul of our housing system away from profit and toward human need. We have the determination, all we renters need is to go out and organize!

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