‘For Kléber [Ramírez Rojas]…building communal power meant dissolving political power into the community itself; it meant a broadening of democracy in which the communities will assume the fundamental powers of the state’
From Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela by George Ciccariello-Maher
‘Being in a tenants association taught me how to be a neighbour’
David Reiman, Member of the Mid-City Local of the L.A. Tenants Union
Their Politics and Ours
It began with listening.
In fall 2012, the political art collective Ultra-red invited a diverse group of Los Angeles artists, organizers, and educators to participate in community meetings across the city. Christened School of Echoes Los Angeles, this open-ended series of teach-ins on organizing and popular education eventually brought together twenty individuals from a variety of neighbourhoods. The monthly meetings became a space for members to pursue a different kind of pedagogical project: a school that took seriously Grace Lee Boggs’s old slogan that the community is the classroom.
School of Echoes members spent their first year together doing outreach in their respective neighbourhoods, listening to the answers that people gave when asked: ‘What are you hearing are the issues in your community?’ As collective members reflected on their research, it became clear that a single existential question dominated the lives of poor and working-class people in Los Angeles: ‘Where will I go when I can no longer afford my apartment?’
‘I’m hungry / No $ / Rent strike’ the sign reads at the 30 April 2020 rent strike demonstration organized by the Los Angeles Tenants Union. Photo courtesy of Timo Saarelma.
It was during the early days of the group’s community listening sessions that two School of Echoes members, Christina Sanchez Juarez and Silvia Juliana Mantilla Ortiz, first met Angelica, who lived in an apartment building across the street from the William Grant Still Art Gallery, a city-run arts organization in the low-income West Adams neighbourhood.
William Grant Still had hosted a community meeting that Angelica attended. Initially, her main concern was neither eviction nor displacement. Instead, she spoke about what she perceived as her neighbourhood’s negative conditions, focusing especially on a local motel that she and other residents saw as a site for illicit drug use and drug sales as well as commercial sex work. Angelica told Christina and Silvia that she had begun attending neighbourhood council meetings in order to figure out how she might pressure city officials to close down the motel, or else demand that the police crackdown on illegal activity and remove the homeless people in the area.
When confronted with a problem in her neighbourhood, Angelica believed that official political channels provided the best route for finding solutions. If she wanted to address her neighbourhood’s blighted conditions, then she and her neighbours had to ‘get involved in politics’. This meant the neighbourhood council, neighbourhood watch, non-profit organizations and city council meetings. When Angelica saw that her Latinx neighbours were reluctant to participate in such official political institutions, she complained about their passivity and their lack of civic engagement.
School of Echoes Los Angeles teach-in at Concord Space, 12 October 2012. Photo courtesy of School of Echoes.
As Christina and Silvia got to know Angelica better, they began to see a contradiction. Angelica had moved to the West Adams neighbourhood several years before, from Los Angeles’ Westside, after she and her entire community of fellow immigrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca had been displaced as a result of the gentrification of Venice Beach. Angelica liked West Adams because there, unlike in gentrified Venice, the rents were low, which allowed her and other immigrants from the same Oaxacan town to live near one another. This proximity made it possible to organize traditional practices of collective mutual support called tequio. Across the state of Oaxaca, townspeople use tequio to take on communal projects such as road repair or the construction of schools, clinics and playgrounds. Members of the Oaxacan community in Los Angeles continue to practice tequio to address a variety of different communal needs. Thus, though Angelica lamented her Oaxacan community’s failure to participate in US civic institutions, there was no shortage of engagement in local mutual support events, or kermeses.
Angelica’s story embodied the tensions surrounding community participation. On the one hand, when Angelica engaged the official institutions of municipal politics – the neighbourhood council, LAPD’s neighbourhood watch program, non-profits, etc. – she participated in a political culture whose solutions to her grievances led to capital reinvestment, criminalization and social cleansing. Sure enough, in a few short years, city officials shuttered the motel that had been the source of so many complaints in West Adams. New owners turned the property into a boutique extended-stay residency marketed to artists and students paying $1,300 a month for a furnished single room. Not only did the flipping of the property mean the eviction of entire families housed in the motel as part of the city’s emergency accommodations program to keep families together and off the streets. Upscaling the motel also played an important role in the eventual wave of gentrification that swept the neighbourhood, populating West Adams Boulevard with boutique eateries, cafes and luxury businesses that drove up rents for long-time residents.
On the other hand, in the practice of tequio, Angelica had access to a different notion of civic engagement. This practice privileged mutual aid and communal needs as opposed to ‘participation’ and ‘community improvements’, the only real goal of which was to make her neighbourhood safe for real estate speculation. Yet, despite her experiences with tequio, Angelica still appealed to city officials, police and non-profits to improve her community.
As Angelica’s story unfolded in real time, School of Echoes members saw what happens to poor and working people when they focus solely on improving appearances in their neighbourhoods: they end up not being around to enjoy the changes for which they fought. School of Echoes, therefore, clearly recognized that the US definition of engagement in neighbourhood politics meant participating in spaces that would pave the way, sooner or later, for social cleansing.
The Real Estate Conjuncture
Listening to Angelica’s account of her struggles to bring changes to her community – and listening to the contradictions between different forms of community participation and engagement – directly impacted the conceptualization of a tenants union in Los Angeles.
School of Echoes’s process of community listening exposed its members to two critical observations. On the one hand, we heard tenants expressing a fundamental dread of losing their homes and the destruction of their place-based community support systems. The causes of this dread were clear: rents hikes that surpassed wage increases, displacement caused by landlord and city disinvestment and direct displacement resulting from evictions in the service of speculative development.
Alongside these profound fears of displacement, however, School of Echoes members also heard people describe alternative forms of social engagement: concrete, often culturally specific practices through which neighbours built their communities as lived spaces of mutual aid and generosity. These practices were the very ones under threat from social cleansing. Learning about practices like tequio thus helped us conceptualize a movement that could nurture engagement and community without simultaneously inviting the forces of capital, speculation and displacement. This is what poor people were expressing a desire for: a movement that would allow them to identify collectively as tenants and that would allow them to use this collective identity to imagine and articulate new possibilities for political action.
Why poor people in Los Angeles were naming social cleansing as their principal concern, and why they were therefore identifying primarily as tenants rather than as, say, workers, struck School of Echoes as a logical, coherent response to the present conjuncture in capitalism.
One can trace the roots of the present conjuncture to the 1970s. Beginning in 1973, sluggish growth and diminishing global profits in productive industries led to the simultaneous de-industrialization and financialization of both the US and the world economies. This turn from industrial production to finance marked a fundamental shift in the spatio-temporal terrain of capital accumulation. Profits continued to be made ‘on the factory floor’, of course, but rates of return there decreased dramatically. In sharp contrast, profit made in speculative marketplaces became the new gold rush, with investors eager to trade on all kinds of conjured, hypothetical futures in which growth had somehow, magically, been restored.
Such speculation involved the arcane algorithms of secondary and derivatives markets – those elaborate, alchemical processes through which anticipated realizations of value miraculously start to act like values that already exist. And beginning in the 1990s – and especially in the 2000s – real estate emerged as the privileged terrain for such speculation, quickly coming to dominate the system of global capital accumulation. The mortgage market is an obvious example of this. What previously served as a way to facilitate housing production became, through securitization, a tool for speculative profit-making on a massive and ultimately catastrophic scale.
One name for this kind of predatory speculation in urban real estate is gentrification – ‘the displacement and replacement of the poor for profit’, as School of Echoes has defined it. Unable to find profitable investment opportunities in manufacturing and other productive industries, banks, hedge funds, private equity firms and real estate investment trusts (to name just a few of the myriad financial players) have increasingly turned to the urban rental market. There, they seek out underperforming assets from which to milk double-digit profits, profits that they can only achieve by displacing and replacing low-income renters.
Sometimes displacement occurs through city- and state-facilitated eviction processes, such as legal no-fault evictions. On other occasions, displacement is simply the response of working-class tenants whose incomes are no longer sufficient to pay the greater and greater extractive sums demanded by their landlords. This process of replacing working-class households with higher-income tenants explains why the median rent in Los Angeles County increased by 32% between 2000 and 2015, while the median income of renter households actually decreased by 3%. Productive industries in cities like Los Angeles are not expanding, and wages for the majority of working people remain stagnant. Yet, as more and more people are forced into low-income service work, capital extracts higher and higher percentages of peoples’ incomes in the form of rent.
The global numbers here are unambiguous: real estate is now a $217 trillion industry that accounts for 60% of the world’s assets. Roughly 75% of this wealth lies in housing. More and more of this housing is corporate-owned and located in the world’s global cities, such as Los Angeles. To give just one telling statistic from a study by Saskia Sassen: ‘From mid-2013 to mid-2014, corporate buying of existing properties exceeded US$600 billion in the top 100 recipient cities. This figure went up to US$1 trillion a year later, from mid-2014 to mid-2015’.
More than any other commodity, then – more than oil, for instance, or intellectual property rights in biotech or IT – housing is the commodity of choice for global finance. And this centrality of housing to global capital accumulation places increasing pressure on political institutions (the ‘real estate state’, as Samuel Stein has evocatively labelled it) to sustain the expansion of capital through real estate investment and development. It should come as no surprise that tenants have therefore come to occupy, in the present conjuncture, a position similar to the one previously occupied by industrial workers. When productive industries constituted the centre of capital accumulation, workers in those industries were at the centre of collective struggle and resistance. It was through these workers, after all, that capital expanded, which meant that they confronted capital most directly and with the greatest chance of success at the site of value extraction from labour.
Now, however, it is tenants as tenants who have emerged as capital’s most direct antagonists. This becomes increasingly the case with fewer and fewer opportunities to organize in the low-wage service sector and the casualized workplaces where people increasingly work. Rents are one of the main sources of local and global capital accumulation. It is therefore to peoples’ shared experience as tenants that we should look for the most vital – and potentially crippling to capital – basis for struggle.
Against the ‘Housing Movement’
School of Echoes thus emerged from its initial research stage with a two-part analysis that allowed us to lay the foundation for the L.A. Tenants Union. First, our community listening sessions and our enquiry into the present conjuncture taught us to turn our ears elsewhere than organized labour, or ‘the multitude’, or the ‘networked’ human being in info-capitalism, etc. The tenant stood out as the real subject of the current crisis. This has become increasingly plain, given that the crisis has its roots in the shift of global capital from stagnating productive industries into speculative real estate.
Second, our conversations with Angelica and many others showed School of Echoes that we needed an expanded definition of the tenant, a definition that included anyone who does not own or control their own housing. The affordability of Angelica’s West Adams neighbourhood, after all, depended entirely upon the presence of unhoused people, drug users and other social and economic elements that kept down property values and rents. If the police and other city agencies forced unhoused people out of the neighbourhood to bring ‘community improvement’, then Angelica and her Oaxacan community would not be far behind. Only by privileging the poorest and most vulnerable members of our communities could the fight against gentrification create a political movement that, through mutual solidarity between housed and unhoused tenants, would have the potential to resist the logic of speculation and development that threatens historically disinvested neighbourhoods.
Our expanded definition of the tenant; our analysis of the centrality of real estate development in global capitalism; our vision of a political movement grounded in self-governance and mutual aid: all of this compelled School of Echoes members to conceptualize a tenants union whose politics would stand outside the existing institutions and discourses of the ‘housing struggle’. Furthermore, given the ways conventional community organizing had come to serve the interests of real estate speculation, the tenants union would need to find a different kind of organizing practice that didn’t perpetuate the same violence against the poor and working class.
To explain in more concrete terms the differences between the housing movement and our movement to build tenant power, we have to map the contemporary history of housing struggles in Los Angeles as well as its community-based organizations.
In October 1978, the L.A. City Council adopted the Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance, a weak form of rent control that does not include controls on rent increases between tenancies (‘vacancy control’) but only during the period of one tenancy. The ordinance was the work of housing activists who mobilized key constituencies, such as seniors, and who also took advantage of other factors, such as the failure of state-wide property tax reform to deliver the rent reductions that tax reformers had promised.
Although the passage of this weak form of rent control represented a partial victory, activists stopped short of turning the victory into a sustained political movement. Many of the activists instead went on to form non-profit housing rights organizations that provide legal support and know-your-rights assistance for individual tenants. Other activists moved more directly into the non-profit housing development industry, lobbying for the redirection of federal funds away from public housing and toward Affordable Housing construction. The Affordable Housing industry and its advocates in the non-profit corporate complex depend directly upon developers and real estate investment in order to carry out their housing schemes, schemes that include Affordable Housing construction itself as well as other policies like transit-oriented development, inclusionary zoning, density bonuses and linkage fees. The end result of all these schemes is summoning massive amounts of finance capital into historically underdeveloped neighbourhoods, thus triggering violent waves of social cleansing.
Because of their dependence upon real estate capital, community-based organizations have adopted a model of organizing that seeks to mobilize poor and working-class people to demand capital investment. For the poor themselves, these demands are heartfelt, arising as they do from a long history of systematic, racially justified capital disinvestment that has resulted in the kind of blight affecting poor neighbourhoods in cities across the United States. Yet community-based organizations thereby lead poor and working-class people into a trap. By offering re-investment (i.e. gentrification) as the sole possible solution to historical capital flight, the non-profit corporate complex aims to convince poor people that the only way to improve their communities is through development – even though it has been development all along that has driven the process of inequality.
The paradoxical, sickening consequence of this approach is that, at the hands of the housing movement, poor and working-class tenants become the voice of popular support for policies that lead to their own displacement. Clearly, in this matrix of dependency upon real estate capital and the neoliberal state, conflictual politics and genuine resistance to capital are exiled from the organizing and popular education of community-based groups.
In this landscape of non-profit compromise with market forces, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) stands out as a significant exception. With branches throughout the State of California, ACCE split away from the national movement, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), in early 2010 when the Republican-controlled Congress’s attacks on the parent organization forced ACORN’s breakup. ACORN had long been a target of both Wall Street interests and rightwing activists because of its ability to mobilize large numbers of poor and working-class people –particularly Black and Latinx people – on a national scale. The fact that ACORN became such a target indicates that it presented a threat very different from the conciliatory politics of other nonprofits, which avoid conflict with the institutions on which they see themselves depending: city officials, planners, developers, foundations, etc.
With its roots in the militant welfare reform movement of the 1960s and 1970s, ACORN and, to some extent, ACCE, adhered to a more confrontational approach than Saul Alinsky’s model of community organizing. Their political philosophy is that change comes about not solely through building separate institutions of the poor to make compromises with capital for resources (a philosophy that smacks of nostalgic Keynesianism and betrays a basic misunderstanding of what capital actually is). Rather, for ACCE, change comes through disruption and conflict. Using blockades, bird-dogging and direct action in order to manifest on a large scale the everyday crises experienced by the poor, ACCE seeks to create rifts in the established consensus of the political class. As originally theorized by sociologist Frances Fox Piven, when movements exercise disruptive power, the political class will deliver concessions in order to circumvent further escalation and restore the status quo arrangement between capital and the state. Again, this willingness to take up conflictual strategies and tactics places ACCE in sharp contrast to organizations with ties to the non-profit development industry and charitable foundations fixated on policy reforms through negotiation.
30 April 2020 rent strike organized by the Los Angeles Tenants Movement. Photo courtesy of Timo Saarelma.
ACCE is therefore unique among organizations in the housing movement, especially with regard to its membership-based structure and its commitment to establishing neighbourhood chapters in historically Black and Latinx working-class communities. If we use the heuristic model of Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation as a guide, ACCE creates structures and processes for genuine participation and community control in a way that other non-profits do not.
Yet this virtue also points toward a limitation. In its commitment to increasing participation and control, ACCE still sets up the control of housing, resources and capital as its ultimate objective. It does not have a vision for the elimination of capital itself. Like ACORN before it, ACCE struggles to overcome the contradiction between championing genuine self-governance and mutual aid among the poor, on the one hand, and organizing the poor to demand capital investment for more development, on the other.
At the very moment when we need a political movement that points beyond actually existing capitalism toward a post-capitalist, anti-racist future, ACCE stops short of articulating a long-term strategy that can create an alternative base of working-class and poor peoples’ self-governance. That is, it stops short of articulating a transitional process of dual power, which would find in the everyday practices of mutual aid in poor communities the seeds of a world beyond the order of capitalist value.
Doing Things Differently
The structure of the L.A. Tenants Union, created on the basis of School of Echoes’s extended research and community listening process, attempts to begin building precisely the kind of dual power referred to above. The death-dealing crisis of displacement and exploitation that we currently face demands a different order of political instrument, to use Marta Harnecker’s formulation, than the one that the non-profits and the capitalist political parties offer us.
This instrument must be one that centres tenants, housed and unhoused, as the agents of their own struggle; it must be autonomous from the non-profit corporate complex and the state apparatuses to which it is inextricably bound; and it must build upon poor communities’ pre-existing practices of mutual aid in a way that leads toward genuine self-governance, free from the imperatives of investment, development and growth. Anything else can only lead us deeper into dependency upon the very structures of capital and political power that are, by design, intended to disempower, exploit and ultimately destroy poor and working people.
For these reasons, the L.A. Tenants Union organize simultaneously at four different scales. On the first and most fundamental level, the movement supports tenants in founding tenants associations (TAs) in their apartment buildings or complexes. In neighbourhoods made up of single-family home rentals, the Union assists tenants in establishing block committees. These tenants associations and block committees not only provide spaces for neighbours to work through their grievances with landlords, management and with one another. They also allow tenants to establish rapid, autonomous response systems to deal with medical emergencies, earthquake preparedness and overdose prevention as well as threats of break-ins, immigration raids and evictions.
The ability of a tenants association to win more substantive battles against landlords and developers, however, depends upon wider community support. For that reason, the Union also organizes at a second level, that of neighbourhood chapters or, as we call them, Locals. The Local serves as the manifestation of the L.A. Tenants Union in the neighbourhood. Due to the uneven but interrelated cycles of capital disinvestment and development, not every neighbourhood experiences the crisis of real estate speculation in the same way. Thus, Locals develop their own analyses, strategies, tactics and targets that are appropriate to that particular area of the city. The Locals are also spaces for political education, where tenants connect their individual and building struggles to a broader analysis of capital and capital’s dependence upon oppressions related to gender, race, sexuality, citizenship status and nationalism/imperialism.
If the tenants association teaches people how to be neighbours, the Local teaches people how to be social citizens. It is common for L.A. Tenants Union members to see their Local as a space of self-governance, where tenants make direct democratic decisions both for the Local and for the Union as a whole. The Local’s practical ability to get things done as well as its commitment to inclusivity set it in sharp contrast to the city’s official neighbourhood councils, which are almost always landlord- and homeowner-centred, pro-gentrification and anti-homeless. Los Angeles has close to 100 neighbourhood councils, while in under five years the L.A. Tenants Union has established thirteen Locals. These thirteen chapters, and the many others that will follow, are the beginnings of an experience of dual power for poor and working-class tenants.
In the same way that apartment buildings need a Local to wage larger campaigns in the neighbourhood, the Local also needs a third level of organization, the citywide Union itself, to redistribute resources and to wage campaigns against city officials, municipal departments, and landlords and developers who own property across the city. The citywide Union also includes a number of committees made up of members from the Locals. These unionwide committees coordinate media and press, Union infrastructure, interpretation and translation, and strategic organizing and unionwide education. Another committee, the Solidarity Casework committee, trains laypeople to respond to tenant crises, many of which become flash points for new organizing and frequently lead the Union to expand into new neighbourhoods. Although it is not its primary focus, the citywide Union also has the capacity to enter into strategic and temporary partnerships with other organizations around legislative reform – when these partnerships are approved by members in the Locals, that is.
On the fourth and final organizing level, the L.A. Tenants Union participates in a national and international network of autonomous tenants unions that hold similar values to the L.A. Tenants Union. From the Vancouver Tenants Union to the Philadelphia Tenants Union, from the London Renters Union to the Autonomous Tenants Union in Chicago, these tenants groups share a commitment to resisting speculative development, are dedicated to base-building as opposed to the mere provision of services, and are autonomous from the non-profit corporate complex, state funding and any engagement with the police.
Participating in this national and international network allows the L.A. Tenants Union to avoid the pitfalls of becoming a mere enclave of dispersed autonomous power. Indeed, the network is the first step toward unifying into a broader horizon of national and international struggle. It allows the L.A. Tenants Union’s model to become a genuine alternative, a prefiguration of global tenant power that does not thereby sacrifice the emphasis on local self-governance and mutual aid.
At all four levels – the tenants association or block committee, the neighbourhood Local, the citywide Union and the national/international network – the focus is on constructing spaces for tenants to act collectively, teaching one another and learning from one another and assessing the effects of their actions on the world. In other words, the focus is on learning what it feels like to become genuine, self-governing agents of change, transforming the world without relying on official political institutions or summoning the ultimately destructive forces of capital investment into our lives.
This is the sense in which the L.A. Tenants Union’s most vital work is to build prefiguratively a form of dual power. Each experience of self-government, each moment when tenants collectively take control over their own everyday life, is an experience of the possibility of true participatory democracy. It prefigures a future when, despite having no bosses, no landlords and no development, we will nevertheless fulfil all our social needs.
For us, this is the only realistic way forward. Anything else – anything less – simply leads us deeper into dependence on the forces of capital, forces that begin by exploiting and end by sacrificing the poor.
School of Echoes Los Angeles is a multi-racial and multi-generational autonomous collective founded in 2012, made up of organizers, popular educators and sometimes artists engaged in anti-gentrification organizing as co-founders of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, where we give our energies daily. Contributing authors for this article include Elizabeth Blaney, René Christian Moya, Dont Rhine and Julian Smith-Newman, with assistance from Christina Sanchez Juarez.