Campaigns to improve working and living conditions may not be as celebrated or significant as protesting war and corporate globalization but they tend to always involve more personal risk. This is because and despite of the fact that there is more potential for change in our immediate circumstances. I want to address the complexities of these risks and also connect the politics of everyday life with dominant global structures to illustrate how they are part of a common struggle.
I have already explored this dilemma in comparing my personal involvement in the movement against the war on Iraq with a failed campaign at my workplace three years later. Because of the economic power that our boss wielded over us the risk of fighting for change at my job was higher than the relatively low risk of protesting in the streets against the Bush administration. What about affecting change in our living conditions? Is the risk too great to improve our housing arrangements?
Along with work, housing is one of the primary institutions of capitalist society. The two are deeply connected. Much of the money that we earn selling our labor to bosses goes directly to the landlords that own the buildings we live in. Housing and work are both integral to the economic imperatives of survival. Everybody needs a roof over their head but must work to afford this basic human necessity. Although conditions differ immensely depending on geographical location and the nature of the workplace and apartment complex or house, both are inherently undemocratic spheres. In both cases the property-owners possess a virtual monopoly over decision-making-decisions that affect the lives of those that work and live on the property. Decisions such as how much one is paid and how much one must pay and ultimately the destiny of one’s job and place to live. Workers and tenants are controlled and pacified by the lingering threat of termination or eviction. After all, in "today’s economy" there is always someone else to replace you. We get paid a week or two after we work, but we must pay before we live in our homes each month.
Yet most of us accept this state of affairs. It is only when our living conditions become even more egregiously unjust that we begin to think to do anything about it. Earlier this year such a situation occurred where I live which inspired me to revisit this dilemma of the risk of change. This story runs deeper than a landlord raising the rent in my building. It speaks to how change occurs in our society, how people react to injustice, and the potential risks involved in struggling to improve our everyday lives. That is why I think it is worth sharing.
The building that I live in used to be one very large house. Several decades later, it now contains twelve apartments-including mine which is on the fourth and highest floor. When I moved into the building in 2005 it was owned by a local, family-run real estate company that bought it thirty years before. In the spring of 2006 they announced to their tenants that they were selling it. My roommate and I started receiving notices of "inspections" of our apartment and one morning as I sat in my kitchen there was knocking at the door. I was greeted by a group of people touring the building, checking out each apartment. They proceeded to blow through my living space like a group of first-graders on a field trip to a museum. "Do you mind if I take a picture?" one woman asked me. She explained to me that they all represented different firms that were interested in purchasing the building. This was just the beginning.
My roommate and I both left town for most the summer, subletting our apartment to a couple friends. While we were away the sale of the building went through and when I returned at the end of July I received the official notification featuring the signatures of the previous landlord and the new one. It read: "Dear Tenant: You are hereby notified that on July 19, 2006 the Property in which you are a tenant was transferred to " What did this mean? The significance went beyond having a new address to mail our rent check to each month-but that too was significant. Unlike the family which sold the building the new owners, we learned, were not based down the street in the same town. Their office was several towns away in Springfield and their name had the word "Investment" in it. They were investing in property in my town. The building was an investment. This is important to keep in mind.
Within days of receiving the notice of owner transference we were greeted with a letter from the new landlord. It informed us that each apartment would soon be "inspected" once again and that incidentally our rent would soon be increased by a minimum of 35 percent. The letter explained that this would ensure that their investment remained profitable. This is where it gets interesting. Along with everyone else in the building, my roommate and I were pretty outraged and nervous about this looming rent increase and began trying to figure out if we could do anything about it. Just a few days after we mailed our new landlord the rent money for August we received another letter detailing the specifics of the increase. According to the letter the rent for our "unit" would be going up $200 per month starting September 1st. "We deeply regret any hardship this may cause you," they added. "However, after a careful review of the cost of running the building, we had no other option if we want to meet our expenses." They proceeded to thank us for "choosing to live" in the building and ended the brief letter expressing that, "We appreciate your tenancy and hope that you will continue to live here for a long time." But for many of my co-tenants this news meant that it was time to search for a new place to live.
That was my initial reaction, too. Having just returned to my minimum-wage retail job I was skeptical that I could afford the higher September rent, not to mention staying "for a long time." In addition to this fundamental question of financial survival it was also a matter of principle. It would be going against everything I believed in to passively allow this out of town investment firm’s pursuit of profit to affect our lives so deeply. It was clear from the beginning that paying the increase was an unacceptable option-both practically and ethically. The question then became: What was the most effective strategy for resistance? We had to figure out if there was potential to organize with our neighbors in the building and also whether or not we could use the law to oppose this unjust and seemingly illegal development. We had less than 30 days.
To be honest, we didn’t put that much effort into organizing. One day we did overhear some of our neighbors discussing the situation and our legal rights as tenants. Soon after this we ran into another person in the building who told us about how someone else was in touch with a lawyer and that it seemed that things were in our favor. She also told us that people had been calling the new landlord expressing their dissatisfaction with the hike in rent. Furthermore she shared with us a general suspicion that the plan was to get everyone to move out of the building so they could turn it into Section 8 housing and get subsidies from the state. We could surely fight this together. I felt hopeful after this conversation knowing that people were angry and actively doing something about it. It was also refreshing to actually talk to our neighbors. It also made me realize that if we knew each other before all of this then we would have had more collective power. But at least we were communicating.
In response to all of this the landlord mailed everyone another letter (laced with grammatical errors, I might add). In addition to "dispelling any rumors you may have heard" about plans to turn our building into Section 8 housing they apologized that the rent increase notices arrived later than they had planned: "Because you have the right to a full 30 day notice you [sic] rent increase will not be due on September 1st, but 30 days from the day you received the notice. Please forgive us for this error." In other words, our rent would be due 3 days later on September 4th. That was pretty much all the state law could give us: 3 extra days. In Massachusetts, there is a limit that landlords can raise your rent after you have signed a lease for a year. But if you’re like us and don’t have a year-round lease or if your lease runs out such then limits do not apply. I also learned that new landlords can pretty much raise the rent as much as they like. Oh yeah, and rent control doesn’t exist.
By mid-August a number of tenants had already made plans to move out by the end of the month or by the end of September. All of whom had problems getting their security deposits back from the landlord. The build was mostly comprised of low-income, working people or students who lived there because of the previously affordable rent. Now they couldn’t stay there anymore. As a result, the landlord posted a small yard sign advertising the vacancies. As more people announced that they were leaving and the urgency of "covering expenses" and profitability mounted an enormous banner appeared above the front entrance of the building that read: "NOW RENTING," with their phone number posted below. And in anticipation of wooing potential tenants touring the newly vacant apartments a framed pastel print of flowers was hung above the fireplace in the first floor hallway. It turned out that not all of the current occupants were pleased with these adjustments to the building’s aesthetic.
On August 23rd we received yet another letter, but this one was different. It began by restating their intention of eventually improving the conditions of the building and went on to justify the rent increase. "We knew that the necessary rent increase would not be popular and that in some cases would result in loss of a tenant." It proceeded to explain why they chose to invest in a town known for its "friendliness, tolerance, and hospitality," but that their experience with our building had been "a different story" especially compared to other tenants of theirs within the town. "From day one we have been greeted as ‘the enemy.’ We have experienced hostility, threats, vicious rumors, slander, vandalism and theft." The letter concluded by announcing that the latter incidents were reported to the police and offered a $100 reward for information regarding whoever was responsible for stealing "our signs and banners" and "the picture we hung over the fireplace." They also threatened to evict the perpetrators explaining that they will work hard "to eliminate trouble makers" and finally: "We have no desire to take legal action against a tenant, but will if pushed."
It was an assertion of the power dynamics between property owners and those that rent on that property. The message read loud and clear: Don’t get in the way of our business or you will be "eliminated" and someone else will be happy to replace you. None of the actions they were complaining about were effective in combating the rent increase or successfully addressing the trash and recycling facilities that coincidentally disappeared under the new ownership. Rather, these small acts of resistance seemed to further reinforce the power of the landlord and the laws that are written in their favor. They invested their capital into the property and were not about to give in to a few "trouble makers." We were essentially powerless.
In retrospect, I wish that we had been more diligent in organizing together with our fellow tenants. I wonder what would’ve gone down if we had all stayed in the building and collectively refused to pay the rent increase. Would they have taken legal action against all of us? I believe that the primary impediment to such a radical response was the severe risk that it would entail. Having your life affected by paying more money in rent each month is bad enough, but finding yourself homeless is dramatically worse. Again, that fear of eviction is what forced some people to find somewhere else to live as soon as they could and the rest of us to simply obey.
I don’t think it has to be this way. Remember that balance of hope and risk that I presented at the beginning. First of all, despite the fact that we remained in the apartment and have been paying the extra money I know I definitely learned a lot from the experience. Hopefully just sharing this story will inspire others to look more critically at these issues and maybe we can all be more prepared next time something like this happens to us. Throughout history there have been countless examples of people organizing together to oppose much worse living situations than my co-tenants and I could ever imagine. We all have it much easier thanks to their dedicated work and courageous struggles. Furthermore, there has been a steady eruption over the past four or five decades that has produced a thriving alternative housing movement. From rural intentional communities to urban co-housing and everything in between people all over the country are redefining what it means to live in a capitalist society. By taking the landlord out of the picture or simply by cooperatively taking care of the daily workings of things these are all examples of participatory democracy that, despite their challenges, serve as a viable alternative model.
Since most people do not have access to these democratic living arrangements, the only hope is through struggle in which we take risks in solidarity with our neighbors. "Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live," writes Rebecca Solnit in her book Hope in the Dark. "You hope for results, but you don’t depend on them Struggle generates hope as it goes along. Waiting until everything looks feasible is too long to wait."
1. Frances Moore Lappe quote from her Forward to Heart Politics by Fran Peavey, Black Rose Books (1985).
2. Rebecca Solnit quote from Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, Nation Books (2006).
Matt Dineen is a writer and activist living in Northampton, MA. He produces a weekly radio program on Valley Free Radio http://www.valleyfreeradio.org called Passions and Survival. http://passionsandsurvival